More than in any other genre, hip-hop artists are open and even proud to reference their influences on record. While alternative musicians across the disciplines have historically sought to recapture the sounds of yesteryear against the tides of chart-topping trends, few are candid about their sources even if their styles are clearly derivative. Where Nas and Cormega might sample and shout out MC Shan to their hearts’ content, we’re much less likely to hear Coldplay pen a song about how they listened to “The Joshua Tree” every day of junior year. Then again, there’s a fine line between giving props and name-dropping in rap music (see Game, The), and many creators of “throwback rap” struggle to balance creativity with reheated-ness.
Superstar Quamallah, a Brooklyn-born, California-based rapper, producer, and DJ, has been paying his dues since before many of his current peers even considered picking up a mic. Active in the West Coast underground scene throughout the ’90s, he recorded extensively with such familiar names as Defari and Tajai. His debut EP “Don’t Call Me John” arrived in 1999 on ABB Records, after which he took a sabbatical from recording which included graduate school, traveling, teaching at Inglewood High, and eventually earning a professorship of African Studies at Berkeley. His full-length “Godfood/The Break-Fast” quietly dropped in 2007, a record structured like a beat-tape with 27 tracks averaging one to two minutes in length, and in 2009 he released “Invisible Man” on Boston’s Brick Records.
Chances are pretty good that if you played “Invisible Man” for a seasoned hip-hop listener and told him it was from 1991 he wouldn’t bat an eye. Sure, he might be a little suspicious of the periodic contemporary pop culture reference and constant shouts to old school MCs, but “Invisible Man” is such a faithful homage to golden age hip-hop that it’s hardly discernible from music twenty years its senior. This recipe has been the downfall of countless nostalgic underground rappers, but Superstar Quamallah succeeds in his endeavor, one the one hand, because he never complains about the current state of rap music, and on the other hand, because it’s some darn good music and a clever, reverent interpretation of classic East Coast rap.
Vocally Quamallah is equal parts Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, and Guru, with a deep, relaxing delivery and wise, literate sound. He’s of the Large Professor school of MC-ing, and takes pains to establish himself as an educated, righteous brother who is familiar with the streets but prefers the realm of knowledgeâ€”had he dropped records like this at the outset of the ’90s, he might have been likened to Brand Nubian, OC, or C.L. Smooth. That said, the most striking resemblance is to the late Guru. Laidback, monotone, spiritual, humorless, and a die-hard advocate of hip-hop culture, Quamallah’s performance throughout “Invisible Man” frequently recalls an early Gang Starr record. The opener “You Need Knowledge,” which manages to incorporate vocal samples of Slick Rick, Kool Moe Dee, Mobb Deep, and Guru in the first eight seconds alone, is quite reminiscent of a young Premo, with dense loops composed of a sparkly piano line, trombone, and reverberating whistles. Quamallah shows his skills on the turntable with sharp cuts and vocal scratches, and wastes little time getting busy on the mic:
“God-damn, yo, here we go again
Superstar’s on the block, I rock without a pen
I’m not Jay-Z but like his next of kin
I’m from Bed-Stuy, when I’m home I hold my head high
Boys and girls high straight off the block
And this is home, I don’t see Rome and Troy a lot
Or my cousins, playin’ the dozens, this is black culture
Not yo’ momma jokes on MTV, vultures
I told y’all I was comin’ back with the wrath
Like Big Daddy Kane, I know supreme math
Peace to Planet Asia, the god Esau
And Greggy Low, fo’ sho’, he got two daughters
I got five styles and each one is like water
Peace to Defari, Dilated and Likwit
Hit me at the beach, my dude, so we can kick it
Pull-ups, dips, we stay ripped
And we don’t care about you fakes, you get flipped
On your backsides, suckers better act right
Superstar Quamallah, that’s right”
The vocal samples and shout-outs are endlessâ€”KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, Chuck D, Kam, Chill Rob G, Nas, Marley Marl, Biz Markie, Audio Two, EPMD, DJ Revolution, Battlecat, Wu-Tang, Hieroglyphicsâ€”but somehow he keeps it fresh and keeps from sounding like a biter. This is partly due to the fact that Quamallah never disparages today’s rappers and the lack of quality in the mainstreamâ€”as he raps, “I ain’t mad, I’m just glad I had a taste of the golden era / Before the Viacom terror.” He happens to like old school rap, and respectfully celebrates it with his own music, making absolutely no bones about his influences. The ultra-smooth “88 Soul” is also built around a swirling piano line and dusty percussion arrangement, and Quame takes it back to his childhood, talking about growing up among the infamous landmarks of New York City and his many influences. The silky, sultry “Black Shakespeare” is also built around a tasteful piano cadence, with Quamallah evoking hip-hop’s classic lovermen.
Producers on “Invisible Man” include Izznyce, Clever Jeff, DJ Diaze, DJ Soulclap, Pawel G, and Quamallah himself, who together compose a consistent, well-arranged sonic backdrop. The largely piano-based production is smooth and elegant in a quality that belies its obvious nostalgia. It’s refined, soulful, feel-good hip-hop of the old school, and even if it is largely derivative it’s quite well done. The transcendence of “For My Peopleâ€¦It’s Spiritual” and the “Moment of Truth”-sampling “Lonely at the Top” are lovely. The refined soul of “Just Listen” is similarly excellent, and the show-stopping trumpet sample of “California Dreamin” provides the perfect foundation for his coast-to-coast musings:
“The world is my home, my life is my map
I adapt to anyplace where my peoples at
I tell the kids what they need to know, livin’ phat
You can’t hold us down, yellow, brown, or the blacks
My syntax is made for the masses
‘Cause I get around like those free bus passes
I know I said it before, but hey, I’ll say it again
I’m back and my team’s gonna win
We all in like the best hand, there’s no bluff
They cuffed my best man, so now he’s locked up
We stock up beats, rhymes we box up
And save ’em for a rainy day, here in L.A.
The sunshine makes me wanna leave the grind
Feel the sand on my feet, I sweat from the heat
On my way to CafÃ© Boulud, woulda got there sooner
But I had to chill on Santa Monica Beach”
Quamallah’s contagiously relaxed delivery is endlessly refreshing on tracks such as the rich highlight “Purity,” and live instruments take center stage on “Kunta Kente” and “93 Shit.” Quamallah’s best performance is to be found on “Plots,” where he evokes Common and KRS-One with a complex, head-spinning tale of crime, deception, and double crossing.
Superstar Quamallah won’t win many points in the originality department, but it’s no small feat to make “throwback rap” that breathes new life into such familiar material. While it doesn’t quite rival the Ralph Ellison classic from which it takes its name, “Invisible Man” is a memorable album with significant replay value from an artist who hopefully has plenty left in the tank.