September 23, 2010

My Gut Reaction: Ski Beatz - 24 Hour Karate School (September 21, 2010)

Producer Ski Beatz, who I will refer to as just Ski from this point forward because I think "Ski Beatz" sounds too close to "Swizz Beatz" and that annoys me, has the privilege of holding the coolest fucking album title of 2010 with his compilation project 24 Hour Karate School.  Unfortunately, he also holds the dubious honor of having one of the most anticipated projects of the year continuously pushed back and mutated to such a degree that it nowhere near resembles what it was once conceived of being.

First, some quick background.  Ski, known as David Willis whenever his parents were pissed off at him, was first noticed by a young Max as one of the producers on Jay-Z's debut album, Reasonable Doubt, contributing four tracks, including the well-received "Dead Presidents II" (and, technically, the original "Dead Presidents", which was a twelve-inch single release only, even though a video exists) and "Feelin' It" (more on that in a minute).  This partnership with a man who would soon become the biggest name in hip hop, one which lasted for two albums, was formed by Jay's friend and business partner Damon Dash, who inspired Ski to name his short-lived production company Roc-A-Blok (as he would be working in conjunction with Roc-A-Fella Records).  

Since man cannot live by bread alone, Ski also worked extensively with the rap duo Camp Lo, who were best known for their appreciation of 1970s culture and their anachronistic slang that still managed to sound interesting.  (Jay-Z's "Feelin' It" appears to have been a track originally given to the Lo, and bloggers have determined that Hova apparently lifted his flow from the unreleased version.  That's just a bit of trivia for those of you who give a fuck.)  But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum: Ski faded into the distance.  While he still produced songs ever once in a while (mainly for Camp Lo, although he did take an ill-advised trip with Pittsburgh Slim, who he somehow convinced Shawn Carter to sign to Def Jam), he pretty much kept to himself.

Until now, anyway.

Ski reunited with Dame Dash, who now hated Jay-Z with all of his might, and the two worked together to form DD172, a collective space that encouraged artists in all musical genres to collaborate and create without restriction.  DD172 also happens to be the name of Dame Dash's new vanity label, distributed through Def Jam Records (take that, Hova!), so the rappers involved, including such names as Mos Def, Jim Jones, Curren$y, and Stalley, nicknamed the endeavor the 24 Hour Karate School, a name that Ski borrowed for his album.

24 Hour Karate School is actually Ski's debut album, and having spent more than a decade devoted to his craft, he sticks with his work behind the boards and leaves the rhyming to the many professionals who fill the voids.  Take a quick look at the tracklist below: odds are that you will recognize a handful of names, but the rest of them will be brand new to your eyes, as they hope that their performances will lead you to follow their respective careers beyond this project.

One name you won't see on 24 Hour Karate School, though, is that of Mos Def.  Early promotion for the project, which seemed to start back in 1998 (this album has been promised for quite a while now) featured Dante as the headliner, making several appearances throughout.  The songs he was to be featured on even leaked to the Interweb.  But for unknown reasons, he refused to sign a release (even after having shot multiple videos), so Ski was left with the unpopular decision to erase his existence from 24 Hour Karate School entirely.  However, our host handled this setback with stride: he even promised to leak the unreleased mastered tracks himself at a later date, which may have been a defense mechanism protecting him from the almost-universal sigh of apathy that surrounded the project after its nineteenth release date was scrapped.  But Ski kept working up until the very last minute (which is why the final tracklisting is missing a song that appears on photos of the back cover released to blogs), and 24 Hour Karate School now actually exists, it's in my hands, and it's being reviewed.

Instead of kicking off the project with a title track-slash-rap album intro as was the original plan, Ski skips straight to the music, giving blogger favorites Curren$y and Smoke DZA a backdrop that sounds like someone offstage is describing to them the fabulous prizes they could win if they bid closest to the suggested retail price during the Showcase Showdown. I liked DZA's line about being “higher than giraffe pussy”, but overall, neither one of these guys sold the song for me. If this is the average caliber of guest emcee that enrolled in the 24 Hour Karate School, you can consider me worried.

Jim Jones? Really? How in the fuck is he managing to score better cameos than the rest of his Dip Set brethren? You don't see Cam'Ron working alongside Pete Rock and The Black Keys, for fuck's sake. James sounds predictably boring on “Go”, although I must admit I liked his admission that “we want the cash, even though it's the root of Satan”. Curren$y redeems himself for his lackluster performance on “Nothing But Us” over a neurotic Ski beat that sounds like a precursor to Just Blaze's entire career, even though that would be impossible (unless Ski recorded this instrumental during Hova's Reasonable Doubt days, which probably isn't true). Erase James from this track, and you would have a one-verse banger.

When this song originally leaked to the Interweb and still contained a Mos Def verse, it was still called “Prowler 2”, so I have no idea what Part 1 is supposed to be. (Ski, if you're reading this, you're welcome to contribute an answer.) The good news is, even without Dante's presence, this song is still the shit: it's just a bit shorter. Underground superstars (or at least they should be) Jean Grae, Jay Electronica, and Joell Ortiz (best known these days for his Slaughterhouse affiliation) fucking kill it without the additional burden of a chorus. Ski laces the trio with a heavy, guitar-driven instrumental that you will want to listen to for an additional fourteen verses, it's that good. Joell seems to be the only guy on the project that took the concept of a 24 Hour Karate School literally, judging from his verse. This shit was nice.  (EDIT: A couple of readers have pointed out that I, very stupidly, neglected to mention that the sample used on this song comes from Dan Auerbach's "The Prowl", which helps explain the title somewhat.  Thanks, guys.)

I hated the chorus on here: although I love both movies and buttered popcorn, never has that particular pairing sounded so unappealing. The second verse is especially dull, which doesn't bode well for any possible write-ups for The Cool Kids that I may have eventually considered. Stalley, the only guy on here that sounds different than the rest, was pretty nice, but he was derailed by a Ski beat that was uncharacteristically bleh. Moving on...

Stalley, whose beard is fucking vanglorious, somehow scores a self-titled solo track on 24 Hour Karate School (he must have made the honor roll or something), and had it not been for the inane chorus, on which the guest star's name is spelled out for the listener over and over again as if we were watching an especially obnoxious episode of Sesame Street, I would be lavishing the song with praise. Instead, it's merely really good, with a “sometimes it's really fucking annoying” qualifier. Ski coughs up an instrumental with some nice hard drums, and Stalley is more than up to the challenge: if only he switched up the chorus and refrained from calling himself “the capital” (which just sounds goofy). Still, I liked this one overall.

Ski's beat truly lends this song credibility that it doesn't even come close to achieving. Tabi Bonney's flow isn't bad or anything: it just isn't anything new or interesting, and his “hook” is mind-numbingly awful. But my God, the instrumental is a fucking banger. Someone needs to jack this beat and record a mixtape posse cut as soon as possible.

On the rare occasion that I listen to a Wiz Khalifa song, I usually walk away unimpressed, not understanding why he's gotten so much blogger love. (You could say that about a lot of today's artists, actually.) I'm similarly underwhelmed on here, but it isn't just Wiz's performance and his really fucking stupid hook that makes me feel like I'm missing something: everything on here, from Curren$y's lackluster bars to Ski's mismatched beat, fails to gel into a cohesive bit of media. This track couldn't end fast enough for me.

Ski throws his hat into the “A Milli”-slash-”On To The Next One” ring, recruiting New York rapper Rugz D Bewler to narrate the prevalent staccato. I can imagine the instrumental growing more and more annoying and frustrating to listen to after about two minutes of the song's running time, and I wouldn't add this to my iTunes playlist or anything, but I didn't actually mind the beat all that much. Rugz, however, I minded greatly: he veers from merely passable (during the verses) all the way to abhorrent (during the shitty hook) in a relatively short time span. Sigh.

Now we're getting back on track. This could easily be seen as the original version of “Prowler”, as this song also features a guitar-driven instrumental and rappers who straight-up spit. (Except for the fact that “I Got Mines” features a chorus performed by Nikki Wray, better known as former Missy Elliott apprentice Nicole Wray.  Although I kind of liked the hook, so I'll allow it.) Stalley and Tabi both sound refreshed, but Ras Kass, arguably the biggest star on 24 Hour Karate School after Dante was deleted, absolutely murders his competition, even with a flow that suggests that he had a cold the day he recorded his verse. Rassy should absolutely look to Ski for some musical guidance whenever he starts recording his next actual album. This shit was pretty badass.

It wouldn't be a Ski album without an appearance from his most frequent collaborators Camp Lo. On “Back Uptown”, our host forces his guests to play by his rules, yanking them through a wormhole, taking them away from their comfort zone of funky 1970's-inspired beats in favor of a more militant, futuristic 2010 sound, and while the experiment doesn't fully pay off, it's at least interesting to listen to Geechi Suede And Sonny Cheeba rap over something that sounds like a much better fit for one of those shitty Busta Rhymes club bangers that pop up twice a year. Fans of the Lo's Uptown Saturday Night (an underrated gem in my book) will find little to no resemblance between that album and this art installation piece, but I found it just risky enough to enjoy, at least a little bit.

Refusing to admit defeat, Ski includes the instrumental to a song that originally was to feature Mos Def. It's pleasant as hell, and it would make for excellent driving music, but since it has been sent to the back of the bus on here, this can't help but sound like an afterthought. It has a nice jazzy feel, but I'd rather listen to the original, which is readily available on the Interweb. Hell, I'd bet that Ski would rather listen to the original, too. Such is life.

Everything I wrote about “Cream Of The Planet” also applies to this instrumental. And with that, we're done.

THE LAST WORD: Occasional lapse in judgment regarding the selection of certain guest artists aside, Ski Beatz makes his 24 Hour Karate School sound like the it preschool for hipster parents to sign their kids up for three years before they're even conceived. Ski may have preferred his background role over the past decade or so, bt he's smartly used his down time to craft his instrumentals with the care of a Hattori Hanzo blade, so 24 Hour Karate School is consistently enjoyable. I wish Ski had reached out to some other A-list talent for cameos after Mos Def flaked on him, but at the same time, 24 Hour Karate School proves that our host has been keeping an eye on the underground while actively seeking out new talent, which is the only way any producer will ever last in our chosen genre. Interest for this new project may have waned significantly thanks to a consistently changing release date (I'm pretty sure this album was originally supposed to drop in 1987), but 24 Hour Karate School emerges relatively unscathed, even with its last-minute adjustments. More importantly, I found this album to be enjoyable as fuck, so it's well worth both your money and your time. For the full effect, you should search the Interweb for all of the missing songs and make your own Ski Beatz playlist; I'm sure he won't mind.



  1. Definitely gotta pick this one up. I'm a huge Ski fan. Thanks for the review, Max.

    How's about Curren$y's Pilot Talk next? Or Sir Lucious Leftfoot?!

  2. Max, what'd you say about a gut reaction for Ice Cube's "I Am the West" for next Wednesday?

  3. Doesn't fit with my master plan. Meaning that I could give a fuck about Ice Cube's new album.

  4. Then give a fuck about Big Boi's latest one.

    Such a bogus move to erase Mos Def from the project, just bullshit.

  5. Smoke DZA bit that line from's actually the opening line on the Chicken N Beer freestyle which came out a whole 7 years ago

  6. Shit, you're right about the Luda line. And Chicken N Beer moves its way to the top of the pile.

  7. Since everyone's asking for their reviews: Can you please review Rah Digga's new album? thanks

  8. Curren$Y Pilot Talk next???

  9. It's kind of sad that the comments for Ski's long-awaited album are dominated by requests to write about other albums entirely. Please send your write-up requests to the e-mail address in the sidebar.

    Thanks for reading!

  10. The album was a disappointment IMO, The guests fucked it up.

  11. I believe the "Prowler 2" title refers to the song's sample source, Dan Auerbach's "The Prowl."

  12. yo max can you review the doors self titled album that shit is fuckin hot jim morrison is killin it with these bars

  13. I appreciate the write up, only reason I asked is Curren$y is on a few songs and one of the reasons I will check it out...

  14. Mike is right, "Prowler II" samples Auerbach's "The Prowl," albeit not very well imo, probably why I never liked the Prowler II song much.

    Also I submit that Mos Def's mysterious disappearance from the album has something to do with the announcement (today) that he signed with Kanye's G.O.O.D. Music. They're basically rival camps now...

  15. I had the same thought when I read the news about Mos Def. Especially with the whole "Dame Dash connection" thing.

  16. It's too bad though, Cream Of The Planet and Taxi are dope tracks (they leaked before this came out, so I've just replaced the Mos-less tracks with the leaks hah)

    I finally am giving this a spin, it's an interesting album. That Camp Lo track was just...weird cause the only CL tracks I listen to are from Uptown Saturday. Other then that, just feels like another compilation, only thing that saves it for me personally is just the Mos tracks that I replaced from the ones on the album.

  17. I never even heard of this before, thx for keeping me in the know Max

  18. Cream of the Planet with Mos is an absolute masterpiece. Mos is a creative force to be reckoned with, as is Ski. I'll have to agree with your assessment of the instrumental. Ski deserves mad props for, after working in the shadows for the past decade or so, returning full force with a true hip-hop album. Thanks for the review!


  19. Whoolio GeeOctober 06, 2010

    Cool album but some of the beats were boring IMO... As for Wiz Khalifa, he's cool but not someone whose material i would listen to on a daily basis.

    Btw Max: if you liked Stalley, i recommend you to check out his mixtape (entirely produced by Madlib) called "MadStalley: The Autobiography". it's free if i'm not mistaken... if not, then fuck it. check it out anyway! lol