Mixtape Review (Mashup edition)-American Godfather by Jay-Z & DJ Skee
It bothers me that the mixtape revolution which gave us hip hop in its modern form is hard to find traces of. You can still scour datpiff archives but when I throw “Kush and OJ” through my Amazon unlimited search bar it comes back with nothing related to Wiz Khalifa (I have not checked Itunes but Google Play didn’t have it either). The advancements in hip hop mixtapes that caused a need for Freemusicempire came on the backs of brilliant artists who will never end up in anyone’s top five (not because of lack of talent but because they aren’t in the public eye outside of the hip hop base). So I went through my external hard drive for anything with DJ and excitedly came back with DJ Skee’s American Godfather mashup.
2007 wasn’t just important for mixtapes it was important for Jay-z. American Gangster really is the dividing line between two eras. it is the last album by Dopeboy Jay. The album that followed was 2009’s Blueprint 3 which is underrated (in my opinion) but it is Celebrity Jay on the mic. His frame of reference was no longer what it was for Blueprint 1. American Gangster has three guest features while Blueprint 3 has TWELVE (Blueprint 1 had one guest and you know who it was). The Jay of 2007 was the same MC spawning new album versions of everything he dropped (example: Grey album & Red album variations of The Black Album) his bars albums charted with the best production and crazy videos at the height of the ROC rosters depth in terms of lyricists beat makers and raw corporate muscle but the mixtape circuit hungered for every written line. Verses felt like commandments.
American Godfather is the single greatest example of that time period in mixtapes. As a piece of classical music The Godfather soundtrack is perfect for incorporation into the hip hop sound. The horn section, the strings all move with a savy Italian grace that had to resemble nostalgia for an era long gone while conveying the shock and loss violence brings. That mournful whimsy in the orchestra sewn into the background adds even more majesty to Jay’s declarations to do it any way he can while taking in the savagery of the dealer landscape. It highlights what he misses by closing himself off emotionally. Since the original soundtrack tells the story of a good man becoming a calculating criminal leader the combination makes a lot of sense.
Listen to Pray go from pristine to gritty until the two mix. That song is a great example of what Skee brings to the table. Listen to the original Pray…he didn’t just weave in clips from The Godfather movie and sample the string section. The bassline on the American Godfather version of Pray is four times as strong. He not only made it gorgeous with wind instruments but at the same time made it a dirtier head knocker and defiantly hip hop by dropping the beat in as savagely as he could. He made the song better.
The reverence for Jay that I referenced earlier is quite real on this mashup. The “every couplet could be a Tee Shirt” Jay-z pen game is so strong that Skee makes the decision to leave I Know absolutely naked. If you just listen to the story of it unfold in the specific detailed metaphors it signifies a real high point in the characterization within his writing. The only way to get you to focus on that is to rip the Neptunes signature sound out of the song and force you to follow the narrator; leave you the reverberation of his voice saying “shoppin’s like coppin’ you constantly need it.” Jay is humane enough to paint tragedy onto every participant in the dealerscape because he has empathy for everyone involved. The game eats at him in ways other dealer-rappers never thought of. Jay is at his best when he is on a high level of physical real world details and emotional details at the same time.
Roc Boys being left nude for the world is even more off-putting. That song always functioned as the catchiest party song, the high point single reveling in the fun times of the dealer tale before the falling action. By pulling out Diddy and the gang on production he leaves it ringing as a hollow moment of celebration that comes off more as a chant the main character is trying to believe but fears the finitude of.
Skee ripped the sample right out of Ignorant Shit and put guitars behind the Black Republicans beat (off Nas- Hip Hop Is Dead because mixtapes have no rules. Black Republicans is a better beat so bring it in.) DJ Skee like Green Lantern and Don Cannon (Cannon’s redo of Drake’s first album is so much better than Drake’s first album. I didn’t even like Drake before I heard Cannon’s version) had a ceaseless desire to optimize every second of every song. If you listen to American Godfather in the hopes of hearing everything in the Godfather soundtrack incorporated into Jay’s American Gangster album you messed up. He absolutely turns Success a thousand times better with The Godfather Waltz which binds the venomous distaste of Jay’s verse with the omniscience of Nas. The waltz creates an emotional spectrum that binds those very different emotional places but this isn’t a straight up slap together mixtape (which we see a lot of). Skee makes choices for the better of the project as if he were truly in charge with no red tape in front of him. As if the original album was raw material and he was The Dust Brothers on Paul’s Boutique freakin’ it however he saw fit.
Nino Rota couldn’t have imagined that the thickness and grandeur of his soundtrack would be clipped and repurposed in such a staggering way (even without the movie the soundtrack is an incredible listen). No one will ever convince me that a better version of Fallin’ exists than the one with Nino’s Sicilian Pastorale dialed into the beat making it sharper and meaner and more fun to listen to. It is so epic in the scale of its self-destruction. I think the beginning of The Godfather Finale is what was used for Sweet and it’s another great idea fully realized along with rearranging the order to place Sweet after Fallin’. American Godfather is born from a careful caring vision that guides it.
In 2007 when these kind of well worked visions were available for free I always wondered how many of these Livemixtape gems got to Jay. Did he hear The Billprint or American Godfather? I never pondered if he would like them. I always hoped someone put it on for him so he could enjoy it. I knew he would love it and be proud of his influence on it. Jay always thought about what his music would be like if he had been less commercial, he had more than a secret love for Kool G Rap and all the dark regions of hip hop far less flossy and flamboyant than he always was. How incredible is it that his mark stretches so far people did their best work remaking his music? In my mind Hova hears the shifting going on in Blue Magic as the sample is incorporated and shakes his head like “that was the missing element,” he heard the title track and got all scrunch faced, bobbing his head, taking nothing away from Just Blaze but DAMN those violins are sharp!
I am not one of these dudes who will write this paragraph about why Skee should have had a larger profile, gotten a bigger chance with bigger artists. Would Skee have given Ross some dope beats? Sure. Art is not sports. What you do is what you achieve; the Grammys is NOT the superbowl. I love that hip hop has legend levels and if you’re on the bunny slopes you didn’t recognize WC holding the uzi in Friday. You’ve never heard Del Tha Funkee Homosapien rap about bad hygiene. Whenever a popular rapper does a commercial someone says to me “Isn’t it terrible what they are doing to hip hop?!” and I smile. That is the hot take from the bunny slopes and I get it. Consumerism has done a number on so much of our art and entertainment but not hip hop. They don’t know how many levels we have that are protected by how much you care to know it, how much of your time you want to spend following it. Our firewalls can be cracked but pack a lunch.
To be clear this is not a mixtape of its time. It is not something you needed to have been there in the culture of its release to enjoy. This is something you could send to Danny Brown or Yachty or Uzi Vert and they would get it. They would bang their head like you will upon listening. The answer to “who did this?!” is in the same madman who played Ray Manzarek to Game’s post G-Unit Jim Morrison and gave him the canvas to paint all his malevolence on. He was there for Glasses Malone, Crooked I, Bishop Lamont and so many serious West Coast rappers best mixtape. A solid gold first ballot mixtape hall of famer whose ad-lib created waves of relief for me and American Godfather is important to him. It would have had to be, to be done with this much care. To go seventeen tracks deep instead of a tight nine or ten. It’s careful in its construction and spiritually connected to the work of the original which is how it never seems weird that it is incorporating two movies into the world of a rap album.
I am not making the case that things were better in the era where mixtapes became more than freestyles. I never wanted to see the mixtape take the place of the album (I always liked the street clothes v. business clothes difference). I loved that mixtapes were a playground for everyone involved. Any idea that was off the marketable path, an image gamble, or outside the budget could be explored. Never anticipated that the label as we knew it would die and be washed away and the mixtape would be the only remaining path. The era of forced independence has made me look back on the formative content. Boy am I glad we built a second house before the first one washed out.
Stream or download American Godfather below: