A Tandem of Giants
The artistic collaboration of Silversmiths emcees Stephen “Sankofa” Bryden and Tom “JON?DOE” McCauley dates back 12 or so years, when Sankofa dropped a guest verse on an album called DNA-Lysis that was released by a JON?DOE’s then-group Double Helix. Two years after that, record Indie Pennant Records released JON?DOE and Sankofa’s first full collaboration, a record called Invest-Mentality that they recorded under their now defunct White Collar Criminals moniker. That record went on to be a mid-level indie hip-hop hit at the national level, jump starting the since-prolific solo career of Fort Wayne-based emcee Sankofa. The decade or so since has seen the two emcees keeping in touch (JON?DOE lives in San Luis Obispo, California), dropping guest verses on each other’s projects here and there and, most recently, recording three studio records (one of which has not yet been released).
After years of not releasing a record together JON and Sankofa released their Silversmiths debut, The Algol Paradox, this past January. Now we have A Tandem of Giants, a record that is, for this writer’s money, the best work this duo has done together. Featuring cohesive, organic production from Agent Orange, the album’s 72 minutes/17 tracks (plus two bonus cuts) pass surprisingly quickly, feeling like a classic-era record that could have come out in 1993 (maybe the best compliment I can give a hip-hop record these days). JON?DOE is here – and long has been – one of the most charismatic and overlooked underground emcees around, enunciating every syllable with an indescribable twang in his voice. And while JON has surely released his share of solid material over the years, this is the first record I’ve heard him on where the majority of the beats live up to his fully developed style.
As for Sankofa, he’s been blessed with solid production over the years, dating back to his excellent 1999 SA-2 EP with the now defunct Suspended Animator production team (who were also members of The White Collar Criminals). That said, I think the Agent Orange’s cinematic production on Tandem is not just maybe the best set of beats JON?DOE has had to work with, but probably also the overall best Sankofa has had at his grasp. Compositions like “What a Way to Go Out,” “Come On,” “Sister Jones,” “Hard Eight” and “Tried” feel like instant classics that at times even remind of classic-era Primo.
I’m not quite sure what the process for putting this record together was, but, from the little I do know, I’ve come to the conclusion that the three involved parties communicated via e-mail and phone, recording in different states and at different times, Postal Service style, piecing things together in a way that never makes distance seem their foe. In fact, there are even some solid back-and-forth vocals between the two emcees, and damn if both JON?DOE and Sankofa don’t perfectly play to every nuance of Agent Orange’s beats. The end result is an incredibly solid, super verbose boom-bap sound that features soul-influenced beats and the kind of vocals and verses that only experienced emcees can conjure.
My only real gripe (aside from the record maybe being a tad-bit too long for my taste) is that A Tandem of Giants is self-released and will inevitably fall between far too many cracks, never finding the audience it deserves. In this confusing era for music, I understand why a crew like this would chose to self-release. They’re beyond proven: JON?DOE has shared stages with KRS-One, ATCQ, Eminem, the Alkaholiks, Ras Kass and many more, and Sankofa was once included in URB magazine’s prestigious Next 100 feature, amongst other accolades. But with stellar production, amazing vocals and chemistry from JON?DOE and Sankofa, a killer guest verse from AthenA and the excellent album design of Eric “EDS” Stine, A Tandem of Giants is the complete package – a record that deserves to be heard by hip-hop fans worldwide. A Tandem of Giants is easily one of the best indie level hip-hop releases I’ve heard in ages and maybe the best all-around project yet for all involved parties. Highly recommended. (Greg W. Locke)
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