Cannibal Ox and the Def Jux Crew Bring the New York Hip-Hop Underground
The EP served as a passing of the torch, with the last three songs from now-defunct Company Flow--whose debut album was also the first release on the now-towering Rawkus Records, which has since brought us Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Hi-Tek, among others--and the first two from Cannibal Ox. Vast and Vordul demanded to be noticed, spitting vivid and insightful tales of life in New York City over the dense and dramatic production of Company Flow's El-P. Not long after the release of the "Vein" single, backed by the song "A B-Boy's Alpha," the Cannibal Ox album finally dropped in May, the first full-length release on El-P's label, Def Jux. Vast and Vordul's unique flows and dark, surrealistic imagery sent fans and critics rushing to heap praise on the record, which seems to be destined to dominate the year-end top-10 lists.
Now Cannibal Ox is taking it to the road, touring with an all-star roster of the underground's finest: Mr. Lif, a Boston-based MC with a handful of singles on Def Jux; the verbose Aesop Rock, whose newest Def Jux album, Labor Days, is set to drop Sept. 18; and, from Minnesota's Rhymesayers collective, Eyedea and Abilities, featuring celebrated battle veteran Eyedea, who won last year's televised Blaze Battle tournament on HBO and just about every other MC competition there is to win. The tour stops at Baltimore's Heritage Cinema on Sept. 6.
Vast sees the tour as an opportunity to bring Cannibal Ox to the people. "We don't have multimillion-dollar videos," he says in the unmistakable drawl that has captivated the hip-hop scene nationwide. As in his raps, Vast enunciates so clearly and deliberately that he can make you feel his words are incredibly urgent without ever raising his voice or speeding up his cadence. "We don't have billboards. You don't see Vast with his milk mustache. . . . We're trying to show people we're the real deal."
Making this tour happen hasn't been easy for the duo--right after the album's release, Vordul was attacked at a show in Manhattan. The culprit had exchanged words with the Def Jux posse over the Internet then showed up at a Cannibal Ox concert, catching Vordul alone and unaware, jumping him from behind and breaking his jaw before fleeing the club. The assailant was apprehended by the police ("He was lucky," Vast says), but Vordul's injuries left him unable to rap for the first leg of the tour. Vordul has since rejoined his partner, and the Ox is a unit on stage once again.
Transformation and recovery isn't a new theme for Cannibal Ox--the duo's music makes repeated references to the legendary phoenix, the mythical bird that rises anew from a fire's ashes. Vast, alongside Breezely Brewin' of the Juggaknots, directly tackles the issue of Vordul's assault in a new song called "Life's Ill," featured on the B-side of "The F Word," a gritty love ballad that is the forthcoming single from The Cold Vein.
Although some of his friends told him addressing Vordul's attacker would be giving him too much attention, Vast felt he had to do it. "This is between me and that kid," he says. Anyone who has heard The Cold Vein knows that real-life struggles are the raw materials from which Cannibal Ox constructs its art. And Vast is deadly serious about his art--when asked about young, wannabe MCs approaching him, looking to battle, you might think Vast was talking about actual combat.
"I haven't gotten called out recently . . . I don't think it would be wise for [someone] to do that--my sword is very sharp. Battling me--battling any of us--is dark," he says, referring to his Def Jux family. According to Vast, all the artists on the label are close friends--Vast and El-P are roommates now, in fact. "We do what great jazz musicians did in their time," he says. "We get together and have jam sessions."
The other family in which Vast and Vordul claim membership is the Atoms Family, a group of New York MCs and producers that includes Alaska, Cryptic One, Wind'n'Breeze, and DJ Cip-One. Atoms Family members are now in the initial stages of producing a documentary about their history as a group, as well as making their first collective full-length album. They've already released a few compilations on their own Centrifugal Phorce Records, including the brand new Euphony comp, featuring new Atoms Family tracks, solo joints from some of the members, and tracks by and with friends Aesop Rock and Ohio rappers the Iskabibbles. Vast and Vordul have also started writing for the second Cannibal Ox album, and Vast has a solo project in the works as well. In the meantime, he talks about taking his work to the fabled next level.
"I'm about poetry," he says. "Bragging is just one part of it . . . like [for a] samurai, getting your head cut off is just one part of it." Secure with his direction, as well as his abilities, Vast sums up his attitude like this: "I plan to succeed in life, and I think I'm almost there." We should probably take that as a forecast for even higher temperatures in the near future.
The Def Jux All-Stars, including Cannibal Ox, Mr. Lif, Eyedea and Abilities, and Aesop Rock, perform a Monozine- sponsored show at the Heritage Cinema (19-21 North Ave.) on Sept. 6. Tickets are available at the Heritage and the Ottobar. For more information, go to www.monozine.com or call (410) 539-0085.
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