Rap’s a funny business, really. People will pay to experience as “entertainment” what in real life they’d run a mile from: bug-eyed sociopaths threatening cruel and unusual deaths, nouveau riche bores bragging about their income and expensive possessions . . . And let’s not forget the underground: paranoid poets who’ve never met a conspiracy theory they didn’t embrace, autodidact crackpots who’ve glimpsed the secret of the cosmos in a cloud of weedsmoke—the sort of I-be-the-prophet spiel you can get for free if you hang out on the subway long enough.
The cipherpunks of underground hip-hop can be a real chore for ear and brain, their code-flow as knotted with riddles and imagistically overripe as a late-period Costello lyric. Despite the aura of “You better pay close attention, we’re droppin’ seriously hermetic science here,” too often you’re just getting a bookworm version of the gangsta swagger—a more convoluted take on the same old boasts and threats.
With all its wordy machismo and heated debates about what’s authentic and what’s sold out, in fact, undie hip-hop is a bit like rock criticism, with a beat. More specifically, the sensibility reminds me of nothing so much as legendary post-hardcore noisezine Forced Exposure: the recondite reference points, the in-jokes, the peculiarly refined trash aesthetic, the ultracondensed, jaggedly stylized writing. It’s even a similar demographic. Logic would suggest that an underground rap scene would by definition be ultrablack, but at last month’s Bowery Ballroom showcase for the Def Jux label, there were only slightly more African Americans in the crowd than you’d get at a Sebadoh show. Disconcerting, perhaps, but then again it’s precisely the same syndrome that happened to free jazz and dub reggae.
Bowery Ballroom was packed with pasty-faced believers, punching the air fervently, chanting along to show they know entire thousand-word lyrics by heart. Performing highlights from Cold Vein, their stunning debut and the undie fave of 2001, Cannibal Ox were ostensibly the main draw, but their brief set was tightly squeezed between much longer ones from their Caucasian comrades on Def Jux: Aesop Rock, the almost-emo Slug, and Def Jux founder El-P, who headlined with a bunch of old Company Flow songs plus “Stepfather Factory” from his forthcoming solo album. Was this the CEO exerting his prerogative, droit du seigneur style? Not only did El-P produce Cold Vein, he’s Cannibal Ox’s landlord: the duo, Vast Aire and Vordul Megilah, share a room in his Red Hook, Brooklyn, apartment. At any rate, El-P’s mic hogging only underlined the fact that he paints better pictures with his studio gear than with his protuberant tongue: His too-many-words-per-stanza verbosity typifies undie MC-ing. Especially live, where the need to project precludes relaxed delivery, the shouty hectic-ness starts to sound a bit, well, rap-metal after a while (although maybe he’s picked that up from producing Zach De La Rocha’s solo LP).
As Sasha Frere-Jones quipped in these pages a while ago, El-P is something like the Steve Albini of hip-hop: fanatically opposed to major labels, addicted to noise. Extending the analogy a bit, you could imagine a few years down the line the emergence of a rap equivalent to grunge (“grime,” maybe): underground in style and sound, but hooky and forceful enough to storm the barricades of Hot 97 and BET, thereby terminating the entire bling-bling era (hip-hop’s equivalent to hair metal). And a few years after that, El-P will be drafted in—to render radio-unfriendly the postbreakthrough album In Wu-Tero by spearhead grime-rappers Gnosis . . .
El-P’s the anti-bling king, with an approach to sound that equates “independent” with “fucked.” (His solo album’s titled Fantastic Damage.) Cold Vein is actually steeped in some of the same ’80s electro and ’90s rave synths you can hear in Hot 97-style rap, but the chrome futurism is rust speckled, wormholed with the metallic equivalent of cancer. El-P’s sound—electronic-but-dirty, borderline dysfunktional grooves—has a lot in common with IDM groups like Autechre, and the whole “glitch” approach to using software malfunctions and digital distortion. Something of a convergence is taking place between undie-rap and left-field electronica, signaled by the recent Chocolate Industries compilation Rapid Transit and figures like Prefuse 73’s Scott Heren. Indeed, the response to Cannibal Ox has been warmer outside rap than within: cover of The Wire, rave reviews everywhere from Urb to NME to CMJ, but so far snubbed by The Source (perhaps because Vordul demands “108 mics,” 103 more than top marks in the mag’s album grading system).
What El-P shares with your Autechres is roots in that mid-’80s post-electro/pre-sampling phase when tracks were built from drum machines, scratching, and not much else: Schoolly D’s “P.S.K.,” Skinny Boys’ “Rip the Cut.” Back then, that slow, torturous sound struck me as closer to post-hardcore bands like Swans or indeed Big Black than the mainstream black pop of the day—it was music for wigging out, not dancing. Company Flow’s debut EP, Funcrusher, has a title more redolent of Godflesh than a modern rap group, and the name Cannibal Ox itself sounds kinda grindcore.
V & V tout a gangstalike hyperrealism stripped of any crime-pays glamour or delusions of invincibility. “Iron Galaxy” is their trope for an uncaring cosmos. The track starts with a movie sample, a blasé white voice going, “Yeah, tell me about it . . . it’s a cold world out there. . . . Sometimes I think I’m getting a little frosty myself.” Then, riding a groove uncannily reminiscent of Donna Summer’s “State of Independence,” the duo unfurl a panorama of urban decay, rife with imagery of vultures, roaches, rotten apples, little black girls getting shot, absent fathers, stillborn babies. “Molested children” is rhymed with “rats in ceiling.”
Although Vast spells out Cannibal Ox’s creed with the lines “I guess that’s why I was born/To recognize the beauty of a rose’s thorn,” Cold Vein isn’t relentlessly grim. There’s also a sense of deadly frolic, pure linguistic sport. On “Raspberry Fields,” Vast kills his battle-rhyme opponent repeatedly in successive reincarnations. This “scissor tongue” MC with a “mouthful of parables” prides himself on the writerly art of elegant variation: When he drops the verse “The sample’s the flesh and the beat’s the skeleton/You got beef but there’s worms in your Wellington/I’ll put a hole in your skull and extract the skeleton,” he immediately corrects himself (“Oh my God, said a word twice”) and then repeats the whole verse, changing the second skeleton to gelatin. Vordul favors breathless sprints of assonance-dense rhyming such as “Stress got my chest a mess/breathless and vexed/trying to escape/from outa the depths of hell’s nest” that suits his blurting flow, a logorrheic lockstep that often seems only notionally connected to the groove. Vast’s more ruminative and languid, crisply enunciating choice lines like “The beat be trying to sex me and marry me/I’m talking white picket fence and a family.”
El-P’s sonic choices are stunning throughout—the galactic funk of “Battle for Asgard,” the dank futurism of “Vein,” the melted-candle sample-slurry of “B-Boys Alpha.” On that Forced Exposure tip again, “Raspberry Fields” recalls Butthole Surfers with its slowed-down vocals and dying-walrus guitarwail, while “Real Earth” has me flashing on Flipper’s cosmic dirge “Survivors of the Plague.” El-P’s tour de force comes with the closing songs “Pigeon” and “Scream Phoenix” (a hidden track). The avian imagery is a thread through Cold Vein—pigeons represent the world’s small fry, the dowdy downtrodden, while the chant “Scream phoenix!” is V & V’s grimy equivalent of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on up!”: imagination soaring free of reality’s chains. Through a kind of willed alchemy of soul, every pigeon can metamorphize into a glittering phoenix. El-P matches these epic concepts. “Pigeon” sounds literally Gothic: Rome after the barbarians, temples sacked and torched. A grandiose horn fanfare conjures the twilight of empire, and Neil Hagerty-like guitar rains down on the smoking embers. “Scream Phoenix” is a woozy delirium of just off-key angelic chorale and a looped tic of beautiful blues guitar. Like “Feed Me” closing Tricky’s Maxinquaye, the final track is the mirage of the promised land glimpsed after strugglin’ through the valley of despond.
If there’s one drawback to Cold Vein, it’s that the music’s so strong and strange it almost overshadows the words; at the same time, if you focus on Vordul & Vast’s dense verbals with anything like the intensity they deserve and demand, it’s hard to wallow in the sonix. (Separate dub and a cappella versions would be a dream.) Then again, this split-focus effect only exacerbates Cold Vein‘s sensations of disorientation and out-of-jointness. After 74 minutes, you’ll need to lie down and unclench your brain.