September 21, 2005
When Atmosphere and Aesop Rock and Sage Francis play outside New York, they all draw pretty much the same crowds. Maybe a few extra crust-punk kids will turn out for Sage, and maybe a few more sorority girls for Atmosphere, but it’s mostly all the same white kids in baseball caps and Nike dunks who form breakdance circles to De La Soul between sets and drive back out to the suburbs afterwards. So it’s been interesting to move to New York and see all the different fractured indie-rap audiences showing up to see their guys and nobody else. There was just about no audience crossover between last weekend’s Rhymesayers showcase and last night’s Cage record release party at the Bowery Ballroom. The Bowery Ballroom crowd had none of the frattiness of the Rhymesayers audience. Instead, it was almost entirely scary tatted-up Brooklyn hard-rock white kids with neckbeards and thin gold chains and maybe two gold teeth. I used to see pictures of guys just like this in the liner notes of New York hardcore compilations when I was in high school; I like these guys. These might’ve been the thugged-out white kids whose love affair with punk rock ended when everything got all emo a few years ago, who needed to turn somewhere else to find jagged knucklehead thrills. And if Cage’s Dead Kennedys shirt didn’t drive the point home, the brief but hectic circle pit that erupted during the show-closing Weathermen posse cut “Left It to Us” sure did.
Cage has always been a good match for these guys, a demented shock-rap cherub with strong rap credentials (almost signed by Pete Nice, dissed on the first Eminem album) and a baroquely horrific life story (abusive father and uncle and stepfather, fucked-up teenage mental institution stay, drug addiction). When I interviewed Cage a few weeks ago, he told me that he used to name drugs in his songs just so that people would come to his shows and bring him those drugs. And so nothing in Cage’s career history really predicts his new album Hell’s Winter, a furious and heartfelt dive into his own depression and its causes. Cage keeps his demonic swagger (and at times stays kinda stupid, like on the two songs that mention Suicide Girls), but he also comes dangerously close to maturity, especially on a song like “Stripes,” which directly addresses his father. Hell’s Winter almost works as a rap companion piece to my favorite album of the year, the Mountain Goats‘ harrowing child-abuse memoir The Sunset Tree.
Hell’s Winter is a truly powerful work, but it might not be the sort of thing you can recreate onstage when you’re standing in front of all these knuckleheads and your hypeman’s name is Yak Ballz. So Cage mostly didn’t. He ran through a few horror-rap oldies and a few of the dumbest Hell’s Winter tracks before touching any of the deeply personal stuff. That personal stuff, when he did it, was strong and riveting, even with the venue’s sound system swallowing up all the bass and space in these tracks and all the kids yelling for Cage’s 1997 single “Agent Orange” (sample lyric: “Get high, run up in ya crib and fuck ya moms backwards.”) And Cage still clearly loves doing his older tracks; you can tell by the crazy goblin gleam in his eye when he’s talking about mayhem. And so it didn’t seem inappropriate when El-P charged out onstage halfway through the evening to hijack the set, as I imagine he does at just about every New York Def Jux show. With El and Yak and Aesop Rock filling the stage, this night was never going to be an onstage exorcism of Cage’s personal demons. It was a fun indie-rap show with a lot of dudes yelling, nothing more.