Cannibal Ox were born out of a need for honesty. For MCs Vast Aire and Vordul Mega, the truth is steeped in both the good and bad, and they view their music as maintaining the equilibrium between the two. “We come from a place of knowing that if we understand balance, there’s triumph within the fact that we understand and accept that life is not vacant, it’s an exchange of many dynamics,” says Vordul. “We are always grateful for the light that we gain.”
In that honesty and in that light, Can Ox have cultivated an aesthetic that can only be described as gritty and cryptic, an ode to their musical authenticity. And also an ode to New York.
Vordul and Vast grew up about twenty blocks away from each other, Vast on 115th Street in Spanish Harlem and Vordul near Harlem Hospital around 135th. That sort of physical proximity caused the two to initially gravitate toward each other. “We pretty much knew we had a real good chemistry because of our neighborhood, our background, and our similar people we knew growing up,” says Vast.
In 2001, the duo dropped their debut album, The Cold Vein, which turned the MCs into underground phenoms. Cold Vein was — and still is — lauded as highly influential in New York’s hip-hop scene, a project that gives an intensely powerful account of life in New York and shows off Vordul and Vast’s lyrical prowess. Cannibal Ox then grew scarce. Rumors about their breaking up abounded, but that’s exactly what they were: rumors. “We been friends God knows how long,” says Vast. “We constantly have put out music; it’s not like we just put out this one album and it becomes this mystical gem and you never see us again.”
Since Cold Vein, the MCs have been making music, just individually. Vast’s most recent solo project, OX 2010: A Street Odyssey, saw its release in 2011, while Vordul’s Megagraphitti was released in 2008. Between all that, Cannibal Ox hadn’t returned for a sophomore effort — until now. With some momentum from touring, and the right timing and creative energy, Vast and Vordul got together to record Blade of the Ronin, which is set to drop tomorrow, March 3.
For the MCs, Blade of the Ronin exhibits their maturity and the experiences they have endured during the fourteen-year gap. “[Cold Vein is] young [Michael] Jordan,” says Vast. “But Blade of the Ronin is an older, wiser Jordan that has to take on Magic Johnson. This is a different-level Jordan than the Jordan that had to take on Isaiah Thomas and lose.”
Though gripped with the raw nature of NYC rap of the Nineties and early Aughts, Blade of the Ronin still manages to sound progressive, with dark cosmic rhythms and uptempo swings. The theme of New York, which is central to Cold Vein, is carried over to Blade of the Ronin; the album’s second single, “Harlem Knights,” says it all.
“The knights [are] specifically warrior knights, and it’s a double meaning for ‘nighttime,’ ” says Vast. “ ’Harlem Knights’ is just a beautiful scope. We take you on this journey through the city the best way we know how, through the eyes of Cannibal Ox. We take you on a fun ride; it’s witty, it’s dark, and it’s creative.”
“Harlem Knights” plays into the album title Blade of the Ronin, which ultimately brings the project full circle, the title itself a play on knights of the round table. Again, we are presented with the idea of a knight, a soldier, one who serves his country — perhaps alluding to the idea that Vast and Vordul are in the service of their genre.
“Our dominant metaphor has always been the blade. That’s what Ox is — the Ox is not a cow, the Ox is not a bull. The Ox has always been the knife, the blade, the gemstone,” says Vast. “The metaphor was, ‘Our lyrics are as sharp as a cannibal’s blade.’ And that’s how we got our name, Cannibal Ox: We eat other MCs because our lyrics are sharp. That was the dominant metaphor, so Blade of the Ronin is bringing you back to that metaphor of sharpness of the rhymes and the piercing will of a soldier.”
The blade isn’t the only imagery Cannibal Ox employ, as talk of a phoenix adds yet another metaphor. “We’ve gone through so much in life and through experience…seen the darker sides of things,” says Vast. “I think that reflects in our music. I think the greatest undertone of our music is it’s mad dark right now, but like the sun is about to come up…It’s dark when you’re a pigeon at the bottom of the food chain, but the dawn is there.”
Every metaphor and meaning Cannibal Ox give you feeds right back into their view of hip-hop and New York at the center of it. After all, New York is the duo’s home, and the setting for Vordul and Vast is cyclical. This circular pattern, the ups and downs of their city, is reflected in their music. They released Cold Vein only a few months before the World Trade Center collapsed; now, construction is complete on One World Trade and Cannibal Ox are back with Blade of the Ronin. For Vordul and Vast, a lot has changed in New York over the last decade and a half, but at the same time, nothing’s changed at all.
“I definitely think [what’s changed in New York is] a strong effect of the police; the state of being in enforcement and government issues is a continued cycle. A lot of things are in repetition of a certain history that we’re still getting over,” says Vordul.
“Like Ferguson, Mike Brown — I could probably find those same issues, like when we did Cold Vein,” says Vast, “[the shooting of Amadou] Diallo is in that timeframe…I remember [New York] City being shocked that a man would be shot at 41 times and that 19 of [the bullets] hit him. There’s 19 tracks on Blade of the Ronin — that’s a track for every bullet that hit that man. And here we are in different times and we’re going through the Trayvon Martins, we’re going through the Fergusons, so it is something to think about. All Amadou Diallo had on him was his wallet.
“So when I’m looking at Ferguson and Mike Brown, just to add on to what you were saying about how has [New York] changed — a lot of things haven’t changed. It’s good old-fashioned New York.”
Cannibal Ox will celebrate the release of Blade of the Ronin at Webster Hall on March 2 with GZA, Freeway, and G-Jet. Tickets are available here.
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