Monday, April 15, 2013

Village Voice, October 9th 2001

by Simon Reynolds

Rap's a funny business, really. People pay good money 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 droning on about how much they make and the expensive shit they wear... And (let's not forget the underground) paranoid poets who've never met a conspiracy theory they didn't like, crackpot autodidacts who glimpsed the secret of the cosmos in a cloud of weedsmoke and they just have to tell you---the sort of I-be-the-prophet spiel you can endure for free if you hang out on the subway long enough.

The cipherpunks of undie hip hop can be a real chore for ear and brain: barely scanning stanzas overcrammed with too many words per bar (at its worst, indie-rap rivals opera for its anti-musical subordination of sonix to textuality), as imagistically over-ripe and knotted with riddles as a late period Costello lyric. Your typical undie MC sounds like he chomped down a dictionary for breakfast and it keeps repeating on him. The prolix code-flow and hermetic, baffle-them-with-thy bullshit shtick is just the bookworm counterpart to gangsta machismo---often just a more convoluted and encrypted battery of boasts and threats. Jesus, with all the wordy machismo and heated who's-really-real debates, it's a bit like rock criticism with a beat!

Actually, the consciousness informing underground hip hop reminds me more specifically of nothing so much as prime period Forced Exposure, the legendary post-hardcore noisezine: the recondite reference points and in-jokes, the cultivated trash aesthetic, the ultra-condensed and jaggedly stylized writing style. As Sasha Frere-Jones quipped in these pages a while ago, El-P--lynchpin of late lamented undie-rap gods Company Flow and producer of Cannibal Ox--is something like the Steve Albini of hip hop: fanatically opposed to the major label rap industry, 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, and end the entire bling-bling era (hip hop's equivalent to hair metal). And a few years after that, El-P will be drafted into uglify and render radio-unfriendly the post-breakthrough 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 forthcoming solo album's titled Fantastic Damage). Cold Vein is actually steeped in some of the same Eighties electro and Nineties technorave synth-sounds you can hear in Hot 97-style rap, but the chrome futurism is rust-speckled, worm-holed with the metallic equivalent of cancer. El-P's sound--electronic-but-dirty, grooves that are borderline dysfunktional--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 underground rap and left-field electronica, signalled by the recent Chocolate Industries compilation Rapid Transit with its mix of MCs and IDM artists, or figures like Prefuse 73's Scott Heren who has a foot in both backpacker and nerdtronica camps. Indeed, the response to Cannibal Ox has been warmer outside rap than within: cover stars 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 the highest mark in the mag's album grading system)

What El-P shares with your Autechre sorts (who typically started out doing breakdancing and graf) is roots in that brief post-electro, pre-sampling phase when rap tracks were built around drum machines, scratching, and not a lot else: Schoolly D's "P.S.K", Skinny Boys's "Rip the Cut". Back then that slow, torturous sound struck me as closer to post-hardcore bands like Swans and Big Black than the mainstream black pop of the day--it was music for wigging out, not dancing. Company Flow's debut EP Funcrusher had a title more redolent of Godflesh than a modern rap group, and Cannibal Ox itself sounds like a grindcore band. Cannibal Ox are essentially the continuation of Co-Flow--same soiled samples, entropic tempos, and sprained-in-both-legs beats--but fronted by two new MCs, the marvellously monikered Vast Aire and Vordul Megilah, both formerly of the Harlem group Atoms Family but now live-in proteges chez El-P's Red Hook, Brooklyn apartment.

The worldview that V&V tout is deeply unjiggy: gangsta hyper-realism, but without the crime-pays glamor or delusions of invincibility. "Iron Galaxy" is their trope for an uncaring cosmos. The track starts with a movie sample, a blase 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, dogs eating dogs, roaches and rotten apples, little black girls getting shot, absent fathers ("Course his pop's gone/What you figure?/That chalky outline on the ground is a father figure?"), stillborn babies. "Molested children" gets rhymed with "rats in ceiling". Clearly Cannibal Ox have inherited the Co-Flow mantle of "#1 feel bad crew".

Although Vast spells out their ghetto-realist 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 a sense of deadly frolic, pure linguistic sport. On "Raspberry Fields," Vast kills his battle-rhyme opponent repeatedly in successive reincarnations ("this is the next lifetime"). This "scissortongue" MC with a "mouthful of parables" prides himself on vocabulary and 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 "gelatine". Vordul favors breathless sprints of assonance-dense rhyming like "stress got my chest a mess/breathless and vexed/trying to escape/from outa the depths of hell's nest" that suit his blurting flow, a logorrheiac lockstep that often seems barely tethered to the groove. Vast is 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" and audibly underlining specific words to ensure your close attention. On "Vein" he verbally smacks down a 12 year old baby-gangsta who flashed a gun in his face (the kid's got saggy pants, but "thoughts gotta pull up") while "The F-Word" explores the vulnerability of being a love triangle's third side (the dirty word in question is "friend", as in "just friends", as in being the thankless, nookie-less role of shoulder-to-cry).

Throughout El-P's sonic choices are stunning--the galactic funk of "Battle for Asgard"; the dank futurism of "Vein"; the melted-candle sample-slurry of "B-Boys Alpha"; "Raspberry Fields" with its Butthole Surfers-like slowed-down vocals and dying-walrus guitarwail. "Real Earth" simultaneously reminds me of Flipper's cosmic dirge "Survivors of the Plague" and a slowed-down version of the Blade Runner-esque techy-sounding drum'n'bass purveyed by E-Sassin and Dieselboy. His tour de force comes with the closing songs "Pigeon" and "Scream Phoenix" (a hidden track). The avian imagery has run through the album: pigeons representing the world's small fry, the dowdy downtrodden. The phrase "Scream phoenix" is V&V's grimy equivalent to Curtis Mayfield's "move on up": imagination soaring free of reality's chains. In an alchemy of soul, every pigeon can will their metamorphosis into the glittering phoenix. El-P rises to the challenge of such epic concepts. "Pigeon" sounds literally Gothic: Rome after the barbarians, temples sacked and torched. A grandiose horn fanfare conjuring the twilight of empire, and Neil Hagerty-like guitar raining down on the smoking embers. "Scream Phoenix" is a woozy delirium of just-offkey angelic chorale and a looped tic of beautiful blues guitar. The way the final track offers a glimpse of hope recalls Tricky's similar move with "Feed Me" at the end of Maxinquaye.

If there's one drawback to Cold Vein, it's that the music's so strong and strange it almost overshadows the words; simultaneously, focusing on Vordul & Vast's dense verbal flow with anything like the intensity it deserves makes it hard to wallow in the sonics. Separate dub and accapella versions would be a dream. Mind you, this splitting of consciousness/double-tiered focus effect only adds to Cold Vein's sensations of disorientation and out-of-jointness. After 74 minutes of gruelling brilliance, you'll probably need to lie down and unclench your brain.

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