How El-P and Cannibal Ox Crafted a Cult Classic

In the shadow of 9/11, an unconventional hip-hop sound was brewing beneath New York City


A B-Boy’s Alpha

Once the year 2000 arrived, fears of the Y2K bug and the end of days had quelled. We had successfully broken through to the other side of the new millennium and America felt invincible. Above the surface, a post-Biggie New York City was celebrating its dominance in hip-hop music, leaving its golden era behind in exchange for a more bourgeois style of commercial rap that was ruling radio station playlists across the country.

In direct response to this an independent hip-hop movement started, which found many former major label artists and a crop of hungry newcomers pressing up their music on 12-inch vinyl singles, distributing it themselves, and seeing success in the process. It was literally “no rapper left behind.”

Aside from birthing acts like Eminem and Talib Kweli, the independent hip-hop movement also introduced the world to El-P, today known best for his work with Killer Mike as Run the Jewels. But back then he was catching fame as a producer / MC for a group called Company Flow. Despite generating a massive buzz with their 1997 full-length debut album, Funcrusher Plus that chapter was coming to a close by 2000. The group’s swan song was a final double vinyl single release, bearing the logo of El’s new label, Def Jux (which would later be named Definitive Jux, after legal threats from Def Jam.) This seminal gatefold vinyl release was shared with a new rap duo called Cannibal Ox, who previewed two new tracks on the second disc “Iron Galaxy” and “Straight Off the D.I.C.,” also produced by El.

“This is our new label… It is called Def Jux… We hope you like our music… We are all very dedicated,” the jacket read.

The cover art of Cannibal Ox’s “Iron Galaxy” single imagined 9/11 one year before it actually happened.

Battle for Asgard

With Company Flow disbanded, it would take into the next year for Def Jux to get off the ground and plant their flag with a full-length album release. But on May 15th, 2001, the label would present Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein, introducing the world to rappers Vast Aire and Vordul Mega. Produced entirely by El-P, the album would set the stage for Definitive Jux’s future. It was critically hailed by Rolling Stone, Stylus, The Village Voice, and made Pitchfork’s top albums of the 2000s list. Notably, if you Google “top hip-hop albums of 2001,” Google ranks it as #3, following Jay-Z’s The Blueprint (#1) and Nas’ Stillmatic (#2).

Released just four months before the Twin Towers fell, it was as if the sound of The Cold Vein accurately predicted a post-apocalyptic New York City, one where it didn't matter whether Jay-Z or Nas was king. Even on that double 12-inch released a year before the attack, the cover artwork featured two figures—presumably Can Ox’s Vast and Vordul—running through the narrow streets of Harlem while the sky burns and the buildings turn to ash. When it finally happened in reality on September 11, 2001—the same day Jay-Z dropped The Blueprint and officially began a battle for rap supremacy with Nas on “The Takeover”—it was as if everything Cannibal Ox and El-P had predicted on The Cold Vein had come to pass.

“I had already been kind of talking about things of that nature,” El-P told MTV in a feature just after 9/11. “I’ve been paranoid for years. I don’t feel that there’s time really to skirt around the fear and the nervousness of our generation.”

Vast and Vordul still speak with pain behind their voices when asked about the events of 9/11 happening in their own backyard.

“We were in Canada when it actually happened, on tour in Montreal. Our DJ, Cip-One, ran to our room, banging on the door. I got up; I opened the door. Cip passed me and went straight to the television. He turned that TV on and one of the towers was smoking. We couldn’t believe it. We sat there getting dressed, and as we all got dressed, we watched the other plane hit the other building. We lost it, like, ‘What is going on?’ We literally thought it was World War 3. You don’t hit New York City like that. It’s the supreme city of the world,” recalls Vast. “Before you could eat your lunch, the buildings were a pile of rubble. It was disgusting, and it was something we had to live through.”

“It was hurtful. It’s hurtful to this day to hear about the corruption attached to how many lives were lost,” the more reserved Vordul adds.


Atom

Cannibal Ox was a piece of a larger collective called The Atoms Family, which originated in the underground railroad of Union Square, where hungry MCs would rap competitively against one another in a cipher (a.k.a. a circle of dudes rapping). It was there that Vast and Vordul met El-P for the first time, who pitched the idea of releasing music together without the help of a larger corporate conglomerate.

Vast Aire and Vordul are Cannibal Ox

“Atoms were similar to Wu-Tang. We had a large family, a core, and these little groups that we’d break off into. Cannibal Ox became one of those dominant groups,” says Vordul. “It was little groups that we would form within the unit and just for creative adventure. None of us released any material. It was just out of creative aspirations. Me and Vast, we lived in Harlem. We met because we met at Washington Irving in an art program. Cats had ciphers at the train station.”

“It all came together as El was thinking of doing independent music himself,” says Vast. “We were really just coming from ciphering and just getting into recording as Atoms Family with Cryptic-One. Cryptic was the base producer of Atoms, which was a coalition we had. He had a whole studio and independently released Center of the Web, who released their first album only on vinyl. That’s how we connected with El, seeing him in ciphers.”

“[El’s crew] The Indelible MC’s and the Atoms Family became close. That’s like the birth of us working with El directly,” adds Vordul. “We were already ciphering with The Juggaknots, J-Treds, and Jean Grae. El was also working with The Juggaknots and then was working with us. It just felt right at the time.”

They describe the train station where the rap battles took place as a gladiator’s circle, a proving ground where the creed was “two men enter, one man leaves.”

“That was the best. I have dreams about that train station. The battles at that train station, that’s the real birth of Can Ox. It was across the street from the Union Square, on the east side. It’s like a little subway entrance inside of a building. Even if it was raining or snowing, we had something overhead,” reminisces Vast.

“If you rhymed, you had to walk through there and prove yourself. There were all types of styles and gangs; it was crazy,” adds Vordul.

“Oh, you rhyme?” mimics Vast. “Don’t admit your rhyme, because you have to walk through this train station to show and prove. And you might get robbed if you’re not nice.”

Much like their vocabulary rich rhyme style, Vast and Vordul settled on the strange name of Cannibal Ox in a brainstorming session of “just throwing words in the air.” But as time progressed, the meaning of the Cannibal Ox name was given greater significance, representative of the battle scene they emerged from.

“Cannibal Ox came from us being lyrically sharp. That’s the base metaphor. All of this ‘blade’ talk comes from being in Harlem, and seeing dudes fight and spit razors. Then it got attached to cannibalism somehow, like we lyrically devour MCs. We have to feed on our own kind,” Vast explains. “The ‘Ox’ is the blade. What did Big L say on ‘Ebonics?’ ‘A blade is an ox.’”


Vein

A big part of what makes The Cold Vein a classic in the eyes of critics—although estimated to have sold only around 100,000 copies worldwide to date—is the avant-garde, left field approach El-P and the guys took to its sound. If Public Enemy brought the noise, and the Wu-Tang Clan opened the 36th Chamber, El’s production on The Cold Vein built an iron galaxy for a new generation of rap fans to inhabit. It was as if from the ashes of a post-apocalyptic New York City, a new dystopia in the vein of Blade Runner or Akira’s Neo-Tokyo was built. Brooding metallic beats, stuttered drums—along with samples from the likes of Wall of Voodoo’s “Mexican Radio” and Al Green’s “Love & Happiness”—are hidden within its layers, like druggy denizens in the depths of the city.

“I think it’s what inspires us,” says Vast to the idea of the album being the soundtrack of a futuristic metropolis. “Me and him have this love for techno-organics. Ghost in the Shell is another metaphor that we’ve played with throughout our music. We were playing with that type of ideology.”

The album was recorded on a shoestring budget over a period of about two years. It’s ironic that it’s now hailed as one of the best releases that year, despite the rampant money that was being spent on studio time in a pre-9/11 era when file sharing apps like LimeWire were only beginning to bear fruit.

“It was a home-grown process, recording in a home studio. We’d just collectively write within our confines. It was pretty much a live-in situation of every day in, writing,” says Vordul. “I’m fascinated with the certain processes which people have the luxury of. I find it wonderful that certain people go certain places and make an adventure of it for specific projects. For us, it’s always been within our confines of everyday living. Given the inspiration of El’s production, and in between a sandwich, a good movie, we’d write some things down.”

“The beats had stages. I would help El with automation and direction. So there’s layers to a song. You might do a skeleton, and then you start figuring out the flesh,” says Vast, when asked about rhyming on El’s heavy beats. “It wasn’t all of those stutter steps. That could be added on, as you have something to work with. It wasn’t always 30 elements when we got the beat. We would work on a joint and then build upon it. And then boom, you have a layered track. I think I’m giving up too many secrets to our special sauce. I’m not going to give that up (laughs).


Painkillers

After a falling out with El and Definitive Jux some years later, Cannibal Ox went on indefinite hiatus, not releasing a new album until this week’s Blade of the Ronin. However, Vast insists that it was never a true “break-up” and that they’ve always collaborated on one another’s projects.

“We always had solo ideas and goals. It’s beautiful that Can Ox took off. We continue to make music together, plus do our solo ventures. So I’m on everything Vordul has, he’s on everything I have. The critics need to show me this ‘magical break-up,’” vents Vast. “It’s rumors. We didn’t do one album and then disappear into the mountains. That’s disrespectful. I put out Deuces Wild and on it I have a song with Pete Rock and Vordul. But we ‘broke up.’ I put out Ox 2010, where I have a song with Vordul and Raekwon the Chef, but we ‘broke up.’ It’s annoying.”

Vast continues, “We have our old history as being Atoms. There’s a long history of me doing music with him. I think people believe that Can Ox is our origin, when it was actually something that sprang from our origin. Atoms Family was New Edition, but Can Ox is Bel Biv DeVoe. The Cold Vein took off. ‘Poison’ took off. There’s nothing you can do about that.”

Despite El’s absence, Vast and Vordul hope to recapture some of the magic found on The Cold Vein on Blade of the Ronin, their first full-length album together in fourteen years. While they never expected The Cold Vein to be viewed as a classic, they hope to build upon that foundation with the new record.

“It’s an honor that people understand what we’re doing. Some get it a little better than others. That’s okay. But if you can just get the gist of what we are doing, then you need to enjoy this music. The Cold Vein was the blue pill—Blade of the Ronin is the red pill—it’s the new reality. It’s going to set a new standard again. We plan on doing it again and again.”

“The music will show and prove. If you think you like it now, it’s going to grow on you. It’s going to mature. It’s like that movie that you gotta go back to. Like, ‘Oh I missed that part.’ That’s what this album is going to do,” says Vast.

“Remember, you gotta walk through that train station.”


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