"I live in a mechanical city," Vast Aire, of Bronx/Harlem hiphoppers Cannibal Ox, says of his hometown. "That city works against me." Even so, Vast Aire is committed as ever to being in NYC right now, or maybe just to working with others against the forces of the mechanical city. "It's not the city that I love," he says. "It's the people that are here. All this city has is public transportation and a bar. If you opened up any city for 24 hours, it'd do the same thing."
But try as he does to explain how hard it can be to live in NYC, it's exactly those conditions which make Cannibal Ox's music so compelling. On their debut album, The Cold Vein, Cannibal Ox (two guys, Vast Aire and Vordul) paint a picture of a dirty, scary NYC underground that seems like it's run by rats and guns. But, unlike a lot of gansta rap that's about money-driven crime, Cannibal Ox--who grew up in the Bronx and later migrated to Harlem--embrace their place in the middle of all this poverty. The result is music with a sense of self-deprecating honesty, so much so that you don't have a choice as whether or not to take them literally. There is no irony to this music. You'll know, after listening to these two, that there's nothing romantic about growing up dirt-poor.
"I'm just a latchkey kid with a snotty nose," says Vast Aire in track four of The Cold Vein. " My first fight was me against five boroughs/I lost my first hitch/but remembered every detail of my first kiss/That's that Bronx hell bliss." Track after track relies on this juxtaposition of poor, scrappy kids fighting against the bigger forces of crime in the city.
And the music sounds scary, too--it's apocalyptic. Lots of fuzzy and climactic electronic drums, which drop off suddenly for dramatic pauses. There's so much energy involved in their rapping, you'll swear they've been living their whole lives in anticipation of this moment.
Appreciating Cannibal Ox can be a little tricky. It's not party music, and maybe that's because you have to listen closely to understand their emotion, or maybe it's because they're from New York--a place where people listen to music on headphones more than CD players. It's not really heavy on the bass, so being able to pick up the nuances becomes a lot more important. Plus, since the music is so much about the words, the appreciation of it really comes from listening to it, rather than having it on as background.
But as serious as their music is, Vast Aire and Vordul are still all about having fun and making music they love, which make the tracks all the better. When I talked to Vast Aire on the phone, he was laughing and fighting (physically) with his friends in the back of a van. "Oh--hold on a minute," he said. "I just have to kick this guy's ass."