Published Mar 02, 2015From the ironclad lyrics to the bulletproof beats, Cannibal Ox sounded invincible on their 2001 debut LP, The Cold Vein. But the New York duo, composed of Vast Aire and Vordul Mega, weren't as unstoppable as they seemed.
Vein may have been hailed as an indie rap classic, thanks to the pair's fierce, impenetrably complex rhymes and the steely beats provided by then-fringe producer El-P, but it took Cannibal Ox another decade and a half to complete a proper follow-up. That next instalment, dubbed Blade of the Ronin is due Tuesday (March 3) via IGC Records/iHipHop Distribution, and Aire insists the duo haven't gone rusty in the interim.
"Technically it wasn't a real hiatus," Aire tells Exclaim! — his bullhorn voice booming in conversation as much as it does on the mic — of the period between Ox LPs. "I tend to do more than Mega, but he never stopped. He was on all my solo projects; we're always working. The music might not get released, but we're always in the studio."
Mega not only concurs with that point — he feels his fellow MC is mincing words.
"I was just writing to the air for a while, just writing for the sake of it, and I wasn't really completing projects or bodies of work," Mega admits of the decade-plus drought, adding that his more focused friend helped keep his career on track throughout those wayward years. "I had a bit of solo stuff happening. But usually the only real opportunity I'd have to get on records was if Vast hollered at me for one of his joints, then I'd jump on."
Aire says both he and Mega are more motivated then ever on Blade of the Ronin, because he feels a gaping void has been left by Cannibal Ox's absence.
"We tired of this different so-called 'avant-garde' hip-hop, where all they're doing is copying the entire rap catalogue [from] 1994. They're copying everything, they stole even the haircuts," Aire says of his genre's current state, adding that he thinks Blade of the Ronin will remedy all that. "So instead of complaining, Vordul and I decided to push the bar so far with this album that it'll force other MCs to be inspired."
But Mega doesn't share that outlook, saying that his time away from the industry has given him a fresh perspective on its newfound strengths. "I wasn't even paying attention to music for quite awhile. When I got away from it, it felt like pop music was this really specific thing, and you'd just hear rap on BET. But it seems like anything can be considered pop music now, and it's interesting to see all the genres merge, and see what hip-hop has become. It feels like a lot of languages are being spoken now, and a lot is being heard."
Those conflicting vantages are a good indication of Aire and Mega's complementary styles — an aggressive traditionalist paired with a more opened-minded free spirit, each offering the other balance. Some of those viewpoints persisted throughout the interview. When asked about Ronin's guest spots, Mega focused on the youngest of Ox's collaborators. That junior MC's name is Detroit's own Elzhi, a highly buzzed up-and-comer who guests on the Ronin track "Carnivorous," and who Mega describes as "totally ill."
Aire, on the other hand, spent more time reflecting on the LP's elder statesmen, including features by old cohorts like the Wu-Tang Clan's U-God (who "murdered the track," according to Aire) on "Blade: The Art of the Ox," and especially acclaimed MC DOOM, with whom Cannibal Ox has a special rapport.
Aire goes on to describe their collaboration on the song "Iron Rose," saying: "I've toured with DOOM many times, and always wanted to get on a joint with him. And he understands us, he understands that Ox uses a lot of imagery about iron and descriptions about metal. We needed someone to finish the track so I called him and said 'Man, the world is a hard, metal place.' And he knew what to do. We got him closing the track, and he came hard."
But Aire and Mega are in complete agreement on one thing: the calibre of Ronin's production, which came courtesy of two burgeoning beatsmiths. The aforementioned "Blade: The Art of the Ox," was produced by Detroit's Black Milk, whom Aire describes as "knowing how to pick that right sample and freak it and twist it. I've always wanted to work with him, and he gave us a grungy, grimy beat."
Aire says he's even more impressed with the LP's main producer, who built every beat except for "Blade." That studio journeyman calls himself Bill Cosmiq. The burgeoning New York producer has worked with Aire on a number of projects, including "Gotham," a then-fresh track that was added to Cannibal Ox's 2013 Gotham retrospective.
Aire says that Cosmiq is "the best producer working that nobody knows right now. And I'm trying to change that. He's able to help us create that Cannibal Ox vibe — aggressive, murky, dark, real tight and even reflective."
Aire says that last point — Cannibal Ox's reflective tendencies — may not be apparent. But he adds that those nuanced moments are what the fans who've been waiting since 2001, and the naysayers who dismissed the duo long ago, will have to contend with for years to come after hearing Blade of the Ronin.
"It's a very broad album. And you're not going to understand it all on the first listen," Aire says. "This is classic Cannibal Ox. You know there are going to be three meanings to every line. So you might get the first meaning, and be glad that we're back. But six months from now you're going to understand the other side of a line you already loved, and that's what we do best."
Mega says the prospect of writing and performing those intricate rhymes, along with the fanfare that has ensued since Cannibal Ox officially announced its reunion, means that he and Aire will be seeing eye to eye more often — at least when it comes to focus, diligence and determination.
"Last time I was all for going with the nature of things," Mega offers, "even when it wasn't working out. But it'd take a lot for a kid to not respond to what's happening to us now. I'm definitely going to stay more involved this time around."
You can stream all of Blade of the Ronin below.