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POP MUSIC

The Contender

After taking on LL Cool J with 'Second Round K.O.,' Canibus is showing he can back up his in-your-face, boastful words.

September 06, 1998|Soren Baker | Soren Baker writes about pop music for Calendar

Germaine "Canibus" Williams knows he has a way with words. Even in the rap world, where hyperbole is commonplace, the 23-year-old native of Jamaica takes boasting to new levels. In one song he warns other rappers, "My intelligence begins where yours peaks. . . . "

And his stage name is meant to underscore his prowess as a rapper. Though "Canibus" could also be taken as a wink to hip-hop's widespread references to marijuana, the moniker means "Can I Bus"--as in, "Can I bust a rhyme?" The question about whether he can bust--or effectively deliver--a snappy rhyme is clearly rhetorical.

Mr. Humble, he's not.

Before his stock rose in pop circles after a fiery performance this year on a much lauded remix of Wyclef Jean's hit single "Gone Till November," Canibus had earned a reputation in hard-core hip-hop circles as someone who could back up his boasts, thanks to a rap style so fast and furious that it would humble even a seasoned auctioneer.

Over the last 18 months, the rapper has been building his following through high-profile collaborations with such hip-hop stars as LL Cool J and the Lost Boyz, invariably outperforming them on their own songs with his harsh voice and confrontational demeanor.

Whereas most rappers focus on familiar topics such as money, drugs and women, Canibus feels as comfortable rapping about mythological gods and computers as he does about his superiority as a rapper. Typical of his boasts: "My flows are like body blows that cause internal bleeding."

"When I write a rhyme or when I'm thinking about something, my motive is to say something that's never been said before as far as hip-hop is concerned," says Canibus, whose debut album, "Can-I-Bus," is due Tuesday from Universal Records. "I never try to bring something to the table that somebody has brought to the table already."

If Canibus is on rap's fast track these days, he seems capable emotionally of handling all the attention.

There are lots of distractions on the downtown Los Angeles warehouse set of a video shoot, including a parade of barely dressed models who have parts in the video, which is for his new album. But he remains focused as he waits for his next scene.

Despite the cockiness of the records, he seems an eager student on the set. Rather than use the downtime to party or hang out with an entourage, he pays attention to everything going on around him. It's part of a dedication that makes his career ambition seem as grand as his rapping style.

While making a guest appearance during Jean's set on the recent Smokin' Grooves tour stop at the Universal Amphitheatre, Canibus flashed some old-fashioned theatrical instincts by walking on stage accompanied by a full-grown lion.

While in town, Canibus also held his own with host Bill Maher and guests, including author-critic Stanley Crouch, in a discussion of some of rap's finer points on "Politically Incorrect."

Canibus' interests also give him a strong presence on the Internet, which he says is one of his many sources for lyrical inspiration. He is even one of the few rappers to have his own site. One reason he has already had more than 330,000 hits on http://www.canibus.com is that it offers access to some unreleased recordings.

None of this ambition or exposure has hurt Canibus' credibility in hip-hop.

"The way that Canibus jumps into songs, he makes your ears stand at attention," says Datwon Thomas, an assistant editor at hip-hop digest XXL. "He always makes you love what he's doing. He's one that you remember."

But there is another reason why people remember Canibus: his very public feud with rap legend LL Cool J.

The flare-up grew out of an appearance Canibus made on "4,3,2,1," a single from LL Cool J's 1997 album, "Phenomenon."

When recording the song, Canibus added a line that made reference to the tattoo of a microphone that LL has on his arm. Canibus says his lyric was a tribute to the body art, but LL took it as an insult.

LL, who now refuses to discuss the matter, rewrote his entire verse on "4,3,2,1" before the album was finished to attack Canibus as some talentless upstart. He even went so far as to remove Canibus' verse from one version of the song's video. Needless to say, Canibus wasn't pleased.

In classic rap fashion, he retaliated with "Second Round K.O.," a Jean-produced single this year that was set up in the form of a mock boxing match, complete with a spirited commentary from Mike Tyson. On the record, Canibus issued such stinging lines as, "You walk around showing off your body 'cause it sells / plus to avoid the fact that you ain't got skills."

The single not only became a smash in hip-hop circles but also soared onto the pop charts, selling more than 400,000 copies.

Yet "Second Round K.O." has been both a blessing and a curse for Canibus.

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