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Forsaking the Flash

Rappers Cannibal Ox, now heard beyond New York, reject gangsta sensationalism for an intense sound that's earning raves.

January 24, 2002|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The statement "some people have to be modest" doesn't seem a likely motto for a hip-hop performer. Modesty--of ego or lifestyle or career aims--is anathema to the bling-bling that rules rap's roost. But those are the words rapper Vast Aire, of the New York group Cannibal Ox, says he lives by.

The acclaim generated by "The Cold Vein," the group's debut album on the Def Jux label, has been anything but modest. Critics and front-line fans have heralded the group--which plays an afternoon show Saturday at the Knitting Factory Hollywood with fellow Def Jux rapper Aesop Rock--as a groundbreaking arrival comparable to such landmark acts as Grandmaster Flash, Public Enemy, N.W.A. and the Wu-Tang Clan.

"Cannibal reminds me of the first Wu-Tang album, the cutting edge of gritty New York," says Kathryn McGuire, senior editor of hip-hop and electronica magazine Urb. "Everybody seems to think Def Jux is the next [hot label], and that sound is the most exciting sound out of New York now."

A typical Can Ox piece features Vast's vivid rhymes ("You'll get tossed in the flames/Where some ornithologist will find your skeletal frame," he raps in "Pigeon") countered by fellow rapper Vordul Megilah's synaptic shards ("Terror toys jubilated mega noise when iron works/Bullet shot animated mad windows with fireworks," he spits in the same piece).

The words are set amid producer-composer El-P's inventive, complex sonic collages, making for a dense, intense and unsettling portrait of ghetto life, offered without either gangsta sensationalism or fashion-conscious materialism--or with any real concessions to the mainstream pop world.

El-P (real name: James Meline) is also the owner of the defiantly independent Def Jux, whose sound is starting to reach beyond New York. Last year former Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha hired El-P to produce several songs for his still-unfinished debut solo album.

Vast (real name: Theodore Arrington II) says that so far it's been easy to keep in perspective the rising tide of praise.

"What we're doing, to us, is simple," says the rapper, 24. "All we're doing is figuring out rhythmic patterns, doing that with our flow, what we have to talk about. We're kids who like jazz, we know what funk is, we know what rock is, and reggae. All of that is hip-hop. We can apply any sound we use to get our point across."

Arrington, an imposing 6 feet, 7 inches and 300 pounds, met Megilah (real name: Shamar Gardner) when they were ninth-graders in Manhattan's Washington Irving High School. The two started writing and performing together and, by the time they were 15, they and a few other friends--collectively known as the Atomz Family--were appearing in Brooklyn and Manhattan clubs and occasionally making road trips as far as Philadelphia and Chicago.

It was on the New York club circuit that they encountered El-P, a member of influential underground hip-hop group Company Flow.

"They opened for us a few times," says El-P, 26. "They were cool kids. They'd come up to me and give me tapes. And every time I heard their stuff they got better. I became friends, and Company Flow was on the verge of breaking up [in 2000] and I was looking for something to throw myself into. I approached them and said, 'Do you want to form a group? You two are the main MCs and I'm the producer.'"

The teaming seems something of a mismatch on the surface. The rappers are African Americans from the ghetto, El-P is white and was raised in middle-class neighborhoods of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

"Vast and Vordul's experience of how they grew up is what attracted me as a producer," says El-P. "I've always been on the same things as them, but from a different perspective. I don't have the same background they do. But as long as your stuff is honest and searching for something true, it doesn't have to be the same perspective."

A perspective they do share is wariness of the music business. Overtures have come from major labels, but the three are content to stay where they are, even though the acclaim heaped on the act hasn't translated into cash register action. "The Cold Vein" has sold just 20,000 copies since its release last May, according to industry sales tracker SoundScan.

"It's all just mathematics at the end of the day," says Arrington. "I want people to respect my music, whether it's 50,000 or 7 million. I want people to respect a point of view where we're coming from, and maybe we'll get our just desserts before we're dead and gone."

El-P takes the same stance about inquiries that have been made for his label.

"I've always been of the sense that if you can do it yourself and not be beholden financially, you're better off," says the label owner. "If you're selling 10,000 and getting 100% of the profit, that's better than selling 300,000 and getting no profit and getting dropped. I'm not a businessman, but I'm not an idiot."

Cannibal Ox, with Aesop Rock and others, Saturday at the Knitting Factory Hollywood, 7021 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, 1 p.m. $15. (323) 463-0204.

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