Before Performing At Dada Tonight, Cannibal Ox Fills Us In On Its Decade Of Downtime.
In 2001, Harlem emcees Vordul Mega and Vast Aire — better known collectively as Cannibal Ox — put out their debut album, Cold Vein, through El-P's powerhouse independent label, Definitive Jux. The album, with its wintry disposition and gritty lyricism, received a good deal of critical acclaim, heralded as a hip-hop classic — and rightly so.
Then, at the height of the group's popularity, Cannibal Ox went radio silent. Years passed, and a much-anticipated, oft-rumored follow up was nowhere to be found. And though the outfit constantly denied rumors of its demise, El-P further fueled fires in 2011 when he stated that he'd never produce another record for the outfit.
But this was all just surface skepticism, as true hip-hop fans could follow the duo's solo endeavors for the next decade until the timing was right for Cannibal OX to release its sophomore album, Blade of the Ronin, this past February. Now, despite multiple rumors of a breakup and some bad blood with El-P, the group stands stronger than ever, embarking on a U.S. tour that include's a Central Track co-sponsored event tonight at Club Dada.
So naturally, we took this chance to catch up with Vast Aire to get his perspective on the group's relationship with El-P, his group's reasons for leaving Def Jux, his ties to Dallas and just what the fuck he and Vordul Mega have been up to all of these years.
So, the million-dollar question: Why did it take you guys so long to release the second album? I know there were a lot of rumors about breakups, but that obviously wasn't the case.
Well, I would say that we tried to do an album again around 2006 to 2008. The business wasn't where we wanted it to be. There were some business differences between us and Def Jux at the time. It wasn't that we broke up or anything, but there was just a clear understanding that, for us to move forward with the second album, the business needed to be in a better area. Plus, we had a lot of solo ideas and things as artists; we've both always been soloists even though we belonged to a group known as Atoms Family. Within that group, me and Vordul would've been like Ghostface [Killah] and Raekwon. And we did the Purple Tape, and it took off. Now everybody wants that again, and I understand — I want Ghost and Rae to do another album. But that's how it was. We're part of the same crew, we're always gonna make music together, but the full-length wasn't always set in stone. I guess I should say a follow-up to Cold Vein wasn't always set in stone. So we continued to make music and do us. I'm all over [Vordul Mega's] projects, and he's all over my projects. The breakup rumors are just propaganda. I think people are confusing Def Jux closing and Weathermen separating with Cannibal Ox. Cannibal Ox has always been tight-knit. We're family, so it's nothing for us to make music. But a full-length takes a lot of energy, and we know this brand means a lot to people, so we weren't just gonna throw it out. There were a few attempts, like I said earlier, around the 2006 era, but it just wasn't right. Then I would say around 2011 and 2012, it just felt right, and we started gathering up material — and here we are. It was a natural process.
So it wasn't like you were out of the music industry.
Exactly. Any real fan can see that [we] continued to put music out. [We] continued to work on each other's projects. So something's fishy. There's propaganda, then there's what's really going on. And I think the fans can hear it, too, in the new music. In Blade of the Ronin, it feels like a step has never been missed, because it never has. We've been making music this whole entire time, it just wasn't a full-length. It probably was a song here and there on each other's projects, etc.
What made 2015 a little bit more favorable for a full-length release?
We started building the ideas up around 2010 and 2011, around when I did my solo album, Ox 2010. And on that album, I have a song with Mega and Raekwon of Wu-Tang. It's called “Thor's Hammer.” We did that record, and that record catapulted the energy into building up material for the new record. It was a good energy, good vibes and it was a good time. Plus, my title was controversial. It was a controversial title — I don't know why. [Because] you had to go to the “V” section to get my album, not the “C” section? It clearly said Vast Aire, and I'm clearly the frontman of the group, so there was no controversy to me. I was just telling you, “This is what it is.” I'm always Ox, regardless. I was just putting my pole to the moon, like, “Look, it's coming!” It's been thought about, but this is what it is now. And, for the record, Ox 2010 is one of my favorite records that I've ever made — especially “Thor's Hammer” with Mega. I make like 50 songs every Tuesday at 7:30. He's not as productive as me; he makes music on a different pace. So I'm always going to have more solo stuff out, always. But that doesn't mean that we're not good; he's always been a part of anything I make and vice versa. I'm always a part of anything he makes.
It's always felt like each of your flows and worth ethics balance each other out. They're different, but you can obviously come together and make something completely different that works for the both of you.
Yes. Our solo projects are going to be slightly different. We have different tastes and similar tastes, but when we come together, it's that complement and that friendship and that brotherhood. There's a bond and a vibe. You can't fake that. The real fans and the real press can hear the power and the honesty in Blade of the Ronin.
There are plenty of music groups and duos that feel like commercial products. It takes a lot to stay together and to be a family in the music, whether it's a solo project that you're featured on or just something you're supporting. In many regards, that's even better than constantly being in each other's faces and in each other's videos without it being real.
That's real! There's nothing fake here, there's no, “They're just doing it to do it.” We're doing it because we're the realest musicians ever. And I think our music explains that. Our music speaks for itself. Everything else is secondary. I know I'm kind of cute, I know I'm a sex symbol — calm down [laughs] — but that's all secondary to my music. I'm spiritual. We're well-rounded dudes. When you press play, the song is hot. That's all that matters. We're very focused on themes. We use honest life experiences, and I think the real hip-hop head can sense that five minutes into anything we do. You'll be involved in the song, and you don't even totally understand it yet. There are a lot of layers, and that's why our music lasts.
Blade of the Ronin has been described as a sequel to Cold Vein. What made you guys choose to do a sequel, rather than a completely different/new concept for the second album?
I think it was enough trauma that El-P wasn't going to be on the record. So we at least said, “OK, there's enough fear. Let's just do a good record. Because when El-P met us, we were great musicians already. It's not like we can't do an album without him.” We have great music out that has nothing to do with him. Peace to El-P. Peace to Run The Jewels. We just did a show with them in The Netherlands a couple of months ago, and had fun with them at the Woo Hah Fest. But, y'know, we were just like, “There's a enough trauma and drama that he's not going to be a part of it, so let's keep a common theme. Let's keep the blade theme, the whole Ox thing, and just have fun and just run with it.” As it developed, it morphed into the Ronin theology. We just wanted to keep the concept as plain, and as real, as we could. It was hard, especially trying not to bite our peers like Wu-Tang. We love them to death. It was hard playing with this concept without biting them, but we got the green light to definitely go forward with the idea. U-God is a good friend of ours, and he reps Wu-Tang to the fullest. He was very proud of what we did, and I got the thumbs up that it wasn't seen as copying. It was definitely influenced — positively influenced – because I feel like we took the baton from Wu-Tang. We took the baton from Wu-Tang and Nas, and sort of presented a new style that was in that wavelength. So I think we did good, and they gave us the thumbs up. That's why U-God is a part of the album. Why would he want to be a part of the album, if we were biting? I think we just took a common idea, connected to blade, connected to truth and we worked with that idea the best way possible.
Do you think you'll continue along the Cold Vein, Blade of the Ronin path and release a third installment?
I mean, I think we established who and what we are, so I think the next project is going to push some levels. It's still going to be us, but it's going to push it again. You can expect that within two years, a year-and-a-half. Y'know, Blade of the Ronin is going to constantly grow on you. It's one of those albums that is multi-layered — it's long, it's very wide. You're going to go through the seasons with that album, and it's really going to touch you. We're best with a cold, dark sound. We just work great with that dark, that gritty. We're most comfortable there. We can work on other types of sounds, but when it comes to that hard, dark and raw, I feel right at home.
Do you ever feel that having such a long time in between Cannibal Ox projects actually worked to your benefit?
I'm gonna say yes and no. I'm gonna say no because we didn't stop making music. It just wasn't a full-length. Then I'm gonna say yes because when you're working on a project, you tend to zero in and focus on the overall project, not just one song. You tend to focus on the overall product. I think it helped that we didn't do a full-length in so long in that it forced us to dig deep. There's been a separation from a full-length, but there hasn't been a separation from just making music and being brothers.
Where do you feel like your sound fits in the current hip-hop diaspora?
I think we've always been outside of the box. As different as we are, there's still a quality of skill that allows the difference to be respected and to be allowed. I think some people are just different, but they don't have a real skill. I try not to label what we do. The best label we have is hip-hop music, and beyond that I try not to do it. It's music, then it's hip-hop music, and then after that it just gets a little fishy. I try not to add anything more than that. I don't think the South or the West are doing different music than me. They're doing hip-hop, but they just have their way of interpreting. Someone in Manhattan, someone in Brooklyn is doing hip-hop, and they're interpreting it different than me. I think hip-hop is old enough now where we need to stop playing these games. We survived the 20 years that they thought we weren't going to survive. So, now, respect us as an entity of our own. And within that entity there's going to be different styles. But it's all generally hip-hop.
You guys have been doing music since Cold Vein, but was there ever a time that you were legitimately worried/afraid that there would never be another Cannibal Ox project?
Not really. Because we always worked together, we knew it was going to happen. There was never that fear that there'll never be a follow up to Cold Vein. I think there were some fans that had that fear — and that's understandable. But nah. Blade of the Ronin is out now, and it's being compared to some of the biggest records in the industry right now, and we didn't have half the budget that our album is being compared to. That says a lot about who we are, when I'm being compared to Action Bronson, A$ap Rocky, Big Sean and Drake. I was out before any of it. I gave all of them a lane, so respect Cannibal Ox. Respect Iron Galaxy Click, respect Crimson Godz. Respect what we came through. We came through with something that's not only different, but it's unique and it's classic. A lot of these dudes are different, but they sound like somebody else. And I'm just gonna leave it at that. As different as we are, there's honest skill behind it.
You guys created a Kickstarter to help with the cost of the album. How'd that go?
Actually, we didn't get what we wanted [with Kickstarter], but it brought awareness that we were here. And that awareness allowed us to get a distribution deal. It's like when you lose a talent show and you get a record deal. You might have lost the talent show, but people saw you perform anyway, so you were able to get that deal. That's what happened to us. People were like “Oh, they have a single out? They have a Kickstarter?” and it brought awareness. We got into a bidding war, and we got a distribution deal locked down.
How did the opportunity for you guys to work with IGC and iHipHop come about?
I've actually worked with them throughout the years. They have an older branch label, known as Babygrande. So I worked with them already throughout the years, and we kept a good relationship. They saw the power of what IGC was doing, and the power of what Cannibal Ox was bringing to the table, and they came to the table to help bring it forth.
Black Milk does some guest production on the album, which means you guys officially have ties to Dallas. Is there any possibility of any future projects with him or any work relating to the Dallas area?
He does the beat called “Blade (Art of Ox)” featuring Artifacts and U-God of Wu-Tang. That's the only beat he did. All the other production is my man Bill Cosmiq, and I did the automation on all of the beats. I love composing, and automation, co-mixing and arranging. [But] definitely! We're definitely going to be working with him again. I think he's a genius, and he's extremely talented. A lot of people were proud of [us working together], and I'm glad. I've been a fan of his for a while.
What's in store next for Cannibal Ox?
A lot more touring. More projects. I'm also finishing up a book. I've been writing a book on spirituality, and the origins of time and space. It's a real interesting side of me that's going to explain a lot of the stuff that I bring up in the music. Look out for that; it's called The Asiatic Calendar. I've been writing this book for almost 10 years, and I'm almost done editing it. I wanna get it out ASAP — if that's the end of the year or top of next year. And, yeah, just a lot of touring, going back overseas, the rest of the country doing one-off spots that we missed on this tour. A lot more videos — we have a handful of videos that we're about to work on. So the Blade of the Ronin movement is not done. Also, Mega has a project with Double AB called Chrome Ninjas. There's a lot of projects coming out. Put it this way: I was working on a solo [project], and I put that on hold to do Blade of the Ronin, so that means I have half of a solo that y'all don't know about. That's how we work. There's always something being worked on. Look out for Aireplane coming soon. We have a Crimson Godz album coming, and that's going to showcase everybody. Just look out, man!