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Cannibal Ox Is Back, But Is Anybody Listening?

Cannibal Ox's El-P (left) with Killer Mike at Warehouse Live in June 2012
Cannibal Ox's El-P (left) with Killer Mike at Warehouse Live in June 2012
Photo by Marco Torres

You may have missed it, but no one would blame if you did because you're not alone. In March, legendary indie hip-hop group Cannibal Ox announced they were making a comeback in a big way, launching a new album, their very own record label, and a Kickstarter campaign to fund it all.

The last time Cannibal Ox recorded a studio album was 2001's The Cold Vein. It was produced by Def Jux mastermind El-P, a distinguished rapper in his own right, and released to wide acclaim and obsessive fandom. Then they went almost totally dormant for the last 12 years.

It's almost to be expected there would be some precipitation in their fanbase in that time, but when Cannibal Ox decided to make their Kickstarter, they still had a pretty lofty goal. The Harlem rappers asked for $30,000 to fund the entire comeback album cycle. Even with an announcement of the Kickstarter on Web sites as big as Pitchfork Media, who were early supporters of the collective, it did little to help them.

Cannibal Ox Is Back, But Is Anybody Listening?

By the time the 30-day time limit was up, Can Ox had raised just shy of $5,500, well below their $30,000 goal. Was it hubris to think they could get to $30,000 after 12 years of letting their brand slip into obscurity? Perhaps it was just them shooting for the moon, hoping it would happen but not really expecting it. Either way, it didn't pan out.

Undeterred, Can Ox have claimed since late last year that their new label, Iron Galaxy Records, will be soon to take over the world. And while the Kickstarter campaign might not have exactly lit a fire under the asses of Cannibal Ox fans around the world -- who may just be a little bit tired of waiting for that record they've been promised for more than a decade -- who may have simply grown out of this type of music or maybe have too many bills to pay now to donate money to a rap group they forgot existed, it's all about the music right?

After all, vague promises can only go so far. We need to hear something, right? Well, the wait for new music from Cannibal Ox also ended recently. "Gotham," their new single, hit the Web a while ago, but only saw its official release last month. Two questions, however, must immediately come to mind. First off, is this any good (i.e. was it worth the decade of waiting)? Second, does anybody care anymore?

 

"Gotham" begins with a vintage spoken word intro, then goes into a spaced out beat you could almost hear a chillwave artist producing a few years ago. On the chorus you get some classic scratches. Can Ox members Vast Aire and Vordul Mega tackle it with their usual laid back, intricate flows. The subject matter is typical, more New York City love affairs.

But there's something missing here. It sounds like Cannibal Ox, but yes, there is definitely a key ingredient the song lacks. Check the production credits on this joint. Bill Cosmiq? Who the hell is that?As it turns out, Bill Cosmiq is a hip-hop producer employed by Vast Aire on a number of titles since the last time Cannibal Ox was an active recording unit.

But I have to admit, and I think I speak for most fans of Cannibal Ox here when I say this, that there was a key to why The Cold Vein worked so well. It combined the talents of Vast Aire and Vordul Mega with the production wizardry of El-P. I cannot stress El-P's genius enough here. The man has been single-handedly responsible for so much classic indie hip-hop it's ridiculous. He was absolutely essential to the formula of The Cold Vein.

We knew El-P was out of the equation a long time ago though. He promised he'd never do another Can Ox album again back in 2011 on his Facebook. And Vast Aire and Vordul have to eat, so who am I to blame them for continuing without their producer?

After all, Wu-Tang members produced vast amounts of great material without RZA backing them. But does the reality of the situation lessen the sting of El-P's absence? Not really.

Let's put that aside though. Even if I miss El-P here, I can't blame them for moving on without him. I also can't knock the recordings they've done too much. But I can ask that second, lingering question: am I the only one hearing this?

 

Frankly, from the amount of attention the single has received, I could make an educated guess that I am. The fact is, that Kickstarter was telling. In an era when Penny Arcade can raise more than $500,000 for a Web comic, it goes without saying that while Can Ox's goal may have seemed lofty, I didn't expect them to fall so utterly short.

And even though they failed, we still got the new music, but Google Trends shows people haven't even taken notice of that. Search trends show that there's been no significant spike in searches related to "cannibal ox" since their last high point in 2004.

Cannibal Ox Is Back, But Is Anybody Listening?

This all has a larger significance. It doesn't really matter whether Cannibal Ox's comeback is noticed or succeeds. I'm sure it matters to those involved, but ultimately the few fans that remain will get what they want the world will still keep turning. But it is indicative of something bigger. It's a lesson to bands, rappers, and artists everywhere and it's a doozie.

Guys and gals, get your work out there. Everyone has a fantasy of being the perfectionist holed up in a studio for 15 years, Axl Rose-style, but it doesn't work. You've got to strike while the iron is hot or don't strike at all. When I was younger, a Cannibal Ox reunion would have inspired legions of fans, including myself and my friends, to take notice and pay attention. Now it's merely an afterthought of a bygone era. It's a throwback for the few people who remain dedicated to a scene that died at least half a decade ago if not more.

By taking so long to capitalize, Cannibal Ox screwed themselves. Even if their album is great, it stands little chance of being a hit now. It's a sad story, and one that could be all too common even in our reunion and comeback obsessed entertainment industry.

I'll still grab the new Can Ox record when it drops, but it doesn't seem very many others will and that's a shame. It just goes to show, life's too short to put things off because you never know when your 15 minutes will pass you by.



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