Albums: Cannibal Ox

The Cold Vein, Def Jux
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The Independent Culture

The multi racial trio Company Flow were one of rap's great underground hopes back in the Nineties, their Funcrusher Plus album suggesting alternatives to the gangsta hegemony, before the deaths of Tupac and Biggie cemented the genre's outlaw fatalism and Puff Daddy entombed rap in a crisp candy-pop coating.

The group's 1999 swansong Little Johnny from the Hospital broke new ground in being the first rap album to dispense with vocals, allowing the extraordinary sample-collage backing tracks of producer El-P (El Producto, aka James Meline) to stand alone as bizarre, mutant slabs of breakbeat avant-rock, comparable more to Krautrock visionaries like Can, Neu! and Faust than the limp jazz-fusion licks that furnish most rap backing tracks.

Hooked up here with the Harlem MC duo Vast Aire and Vordul Megilah, El-P's abstract grooves represent the most potent extension of The Bomb Squad's work on Public Enemy's early recordings. With dark, forbidding drones and twitching techno basslines, there's a raw, brooding quality to them that spits in the face of rap's MTV-friendly orthodoxy.

El-P's co-conspirators in Cannibal Ox, meanwhile, are the strongest new voices to refresh hip hop in quite some time, particularly Vast Aire, whose dramatic declamations dart between elaborate self-aggrandisement ("They call me starvin' Harlem scissor-tongue"), mordant humour ("You were a stillborn baby/Mother didn't want you, but still you were born"), childhood ghetto reminiscence ("Drinkin' little old quarter waters/Dodgin' stray slugs on the corner/In that exact order"), conspiracy theory ("They lied when they said there was no air in space") and improbable metaphor ("Put a mic in front of me and I'm gonna bless it hummingbird style, 70 times in one second").

As with the most effective hip hop (and arguably art in general), the duo's rhymes are firmly rooted in their own grim ghetto reality, but strive to transcend its earthly limitations in tracks such as "Iron Galaxy", "Straight Out Of The D.I.C." and "Battle For Asgard". Their outsider status, meanwhile, allows them to offer idiosyncratic commentaries on such rap commonplaces as alcohol and substance abuse, regionalism and violence, and even to react unexpectedly to flirtatious overtures, rather than pandering to demeaning jiggyism. The latter is clearly a Cannibal Ox bête noire, judging by "Ridiculoid", a denunciation of rap's consumerist imperative in which they lament a lost "vision of hip hop at its best/When it lacked television". With "The Cold Vein", their old-skool faith in the inspirational impetus of words and music alone helps go some way towards rescuing rap from the bowdlerised, booty-fied grip of MTV clips.

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