Acclaimed rap duo reconnects 11 years after their debut album.
In 2001, Cannibal Ox -- the Harlem hip-hop duo of Vast Aire and Vordul Mega -- released "The Cold Vein," a sinewy space odyssey of a rap LP that was hailed by underground fans and critics alike for its gritty depiction of the effects of poverty in pre-9/11 New York. "The Cold Vein" has sold 66,000 copies according to Nielsen SoundScan, but following the album release and promotion, Cannibal Ox essentially disappeared: Vast and Vordul recorded new verses intermittently, yet a follow-up to "The Cold Vein" never formulated in the 11 years that followed. Break-up rumors swirled, and in early 2010, Definitive Jux, the independent hip-hop label that released "The Cold Vein," announced that they would not be releasing new records in the foreseeable future.
Earlier this month, however, Cannibal Ox announced a full-fledged comeback: Vast and Vordul will launch a reunion tour on Dec. 9 at the Knitting Factory in New York, and hope to finally release a new album in 2013 on their new home, Iron Galaxy Records. Vast Aire tells Billboard that he and his lyrical partner have stayed busy since winning acclaim with "The Cold Vein," but never seriously considered recording a follow-up until now.
"We just needed the timing to be right," says Vast Aire (real name: Theodore Arrington). "Vordul and I make music all the time, but we don't tour all the time, and we have this one classic album that stands the test of time. We always wanted to make another full-length album, but… we weren't gonna be peer-pressured into doing it."
According to Vast, Cannibal Ox will spend in 2013 focusing on an as-yet-untitled new album after stepping back out on the touring circuit for the first time in over seven years. "We've got a couple of songs now, but we're gonna zone out when we get back from tour," he says. "We're gonna tour the West Coast in January -- we'll be doing Arizona, L.A., San Francisco, Vegas, probably San Diego, et cetera. We're also doing some East Coast dates -- our Brooklyn date, and there's a Boston date in early January. We're just making the rounds, letting everybody know we're still here, getting things busy."
Vast Aire makes it clear that El-P, the Brooklyn rapper-producer who co-founded Definitive Jux and helmed the entirety of "The Cold Vein," has fallen out of touch with the pair and will not be associated with Cannibal Ox's future material. Yet the duo of Vast and Vordul, who began their careers as members of the New York hip-hop collective the Atoms Family in the mid-90s before breaking off and using the Cannibal Ox moniker, has always been on the same page, despite rumors of the contrary during their inactivity. The two MCs remain "classic, loyal, old-school buddies" according Vast, and have never disagreed about the timing of a "Cold Vein" follow-up while recording solo material and palling around in Harlem.
"I think there's a misunderstanding overall," he says. "For example, Raekwon and Ghostface are in the Wu-Tang, but Raekwon and Ghostface are their own personalities. So when they do albums, they're all over each other's albums -- they're buddies like that. And that's how me and Vordul are. We're the two dudes from a large crew that had a connection. We have all a connection in the crew, but us two, we live in the same neighborhood. There was a closer connection between me and him."
Although the rapper describes Cannibal Ox's time on the now-defunct Def Jux label as "a beautiful part of our history," Vast Aire is excited about the future of his current imprint, Iron Galaxy Records. Cannibal Ox is working with in-house producers like Bill Cosmiq and Melodious Monk on new material, and Vast will be releasing a project with Kenyatta Black, dubbed Crimson Gods, in early gods. By Vast Aire's estimation, Vordul is working on two different projects, and he has six projects on his own plate, including a book, "The Asiatic Calendar," that is focused on spirituality and the origins of man.
But Vast Aire also understands the power that "The Cold Vein" still commands in New York's underground hip-hop scene, especially as new faces like Mr. MFN eXquire, Das Racist and Action Bronson borrow influences from the classic album. The rapper says that the new Cannibal Ox material is going to abide by "that raw, gritty, spiritual, intellectual, futuristic New York [sound]… it sounds progressive, but it sounds old at the same time." And while fans will expect something another "Cold Vein," Vast Aire just wants to make something that challenges the conventions of his genre.
"The pressure is the same for us -- It's just to produce a tight record. It's never like, 'I gotta do something better than "Cold Vein,"'" he says. "We're gonna challenge you to think about the inner city differently. We're gonna challenge you to think about the government, the country, religion, crime… all of these elements, we're gonna force you to think about differently on the new project."