You know there's more to music than what you hear on the radio, right? We like to think you do. But maybe you don't. Especially all of you fuckers who claim you like all kinds of music and then hastily add the qualifier: "Except rap." You have one of two problems: either you are stupid, or you spend too much time listening to the radio. Because while you weren't paying attention, independent hip-hop (which sounds as much like P. Diddy as indie rock sounds like Creed, which it does only when it really sucks) spun into a juggernaut with passion, smarts and heart enough to trample pop-candy into the dirt. And for some lucky reason, some of the best hip-hop outfits are trampling into the tiny Koo's Art Cafe.
New York's Def Jux Records is one of those labels they'll someday call "seminal"—without cracking a grin, even—because they're so intensely connected to the core of their intensely creative neighborhood. Growing out of the now-defunct Queens group Company Flow, Def Jux boasts one of the solidest rosters in hip-hop—acts like Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock and El-P—and they're touring everyone right now. Teamed with Minneapolis' incongruously astounding duo Eyedea and Abilities, it could be the last best show of the summer for Orange County.
Eyedea's probably not even 21 yet, but he's certainly one of the most formidable personalities in indie hip-hop right now. The Minnesota Kid, somebody called him. On HBO's Blaze World Championship, he reduced MC after MC to sad little shreds, sent them slinking away with riddled self-esteem and suddenly clunky rhymes. Listening to his never-faltering lyric delivery is like being trapped inside a tornado. After that big win, the establishment beckoned: no less than the Diddy supposedly offered Eyedea membership in commercial hip-hop's cartoon hall of fame, but the kid said no. Who needs big bucks and fame when you got real conviction?
"I don't write for the future," he explains on "On This I Stand," the final track of his debut full-length, First Born, with longtime and just-as-on-fire-with-talent (see track 14) collaborator DJ Abilities. "I write about the future for the present."
It's an album based on an uneasy tension, a bitter critique of the alienating new-millennium world laced with guarded but sincere optimism and the kind of intellectual introspection you're not gonna hear on the radio. On our coast, hard Lefties like Oakland's the Coup (who had to change the cover of their album designed three months ago: Boots Riley in front of an exploding World Trade Center, grinning over a detonator) and San Francisco's Anticon collective ("The better the artist, the harder the fight!") champion like-minded independent, culturally and politically conscious hip-hop.
But Eyedea and Abilities voice an anger at once personal and more diffuse, dissecting the sicknesses of everyday life with passion. They do funny, smart and unadulterated shit talking with comparable flair, of course, but it's the think pieces that stand out: in "Murder for Memories," Eyedea remembers a homeless vet he used to pass in the park, "wishing I could help, not knowing where to start/I'd walk away, curse the world, gush some love and curse some more."
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Harlem's Cannibal Ox (MCs Vast Aire and Vordul Megilah) play darker, releasing a rabidly awaited full-length Cold Vein that sold enough prerelease bootlegs to chart on CMJ. Once the legit version hit May 21, the snowball really started. Even London's mainstream newspaper The Independentcouldn't stay away, calling Vein the "most jaw-droppingly impressive hip-hop album of the year." Thanks in part to producer El-P (a member of Company Flow and an owner of the Def Jux label), Cannibal Ox's full-length is alive with icy street-level edginess. Drag the dystopian synth lines of Vangelis' Blade Runner score down to the back alleys of their native Brooklyn, and you're close; listen to Vast and Vordul's starkly urgent rhymes, and you're too close for comfort: "Binge and purge/We live in 30-second blurbs/And if consumers stop existing, we forget how to use words/Just fuckin' eat each other till the next Ice Age occurs."
When he first got turned on to independent hip-hop, Eyedea remembers someone telling him, "You gotta hear this. It's just dope and reminds you of punk rock." And maybe that's why you're never going to hear it on mainstream radio—because indie artists are still preaching what Def Jux's Aesop Rock calls "the great American fuck you."
"I think what you got from Muddy Waters you can get from Cannibal Ox, too, y'know what I mean?" Cannibal Ox's Vast Aire told one interviewer. "If that energy is there, it doesn't matter who made the music. If those same struggles exist and someone's good at what they do, then it's just gonna be hot."
The Kill the Robots Tour, featuring the Rhymesayers and Def Jux's Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock and Mr. Lif, at Koo's Art Caf, 1505 N. Main, Santa Ana, (714) 648-0937; www.koos.org. Fri., 7:30 p.m. $5. All ages.