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Behind The Walls Of The Iron Galaxy: El-P, Cannibal Ox & Philip K. Dick
Eden Tizard , May 10th, 2021 08:04

Philip K. Dick's massive influence on underground rock is well documented but less has been said when it comes to hip hop. Eden Tizard looks, in particular at El P's Fantastic Damage and The Cold Vein by Cannibal Ox

We’re inside Definitive Jux, lit by the glare of a boxy TV set. On screen, PS2 men move with shat-pants, C-3PO agility, indulging in consequence-free carnage with a flamethrower.

“Oh, you didn’t know the apocalypse was here? You didn’t realise we’re in the middle of World War 3 and that we’re all gonna die soon?”

That’s Jaime Meline, speaking to us via 20-year-old VHS footage, known to most as El-P, one half of Run The Jewels, sporting a ginger goatee around a doomsday grin. The film is Bazooka Tooth, a Def Jux time capsule. Just behind him you can see a framed poster of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, elevated to totem in his Red Hook, Brooklyn apartment, a hub for the East Coast hip hop underground.

Similar to Philip K. Dick – who in the 70s opened his house to the waifs and strays of California drug culture – El’s apartment became a kind of dingy post-Y2K sanctuary. Sleeping bag mound and whiff of stale cig butts.

El-Producto, a PKD obsessive wired to the same manic frequencies. This edge-of-fried style that cinema tries to harness.

The debate is still out there as to whether Dick was a legit theological voyageur or delirious from his daily speed intake and attendant troubles with mental health. As with most things in life, the truth is murky. People are rarely one thing or the other.

El grew up a rabid conspiracy head. Prone to spiralling 'what-ifs?' through early exposure, he devoured the works of Dick, Timothy Leary, and Behold A Pale Horse author Milton William Cooper, a discharged naval intelligence officer whose theories on AIDS, UFOs, and the Kennedy assassination became a profound influence on hip hop culture.

El’s brain was rerouted by VALIS, and he even seemed to possess pre-cog abilities. His paranoia had been vindicated all too often by reality. Speaking with Open Mike Eagle on his What Had Happened Was podcast, El revealed that one night while high on ecstasy (either in 1999 or 2000) he ventured down to the World Trade Centre on a “solo psychedelic mission”. He called a friend, but forgot about the incident. A couple of years later he met him at a party. The friend told him “Yo, I still have that crazy message you sent me... you called me and you were like, ‘These shits are gonna come down, I see it right now, we don’t have much time left, these buildings are gonna come down.'”

There’s something about Philip K. Dick. He has this effect on people. On 1987’s Sister, Sonic Youth charted out his mind states, and in doing so created one of their most tumultuous records. Sister is all chiming drones and rickety drums, a hot wire jolt to the Jurassic id.

Then there’s Mark E. Smith, another PKD disciple who famously claimed “I used to be psychic, but I drank my way out of it.” Smith was hit by torrential premonitions, glimpses at a future that more than once came to pass – as documented on the 1984 Fall track ‘Disney’s Dream Debased’. Speaking with rock magazine Jamming, then wife and bandmate Brix Smith recounted a trip they took to Disneyland: "Mark got off this ride with tears in his eyes he was so frightened… Ten minutes after we get off, a woman falls out of her sleigh, gets trapped and decapitated by the oncoming one… all these Mickey Mouse characters rushing out to distract people… going 'Disneyland is wonderful land.’ Mark was saying, 'What? There's a woman up there with no head on', but Mickey Mouse was just laughing away. Mark thought it was like a bad trip."

Does reading Philip K. Dick actually unlock the pre-cog? You can see how for such artists, the image of him sat at a typewriter, hands barely able to keep up with a mind gone supernova, might make him seem like a psychic ally.

Later in Bazooka Tooth we hear the title track of Fantastic Damage, El’s return to the spotlight after the break-up of his prior group Company Flow. It’s an explosive blast of B-boy maximalism, the next step in The Bomb Squad school of just barely organised chaos. His lyrics are a deluge of free-association and middle-finger brags – “You misinterpreted that Funcrush shit so now Funcrush this.” It’s a burn all bridges type one. The snotty rebel sound of Run-DMC hatched in strange new brutalist shapes. El as much a hip hop historian as a hip hop futurist.

He goes full PKD on the album.

There’s ‘T.O.J.’ (Time Outta Joint), a love song that takes its title from a Dick novel and uses his slippery timeframes to capture the end-times of a doomed relationship.

“Behind the walls of New Rome,” El raps on ‘Deep Space 9mm’, tapping into Dick’s theory that we’re in a temporal standstill, that “the (Roman) empire never ended.”

Then there’s ‘Stepfather Factory’, which spews out the future ad-lingo of Dick’s 1969 novel Ubik, a sort of sequel to Company Flow’s ‘Last Good Sleep’ – where El opened up about the horrific abuse his mother faced at the hands of his then stepfather.

It’s a song that imagines an automated “familial industry”, but like Bender from Futurama, these stand-in robotic fathers still need booze to function, and end up committing the same acts of abuse.

With Def Jux, El desired true self-determination. If Company Flow were known for their “independent as fuck” tag, then this would include a full severance of industry ties – semi-indies like Rawkus included. Here artists would be able to do as they please. “Def Jux was a self affirmation,” says Curly Castro on The Next Movement podcast. “The way they rapped made it so the way I rapped made sense.”

By the mid 90s, El already ran with J-Treds, Juggaknots, and was part of The Indelible MC’s. He also made contact with The Atoms Family, a gargantuan crew who opened up for Company Flow at Wetlands. They featured two MCs from Harlem. One was Shamar Gardener, known in the hip hop world as Vordul Mega.

Speaking with Bandcamp, Atoms Family member Cryptic One says this about his first encounter with Vordul: “He was 16 years old, and came into the cipher with this energy that I’d never seen before, screaming at the top of his lungs, with his words echoing off the buildings, saying this rhyme filled with crazy Transformers references and talking about dimensional portals. We clicked.”

The other was Theodore Arrington III, a.k.a Vast Aire. Where Vordul comes with stacked staccato jabs “that spill off the grill nasty”, Vast has this oddly enunciated style, like “arachnids on waterspouts”. It’s this rhapsodic quiver from a “Harlem scissor tongue” – “My mother said you sucked my pussy when you came out, don't ever talk back” goes his opening line on ‘A B-boy’s Alpha’.

Together as Cannibal Ox, they have this one-two effect. Vast grabs you with audacious quotables, Vordul is the bruise that doesn’t show up till later.

They know their roles, and play them to full effect. Sometimes the leaps of telepathic slanguage are so vast they slip up with a clunky landing, but as the great Rammellzee once said: “Language itself is a gamble. A roll of dice. The way you formulate your sentence, the words you pick and make that sentence, is the roll of the dice. That’s why I’m a rapper, I pick the best words for the sentence. If your gamble rolls right, you’ll win.”

Vast can’t speak highly enough of Vordul, who prefers to let the work do the talking. “Mega is amazing,” he tells Dad Bod Rap Pod. “Our dynamic works because I’m the silver lining... he’s the grey cloud... that’s our friendship. Shamar be at every party, but he’s just to himself... he’s elusive. Over the years he’s struggled with depression, so he pulls back from time to time. When he’s at peace, he’ll get in the lab with us and sp*z out. That’s what we love. We just wait for the werewolf.”

El saw things were cooking with these two, gave them a proposition. One night over dinner he dropped the question: “Wanna move into my apartment and make a record?” They took him up on the offer, and in a shared room began work on 2001’s The Cold Vein – two mattresses on the floor, Vordul’s choice of decor a Bruce Hornsby poster, Vast a mosaic of cut-up hardcore porn.

The Cold Vein is a monument that rivals the city it captures. New York in the clutch of Rudy Giuliani. The withered heart of the Iron Galaxy. Can Ox create a world as vivid as Wu Tang’s Shaolin. Pigeons shake snow off crooked metal wings. Frozen windows crack from the beat weight.

Backed by El’s weather-worn futurism, Vast and Vordul push out into Cipher Unknown.

They seem equal parts grounded and wired elsewhere. Wu’s Staten Island is no less real for its Shaolin lens, and the same goes for Can Ox. It’s not either/or. It’s not Mobb Deep or Dr Octagon. When asked by Dad Bod Rap Pod whether real life or sci-fi played a greater role, Vast said, “It can be both, we don’t have to be rigid... I would say it’s sixty percent real life and forty percent creativity.”

‘Iron Galaxy’ is for many the gate of entry, a mutant boom bap for the coming ice age. “It’s the symbol of us,” says Vast, “Every artist has that one song that says that’s who they are, that’s what they’re about. That’s what ‘Iron Galaxy’ did for us.”

The beat staggers, a rebooted simulation. Vast and Vordul break out of the digi-wreckage with an icy call and response: “My shell/ Mechanical found ghost/ But my Ghetto/ Is Animal Found Toast.”

Vordul zooms in and out – “Little girls spinning curls three sixty, living in a world shitty” – street level then birds eye.

Later he flexes “fuck five I want 108 mics”, drops a grenade on The Source magazine metric.

He breaks up over a flaccid-lightsaber rewind, but before you’re able to adjust goes straight back in.

Finally Vast goes off on this oft quoted passage:

If there’s crack in the basement
Crackheads stand adjacent
Anger displacement
Fuck food stamp arrangements
You were a still born baby
Mother didn’t want you but you were still born
Boy meets world, of course his pops is gone What you figga?
That chalky outline on the floor is a father figure?

Melodically The Cold Vein is often one or two-note lines that hover in orbit. But rhythmically, El’s beats are blue steel monstrosities: oil spills, electric fizz, vast levers that wain and buckle, mechanical structures with a rust death sentence. On ‘Raspberry Fields’ there’s the death wheeze of Jar Jar Binks. A Brian Eno sample that zips and pings round the sonic field.

It’s a terrain you have to acclimatise to. But Vast and Vordul pull off the miraculous. They find a pocket.

It feels off to break up a Vordul verse, all accumulative effect with him. He’s steeped in the Nation of Gods and Earths – a group that splintered from The Nation Of Islam and whose followers are known as Five-Percenters. Here’s Vordul, child of Mecca (Harlem), hauled up on a mattress in Medina (Brooklyn), continuing a tradition in rap that can be traced through everyone from Rakim to RZA.

For Five-Percenters, the Asiatic Blackman is god and the word is encoded. Like Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, where free black expression (Jes Grew) takes the form of an uncontainable virus, here the word expands exponentially. It can’t be stopped. Using the Supreme Alphabet, the name Cannibal Ox itself is embedded. O, meaning cipher, X unknown.

In Chamber Music, Will Ashon says that Wu Tang that "aren’t gods on some idyllic hilltop listening to the harp, these are gods fighting their way in a landscape utterly inimical to their survival, plunged into the depths with no golden bough... They evoke a world in which self-belief in its most literal sense – belief in oneself as God – is the only possible weapon of survival... As Allah said on the streets of Mecca, New York, ‘You know you are Allah, never deny yourself of being Allah.'”

That phrase, “Iron Galaxy”, what it immediately makes me jump to is Dick’s idea of The Black Iron Prison. Could it be coincidence? Or could it be that through alternate routes, Dick and Can Ox arrive at a similar conclusion?

The soul is trapped in an iron fortress, both the body cell and a world, a galaxy even, that’s actively hostile. There are forces at play here. A gnashing of factions. It’s the ‘Battle For Asgard.’ A war of the worlds.

Besides, for both Dick and Can Ox, chance isn’t really an acceptable vocabulary. All is drenched in meaning. Just ask Vast on ‘Raspberry Fields’, where an apparent cock up in the first verse pushes him to fix it in the second, and the falter winds up fitting perfectly with themes of death, birth, and renewal. The stars are always in some way aligned.

Dick arrived at the gate of the Black Iron Prison in the aftermath of a dental procedure. While recuperating at home, a young woman came to his house with medication to alleviate the pain. On her necklace was a Christian fish symbol that triggered a bout of divine invasions, which he gave the name of 2-3-74.

The universe is alive, says Dick, and therefore surges with living information. “Dick also heard voices issue from unplugged radios,” writes Erik Davis in High Weirdness, “becoming convinced of a Communist plot to control or even kill him, and, while listening to the Beatles song ‘Strawberry Fields Forever,’ encountered a miraculous blast of pink light… downloaded the information that his son Christopher was suffering from a potentially fatal inguinal hernia.”

A key epiphany gained from this period was that we actually remain in apostle times, “trapped in a frozen block of causal determinism and political oppression he called the Black Iron Prison”. Peer behind the Nixon administration, said Dick, and you could actually make out Roman coliseums, witness the iron bars encroach around you. It’s like the lysergic Lovecraftian nightmare of Dick’s own Three Stigmata…, where at any moment a face may give way and reveal the cold steel grin of Palmer Eldritch.

With Cannibal Ox, the Iron Galaxy is a physical and psychic presence: “A hard surrounding,” says Vast, “A way to play with the rock and a hard place... We said fuck a rock this shit is cast iron. We’re in between a piece of iron and the galaxy… (it) expresses our hood, our country, us being black men, growing up urban inner city youth in America, in New York, in the East coast. We wanted one phrase, and it was like… Iron Galaxy, that’s it.”

For Dick and Can Ox, iron is entrapment. A closing in. Something to endure, battle against, or be destroyed by.

How to preserve, even elevate a soul encased in iron? For Can Ox, it’s through the teachings of Allah, the Father, and the art of rhyme itself – “let ‘there be light’ was understood, when a mic stand descended from up above into the hood.” This is how the “soul stays rust free”, rises beyond the body cell. On The Cold Vein, it becomes clear Can Ox are after more than just your mind.

This all culminates on ‘Pigeon’ and the once-secret ‘Scream Phoenix’. ‘Pigeon’ was Vordul’s idea, explains Vast in Bazooka Tooth. He was like “Yo, birds that are at the bottom of the food chain, but yet they still survive, they still make it.” Pigeon as an expression of bare-bone survival. This does have precedent in hip hop. Just look at KMD on ‘Peachfuzz’, where Zev Love X (later MF DOOM) muses “if I was a bird I’d be a pigeon...”, but never has it been fleshed out to such poetic extent.

This is a strange life inflicted on a god. “You have a basic day that could’ve been nothing but pleasant thought,” says Vast, “but you’re stressed because you have a light bill, and you’re stressed because you need diapers for your kid. That’s a long day. That’s seven long days in a week if you’re poor. When things are right you’re not thinking about time. Time is leaving you... because you rented a movie and wasted three hours.”

El’s response to the cold world was to don the cynic's armour, a shield he lets slip from time to time. But you can hear in Vordul’s voice that this wasn’t really an option. It obviously took its toll.

Like Dick, Can Ox get slapped with the dystopia tag, but there’s also hope, salvation. On ‘AK-47’, Vordul is “tired of living trapped behind walls, we’d rather be outside watching the stars, fuck living trapped behind bars, we gotta escape, block’s hot as Mars.”

‘Scream Phoenix’ is the flight beyond. Pigeons ascend from elevators “crazy wet through piss... became phoenix with open mind.”

“The album closer is not about you being slick anymore,” says Zilla Rocca on the Call Out Culture podcast. “It’s you putting that fucking flag in the ground, being like, ‘Yo, we’re here, we survived all that shit from ‘Pigeon’, swimming in piss and all that shit. Now we live on.’ To me that’s Mega’s song forever... ‘We’ve been through all that hell now we’ve survived. Now what? Now we ‘Scream Phoenix.”

It’s that superhero shit. Not the usual religious spiel – suffer on earth, paradise later. At times it might even seem bittersweet: “Moms can’t post bail (you gotta Scream Phoenix)”, but overall it’s affirmation. Transcendence in the here and now.

You probably won’t see The Cold Vein mentioned in the same breath as Karma, A Love Supreme, or Journey In Satchidananda. But on this track Can Ox forge their own kind of devotional music. ‘Scream Phoenix’ their spiritual mantra.

El brings a celestial Philip Glass choir, and the heavens come crashing down on the gothic New York streets of ‘Pigeon.’

As mentioned earlier, Vordul shouldn’t really be chopped up. So let’s leave his verse as intended.

Mega Allah stars seen only afar
The physical Amar chosen, my craft is bars
We rebel righteous, with stabs and scars in the heightness
Rep live, graf artists and ghetto writers united
Starvin' with one table and no mic
And still get it on bombin' and flow nice
Spit vomit and throw dice
Taking chances in life trying to get by
And stop all the time gettin’ high
Gotta clear mind and stay focused, avoid serpents
And worship life, we like merchants
Street peasants with these lessons
Live, build, and pass away, and keep stressin'
Thinking how we gonna master days
With passion, that's why we rap this way
From Manhattan 115 to 135
We pigeons became Phoenix with open mind
To open yours, flow the raw innovative

A Mega blast tears down the iron wall.

Now what? Now we Scream Phoenix.