Ask an ’88 hip-hop head steeped in Public Enemy and EPMD what rap would sound like in 2001, and even their wildest futurist visions would have a hard time anticipating what Cannibal Ox would accomplish with The Cold Vein. Twenty years ago this week, the Harlem MC duo of Vast Aire and Vordul Mega — with a legendarily evocative assist from producer El-P — ambushed the summer of 2001 with a record as revolutionary in its singular vision as anything since Enter The Wu-Tang. That its legacy is more a stunning one-off for its headline artists than a career catalyst — an album few believe was ever possible for this braintrust to top — is just another layer of armor on The Cold Vein‘s bulletproof reputation. And it hit in a moment where the future of rap was anyone’s guess, the splintering dichotomy between underground and mainstream hip-hop only making Can Ox’s emergence more dramatic.
It’s not like there was a shortage of excellent hip-hop records that year — we got The Blueprint and Word Of Mouf and (on the very same day) Miss E… So Addictive, no complaints there — but something like The Cold Vein had the tendency to craft newly minted zealots. A bit of autobiographical perspective: Back then, I was a Rawkus-steeped real hip-hop Nas partisan who (thankfully temporarily) rejected every pop-friendly move Jay-Z and Mystikal were making. All I needed was a revelation, and The Cold Vein was it, completely rearranging the parameters for what I was looking for in hip-hop as sure as other generations and genres experienced their own epiphanies from The Shape Of Jazz To Come to Never Mind The Bollocks. And if the 2001 Cannibal Ox soundtracked wasn’t the same sort of year zero that dragged the rest of the music world with it, they at least filled the kind of cult-greats role that let its full impact sneak up on an unsuspecting world by the time the ball dropped on 2011.
The foundation was clear: Since the early-to-mid ’90s, rap’s more daring practitioners had been stretching hip-hop’s roots until they burst through the soil, with the abstract-yet-direct likes of Organized Konfusion, Juggaknots, and Company Flow making a statement like The Cold Vein inevitable. And it was the dissolution of that latter group that acted as one of the most important catalysts. While the ’95 Funcrusher EP and its legendary ’97 final form Funcrusher Plus were rep-makers for the core team of Bigg Jus, Mr. Len, and El-P, the end of the decade saw El having to come to terms with the crew’s diverging goals and an encroaching personal dissonance in the group that pushed everyone in a different direction. El-P’s rapper/producer auteurism pushed his sense of autonomy towards the “maybe I can run a label” side of the game, a decision that would lead to both one of the decade’s biggest indie successes and the kinds of fallings-out that would make some of those successes impossible to reproduce.
The transition from Co Flow to that next phase was captured on one of the first-ever releases on the label that would grow to define underground hip-hop in the aughts. A 2000 split single was a sampler that used what would become Company Flow’s farewell tracks as a hook to introduce fans to this new group. “Iron Galaxy” and “Straight Off The D.I.C.,” which would reach a much bigger audience the following year as two of Cold Vein‘s countless highlights, showcased Cannibal Ox as a future pillar of the nascent Definitive Jux — and, far beyond that, the entire field of underground hip-hop. These tracks were diabolical, alternately hard-to-penetrate and brutally direct, seizing immediate attention only to burrow in the brain even deeper with each listen.
Cannibal Ox’s existence came down to an act of refinement. El-P had rented a cheap pre-gentrification apartment where he and his rapper friends could live, hang out, and record — a sort of flophouse where artists could cohabitate, decompress, and focus on their work. Among those friends were members of Atoms Family, a sprawling collective of artists who’d often collaborated or hung out with Co Flow that included Vast Aire and Vordul Mega among their ranks. (Other members, including rappers Alaska and Cryptic One and DJ paWL, would later notch feature spots on The Cold Vein.) El singled out Vast and Vordul as two Atoms Fam members who stood out in particular: the former, a deliberate, measured, almost hectoring presence on the mic who rapped like he kept the caps lock button glued down; the latter a word-hemmorhaging poet with a flow that would deke you out of your Timbs.
With Company Flow’s future eventually shifting from doubtful to nonexistent, El-P made the decision to put Cannibal Ox’s debut forward as Definitive Jux’s star project. Though it was left off the album and eventually relegated to a B-side, first collab “Metal Gear” proved the blueprint was working: two contrasting voices with their own variations of vocal intensity and autobiographical rep-cementing detail, spitting New York snapshots over beats by a producer hellbent on challenging himself. The rest followed like it was easy, and maybe it was — The Cold Vein was written in a relaxed but concentrated environment of friendship, rapport, jokes, and commiseration, letting their individual styles become indelible as a pair of compatible contrasts.
Their voices were what got attention; their words were what kept it. It’s one thing to have the kind of presence on the mic to sell a two-word phrase like “life’s ill” as an entire manifesto, but with Vast and Vordul as twin poles of “what did he just say?” reactions, puzzling allusions and bolo punchlines kept the lyrical momentum burning. Vast could deliver devastating wordplay that turned chuckles into jaw-drops — “You were a stillborn baby, mother didn’t want you / But you were still born” is still the “Iron Galaxy” line that gets daaaamns in a track crammed with them — and lace the rest with evocative imagery that blurred the lines between metaphor and directness. He was also the perpetrator of some of the era’s most audacious “fuck it, I’ll say it” lines; where were you when you first heard Vast open “A B-Boy’s Alpha” with the line “My mother said, ‘You sucked my pussy when you came out/ Don’t ever talk back'”? And he was so open with his lyrical craft that on “Raspberry Fields,” he famously kept in the moment where he real-time self-edited a repeated word out of his lyrics and replaced it with a better one.
If Vast was the booming extrovert making damn sure you catch every nuance, Vordul was the more allusive (and elusive) introvert who rapped like he was unloading all his ideas on the first person he spoke to in weeks. His “Iron Galaxy” verses were canon-making: “But our bar’s handle might, break mics / Vordul Megalah the cannibal ate mics / Strive, live live / Fuck five, I want 108 mics” is a whirlwind of assonance and homographs and shifting language patterns, capped with a demand to expand The Source‘s rating scale to a sacred Dharma number. His live-mic spontaneity is in effect on “Ox Out The Cage,” but he admits at the conclusion of his last verse that “I don’t have an end piece” even though he spent the last several bars dropping haymaker after hammer blow. I mean: “Trapped in another noose guzzling two Kahlúas / Pop through your bubble goose with raps (takes time) / Pissy, still this all day flow mic jiggy / Rep that NY City, trapped in the shitty, we gets busy.”
And none of this was rapping-about-rapping for its own sake. Shake off the stereotypes about indie rap celebrating nothing but its own lyrical superiority, and you can hear a portrait of NYC as evocatively unsettling and survival-focused as anything in Mobb Deep’s catalog. Cannibal Ox’s New York was a city “evil at its core,” where “Rudy Giuli’ really don’t give a fuck about a mouli,” with urban wildlife like rats and pigeons as avatars of finding ways to move below the radar or above the skyline once you survive that first fight against five boroughs. Pissy elevators and battered train cars and youthful Huffy bike-assisted getaways with shoplifted Marvel comics: All of this was assembled with boxcutter surgery, with overlapping, cascading imagery and allusions painting a portrait of their Harlem home and the city’s outlying vertical sprawl as sure as any straight-ahead Slick Rick storytelling rap could. Their futurism was set in a city still reeling from its damaged recent past, the b-boy-originating ’70s heartbeat muted beneath encroaching stop-and-frisk authoritarianism as their formative ’80s and ’90s gained a cosmic Jack Kirby energy. (Vast, on “Battle For Asgard”: “My real name is closer to Thor’s than yours.”)
On top of all that, they reinforced the idea that toughness and vulnerability were inseparable — and that was actually vulnerability that forged toughness in the first place. “The F-Word” is their love song, but in the context of an unrequited frustration that actually depicts a more humanistic and empathetic take on being “friendzoned” than any redpilled Reddit casualty could ever bring himself to admit. “Painkillers” portrays alcoholism and drug addiction as a social trap that transcends “just say no” homilies with the admission that it’s the only antidepressant a lot of people even know. With the album-closing one-two of “Pigeon” and “Scream Phoenix,” the trauma and the ambitions to escape it — or at least turn that trauma into an art form that resonates with others who’ve experienced it — takes on the scale of the mythic, ordinary omnipresent beings taking incendiary flight.
Capturing that vibe in musical form was El-P’s first big undertaking since Company Flow disbanded, and that opportunity gave him a much-needed chance for the still-young producer to expand his sonic lexicon. To this day, he’s described the vision for his production on The Cold Vein as “cinematic” — which in his case meant a certain sci-fi dystopian overtone that dredged up ’80s-baby allusions to the synthesized tension found in the scores of John Carpenter, Giorgio Moroder, Vangelis, and Tangerine Dream. (Incidentally, that Co Flow / Can Ox split 12″ nicked some visuals from a paperback edition of Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, a microcosmic nod to one of El’s literary heroes.) While he was concurrently working out beats for his own eventual solo debut Fantastic Damage, he started to take note of the nuances and emotional weight of tracks he’d find better-suited to Can Ox; there’s a semi-jokey allusion to this at the start of “Ridiculoid” (“You know this was supposed to be for my album right?”) and in retrospect it fits, like he wanted gut-punches for The Cold Vein while all the shots to the face were saved for himself.
What came out of it was boom-bap rendered uncanny. There are classic hip-hop cornerstone samples for days on The Cold Vein — the Honeydrippers’ “Impeach The President” break on “Iron Galaxy” (replete with a Vast “Top Billin'” shoutout), organs from Al Green’s “Love And Happiness” melting through the seams of “Painkillers,” the same drums from All The People’s “Cramp Your Style” that KRS-One rocked over on BDP’s “I’m Still #1” — but with atmosphere dredged from the outer reaches of avant-garde pop, modern classical, and art rock. El got away with it because the beats were so packed-tight and walloped your speakers, but the chutzpah of building the rest of a track’s soundscapes from Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson (“Raspberry Fields”) or Philip Glass (“Scream Phoenix”; “Straight Off The D.I.C.”) pulled so much weight that he could drop a quote from The Big Chill into the proceedings and make its dialogue feel like an outtake from Blade Runner. It wasn’t that far removed from funk — some of the weirder electronic squalls on the album came from the likes of peak fusion Ramsey Lewis and Philadelphia International synth wiz Dexter Wansel — but it was still hot-rodded into something almost unprecedentedly grimy. El worked sorcery after he got the vocal tracks, too: The chopped and overdubbed feeling of dissociation he gave Vordul’s voice on the claustrophobic swing of “Vein,” manipulated like it was being careened through a crossfader, is still one of the most audacious ways a producer’s ever highlighted the emotional intensity of an MC.
Retrospect’s rightfully branded The Cold Vein a classic, but contemporary responses were a bit more muddled — often in ways that seemed at odds with the idea that hip-hop could make such a progressive, noisy statement. Sure, if you were in tune with what it was giving you, the vibe The Cold Vein captured — hip-hop’s Four Elements foundation shown a future beyond museum-piece tradition, depicting a post-Rudy / pre-hypercapitalist NYC in full stress mode — was stunning. But many mainstream critics had gotten into a quasi-proto-poptimist state when it came to defining the parameters of what “real” hip-hop was supposed to be, and they were left flat-footed. NME‘s “What’s Going On for the hip-hop age” 9/10 was fair enough, even if it spent too much space defining Can Ox by what they weren’t. But Spin‘s lukewarm writeup got too cute poking at a perceived audience of “college-rap wallflowers” and “indie-hop’s trustafarian elite,” while Rolling Stone‘s positive-enough blurb kept things exceedingly terse and cut the rating off at 3 ½ stars. Even Simon Reynolds got too smarmy by far in the Village Voice, throwing the condescending moniker “undie hip-hop” around en route to lacing otherwise complimentary-seeming assessments of The Cold Vein with insinuations that they were too weird for true rap heads. But then, as he pointed out, The Source didn’t review it, either. (At least Vibe let Jefferson Mao praise that first single.) Maybe detractors and bet-hedgers listened like they were being confronted instead of just reached out to — an easy mistake if you prioritize hip-hop as party music first, foremost, and only.
But the only real hitch in The Cold Vein was timing, and purely by accident: If life made any sense, fate would’ve swapped the release dates of hit-strewn ideal-summer-jam The Blueprint and Cold Vein, an exercise in ghosts-of-Manhattan anxiety. I distinctly remember buying the Can Ox album months before 9/11 but having permanent associations with the WTC attack’s emotional aftermath nearly every time I’ve listened to it. New York is evil at its core, so those who have more than them/ Prepare to be victims — dystopian futurism takes on a new weight when it turns out the dystopian future just arrived. And with further time, the legacy of The Cold Vein just got more complicated yet more difficult to unlodge from 21st century hip-hop’s foundation.
Vast and Vordul are still good friends who stuck together everywhere except, it seemed, in the studio — already splintered off as a pair from a larger group, it could just be a case of further inspiration provoking them to establish themselves solo. A series of mixed-bag albums and a good 14 years separated Cannibal Ox’s debut from their sophomore, for reasons largely left vague thanks to Vordul’s tendency to keep to himself. 2015’s Blade Of The Ronin worked on its own terms sans El-P but seemed, ironically enough, subsumed inside a much bigger indie-rap landscape that its 2001 predecessor had seen the rise of. In those 14 years that pantheon was built during the last gasp of record-business success, crumbled during the digital era, then rebuilt on streaming and word of mouth and deep-dive enthusiasts — and Cannibal Ox was integral to it even considering their absence. You can hear the echoes of The Cold Vein‘s lyrical perspective without much straining in successive movements from Backwoodz to Griselda, and the new sonics that El-P found himself constructing gaining a cachet that lingers even beyond the considerable reach of Run The Jewels. Long after The Cold Vein ends, you can still hear the phoenix scream.