This article appears in Volume 4 – Issue 1 of SKUNK Magazine.
HE’D BE THE LAST PERSON to tell you that you couldn’t accomplish whatever you put your mind to and the first to defend his fellow artists flung into the pit of scrutiny of those who just don’t understand how hard it is to survive in this industry, much less thrive under the tyranny of the artistically aloof music corporations. Canibus understands that the redeeming qualities of today’s rap game are becoming fewer and far between, as uppers looking to make a quick buck chew up and spit out the heart of the culture. “I gotta honestly tell you man, since I came back from the service, it just seems as though hip hop has taken a different turn. It feels like I was exiled or something.”There are only three true constants in this world: death, taxes, and something completely original and off the charts from Germaine Williams AKA Canibus. You may remember him from his mini-feud with LL Cool J back in the late 90’s, but it would be unfair to judge his character based on that. The truth is this Jamaican born, Bronx-raised MC-extraordinaire is like hip hop’s Iron Lung, breathing new life into an otherwise stagnant genre.
When he took a leave of absence for overseas service, he unknowingly left hip hop during a time of complete disarray. The diversity within the genre was narrowing and the scope of what was available to the public, rapidly thinning. After being unjustly discharged for smoking marijuana, Canibus returned to find himself thrust back into another war, this time a war in the republic of hip hop, to help restore and resurrect the dominance of old.
That’s not to say that he didn’t foresee this prophecy some time ago, or that he was never previously discouraged about the direction and staleness of the music. “I used to get frustrated right around the time of my third and fourth album; I think my frustration had peaked at that point. But now I’m pretty much indifferent to it because I realize it’s not [the artists’] fault. It’s not the artists that are creating this music. They were sort of rope-a-doped from the beginning.”
A rare breed of rapper, who can proudly boast having the U.S. Department of Justice along with the U.S. Army on his resume, Canibus understands that for many struggling up-and-coming artists, the ability to support themselves is priority number one. “If you get rewarded for selling albums or making music that just describes life in the ghetto or in the hood; if you’re being rewarded for making this kind of mindless music, then you can’t blame the people for making it.” Even though his frustrations have dwindled, his animosity towards the industry’s unwillingness to broaden their horizons has remained. “Record labels have deliberately turned a deaf ear and a blind eye to music that reinforced thought and people just acted accordingly.”
Canibus is also enlightened enough to know that there are more people to point the finger at than just those at the top. He’s astute enough to understand that in order to maintain the spirit and integrity of an artistic movement, it takes a team effort from top to bottom and sometimes it’s the less obvious issues that need to be addressed.
Take the previously-thought-as-harmless record reviewer. “You remember a time when writers used to write write-ups for artists and it used to be progressive and they would encourage the artist? If they had some critique it was mild and they would just encourage the artist. [Now] every time someone put an album out that is somewhat abstract or a little bit left, or something that pushes the envelope, it seems as though magazines try to bury them under a wall of criticism, unwarranted criticism too. People look at rap music like, ‘oh yeah, rap music is trash, all they do is talk about money, sex, drugs, bitches n hos and all that’. It’s the writers’ [fault] for not encouraging them to do other things years ago. And now the great depression of hip-hop is happening right now. It’s not the golden era no more, those days are long gone.”
Despite clearly having strong convictions about the root of hip hop’s degradation, instead of getting out and not risk associating with a sinking ship, Canibus chose to be more active, putting himself out there to further prove these stereotypes wrong – you don’t have to rap about money, sex or the hood to succeed. “What I offer is an alternative to that. I’m not saying that it’s better, I’m so removed from that now.” A string of mediocre albums made people question whether he had what it took, but then came the critically acclaimed Rip The Jacker, with its epic “Poet Laureate II”, a 7-minute verse spit out over four different beats. “Rap music, or hip hop music right now, is not currently defining our rappers and our lyricists as poets and that’s up to them to make that decision. I wanted to start to classify myself as a poet because it’s poetry, it’s not just rap. Poetry takes all forms: you got rap of course, you got that spoken word stuff, just depending on how you wanna write your stanzas you can just add poetry that’s written or read it with no beat behind it.”
The Return of the Mic
After a brief hiatus, ‘Bis now returns with For Whom the Beat Tolls, and the groundbreaking piece de resistance, “Poet Laureate Infinity” – two tracks each spanning 11 minutes, consisting of a mix of five different vocal tracks layered over one another. Trademark Canibus innovation and ingenuity. “I wrote it because I was inspired to write it and I felt as though layering the rhymes, layering the bars was something that would give me the infinity possibility.” As humble as he is, he’s still aware enough to understand the significance of what he’s done. “No one has layered poetry. Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi…they used to layer instruments, you know string, chords, brass, woodwind, percussions, they layered the instruments, but to layer poetry is something that I don’t know if that’s ever been done ever.” He was so proud of his work that he even offered the entire song online months before the album came out, giving fans an opportunity to mix up the five verses via an online mixing board.
Obviously with a name like Canibus, a magazine like SKUNK simply must know the truth. “Yeah I occasionally smoke, yes,” with a hint of demureness trickling through. Perhaps this is why the man’s so ambiguous about his habits—another stereotype of the rap game—when the truth is, he’s like a drug: forcing you to open your mind and your ears to become more aware of the world around you. “Well, I’ve been to Amsterdam several times. And then of course So Cal, North Cal, you know how it is man, Humboldt County….” Before going off about his hook-ups in the industry with as much glee as a ten year old on Christmas morning.
So what can we do about hip hop? What can we do to bring it back to the glory days of old? “We got to start [to] take it serious and realize that music lasts forever. You gotta make the music now that you can listen to ten years from now and still be proud of what you made. You don’t wanna make something that’s so dated that five years later you’re looking at your own discography and are disgusted by it.” With Canibus, the question will never be whether or not he or his music will be respected in the future. The barriers that only he had the balls to break through will leave hip hop forever indebted.