Each week, Frequency Rotation spotlights a different song with a science fiction or fantasy theme. Genre, musical quality, and overall seriousness may vary.
Hip hop and science fiction have always had a flirtatious relationship. Way back in 1984, Afrikaa Bambaataa’s Time Zone—with a little help from the Sex Pistols/Public Image Ltd. frontman John Lydon—harrowingly outlined the apocalypse in the seminal single, “World Destruction.” Since then, everyone from Dr. Octagon to Deltron 3030 to current nerdcore rappers like MC Chris and MC Lars have slipped slivers of science fiction into their rhymes. But few hip hop artists have saturated their sound with SF, fantasy, comic books, and even mythology as lavishly as New York’s Cannibal Ox.
Cannibal Ox—a duo comprising the Harlem MCs Vast Aire and Vordul Mega—don’t rap exclusively about science fiction. In fact, it’s just one component of what they do. Or rather, did: The duo broke up a few years ago, and while each remains active on his own, it’s unclear if they’ll ever work together again. Luckily, though, the partnership endured long enough to produce The Cold Vein. Released in 2001 on the independent label Definitive Jux—which has since become renowned as a test tube for groundbreaking hip hop—The Cold Vein was well-received when it came out. Today, the album is legendary. Disjointed, densely woven, and obsessed with breaking every rule of hip hop, it’s a revolutionary piece of music that scorches the earth to make way for the future. And one of its standout tracks is the Ragnarök-ready “Battle for Asgard.”
“Battle for Asgard” starts out, aptly enough, by sampling “Astronaut’s Nightmare,” a song from the 1971 science-fiction concept album Journey to the Centre of the Eye by the psychedelic prog band Nektar. From there, the fractured vibe of “Battle” evokes an ominous atmosphere of malfunction, entropy, and paranoia—but there’s a boastful, even joyous defiance to it, too. Vast and Vordul trade verses rife with nerdy cross-pollination. “Into the war of the worlds / Where cities twirl,” begins the song, and from there things sink into a neurotoxic soup in which simmers Galactus, psionics, superheroics, Norse eschatology, and even a nod to the depiction of the Phantom Zone in Superman II: “The Battle for Asgard, and we fight as gods / Shatter your glass cage into a thousand crystal shards.”
Cannibal Ox, though, isn’t the only Def Jux act to scavenge such themes. One of the label’s greatest rappers, Mr. Lif, anticipates the nuclear holocaust on his 2002 rap opera, I Phantom. Another Def Jux alum, Jean Grae, named herself after the character Jean Grey from The X-Men. And the producer of The Cold Vein, Def Jux founder El-P, is an admitted SF fanatic; his own solo work, which will be covered in more depth in Frequency Rotation eventually, is slathered in references to Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick. Case in point: El-P’s chilling paean to practical robotics, “Stepfather Factory.”
The most concise summary of Cannibal Ox’s bold, scavenging, dystopian futurism circa 2001, though, comes elsewhere on The Cold Vein. In the song “Atom,” amid beats that feels like the bones of the cosmos coming loose, there appears this simple yet telling line: “A lot of cats pop shit / I pop apocalypse.” Fifteen years after predicting the end of the world as we know it, Afrika Bambaataa himself surely must have approved.
Jason Heller writes for The A.V. Club, plays guitar in some bands, and is still working fruitlessly on his flow. His debut novel will be published by Quirk Books/Random House in 2012.