Having survived a nightmarish upbringing and bouts of mental illness, underground rapper Cage went on to make a career of glorifying drugs, violence and insanity on records that even offended himself. Now, with Hell's Winter, he's trying to rid himself of the horror-core tag.
A few years back, photos of Cage were menacing: He would be grimacing or scowling, sporting a mouth full of gold teeth and, occasionally, a python wrapped around his neck. He had a hulking flabby 240-pound frame, exactly the size and shape that seems required of white underground rappers who lean thuggish. And he did lean thuggish, starting with a heavy regimen of drugs, women, and fantasy violence on his single "Agent Orange," and keeping it up on collaborative efforts (including the aptly titled Smut Peddlers), a spot on Prince Paul's Handsome Boy Modeling School, and a grim, sometimes aggressively misogynistic solo record, Movies for the Blind.
But today Cage -- known to the government as Chris Palumbo -- is a changed man. He's lost every bit of the extra weight he was carrying, along with an equally heavy drug habit, the gold teeth and, it would seem, his entire former outlook on life. Even on his darkest cuts Cage has always been 20 times as musically gifted as most of the other horror-core rappers he was lumped in with, and with his newest release, Hell's Winter, on Definitive Jux, he's stepped far out of that circumference to find subject matter complex enough to match his talents. The record deals head-on with Cage's firsthand experience of child abuse, the dark consequences of his drug use, and his vitriolic response to the current political scene. Hell's Winter reworks the nightmarish scene-painting Cage is known for to reveal that reality is sometimes the most terrifying place there is.
Cage was fighting off strep throat when I talked to him in Iowa City after a show that was amped despite his ill health. Tour mate and collaborator Camu Tao (the two made a record called Nighthawks together during a three-day creative binge) sat in the tour van with us, occasionally chiming in. Cage himself was often quiet -- whether introspective or just tired, it was hard to tell -- and rolled a lozenge around his mouth as we talked.
PopMatters:What's different about the new record compared to other stuff you've done?
Cage: You tell me.
Cage: Well, there's no misogyny on it. It's not a really self-indulgent record, it's not really braggadocio -- battle rap and I'm the best and shit like that. It's not about money and cars. So it's different. The first record sort of glorified drugs and insanity, and it just felt like it was crazy for the sake of being crazy.
PM:During the show you were trying to call people out for drug use.
Cage: Everybody has their own bag, you know, and I still use drugs. I just don't get fucked up out of my mind every day to where I can't focus. I don't do any hard drugs anymore -- most of the time it's just weed -- and I don't really drink. I'm on Vicodin right now, so to say that I don't do drugs would be kind of hypocritical. But I don't live for drugs anymore, I don't support them, and I'm not about to make a million songs about them anymore. Because I kind of feel stupid promoting drugs to 13-year-olds and shit like that. Music is really influential and powerful.
PM: You signed to Def Jux before you started working on this record.
Cage: Yeah, about a year before.
PM: Did being around people who were doing different kinds of music make it easier for you to make this record?
Cage: I knew before I went to Jux that I wanted to do different shit, which is what made me want to go to Jux. I know they're open to doing different shit. With Eastern Conference, I just felt like I had hit a ceiling, and you can only grow so much within a box. So I found a bigger box to move around in.
PM: Have you been seeing different people coming out to these shows than you were used to?
Cage: No, not so much these shows. But out in L.A., New York City, San Francisco, yeah, a different, indie-rock crowd, a different kind of audience. I'm sure people at my label have had meetings, and we've talked about it, getting some mainstream play on some rock stations that we hadn't serviced the record to, which is kind of cool. So my label definitely sees the interest and wants to push it more in that direction. And I'm starting to see it a little more at shows, which is cool, because I think that five or six or seven years ago it wasn't like this. Now it's more like kids just listening to fucking all different types of music.
PM: Do you have a personal connection to indie rock?
Cage: I listen to all types of music. I'm not too into country outside of Johnny Cash, but -- well, he's kind of hipster now anyway. But I listen to a lot of rock, damn near every genre from old punk to old classic metal to classic rock to what they call indie rock, which the majority of is on major labels. I think indie rock's like the new "alternative," a new fresh label. But, yeah, I listen to all kinds of music. I relate to it all.
PM: You have Jello Biafra on the record, so obviously you've got some punk rock background. But what about Darryl Palumbo? That was strange to hear. How did you hook up with him?
Cage: He's a really good friend of mine.
PM: As the singer of Glassjaw, he's pretty well known in the indie rock/emo circuit.
Cage: We had a mutual friend, and I heard he was a fan, and I was a Glassjaw fan. That is how a lot of friendships have formed - by being mutual fans of each other's work. I think that's a cool thing about making art.
Camu Tao: That's how we linked up. None of us knew each other, just different people linked through different people, and then eventually everybody who wanted to link up all got linked up, and then we go to work.
Cage: Darryl is a really good friend of mine; he's like one of my best friends at this point, and we have a project together. Shoot Frank is the name of the group, and we gave the song on my new album the same title just to keep it in people's heads. Frank is my stepfather. But that was the concept with this record: more honesty, brutal honesty. The truth hit me like a snakebite, and that's all I can do now. And that dude was a big influence on me in making this record because, you know, he's dying of Crohn's disease, and he's had like four major surgeries, more than a foot of intestine pulled out, and here was this dude who was struggling and trying to stay alive, and I just didn't give two fucks about my life. Seeing how he was struggling to live when I really didn't feel like I had much to live for, and the way he translated his emotion and pain through music was a huge influence on me, and I'm trying to convey that to the listener.
PM: You have a connection to MF Doom that goes way back. Is there anything that could be coming out?
Cage: I met both him and his brother at the same time, but me and Sub Roc just kind of kicked it, and Doom -- at that time Zev Love X -- he had his hands in a million things, and I'd hang out with him and Curious George and Constipated Monkeys. But I really kicked it with Sub, and we made music that doesn't exist on tape or anywhere unfortunately. I was always cool with Doom then, but we didn't become really cool until after Sub died. That's when we started hanging out. But we've finally kind of lost touch. He started doing something else, I started doing something else.
PM: One of my favorite songs on the album is "Lord Have Mercy". How long did it take you to write that?
Cage: That was the quickest. We were in Montreal, finishing up the records, me and El-P, and there was this beat, and I was trying to figure out something to do. I used The Great Adventures of Slick Rick as a template as I was making the record; I was like, He's got six story songs on here, so I did five. He had a couple of girl songs, little dance-y kind of things. It is probably my favorite rap record of all time, and he was probably the first artist to make me even wonder about PCP.
So that song just came to me. I had this image of a little kid, and it just played with "Too Heavy for Cherubs," another song on the album, and the snake theme. There's this religious continuum going on. Songs like that are easy because you just get the idea in your head and they just unfold so quickly while you write. I probably wrote that song in an hour and a half.
PM: But it sounds so complex on the record. It sounds like so many different parts are interacting with each other.
Camu Tao: The shit that comes out like that is always the shit that just kind of spills out, because you aren't forcing it. It's natural. And then you wake up the next morning, you read it and you're like, Man, I was bugging. You would never write like that when you're trying to force yourself to.
Cage: I've watched friends in bands just play, and they jam. They might do an hour of horseshit, and bang, some magical song just pops out. And that happened, and it happened to be the last song I wrote for the record, and I just pulled it out of my ass.
PM:People are outside shouting patriotic slogans into the window of the van here. Is politics something that's always been important to you?
Cage: I had a really novice understanding of politics when I was in my "fuck the government" mode. And I'm still kind of like that, but it's obviously a lot more complicated than "fuck the government." But I hate people that preach about politics and half the time don't even know what they're talking about. It's like, "Listen to me, I'm dropping jewels on you about politics." And it's just fucking lame. I have an opinion, and I didn't want it to come across preachy. I just wanted any kid listening to relate to it. It's just gripes. We live in New York City under the constant stress of orange alert, and we'll never not be on orange alert. We'll never see green. Or yellow, for that matter. They recently had the entire Empire State Building bright red; we were talking about it on the way down.
PM:You had kind of a rough upbringing. Do you feel like music is a way for you to work through that? Does it make you feel better?
Cage: Yeah, I can take the monkey off my back and put it on a hundred other kids.
Camu Tao: If you can't afford a psychiatrist, become one yourself. Fuck it.
Cage: My mother was a psych nurse for 15 years, my ex-girlfriend of seven years was a psych major. And I was a mental patient. So I grew up around that shit. I know all the little 101 bullshit and all the Freudian nonsense. Some of it I think is pretty accurate, other shit I think is kind of stupid. But music is the one thing that, since I was a child, has been really the only escape, pre-drug use. It was the only thing that could take me away from whatever was going on. And then I got into drugs and implemented the drugs into the music. After a while I just felt really stagnant, just kind of chasing my tail, and I realized I had an ability to make music quickly and write pretty fast. And I just made a lot of mindless, empty music with a few things to say here and there. Movies for the Blind was just kind of an angsty, bullshit record. A few songs on there I liked, and I had a few things to say that were fragmented in there within a lot of randomness. But yeah, been there, done that, and hence this record. Eventually I can say that about this record, too, and move on to something else.
PM: You've talked about actually being offended by some of your own old material.
Cage: I don' t know if I was necessarily offended, that's probably just sensationalizing. But everything changed. When I said I was offended by old stuff, it was just that I don't really understand why I said what I said on Movies for the Blind.
It kind of makes me feel like, Why didn't I do this fucking years ago, you know? It's interesting. You make misogynistic records, and girls wouldn't spit on you. You drop that from making the records, and now girls want to hug and kiss, you know. Fans used to come up to me with bags of dust and bags of weed; now they come up to me with bags of problems. It can become a bit draining, but you know, a couple minutes of my life isn't a lot.
PM: But you know, you're speaking for people, you're saying things people don't know how to say.
Cage: That's the reason I do it. I lived it, so I put it out there. I'll exploit it. I don't give a fuck. I got nothing going through it, so I might as well get something from reflecting back on it.