Being active in Hip-hop, which is typically thought of as strictly a “youth culture,” doesn’t age well. Growing up is weird enough as it is, but trying to grow up, stay fly, stay true, and stay striving is downright daunting.
Well, Cage Kennylz has grown up in this culture, and unlike those who look silly rocking the mic into their thirties, Cage is growing up and pulling Hip-hop up with him.
And it’s been an upward battle to be sure. Coming up in a broken home riddled with addiction and strife, Cage found refuge in drugs and raps. Fortunately for all of us, the latter won out. His latest outing — and first for El-P‘s Definitive Jux label — Hell’s Winter, tells the tales. With no detail left in the distance and an experienced voice combing the crevices, it’s a dark ride through Cage’s crazy past and how he became the man he is today.
Roy Christopher: One thing I’ve noticed from hanging out with stand-up comedians lately is that they can be practicing their trade for, say, fourteen years, then when they break into the mainstream, it’s like they’re new to a lot of people when they’re not really new. Have you been getting any of that now that you’re on Def Jux?
Cage Kennylz: Maybe from some people who never listened to me before, but I’m also running around with rock bands and shit like that, so their crowd might not know who I am. So, I’m getting a lot of new fans who are going back and checking all the old shit, so it’s kinda cool.
I just shot a huge green-screen video for MTV2, so we’ll see what kind of backlash I get from that… We’ll see what happens.
RC: How’d you get started in this rap shit in the first place?
CK: I got started as a little kid listening to rap music. I grew up listening to rap, rock, and punk rock, and just started writing and battling kids. It wasn’t until I met Bobbito and Pete Nice that I started to look at this like a career move, like I could live off this stuff. And then when the Columbia records thing fell apart, I just went on this drug binge hiatus for like two years, and then Bobbito’s like, ‘Yo, man, I’m starting my own record label, and I want you to do a record.’ And the rest is kinda history.
RC: So, what’s the goal?
CK: My goal is, well, since I’m already living off this, my goal is to polly this into something else. Ultimately, music is my life right now, and I’ve just recently started to take it really serious with the release of this record on Jux, finally looking at it like this is a real career. When I was on EC, I didn’t take it too serious, and I was was fucked-up all the time, and had a lot of days with Eastern Conference pretty much in an incoherent state. And I didn’t really care what the records did because I knew what the ceiling was with EC. I knew what they would spend, I knew where it was going to go, and that got to a point where they were selling records without spending any money, and I could do that myself. It was either A: put the records out myself and do those numbers, or B: go to the next level. I was on that level for way too long, but I had this ridiculous five-album deal, which is nuts. With Jux, I signed a two-album deal…
Ultimately, I’m not taking life that serious. Music is fun and it’s what I do. Fortunately, I can live off of it and have for a while. But now I feel responsibility for the music. I feel like I want to say more than what I’ve said in the past. I’d like to be remembered for something more substantial than what I’ve said in the past whether it was just some belligerent misogyny… I don’t want to be remembered for that shit. I did that already, and maybe kids want to pigeonhole me in that box, but I don’t want to be in that box anymore. I clawed my way out of it.
Me and El spoke for about a year before we even recorded a song, just conceptualizing the whole album. Just talking for a year, which was a new approach for both of us. Just talking about the record, like ‘we should do this… this would be interesting…” I’d never done that before. Eventually the concept turned into, what if the concept is me trying to fix my life? Me trying to not be a scumbag, or a drug addict, and be more direct, and make a record where I’m actually saying something. In the past, the majority of the records I would make would be about only one percent of my life – of like real shit in my life. The rest was like fantasy or memories – always focused on the foul or fucked-up shit that I’d ever done. Basically every record that I made before this album on Jux was like little kid tantrums, kind of like the angry, abused child in me at the helm all the time
RC: And that’s only one aspect of who you are.
CK: Right, it’s only one aspect. So, the whole idea of this album is the making of Cage, to clue you into why I am the way I am. And, more importantly, me trying to figure things out as I’m going along, and putting it out there. There are a lot of risks we took on this record, and I’m sure I’ll lose a shitload of fans. Who knows? We’re rolling the dice with this. Everyone that’s heard the record so far has had nothing but good shit to say, but I’m paranoid. I never really cared what anyone said about my music in the past, critics, fans… I didn’t give a shit. Now, for the first time, I do care, because I care about the music now, so it’s a whole different thing. It’s definitely a different ride this time around.
RC: Everything’s up a notch.
CK: Everything is just a lot different now. It’s been this entire transformation with making this record. This record changed my life, so regardless of what the record does, it did what I sought out to do, and if it can work for me, and there’s anyone out there who can relate to the record… It’s the first time that I’ve made a record where I’m sharing a bunch of painful shit that happened to me in my life, so if a hundred kids relate to the record and are affected by it and take something positive from it, then it’s a success. I wouldn’t say that the record is a positive record, but it’s not a negative record. It definitely touches on a lot of issues. There’s some political shit on it, there’s some fucked-up story shit on it…
RC: So, it’s just a more well-rounded record.
CK: Yeah, definitely. It’s not just one thing over and over again.
RC: What about sound-wise?
CK: El-P produced a good half of the record, RJ, Camu Tao, Blockhead did three joints, Shadow did a song, Jello Biafra is on the Shadow-produced song doing George Bush quotes, which is ridiculous. As far as like sonically and as far as production and the way it sounds, it sounds leaps and bounds more professional. It just sounds so much bigger. Some of the music is really intense, over-the-top sounding shit. I tried not to go too hardcore in one direction. Like every time I felt that I was getting too much on one direction, I would pull back a little bit and work in another direction. Going into the record, I knew I had to have a couple of songs saying ‘this,’ I have to say ‘this,’ I have to say ‘this,’ I have to touch on the childhood, I have to touch on the spousal abuse between my mother and my father, the child abuse, the drug addiction, just everything. This is a real record. Some people will dig it, other people might not like it. That’s the whole thing about just trying to take it to that next level, doing something different. I’ve never made a record like this before. With that, it was exciting for me and El, because we’ve never done a record like this – either one of us. It’s also the first record, since the Can Ox record, that El’s had such a hand in. He didn’t just produce half the record. It was like we were there constantly changing things. On the title track, El changed the beat like six times. It was like six really, great beats, so I hope somebody uses the other beats! But I like the version now. El goes crazy on the strings… It’s a really different record for me, and it’s exciting to get it out.
There’s this one song on the record called ‘The Subtle Art of the Breakup Song,’ and it’s a song about a breakup, but it’s a metaphor for the breakup. Basically, it’s my girlfriend’s birthday, and I take her out, and during the whole drive, I’m pulling over at rest stops and sniffing K and doing drugs, and we end up crashing, and she dies in the car crash. It’s really super dramatic. There’s a lot of really dramatic shit on the record. I’m fucking very dramatic, whether or it’s a relationship or what-have-you, I’ve heard my entire life, ‘Oh, you’re so dramatic.’ So, I’ve applied that to the music, and decided to be really dramatic on this record. My father was a junkie, so it touches on heroin abuse. It touches on so much shit. There’s a song called ‘Peeranoia’ which it about my peers, and the people around me, and me being susceptible to eat every drug that I can. I’m struggling with that. I feel bad that I got so many kids to smoke dust, honestly. At this point in my life, I’m like, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’ At this point in my life that’s not something that I would do. When I didn’t care, and I was ready to walk in front of a bus on a head full of dust, I didn’t care about these kids — they can like me or hate me or whatever. And that was a part of what people liked was that I didn’t give a fuck. Here’s this basket-case, self-destructive, misogynist asshole, and you don’t wanna look up to that. How many guys have already been ‘that guy’?
I could’ve done the same kind of thing. I could have done an extension of Movies for the Blind with tighter beats and tighter patterns, but that’s where I was stuck. When I made Movies for the Blind, there were songs on that record that were really old that I’d written a long time ago that I brought in and adjusted to fit. I tried to make that record more like ‘Agent Orange.’ I tried to make it so that ‘Agent Orange’ didn’t just seem like an old-ass song on there because I felt I had a story to tell that I hadn’t told. So Movies for the Blind was a way for me to say that I don’t give a fuck, I do drugs, I’ve been in mental institutions, etc. It was a few little glimpses of what really happened, but most of it was focusing on after being Cage. On this one, I felt that I couldn’t keep making records for the same, small group of people. If this group of people who are buying all my music are as fucked-up as I am, then there comes a point in your life where you don’t want to do that anymore.
There comes a point in your life where you no longer want to dress like a thirteen year old and listen to rappers in your Rocawear. You grow up. You’re not going to do that your whole life. Some people are stuck in that, some people are stuck in the nineties, and that’s not me.
RC: Slick Rick said you can’t talk to your mom the way you talk to your boys. You have to grow up. You can’t me like, ‘Yo, Ma Dukes’ all the time. Eventually, you’ve got to be a grown-ass man.
CK: And who I am today is definitely not who I was a year ago, or who I was five years ago. And the listener is not the same person either, but people twenty-five and up aren’t really buying that many CDs. Some are, but not as much as, say, fifteen-to-twenty-five are, which is the market that the major corporations have in a stranglehold. Unfortunately, and this is the part that I hate, the business, which is where I have to take that into consideration. I just want to make the music and put it out, but I have to think about image, and photo-shoots, and artwork, and packaging…
RC: …and sitting here talking to me.
CK: …sitting here talking to you, and everything else that goes along with it. I don’t mind the interview thing because you gotta explain what’s going on, but packaging, artwork – I hate doing all of that. I just want to make the music, tour the music, do the interviews, and that’s it. I don’t want to read the magazines that the interviews are in; I don’t want to read the websites that the interviews are on. I say what I have to say and I’m being real about everything, and that’s that. If the kids who were into my previous music were similar to me, and that’s what they related to, if they’re not ready to move on, then fuck ‘em. Honestly, if they can’t get with what I’m doing now, then fuck ‘em. Live in your fucking box. That’s not for me. I broke out of that box and there’s this whole world out here, and that’s how I’m looking at shit. I’ve already started working on the next record — I’ve already started writing it – and that’s going to be different from Hell’s Winter. I wanted Hell’s Winter to be a record where, once that is ingested and people take that in, then that sets me up to basically do whatever the fuck I wanna do. So the next leap, if it’s further than the leap that I’ve taken from Movies for the Blind to Hell’s Winter, then there’s not going to be much that people can say… Or maybe they will. Maybe everyone will hate the record and I’ll fail miserably.
RC: Mike Ladd says that he loses as many fans as he gains with every record.
CK: Well, that’s the art of war isn’t it? That’s what the United States government says, that we’ll sacrifice thousands to save millions. If a Cage fan is such a diehard fan, and he doesn’t want to take this leap with me to the next record, or she doesn’t want to take this leap with me to the next record, then they’re sacrificed for the five or ten that I might have been excluding before by not exploring all these other aspects [of myself].
Here’s a video from Hell’s Winter — “Shoot Frank” (runtime: 4:05) featuring Daryl Palumbo: