No one would ever accuse Chris Palko, the New York rapper who goes by Cage, of coming across as warm and cuddly. From the beginning of his career on the circuit, he's mined his own set of personal traumas for musical gold. He's long discussed his fucked up childhood to end all fucked up childhoods. As the legend goes, a child he was forced to wrap tourniquets for his heroin-addict father, and later held hostage at gunpoint by that same guy in a standoff with state troopers. Palko eventually developed his own serious drug habit and as a teen was committed to the infamously scary Connecticut psychiatric hospital Stony Lodge.
He managed to overcome all that and become one of the leading lights of the underground hip-hop scene, with a fierce delivery and a eriously vivid imagination that was hard to ignore. But rather than go with woe-is-me tales of self-pity, Cage's early rhymes were often vicious and bloody, full of revenge fantasies and vivid metaphors that extended into outer space. He would let you into his inner world just enough, and then slam close the final doors.
But if his earlier musical persona put up walls in front of walls in front of walls, that began to change with his surprisingly open 2005 album, Hell's Winter. And this year, he's practically laid himself bear with his searing new effort, Depart From Me. The bulk of the record was written during an extended battle with cancer by Cage's best friend, Camu Tao. Sadly, Camu passed away early last year, and Depart From Me was completed in the aftermath. As expected, it's no walk in the park.
Depart From Me is one of the most compelling albums of the year, but also one of the most difficult to get through at the first pass. If old Cage material could shock because its flights of grotesque but fictional fantasy, the new Cage shocks with its uncomfortable realness. The subject matter here delves pretty obviously into autobiography, and almost as upsetting as the tales themselves are is the sometimes angry-numb way in which Cage delivers them. "Beat Kids," for one, offers a frank tableau of rape and domestic violence. Then there's "Fat Kids Need an Anthem," definitely the only song I've ever heard by a male rapper to deal frankly with weight and body issues. And throughout, there are references to the late Camu -- the pain of that loss is palpable.
If it makes you squirm, Cage is doing his job. But rather than plunge a listener into a gloomy abyss, many songs on the album are inescapably catchy. Where his Definitive Jux labelmates have been hinting, in recent years, at a sort of genre-less mix of rapping over different musical textures, Cage has succeeded in fully fleshing it out. The tracks themselves veer all over the place, with everything from industrial-style thumps to '80s hardcore-style basslines and beyond. There are still beats, but not once will you hear a cookie-cutter boom-bap.
This all makes it a little less strange, then, that Cage arrives in South Florida this Saturday at Revolution -- opening for Gainesville ska-punk lifers Less Than Jake. New Times caught up with him by phone in advance of the show. Here's the full Q&A.
Cage, with the Swellers and Less Than Jake. Saturday, December 12. Revolution, 200 W. Broward Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Doors open at 6 p.m., tickets cost $17. 954-727-0950; jointherevolution.net
New Times: Are any of your older fans coming out to these shows with Less Than Jake, or are is it mostly a new crowd?
Cage: It's mostly a new crowd that I'm playing to, though there are a lot of the newer fans of my past release that are coming to the Less Than Jake shows. There aren't too many of the older fans. I think they're taking a pass and maybe waiting until I come back solo, because the ticket prices are a little high for some of my fans to come watch me play for only 30 minutes.
Tickets to the stop of the tour here are $17. I didn't think you usually play for much less.
Well, they're more expensive in other places. But depending on where it is, usually, my own shows are anywhere from 12 to 15 dollars.
You did some solo shows before this tour. Were you playing with the usual hip-hop acts or were you also playing with rock bands?
We just had local support going on, so I didn't know anyone who was playing. When we played Salt Lake City there were two rock bands that opened, as well as the rap groups. And for those shows, it was newer fans, honestly. Even the solo shows have been more new fans than old fans.
Do you feel forsaken by that big chunk of your old fan base?
Yeah, of course.
Does it bother you much?
No, because I'm selling more records now than when they were fans. The shows are bigger. And I don't really understand this dynamic between me and these people that I don't even know. It's like there's some sort of like, treaty, that I've broken with these strangers that I never knew. But I don't care, whoever shows up is cool. Of course I like and care that people have listened to my music for years, but I don't have any sort of allegiance -- they're still strangers to me. So I kind of just feel like whoever comes in is coo, whether they've been listening to me for 10 years or six months. And then some of the older fans hate the newer fans, which is kind of silly.
How did you end up on this Less Than Jake tour? Was it a specific move to try to get in front of a really different audience?
It was my agency and management who said it would be good to do different tours. I've gone on tours with bands and stuff before, and this was basically offered to me and I took. It was either that or sit at home. A couple of ideas that we had fell through, and it was basically, "Here's what you've been offered, an opening slot." And it was a big pay cut, but I did it just to stay out there and keep touring and keep working the record. And if in the process we can pull in a few hundred new kids out of the deal, then it would be worth it.
You mentioned you were selling more. Why do you think you're doing so well in sales now?
I wouldn't say that I'm doing well, but I'm doing better than someone who's not selling anything, or someone who's just decided to hang it up.
A few reviews have called your album "rap-rock," which is a term that's pretty ... negative to most people. It brings to mind Limp Bizkit or something. How do you feel about that? And do you feel like you're still making hip-hop?
I don't really care what the art cops think, so it's pointless to talk about what a bunch of talentless people think of my record. They should go and make records instead of reviewing them. So I won't comment on that, because I don't care.
But as far as do I think that I'm still making hip-hop, well, I'm rapping. And where I come from, I'm not setting out to make any specific type of music. The editor of Spin said we weren't rap and we weren't rock, and that made me happy. I set out to try and make some sort of genre-less fucking music, to do something different.
I also read that you and Camu Tao started watching old punk rock videos to try to get new ideas. Had you always been into that stuff?
I grew up listening to that. I was watching all that shit to show him; that was shit that I grew up on. When we decided that we were no longer going to make typical paint-by-number rap records, we were trying to think of what to stir up the pot with. So I turned him on to a lot of stuff that I was into.
We were doing it to try to have a better stage show, because we always thought rap shows were so lame. They have a hype man, and it's pretty much the same kind of deal, the body movements I didn't like, and all the pantomiming with your arm constantly. This "hey ho" and all that crowd response shit, and jump, jump, jump, and all that. I thought it became so formulaic.
So we started watching old punk rock and hardcore videos, and he sucked it right up, because I wanted his take on it as well. It was good to have a different brain on it, considering that I thought that we kind of absorbed things similarly.
So that's what that was about. It wasn't that I was sitting around one day and was like, "What was this hardcore scene? Let me check this out." I grew up listening to that stuff, you know. But everybody else was ripping it off very obviously, so I wanted to try and be a little sneakier with it -- or at least it would just be obvious to people who knew what it was. Clearly "Dr. Strong" is all Suicidal Tendencies; I'm not trying to be sneaky there. "Beat Kids" is like a Shellac song. For someone who doesn't know Shellac is, they have no idea. But people who are fans of Steve Albini will come up to me, and they get it.
When you were trying to absorb these influences with Camu, was it just for the stage show, or did you two get to record any new material based on this?
The only song we did together then was "Follow the Bleeder" that was on the free EP [I Never Knew You]. We put it on the free EP because we couldn't get clearance for it because it was a big sample, a video game sample. The idea was to change the live show, and then after we had gotten the live show down, we decided to make music that matched the live show.
He was ahead of me on that, he was like half done with his record, or at least in demo form. And then he got sick, that kind of put everything on hold. I couldn't record or write, because it was kind of like a waiting game, waiting for him to get better. But he didn't.
I read one interview you gave where you said some of the material on this album was meant to be more positive, so you could play it for Camu while he was sick. Which of the songs were you referring to?
There were songs that I was writing that I would scrap because they were too down and I didn't want to play him all that down stuff. So I'd play him "Captain Bumout" and "Kick Rocks" and he was into them. I was trying to make more, I don't want to say like, happy songs, but they were a little left of center in what I might normally do. Or right of center, in some cases.
It just seems like so much of the album is so dark, though. So when did you write all the rest of the material?
I don't really remember, actually. The whole record I wrote and recorded in like four months. I just didn't do anything for a long time. I wrote like four songs in a year and didn't do anything. Then I wrote a bunch of really fucked up, dark, foul shit that I haven't done anything with yet, and they're just sitting in notebooks. And there were a lot of songs that I didn't like. And when Camu died, that's when I made the record. There were only about three or four songs, the ones I mentioned, that I recorded when he was still alive.
When you perform a lot of these songs, do they still dredge up emotions for you? How do you deal with playing them live night after night?
I'm pretty much numb to it at this point, so it doesn't really have any effect on me. I just kind of try to blank out as much as I can when I play. I hate when I play and I become self-aware or self-conscious, or just really aware of what I'm doing. I feel like then I have a terrible show. Most shows I come out and just blank out and go with it.
You have a song about weight issues, which is really unusual for a man to discuss. Why did you choose to explore those so publicly?
That was why. That was truly the only reason why I did. The same reason I wanted to write a song about stalking a girl and make it romantic ["I Never Knew You"].
Yeah, so, how autobiographical is that one?
Everyone takes everything so fucking literal it's ridiculous. I mean yeah, I refer to it as the stalking song. But the idea -- the song's really, it's just kind of about an ex-girlfrienda nd not being able to get over it, and just being obsessed, how self-destructive being obsessive is.
A lot of the articles that came out about your new album make a big deal about your so-called image makeover, and even your looks. How do you feel about that?
I think people are idiots, for the most part. I myself am a really big idiot, and so I guess I surround myself with idiots, now. All joking aside, I just don't get it. It's not an image makeover.
And still, that's always what gets mentioned. That and your friendship with Shia LaBoeuf.
Now they can add that I'm friends with Kid Cudi, and that I'll be on Kid Cudi's next record. But, yeah, image makeover? People are idiots. There was no image makeover. I just stopped shaving my fucking head and stopped wearing baseball hats every single day, and put on clothing that fit me. I basically stopped dressing like a 13-year-old. I stopped buying my clothes at the mall.
I'm a fucking adult, I wear adult clothing. I feel like wearing sneakers all the time is kind of childish for my age, and I was not making myself presentable when I'd go on television or photo shoots. Some of us grow up at different ages, and that's fine. I'd rather look presentable than slovenly and disheveled. Other people would rather look disheveled, and that's fine.
As far as an image makeover, of course people who wear T-shirts 364 days out of the year would think that it's an image makeover, grasping for what they can't understand. But it's so blatant that I've just grown up.
Well, you mentioned the appearance on the Kid Cudi records. What other projects like that do you have coming up?
The movie thing [a LaBoeuf-directed and -starring biopic about Cage] is still in the works, and we have to sit down with a writer. We're up to our fourth or fifth writer at this point. That's why [LaBoeuf directed] the video [for "I Never Knew You".] If you watch all the MTV stuff about the video he'll say that he did it for selfish reasons. It's because he wants to make the movie. He didn't do it because he's interested in directing rap videos.
And it raised my popularity a little bit and is just keeping it out there that we're still working together. You can't find a biopic that has been made in under five years from its inception. It takes a long-ass time to find a writer. And usually biopics are about people who are dead. That's a little easier because you kind of just go with what the family wants, and they can finish faster. The problem with me being alive, is I don't like anything.
So is that why you're going through so many writers? Are you vetoing all of them?
It's not just solely me. It's just that a lot of the writers had the wrong idea. We're not making a rap movie. Shia's not interesting in making Eight Mile: The Sequel, and it's not a rap movie. The movie has rap music in general as a sidebar to the story.
The main story is a teenager who's abused, completely losing his mind, unraveling, but who has an artistic sensibility about him. He runs around like a maniac, and ends up going to jail, going to group homes, and ending up in a mental hospital for two years. And then getting out and becoming a drug addict and dealing with himself, and then the issues he was given from being institutionalized. The music part of it is very small.
Do you have any studio backing yet?
We had a deal on the table with a private financier, a couple of years ago, before Shia blew up. We were gonna make the movie with them and it was going to be an indie flick, but Shia said, "Trust me, I'm about to do Transformers," and we walked away from it. So that's pretty much it. That's where we're at, sitting down with the writer.
What about musically, anything else going on besides the Kid Cudi collaboration?
That's about it. I'm just working on new music, and working with Cudi on his record, and that's really about it. I'm writing a book, called the Stony Lodge Stories, and it's pretty much everything that happened to me. I'm about halfway done with it. You ever not shower for a couple days? That's how it feels when I get on a roll with it. I start to feel filthy and disgusted.