Some Thoughts on the Defenestration of Canibus

Last week during our conversation on KRS-One, our own Juba offered up a fairly comprehensive list for why KRS-One qualifies for any assessment of hip-hop's GOAT. If you read the list, a great deal of it concerns KRS's ability to perform. This is probably my favorite:

He's a big burly dude and he's just physically imposing as a performer. He raps like he's hyping himself up to beat the bricks off somebody--his movements are ferocious and dramatic. He stomps across the stage like a Japanese mutant monster. He raps like Ronnie Lott played safety, like Darryl Dawkins dunked basketballs, like Barry Bonds hit baseballs--with pure power and aggression and fearlessness. This is, mind you, the same rapper constantly preaching Peace is Not Soft, Knowledge Reigns Supreme, Respect Your Hip-Hop Elders, who named himself after Krishna. But not the Hippie Hare Krishna, the badass in the Bhahavad Gita!

For a lot of us with East Coast biases, hip-hop became a kind of literature, and our emphasis on lyrics sometimes lets us forget that lyrics, originally, were not something to be observed in stale basements, but tools for rocking a crowd. Bad acoustics will make you forget that, but KRS won't.

I say this as a way of introducing the video above of Canibus in a battle. This footage is particularly painful for those of us held in the thralldoms of '90s New York hip-hop. Among that crew, Canibus was once a particular phenomenon, and he mainly achieved that status through lyrics, which he delivered in volume. He did this repeatedly--with Common, with Nas, with Ras Kass etc.

But he never quite became a "great" MC. Even in the lyrical sense, he was never capable of an "Everyday Struggle," a "Microphone Fiend," an "Incarcerated Scarfaces," a "New York State of Mind," a "Colorblind," or a "T.R.O.Y." There was something cold about his style--it lacked heart, and not in the sense of bravery but, I almost want to say, "vulnerability." This is an odd word to associate with MCs. But I would argue that this is what you hear in Biggie's black humor, in that quaver in Jay's voice, and even in Ice Cube's bombast. 

Have ever seen an artist who could technically draw a scene really well, and yet communicate nothing about the feeling of the actual scene? I know poets who can wax lyrical for days, who can dizzy you with their command of language, and yet communicate nothing. Was CL Smooth in the most strict technical the best MC? I don't know. But he communicated something of himself beautifully. Perhaps that is the epitome of "technique." 

Making art is like making A.I. At what point do all these assembled structures began to take on life? At what point can humans make themselves gods? Is it really a simple matter of technique? Or is it something more? When KRS hits the stage is he doing something that can be taught, or something unique to him? 

I don't know. But when I think of Canibus I think of gifted technician, more than I think of a brilliant artist. Even understanding that battle-rapping is different, you still have to move the crowd. Somehow the image of him whipping out a notebook, mid-battle, seems right. I don't know if he ever grasped the deeper nuances of MCing.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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