Life Under The Scope: Canibus, Self Sabotage And Hip Hop's Digital Era
In the era of YouTube and Internet memes, it only takes a few brand-damaging moments for people to stop caring about your music altogether.
“They just wanna see you fallin’ / The only reason the cameras out when you’re walkin’ / The only reason they listening when you’re talkin’ / Waiting on you to contradict yourself / Albeit evict yourself / From the house / Like when Beth instigated that situation with Tami / Got David kicked out…” –Curren$y, “Life Under The Scope.”
I feel like each week something happens to reinforce just how much more rapidly Hip Hop moves on from on era to the next. I can vividly remember what seemed to be roughly a two-year run when Canibus (then known as Can-i-Bus) was setting up what I and many others assumed would be a long, critically and commercially successful Hip Hop career. He was making scene-stealing cameos on other artist’s tracks (such as Common’s “Making A Name For Ourselves” and Pharoahe Monch’s “Hell”). And his mix of obscure references, clever punchlines along with a brash cadence and delivery was sometimes enough to make you pay more attention to him than the artist whose name was on the album artwork. Canibus is still relevant nearly 15 years later, but not necessarily for the same reasons. And I don’t think it would be a diss to say none of us envisioned him pulling out an 8 1/2 by 11” legal pad in the middle of a pay-per-view Rap battle when we first heard the remix to “Music Makes Me High.” Shit happens.
This editorial is not an obituary for Canibus’ Hip Hop career. For me, last Saturday night’s events were more about spectacle than substance. As his forfeiture showed, Canibus clearly lost that battle with comparative unknown Dizaster. People will eventually forget about Canibus vs. Dizaster. From the litany of Blackberry freestyles to those pre-written BET Hip Hop Award Cyphers that everyone fawns over, and the dozens of viral “freestyle” videos rappers shoot every week, you can make a solid argument that the definition of freestyling has been devalued to rapping unheard lyrics to a surprise beat. Sadly, what happened with Canibus just kind of confirmed that. And, in a much larger sense, it was another example of an emcee being scorched by the very same limelight they originally sought.
When Courting The Spotlight Backfires
“I’ve seen ‘em come / I’ve watched ‘em go / I’ve watched ‘em rise / Witnessed it and watched ‘em blow/ Watched ‘em all blossom / And watched ‘em grow / Watched the lawsuits when they lost they dough…” –Dr. Dre, “The Watcher.”
As an artist, if you accumulate enough of these brand-damaging moments, and people can stop caring about your music altogether. Charles Hamilton is the poster-child for this point. After some critical acclaim and a few high-profile collaborations, a series of P.R. blunders found Hamilton turned away from Interscope Records and in need of mental help. Within an 18-month span the teen rapper dissed Eminem, disrespected the legacy of J Dilla and got punched by an ex-girlfriend on camera. The Sonic-inspired rapper is an extreme case, and I’d make the concession that such moments don’t necessarily have to signal the death of an artist’s career. Game could’ve easily been relegated to the Rap graveyard years ago. After a 2005 rift with 50 Cent, Game was publicly ousted from G-Unit and shot at during a standoff in New York.
Interestingly enough, Hamilton and Game both have (or had) ties to Interscope Records—one of the most powerful major labels left for Hip Hop artists. And they weren’t above drama with label mates. At times that worked both for and against them. While he annually throws some subliminal shots at Jay-Z, Game is no dummy. He carefully maintained his relationships with the likes of Lil Wayne and Pharrell, and he also repaired his partnership with his mentor Dr. Dre. With that ace in the hole, his litany of P.R. nightmares such as his butterfly cheek tattoo, allegedly tweeting the LA County Sherriff’s phone number, knuckling down a few people in the street, a few fights with Ras Kass and allegedly groping a woman on stage were all forgotten. Not to be lost in all of the drama is the fact that Game regularly made visits to the Billboard charts while all of this was going on. The headline hoarding almost seems to add to Game’s character, and there’s a reason that he and TMZ’s Harvey Levin are on a first-name basis.
Canibus, on the other hand, has never courted mainstream success, but 1998’s “Second Round K.O.” was a Top 40 single that spent 14 weeks on the charts. Since two Universal Records releases, Canibus has celebrated his figure in the underground, releasing albums regularly—many of which respectably appear on the Hip Hop/Rap charts. However, I think if any of his subsequent albums had even a fraction of that early commercial success, we would be talking about his music and not that huge notepad.
Rapper Fatigue In The Digital Era
“Who will be the captain of this ship / If it goes down / Don’t you know you have to go with it / Just because you rhymed for a couple of weeks / Doesn’t mean that you’ve reached the emcee’s peak / Let stop soundin’ all bitter / Ghetto child never be a quitter / But don’t be a phony in the litter…” –Q-Tip, “Phony Rappers,” by A Tribe Called Quest.
With a few lucky breaks here and there, who’s to say Canibus or Charles Hamilton couldn’t be enjoying the type of critical and mainstream commercial success afforded to someone like Game? Despite showing skills that initially earned them praise from fans, it seems Hamilton and Canibus clearly lack some basic decision-making skills. From ‘Bis deciding to pick fights with Eminem and J. Cole to Hamilton assauting a police officer, these kind of horrible moves are what take the focus away from the music. Too many instances of releasing tracks like 2009’s “Air Strike” or getting punched on camera by an ex-girlfriend during a friendly battle can transform anyone from the next promising emcee to a walking punchline.
The spotlight isn’t always your friend. I think potential listener fatigue also has to be factored in when artists like J. Cole, Big K.R.I.T. and B.o.B. release up to five free mixtapes worth of album quality material before their debut hits retail. There’s also physical exhaustion from constantly creating and performing. And our 24-hour news cycle, with at least one camera phone within an arm’s reach at all times, gives artists ample opportunities to make fools of themselves. Add in requisite press obligations to whatever mental and spiritual issues artists bring to the table before getting signed, and you’ve got a recipe for a breakdown like Hamilton’s. All of these factors make the erratic off-mic behavior of Azealia Banks, Canibus and Game easier to understand.
His history of long history of non-musical, career threatening decisions lead me to believe Canibus was shooting himself in the foot long before his beefs with LL Cool J, Wyclef Jean, Eminem and a growing list of others. But being from an era where upcoming artists made their name with scene-stealing cameo verses instead of a constant stream of mixtapes means most of those moments weren’t documented. If YouTube and Twitter were around during the early parts of Canibus’ career, we could’ve easily been talking about him in the same way we’re currently talking about Azealia Banks. The Internet provides immediate and wide-ranging access for newer artists, but it also comes with an almost surveillance like function of an accompanying blogosphere. Canibus was able to avoid it early in his career. But that same constant spotlight has repeatedly revealed his warts in recent years, and it may derail Azealia’s career before she picks up enough momentum for a sustainable run.
Canibus’ always sporadically updated Twitter feed hasn’t been updated since Saturday night’s battle. In the days following the battle, both Canibus and his manager have taken the defeat gracefully by congratulating Dizaster. Suffice it to say a live, freestyle battle wasn’t the ideal situation. For now, Azealia Banks has taken her ball and withdrawn from social media, just days after she had her first dance at retail with the 1991 EP—a product that the pen-pushers at Interscope will surely be using as a litmus test for her buzz. And last we heard, Hamilton was seeking professional help away from the industry. Interestingly enough, I don’t feel the book is closed for good on any of the aforementioned artists. Personally, I thought Canibus was finished in the early aughts. But he obviously had a dedicated and loyal fan base for people to even be interested in a pay-per-view Rap battle. And in Scarface, arguably one of the greatest emcees of all time, we have an example of someone that addressed and overcame a suicide attempt and bout with bipolar disorder. So there’s definitely hope for Hamilton as a rapper, and more importantly as a person. And for all we know, Banks’ self-removal from Twitter may have been more about not letting her digital stream of consciousness detract from her music. Only time will tell.
Aside from a legitimate concern about their personal issues, maybe we should be asking different questions. What is it about Hip Hop and celebrity culture in general that causes these artists to self sabotage?
Omar Burgess is a Long Beach, California native who has contributed to various magazines, newspapers and has been an editor at HipHopDX since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @FourFingerRings.