How am I not myself?
Ah, the bite. That oldest of grievance, irrationally juvenile and fundamentally Hip Hop. In our beloved art form there is no such thing as influence, no borrowing in a genre built on sampled beats and melodies; style is a wonderfully organic and sacred possession. Birthed without assistance in the cavernous recesses of the ghetto youth’s brain and brought to life for the masses to indulge but never to learn from. From T-Pain to Raekwon to the Rocksteady Crew to the first kids who played around with arrows and outlines on the 2 train the insistence and ownership of individual style has been intrinsic to Hip Hop. Anger over perceived biting has produced some of our most brilliant enraged ranting, the need to be different, to separate oneself from the mainstream co-opting of a style has produced moments of truly inspired “originality”.
I’m from upstate New York, about 75 miles North of the city in a small former foliage destination tucked into the Hudson Valley. Perhaps out of proximity, one of my earliest forays into Hip Hop was developing an affinity for Chris Palko, an MC who goes by the moniker Cage, (an acronym that stands for Cancer, AIDS, Government, Environment) a white boy repping the underground with a taste for the macabre hailing from Middletown, about 20 minutes South on route 17. Cage, along with Necro and his brother Ill Bill, practiced a horror core which held weight in certain New York circles in the mid 90s. Cage spit in tight, nasal bursts of practiced energy, mainly focusing on sadism, mayhem and hard drug abuse.
In 1997, off the strength of two warped Necro produced singles (“Radiohead” and “Agent Orange”) Cage was featured in the Source’s Unsigned Hype column. The obviously talented but unfocused rapper would continue to toil away on the underground circuit. His atmospheric and appropriately titled Movies for the Blind off Eastern Conference wouldn’t receive its release for another five years. But in 1998, another technically sound white sociopath made it into The Source’s Unsigned Hype column. His name was Marshall Mathers, condensed to his initials Eminem. He was a kid out of Detroit of all places who had made a name for himself by regularly placing in organized MC competitions. Within a few months he was on Dr. Dre’s floundering Aftermath imprint readying his debut. This obviously bred envy and animosity between two rappers who shared tastes and styles. Cage aired out his grievance with “The Illest 4 Letter Word”.
Cage_-_Illest_4_Letter_Word.mp3 - cage
Cage found the perfect backdrop for his assault. It’s a simple repetitive loop, a creaky, watermarked player piano pounding away in a haunted saloon. This song isn’t here for its obscurity or to give me a topic to go off on. I’ve always genuinely loved “The Illest 4 Letter Word” on its own merits as a raw seminar on menace. The death threats are graphic but skirt absurdity thanks to utter conviction. Cage advertises himself as someone filled with hatred and there’s an intense personal disdain made crystal clear by the artist, this isn’t a publicity stunt. He rips Em a new asshole for lack of originality and being from Michigan. In the third verse, Mathers is never even mentioned and Cage simply goes off on a lyrical exhibition of masterful dusted delivery displaying exactly why Cage’s troubled intensity was such fertile ground for inspiration.
Mathers officially refuted Cage’s claims. He also responded with brilliant punchlines on two different songs, one off The Slim Shady LP, ("Role Model") and one ("Get You Mad") which is still my favorite Eminem punchline. (“Wagin wars/jumped on stage and sprayed Cage with Agent Orange/and wiped my ass with his page in The Source”. For the record, “Orange” is one of eleven words in the English language that don’t rhyme with anything.) In addition, I’ve always felt the line “I’ll bite your motherfuckin style, just to make it fresher” off “I Just don’t Give a Fuck” was directed at Cage, perhaps Em got something early on it takes some many years to understand, and some never do. We still can’t be sure that Marshall Mathers was influenced by Chris Palko, but for a moment let’s assume his Slim Shady persona was inspired by Cage’s American Gothic.
Mathers found a muse in Slim Shady, a deranged dick head that gave voice to all the wounded pride and pent up rage Eminem buried in boastful, elaborate punchlines. Shady could call out your favorite obnoxious celebrity, encourage statutory rape and take his baby mother’s corpse to the lake with his daughter securely fastened in a car seat. This brutal honesty and antagonistic assertiveness helped the artist find himself. He used it to mine his personal demons for great songwriting. He created a counterculture badge he’d wear with pride as he spit in the face of the status quo and it was the catalyst for some of his most deranged, brilliant moments. Moments, with no disrespect to Chris Palko, that offered a clarity and insight Cage simply wasn’t capable of, there’s a very select few who ever have been (And in fact with introspective efforts like Hell’s Winter he’s somewhat emulated his protégé). Cage was a springboard, a starting off point for one of the largest, most important personalities to grace the stage and he should be honored as such. I’m not saying the world is without biters, that low, talentless hack bereft of ideas. But for every critic lining up to bash the Knux, remember: We all get our inspiration somewhere. Even the great ones occasionally need a nudge in the right direction.