What's Up With The Cannibal Ox Poster In Lady Bird?
For at least one writer, the Harlem-based hip-hop duo Cannibal Ox was an introduction to a lifelong journey of hip-hop fulfillment. Could they have made the same impression on Lady Bird's Kyle?
Lady Bird. It's the movie that won the hearts and minds of America in 2017. It's funny, it's touching, and it feels utterly real. Every aspect of the film was impeccably realized from the script, to the casting, to the set design, to the soundtrack.
Much of the soundtrack is made up of music that had been around for years at the time the movie is set. “Crash Into Me” by the Dave Matthews Band, “Tha Crossroads” by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, and “Hand in my Pocket” by Alanis Morissette all make appearances. These tracks debuted between 1995 and 1996, but the young characters could easily have still been listening to them seven or eight years later. Dave Matthews and Alanis Morisette were omnipresent on the radio, on MTV, in new and used CD bins. I'm certain they embedded themselves into the psyches of many kids who later came of age in the early 2000's.
As for “Tha Crossroads,” is there a more appropriate symbolic track for a scene set at a dance during a character's senior year of high school? Our protagonist Lady Bird spends the movie at her own crossroads. Not the one where Eazy-E welcomes you to the afterlife, but the crossroads of an intelligent and talented young person trying to make the right choices about what to do with her life. Eighteen isn't too old for nostalgia, especially when you're in your last year of high school, simultaneously peering forward and backward like a confused and horny Janus.
And then there’s Cannibal Ox.
While there's no Cannibal Ox music in the film, there's a moment during one scene in which the poster to their 2001 album The Cold Vein flashes on screen. It's one of just a few discernible items in Kyle's bedroom. Kyle, played by Timothee Chalamet, is the boy of Lady Bird's dreams. He smokes, plays guitar in a band, and can frequently be found peeking over the cover of a Howard Zinn book. And apparently, he's into Cannibal Ox.
The moment when the album art flashes by is a moment that separates the viewers of Lady Bird into two camps: those who are caught up in the story, perhaps they take a moment to anticipate the dopamine pleasure boost they'll receive later when they tweet, "kyles such an asshole OMG;” and those who are rendered powerless, as their eyes are pulled for a few seconds to a poster for the album that changed the way they thought about hip-hop, if not their entire life.
"Yo," they think to themselves, "... is Kyle a Jukie tho?"
In 2001 I was managing a comic book store and regularly spending the money I made there in downtown Chapel Hill's various independent record stores. On one of my trips to CD Alley, a friend picked up The Cold Vein by Cannibal Ox. "I heard some of this the other day, and it sounded crazy," he said. "You'd like it. It's rap."
"What the hell kind of name is Cannibal Ox?" I asked, as I smugly purchased a copy of Kool Keith's Spankmaster.
Later that week, one of my coworkers at the comic shop brought The Cold Vein into work and slapped it into the CD player. The album played in the background as I attempted to discern whether I was ordering too many or too few copies of Wolverine: Origin (too few).
Sometimes it takes me a while to process lyrics when I listen to hip-hop. I tend to hear an MC's flow, the cadence, the tone of voice before I understand the words, let alone the meaning. This means that the first thing I notice is frequently the production. The Cold Vein was my first exposure to El-P, who produced the album and rapped on a few tracks. I had missed his work with Company Flow, but as of my first listen to The Cold Vein, I was a fan. His music sounded like the end of the world. The oppressive synths reminded me of every science fiction movie that ended terribly for the hero.
El-P has grown as a producer in the years since The Cold Vein, but one aspect of his work that has remained constant is that he has never been content to come up with a four-bar beat and let it loop until the track is done. As his tracks progress, the beats seem to evolve. There's a sense of growth in an El-P beat that few other producers achieve.
Even in that initial period when I wasn't catching all the lyrics, I loved the voices of the MCs, Vast Aire and Vordul Mega. As I listened over and over, their lyrics slowly worked their way into my brain, followed by a creeping understanding of their meaning, or at least a piece of an interpretation. I became obsessive in my listening. I listened in the shop, in my truck, at home; only listening to other music when I was not alone, because not everyone else wanted to hear it twenty-four hours a day.
There's an abstraction to the lyrics that I found both confounding and exciting. I liked the fact that Vast and Vordul spoke in a language that I only barely recognized at times. The first words on the album, other than a sample from The Big Chill, are rhymed by both MCs:
"My shell, mechanical found ghost,
But my ghetto is animal found toast."
- Cannibal Ox, Iron Galaxy
Alhough there's an obvious reference in there (to anime and manga Ghost in the Shell), the words evoke a feeling more than they tell a literal and sequential story, and that was exciting to me.
I was living in a college town in the South, but it was a college town that offered plenty of opportunity to learn about interesting music with a bit of work. Between the radio stations at UNC, Duke and NC State, and the various record stores and music venues, not to mention my friends and the people I worked with, Chapel Hill was a great place for a goofball heading into his late twenties to have his mind blown.
That was Chapel Hill in 2001. How about Sacramento? How likely would it have been for Kyle to come across The Cold Vein? While the album is considered by many to be a masterpiece of underground hip-hop, it's not something you would have heard on a mainstream corporate radio station.
How about the student radio scene in Sacramento? It turns out there are a good amount of college stations. A Google Books search of CMJ New Music Report in 2001 shows us that Sac State's KSSU tended more toward your more well-known hip-hop (with notable Los Angeles-based exceptions like Dilated Peoples and Ozomatli), but in the December 17, 2001 issue, we see that KDVS, the UC-Davis radio station, listed Cannibal Ox as one of their top artists in the hip-hop category, so it's very likely Kyle could have heard them there.
Or maybe Kyle came across the album at a local record store. It turns out Sacramento is full of them. Dimple Records, for example, is a prominent independent music store chain. They've been around since 1978 and are still going strong today. There's a chance they'd have been carrying The Cold Vein. There was a place called Records, which was in business from the 1970's until 2016. They had a strong hip-hop connection: Records was featured on the cover of DJ Shadow's 1996 sample-driven masterpiece, Endtroducing…..
Either way, it's not unrealistic that Kyle would have encountered Cannibal Ox, and for the album to have made a strong impression on him the way it did on me.
Sometime in the last year I saw an Instagram post asking people to comment with the most twisted opening bars to a hip-hop track. I scrolled through the comments and said to myself, "I guess these people have never heard ‘A B-Boy's Alpha.’"
"My mother said 'You sucked my pussy when you came out
Don't ever talk back. I handed you life and I'll snatch it back.'"
- Vast Aire, “A B-Boy's Alpha"
In a landscape full of tributes to mamas (and, yeah, snaps on other people's mamas), how many lines are there that slap the taste out of your mama-issues-having mouth like that?
In other tracks, we get puffed up battle rap, we get science fiction, fantasy, and mythology, and most of all, we get Cannibal Ox's New York. In some of the last lines of “A B-Boy's Alpha,” Vordul Mega references lynching, police brutality, and mayor Rudolph Guiliani as obstacles to growing up black in New York:
"All of us canoeing through sewers with juvenile maneuvers
Caught up in nooses from borders with troubleshooters
On corners where coppers will hop out of Dunkin Donuts
Popping they gun and shoot us
Or more of us aware
Thinking Rudy Guili don't give a fuck about a moulie."
- Vordul Mega, “A B-Boy's Alpha”
Then there's the simple two-line rhyme, which sums it all up. It was the closest thing there was to call-and-response when I finally saw Can O at the Cat's Cradle's Back Room in 2015. It was a sparsely attended show on a cold fall night. The purpose of the tour was to promote their second album, out fourteen years after their first, but on the real? People were there for The Cold Vein. At the top of Vast Aire's verse in “Iron Galaxy,” some guy next to me at the front of the stage threw his arm around my shoulder and we both screamed along with the rest of the crowd, "If there's crack in the basement, crackheads stand adjacent."
Seeing that show knocked something off my bucket list. It was important to me. Would it have held anything like the same kind of meaning to Kyle?
Knowing about Sacramento's musical infrastructure of college radio and independent records stores gives us the means, but not the motive. Why would Kyle have been into Cannibal Ox? Rather than speculating, I decided to ask someone who might have some insight: Traci Spadorcia, the set decorator for Lady Bird. We exchanged emails the week Lady Bird was nominated for five Academy Awards.
In response to my initial exploratory email, Ms. Spadorcia stated that, while she was the one who decorated Kyle’s bedroom, that particular poster was provided by one of the producers.
I asked about the sparseness of Kyle's room as compared to the dense visual hodgepodge of Lady Bird's room, which was filled with posters, drawings, artifacts, and writing on the walls, and what she intended to express about Kyle with her set design.
“It was intentional,” Spadorcia said, “from the direction of production designer Chris Jones and from Greta [Gerwig, Lady Bird writer and director] to keep it sparse and without much of an aesthetic really."
She further explained that Kyle is "an intellectual, into political philosophy and somewhat of an anarchist, and Greta wanted to have certain books around in his room. Even if you didn’t see them, they were there.”
And regarding the single most important prop in the movie, the Cannibal Ox poster?
"Greta and Eli Bush, the producer, thought that Kyle would be into underground hip-hop that had a political bent to it. Eli suggested Cannibal Ox and we got the rights to use that CD cover poster."
So there's you have it. Kyle is a confirmed intellectual. We see him playing guitar, performatively reading his Zinn, and pointedly not caring what other people think of him. But despite his self-aware presentation, he's thinking, and he's pursuing knowledge. He could easily have been looking for something outside the mainstream, either in his general quest for knowledge, or out of musical curiosity, or even just out of a desire to seem deep.
And then there's this: If I can be into Cannibal Ox, who's to say anyone couldn't be? I'm a white guy from North Carolina. At the time The Cold Vein was released, I was managing a comic shop in my hometown. Thinking about the timeline, I had probably just been told by my boss that he was thinking of closing the store, which led to me thinking about my future, which led to my buying the store a couple years later (and issuing an edict against playing profanity-laden music like The Cold Vein, ironically enough).
I had a life very different from the one described by Cannibal Ox, but The Cold Vein affected me deeply and sent me down one of the definitive paths of music exploration of my life. I bought everything I could find from Def Jux (later Definitive Jux), El-P's label. I bought El-P's solo records and argued with at least one friend about whether they were better than The Cold Vein. I bought albums by the other Def Jukies: Mr. Lif. Aesop Rock. RJD2. I picked up the label compilations. Both Camu Tao and Przm have since passed on, but I've had Przm's beat from Camu Tao's Hold the Floor stuck in my head since I heard it on Def Jux Presents Volume 2 sixteen years ago.
I followed news of the artists I most enjoyed. After El-P shut down Definitive Jux, I followed him wherever he went. His third full length solo album, 2012's Cancer for Cure, was the first of his records that I enjoyed as much as The Cold Vein. El-P also produced Killer Mike's RAP Music, which was released later in 2012, and which I enjoyed even more than Cancer for Cure. Soon thereafter, Mike and El teamed up as Run the Jewels, whose three albums to date have earned them the enviable position of being my favorite band.
I can trace this all directly from The Cold Vein. It has had an impact on me far beyond the enjoyment I gained from one album.
Were I to consider the possible futures of the fictional characters in Lady Bird, I'd be most concerned with Lady Bird, with her family. Then I'd wonder about her friends. I wouldn't really care how Kyle turned out. He was a jerk, and a manipulator. But was he irredeemable?
Aristotle said, "Give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man."
I'm very different that I was in my thirties, let alone when I was seven. People change, for the better and for the worse. And while we're not just the media we consume, the music we love is a part of who we are. I hope I'm always becoming a better person. More thoughtful. More compassionate.
Maybe one day, in the fictitious world of Lady Bird, it'll be the same for Kyle.
"A pigeon can't drop shit if it never flew."
- Vast Aire, “Iron Galaxy”