Music

Unsung Heroes: Camu Tao

Some artists are more celebrated in death than they ever were in life. It’s an unfortunate phenomenon, true for posthumously-crowned hip-hop royalty like J Dilla and Big L—who, despite impeccable talent and significant influence on their peers, were rarely regarded as hip-hop elite outside of in-the-know creative circles until after their passing.

MC, producer, vocalist and cancer victim Camu Tao, on the other hand, has never been shown the appreciation he deserves; neither before, nor following the loss of his year-and-a-half long battle with the deadly disease, which took his life only a month before his 31st birthday in 2008.

Like Dilla, Mu was equally talented as both a lyricist and beatsmith. Similar to L, he refused to be boxed-in by convention—toying with Horrorcore one moment and attempting party music the next, yet always in his own unique way. Too ahead of his time to be fully recognized in it (yet too unacknowledged at his death for it to properly uphold his legacy), Mu has remained in relative obscurity: a largely unrecognized subject of tribute verses by former collaborators and an all-too-often overlooked footnote in the indie hip-hop history books.

He was, however, an integral part of a few influential projects that came out of New York City’s flourishing underground scene in the late ’90s and early ’00s, usually alongside various members of The Weathermen supergroup: a Suicide Squad-esque assembly of hip-hop antiheroes mostly affiliated with the popular Eastern Conference and Definitive Jux indie labels that, at different points, included El-P of Run The Jewels, Tame One of The Artifacts, Breeze Brewin of The Juggaknots, Vast Aire of Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock and Cage, among others.

Named after a revolutionary anti-imperialist student organization that declared war on the U.S. government in the ’70s, The Weathermen never got a chance to stage their musical coup or release their promised studio album, The New Left. Instead, they only dropped their mixtape The Conspiracy in 2003 and then unofficially disbanded, allegedly due to internal arguments that arose within the clique after Mu’s untimely death.

Before The Weathermen’s formation, however, Mu cut his teeth with another prominent underground crew from his Columbus, Ohio hometown, the MHz. Comprised of fellow Weathermen Copywrite, Tage Proto and Jakki Da Motamouth, as well as sample-chopping maestro RJD2, MHz earned a rep on the indie rap circuit with a couple of 12” singles released in the late ’90s on Fondle ’Em Records—Bobbito Garcia’s mostly vinyl label, best known for reintroducing KMD’s Zev Love X to the world as MF Doom.

On those early records, as well as the group’s 2001 compilation album Table Scraps, Mu’s rhyme style was noticeably more abstract and animated than in later work. For example, on “Magnetics,” (his 1999 solo offering off their second Fondle ’Em single) Mu spat intricately-rhymed “metaphysical metaphor[s],” vocal timbre wildly fluctuating.

Two years later, he dropped the lesser-known 12” “Hear Me Talkin to You,” utilizing an equally original, oddly-syncopated rhyme scheme, albeit significantly less wordy and much easier to follow. On “Open Hands,” the single’s second cut, he also sang the hook; a hint at the direction of his future music.

In 2002, Mu released his first studio LP, Nighthawks, a hastily conceived concept album in collaboration with Cage, loosely based on a 1981 Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams cop thriller of the same name. On it, the two emcees rhymed as a pair of crooked detectives engaging in all sorts of corruption and debauchery. The album fared about as well as the film, receiving generally favorable reviews, but failing to make an overwhelming impact.

Earlier that year, however, Mu had released his first single on Def Jux, “Hold The Floor,” which ended up being one of his most sought-after cuts. Before 50 Cent had popularized half-sung rap hooks on hardcore hip-hop tracks about a year-or-so later, Mu belted out an infectious melodic chorus with a simple message: “Y’all don’t really want it.”

“Hold The Floor” stood out from the rest of Definitive Jux Presents II (the compilation on which it was featured), in that the song—although still distinctive to Mu—was more catchy, rooted, and universally digestible than the majority of the project’s otherwise spacey material. Most notably, it was also much harder.

Founded by former Company Flow frontman El-P at the turn of the century, in its formative years, Def Jux was defined by his “dusty but digital” sound and launched with the group’s mantra “independent as fuck” at heart—pushing the kinds of artists who definitively juxtaposed the perceived superficiality of mainstream rap’s shiny suit era, but without strictly adhering to the sample-driven boom bap aesthetic typical of other underground movements at the time.

Def Jux carved out its own niche, as a result, stressing musical and conceptual deviance—priding itself on being different. Its well-marketed brand of offbeat hip-hop became increasingly popular among angsty stoners and Brooklyn hipster prototypes, somewhat alienating the label from the culture that birthed it, and eventually a couple of its original signees, as well. As it progressed, Def Jux quickly earned a reputation for being out of touch with hip-hop at large.

Even early in the alternative indie’s conception, however, it was clear that Mu didn’t quite fit the Def Jux mold. His first full-length record for the label was another collaboration, this time with partner-in-rhyme and fellow Columbus native Metro, unlike anything the indie had ever promoted.

Or ever would again.

In 2003, S.A. Smash released Smashy Trashy, their ode to smoking, fucking, fighting, stealing, and getting blackout drunk—glamorizing all things gutter over thumping, head-knockin’ beats. With songs like “Love To F*ck,” “A.A.,” and “Slide On ’Em,” not to be taken too seriously and almost seeming satirical at times, the album was unfortunately lost on many critics and Def Jux groupies, despite featuring some of Mu’s most dynamic production (and simply being plain old fun as hell to listen to).

In a scene where being different was the norm, and broody intellectualism reigned supreme, appealing to less-lofty tastes was the ultimate act of rebellion. Def Jux’s increasingly homogeneous, predominantly white fan base was not unnoticed by the group either, and was even acknowledged on the song “Weird” in its hook: “And I know it seems weird to you, we the only n***as in the room.”

“[Mu] was always bucking back against what anyone ever thought of him,” El-P explained to Columbus Alive earlier this year. “If you thought he was at the vanguard of the so-called backpack-rap style, he’d buck back and say, ‘I’m going to do this [S.A. Smash album] called Smashy Trashy,’ and it was party music…It was almost like he never wanted anyone to be able to tell him who he was.”

Following a series of captivatingly ridiculous Blair Cosby mixtapes, self-distributed over the next couple of years, Mu’s aversion to being pigeonholed became abundantly apparent on his genre-transcending LP, King of Hearts—which fused hip-hop with elements of post-punk, new wave, electroclash, and even uptempo electronic pop music. Tragically, Mu would not live to see his solo studio album’s debut, or even complete it, for that matter. Still, El-P decided to put the unrefined gem out in 2010 (two years after his passing), as Def Jux’s final release before shuttering, along with a similarly experimental free collaborative EP (Forever Frozen in Television Time) that the two had been working on as a duo called Central Services.

Strikingly, most of the album (as well as the EP) was sung, as opposed to rapped—which really shouldn’t have been all that much of a surprise, in retrospect, as Mu had flirted with singing throughout his career. It should be noted that, given the project’s unfinished nature, several of its tracks only featured choruses; so how many rap verses were actually intended for the final product is really a matter of speculation. A testament to El-P’s theory, in the moments where he did spit, Mu showed considerable range as a lyricist, commenting on America’s post-9/11 political climate with “Ind of the Worl,” then skillfully weaving in and out of intricate flows on “Major Team.”

Much of the project’s material handled some appropriately dark themes, most apparently death. Recorded with one foot in the grave, Mu’s piercing melodic shrieks were as haunting and mysterious as they were beautiful, especially considering the album’s posthumous release. In contrast, however, it had an overall upbeat, energetic undertone, and Mu’s message of non-conformity rang throughout.

King of Hearts offered a heartbreaking glimpse of what could’ve been for the multi-talented artist, who died when only beginning to tap into his own limitless potential. Happy Birthday to Camu Tao, on what would have been his 40th birthday.