It's about time this happened. Three tracks into New York emcee Cage's new full-length, Hell's Winter (Def Jux), Jello Biafra lets loose a torrent of George W. Bush's finest quotes over a pounding beat courtesy of DJ Shadow. The track, "G.O.P. Uber Alles," not only references Biafra's former band the Dead Kennedys' infamous anti-Reagan song "California Uber Alles" but ends with Biafra simulating the president doing lines of cocaine while he screams, "DON'T MESS WITH TEXAS!"
And while it's fun to revel in tearing a sonic effigy of our "deeply responsible" leader apart, Cage manages to do it with dignity, intelligence and a biting sense of sarcasm: "I still don't know what to wear with this orange alert!" It's an intensely personal, sometimes painful record from a man whose life has been marked by a drug-addicted father and a stint as a guinea pig for pre-market Prozac as an institutionalized teenager.
Speaking from his van on the way to Chicago, where he was planning to perform with a nasty case of strep throat, Cage needed little prompting to launch into an impassioned diatribe about America under the watch of the Bush administration.
INDEPENDENT: The album has an incredibly bad-ass opening song, but it quickly gets really heavy and lyrically intense. Knowing some of your story, I can understand why, but was this apparent to you as you were making it? Are the songs autobiographical?
CAGE: The whole record is true to life, that's why it was such a big deal to make. I was actually terrified to release it ... I thought it would be career suicide. With most rap music, it's very self-absorbed and just basically I was trying to put a record together that didn't come across as too pretentious or self-indulgent.
The song with Jello Biafra is one of the most scathing political songs I've ever heard on a hip-hop album, and I think it's extremely commendable. Why do you think there's not as much of this in mainstream hip hop?
I think that with most rap artists, when they make political songs, they use the same approach to every song that they make, which is basically "I'm the best rapper, the greatest guy you ever heard," and there's this continuum of that self-indulgence throughout an entire record, and when they do come with politics, it seems really preachy and like they're the next Che Guevara. For lack of a better word, it's "primitive understanding" or very juvenile understanding, like eighth grade politics. It's more than just saying "Fuck the government, man." ... I was one of these people, but when I made this song, I didn't want to point fingers at people because that don't work. It was like trying to tell poor Republicans, "Why are you a Republican? It doesn't make any sense," or black Republicans for that matter. I have no Republican friends and tend not to even speak to Republicans because they're so closed-minded. And [the song is from] the view of a New Yorker and how disgusting it is to live under the constant threat of orange alert. It's mostly me complaining and most people can relate to that completely. There's no such thing as a revolutionary in the U.S. anymore.... The only revolutionary I can think of is bin Laden.
Why bin Laden?
I think that he's technically and by definition a revolutionary ... someone going against whatever system it is who has devoted followers. He's a revolutionary to the Arab world, but he's not a revolutionary for me, because he'd prefer me dead. We're the new imperialists. The English showed us how to set up an empire and we went with it, didn't we? If we plant troops in the Middle East, what's to become of it.... It'll just be a big gas station eventually. I don't hate this country. I'm embarrassed by it. I'm touring through the Midwest right now, and it baffles me how you stop at truck stops and see all this propaganda and these stupid Marine flags saying, "Kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out." Middle America is more frightened by terrorism than New Yorkers. And when you see a poor Republican, the next thing you think is, "You must be really religious."
A recurring theme in your songs is the apocalypse. Do you feel like the world is going to come to an end soon?
Well, 9/11 marked a day that the paranoid conspiracy theorists of the world got a free pass. It's at the point now where Bush and Cheney have pulled off their masks and are doing the most appalling shit and no one is questioning them. It took thousands of black people dying in New Orleans before the so-called free media started asking questions. I think it was Ronald Reagan who started the policy of the news having to be approved, that stories could be pulled. Don't show any body bags coming home from the war, just put our president on a warship. It's despicable ... It's really sad that so many people buy into this shit ... If you're gonna pass someone laying on the floor bleeding, do you give them a hand or do you watch the car wreck like everyone else? I give money to homeless people and people say, "He's just gonna be spending it on drugs," and if that's all that motherfucker has, then I'm doing way better than he is. People say, he's just trying to hustle you--we're all hustling something. You hustle stories, I hustle music. As far as the apocalypse, I think 9/11 and us going to Iraq and creating a million more Bin Ladens--we just fast-forwarded to it. How long until New York City looks like Israel or Jordan? Reagan--another thing that cocksucker did, fuck his soul--was to basically dust the cobwebs off concentration camps in the U.S., and Bush reinstated that by giving the CIA the right to shoot Americans that they believe to be associated with terrorism. I myself tell someone that they are a fucking idiot if they join up in the Army for no cause. The last time our country fought a war in defense was ... I can't remember ... World War II? Since then we've just attacked. I love reading history on war. It's the most intriguing thing about humans, this need to destroy each other. If you look at insects and animals, they coexist so peacefully. They only destroy each other to survive or eat. We just destroy to destroy. We destroy animals to wear them because it's fashionable. I'm sure a 5-year-old made the 80 pairs of Nikes that I collect, so I guess I'm a hypocrite, but name anyone now who isn't.
Do you write on tour? Does your writing come in spurts or is it constant?
I'm writing.... We get T-shirts on our rider every night, and we just had this idea that we're going to just start writing with markers on them, with some homemade slogans, like "Triple Five Soul makes clown pants," "J. Lo clubs seals," "Japan loves dolphin meat." But yeah, I'm already four songs into my next record.
Given that you spent time in an institution and were exposed to medication in that way, how do you feel about prescription culture where kids are constantly being diagnosed with problems that there always happens to be an expensive pill for?
My favorite are the commercials where you can now self-diagnose yourself by going to a Web site and taking a questionnaire--"Are you tired? Do you have trouble paying attention?"--and I guarantee that a lot of people, by those criteria, would need this medicine. You have kids with behavioral problems who just need more love and more talking to and instead they just get pumped up on medication and they just get more disorders. I was a guinea pig for Prozac with 40 other test groups around the country, and it wasn't on the market yet, and 7 years later it comes out that Prozac makes people suicidal. A lot of these kids in school shootings are on antidepressants. The real axis of evil are the pharmaceutical companies, the FDA, and the medical industry, the doctors who are prescribing this. We have doctors who make the most money in the world in the US.... It's ridiculous. People talk about Canada and socialized medicine ... that only works until you're flooded with immigrants and you're waiting an hour for an ambulance. It's disgusting that we are a medicated nation. I prefer a little more honesty with my government that I am supposed to trust. Now democracy is the new communism. We don't have guns to our heads saying we'll go to jail for voicing what we believe. Now it's just a big magic trick: "You're free, do what you want."
Cage plays Cat's Cradle in Carrboro on Tuesday, Dec. 6 with Camu Tao and Despot at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $10-12. Hell's Winter is available now.