The demographic of fans lined up outside the El Rey for Definitive Jux rapper Cage's show on July 18 betrayed little of the artistry and showmanship that would eventually transpire inside. Comprised mostly of a hard-core audience (i.e. grubby kids in Hot Topic T-shirts and backwards baseball caps), it was easy to feel out of place wearing six-inch heels and current “it” bag.
Los Angeles was the fourth stop on the Depart From Me tour, in support of the July 7 follow-up to Chris “Cage” Palko's lauded Hell's Winter album. We caught up with Cage backstage prior to his performance to chat about the tour, fans, and the thematic evolution between the two albums.
“I feel like it's starting over in a sense because there's a lot of new kids and a different sound,” Cage said. “Hell's Winter had a triumphant vibe to it at times… Depart From Me is more hopeless, but also romantic. There are a lot less assholes at the shows now.”
While Cage's darker, more tortured version of hip-hop primarily appeals to what has been called a “horror-core” audience, Cage himself characterizes it “progressive rap music.” Whatever one may call it, there's no disputing that it attracts some very loyal, very passionate fans. And they are fervent as all get-go; as we stood in the pit trying to take notes we got bombarded not once, but twice, by fans demanding we throw up our hands during the song “Teenage Hands” (one of them actually hit us to make his point.)
Aside from rabid fans, Cardboard City — the collective of artists to which Cage belongs — was out in full force at the El Rey. Opening the show was fellow Def Jux rapper Yak Ballz, a mop-haired Frank Zappa look-alike who transported us back to Queens with his frenetic energy and chutzpah.
Other Cardboard City luminaries at the gig included Definitive Jux label CEO and rapper El-P, Depart From Me guitarist and producer F. Sean Martin, and Chauncey CC, whose hilarious expressions and enthusiasm as a DJ onstage overshadowed Yak Ballz and Cage at times. Even “I Never Knew You” music video director and actor Shia LaBeouf made an appearance, though he kept on the down-low so much we didn't even realize he was there.
Cage took the stage with an exceptionally out-there performance, raising the bar for public misbehavior. And he is insanely brilliant. While Hell's Winter is a recollection of the most fucked-up shit you'll ever hear — its lyrics a tapestry of abuse, ass-fucking and pain — Depart From Me is about loss, but sets itself apart from most sad bastard albums with its surreal depictions of particularly dysfunctional relationships. Live, Cage was possessed and jarring, pulling stunts like hanging himself with the microphone, diving into the audience and inviting a fan up from the pit to dance during “Katie's Song” (which, like the relationship it depicts, didn't exactly work out.)
In terms of audience engagement Cage is unrivaled in the Def Jux coterie, and from where we were standing we spotted more than a few die-hards mouthing all the words and ardently throwing up the Cardboard City hand gesture (hands formed into two Cs, like Chanel), especially when Cage intro'd the song “Perfect World” with the question, “Who here has more than $100 in their wallet?”
Perhaps the most poignant and resonant moment of the show was after the song “The Death of Chris Palko,” when Cage asked the audience for a moment of silence to honor recently departed friend and label mate Camu Tao. Cage got about three seconds in before someone in the audience shouted “fuck you,” which validated the seething rage which emanated out of every moment of Cage's stage presence and reinforced our belief that nothing ruins shit like people, especially when they've paid for the right to eagerly expect your pain to make them happy.