Soren Baker writes about pop music for Calendar

Germaine "Canibus" Williams knows he has a way with words. Even in the rap world, where hyperbole is commonplace, the 23-year-old native of Jamaica takes boasting to new levels. In one song he warns other rappers, "My intelligence begins where yours peaks. . . . "

And his stage name is meant to underscore his prowess as a rapper. Though "Canibus" could also be taken as a wink to hip-hop's widespread references to marijuana, the moniker means "Can I Bus"--as in, "Can I bust a rhyme?" The question about whether he can bust--or effectively deliver--a snappy rhyme is clearly rhetorical.

Mr. Humble, he's not.

Before his stock rose in pop circles after a fiery performance this year on a much lauded remix of Wyclef Jean's hit single "Gone Till November," Canibus had earned a reputation in hard-core hip-hop circles as someone who could back up his boasts, thanks to a rap style so fast and furious that it would humble even a seasoned auctioneer.

Over the last 18 months, the rapper has been building his following through high-profile collaborations with such hip-hop stars as LL Cool J and the Lost Boyz, invariably outperforming them on their own songs with his harsh voice and confrontational demeanor.

Whereas most rappers focus on familiar topics such as money, drugs and women, Canibus feels as comfortable rapping about mythological gods and computers as he does about his superiority as a rapper. Typical of his boasts: "My flows are like body blows that cause internal bleeding."

"When I write a rhyme or when I'm thinking about something, my motive is to say something that's never been said before as far as hip-hop is concerned," says Canibus, whose debut album, "Can-I-Bus," is due Tuesday from Universal Records. "I never try to bring something to the table that somebody has brought to the table already."

If Canibus is on rap's fast track these days, he seems capable emotionally of handling all the attention.

There are lots of distractions on the downtown Los Angeles warehouse set of a video shoot, including a parade of barely dressed models who have parts in the video, which is for his new album. But he remains focused as he waits for his next scene.

Despite the cockiness of the records, he seems an eager student on the set. Rather than use the downtime to party or hang out with an entourage, he pays attention to everything going on around him. It's part of a dedication that makes his career ambition seem as grand as his rapping style.

While making a guest appearance during Jean's set on the recent Smokin' Grooves tour stop at the Universal Amphitheatre, Canibus flashed some old-fashioned theatrical instincts by walking on stage accompanied by a full-grown lion.

While in town, Canibus also held his own with host Bill Maher and guests, including author-critic Stanley Crouch, in a discussion of some of rap's finer points on "Politically Incorrect."

Canibus' interests also give him a strong presence on the Internet, which he says is one of his many sources for lyrical inspiration. He is even one of the few rappers to have his own site. One reason he has already had more than 330,000 hits on is that it offers access to some unreleased recordings.

None of this ambition or exposure has hurt Canibus' credibility in hip-hop.

"The way that Canibus jumps into songs, he makes your ears stand at attention," says Datwon Thomas, an assistant editor at hip-hop digest XXL. "He always makes you love what he's doing. He's one that you remember."

But there is another reason why people remember Canibus: his very public feud with rap legend LL Cool J.

The flare-up grew out of an appearance Canibus made on "4,3,2,1," a single from LL Cool J's 1997 album, "Phenomenon."

When recording the song, Canibus added a line that made reference to the tattoo of a microphone that LL has on his arm. Canibus says his lyric was a tribute to the body art, but LL took it as an insult.

LL, who now refuses to discuss the matter, rewrote his entire verse on "4,3,2,1" before the album was finished to attack Canibus as some talentless upstart. He even went so far as to remove Canibus' verse from one version of the song's video. Needless to say, Canibus wasn't pleased.

In classic rap fashion, he retaliated with "Second Round K.O.," a Jean-produced single this year that was set up in the form of a mock boxing match, complete with a spirited commentary from Mike Tyson. On the record, Canibus issued such stinging lines as, "You walk around showing off your body 'cause it sells / plus to avoid the fact that you ain't got skills."

The single not only became a smash in hip-hop circles but also soared onto the pop charts, selling more than 400,000 copies.

Yet "Second Round K.O." has been both a blessing and a curse for Canibus.

From an artistic standpoint, he proved he can hold his own lyrically with one of rap's giants. On the downside, some pop and hip-hop fans, who were hearing Canibus for the first time, got the impression that he was a novelty artist--just some guy who dissed LL Cool J.

"A lot of people feel that that's all I'm good at, but that's not true," Canibus says. "I'm only good at that because I'm good with so many other things. Don't think that I just sit home all day and write battle rhymes. That's stupid. It doesn't make any sense. I rhyme about relevant things. I attack when I'm cornered; my back was against the wall. I don't glorify that at all. I moved on, man."

Some elements of Canibus' background are interchangeable with those of other rappers. He was brought up in poverty by a single mother, moving so frequently as a youngster that he was an easy target for local bullies eager to test the new kid on the block. He came to the U.S. with his mother when he was about 12, but the moving continued. He lived in various states during his teen years.

"I was always getting into problems, always fighting because [people] were always saying the wrong things to me," he says.

He found his greatest weapon to be his rapping skills. A fan of such old-school stars as Rakim, he eventually began experimenting with rap, joining impromptu street rapping sessions in Atlanta, where he lived before moving to New York, which he now calls home.

"When I get in the mic booth, I'm aggressive off the top because I've learned that that's how I have to be," he says, sitting on a couch in the warehouse between scenes. "When I walk into a situation, I try to control as much of it as I can--my space at least. Anybody that invades my space, it sets me on [edge]."

Canibus' first appearance on a major release was a guest spot on the soundtrack for the 1997 hip-hop documentary "Rhyme & Reason," but his first big break was an appearance on a remix of the Lost Boyz's 1997 hit "Music Makes Me High."

Canibus landed on the soundtrack because of Charles Suitt, the president and chief executive of Group Home Entertainment and vice president of A&R; at Universal Records.

Suitt's barber introduced the two about five years ago in Atlanta, and Suitt, who was managing the Lost Boyz, was initially struck by the young rhymer's demeanor.

"I was more impressed with him than by his rapping skills," Suitt recalls. "As time went by, I found out that he could rap about anything."

After Canibus' work with the Lost Boyz, rap fans were actively seeking new material from this dynamic wordsmith. Rather than rush out his own album, however, he took his time, carefully laying a foundation for the record.

On the eve of his long-awaited album release, Canibus has found himself in the midst of another controversy.

In an editorial in the premiere issue of Blaze, the new rap magazine launched by the publishers of Spin and Vibe, editor Jesse Washington accused Jean of pulling a gun on him because Jean believed the magazine was going to run a negative review of Canibus' album.

Although Jean has denied the event, the editor stands by his story. Jean was reportedly upset because the review was based on an early, unfinished version of the album. The magazine subsequently agreed not to run the review.

Canibus, meanwhile, is trying to distance himself from the situation. He says he doesn't know what happened because he wasn't there, but he does say he believes Jean's denial.

"[The editor] wants to sell magazines," Canibus says. "That's so crazy that it comes out in their first issue. It's a gimmick to sell magazines, man. It has caused a lot of drama."

Canibus' album is a 13-track, lyric-heavy adventure. While his rhymes are delicately crafted when he pays tribute to his mother in one song and attacks the government in another, he sounds more comfortable highlighting the shortcomings of other rappers and trumpeting his own cleverness. Cuts such as "Buckingham Palace" and "Get Retarded" feature the kind of lyrical gymnastics that will have listeners pressing rewind countless times.

Given his spectacular skills as a rapper, it's a shame the album itself doesn't showcase those skills with more dynamic production. Things work nicely with star producers Wyclef Jean and Salaam Remi, but things sag when a series of other, lesser-known producers fail to deliver. If the album lives up to commercial expectations, it'll be because of the power of his words.

At the video set, it's nearly 8 p.m. and Canibus is finished for the day. But he's not one of the first out the door. He still seems to be soaking up the atmosphere, eager to learn more.

"I'm not just a rapper running around here trying to be out here for 10 years," Canibus says. "My main objective is for that the time that I am around, I want to make a difference and make statements that are ageless."


Hear the Music

* Excerpts from Canibus' debut album, "Can-I-Bus," and other recent releases are available on The Times' World Wide Web site. Point your browser to:

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World