Before there were internet rappers, there was Canibus

The New Jersey MC created the template for how modern musicians conduct themselves online.

The correct answer to the question “Who was the first rapper to make their own website?” is undoubtedly lost to history. In all likelihood, it was probably some Stanford student in 1992 who went on to become the CEO of a tech company. What is certain, however, is that the first rapper marketed to the public as having built their own website was Canibus.

It takes a certain level of rap fandom to have even heard of Canibus, and an extremely high tolerance for lyrically dense hardcore hip-hop to actually enjoy his music. These days, if you know him at all it’s as a punchline, a try-hard who flamed out and burned every bridge he crossed on his way to the bottom. But, and trust me on this one, he was once rap music’s next big thing.

The year was 1997. The place was probably some recording studio in Queens. A young battle rapper named Germaine Williams, who’d dropped out of his computer science program at DeKalb Community College in Atlanta to pursue hip-hop full time, had rhymed himself into the good graces of both the Wu-Tang Clan and Wyclef Jean of the Fugees. He had even been invited to appear on the L.L. Cool J song “4, 3, 2, 1,” rapping alongside Method Man, Redman, and DMX.

That young battle rapper named Germaine Williams was Canibus, obviously, and after he turned his verse in to L.L., the hip-hop elder statesman interpreted one of its bars as a slight. He ended up dropping the young upstart from the single version of the track and rewriting his own verse so that it dissed Canibus on the very track that was supposed to launch his career. This is all very complicated, but just know that the entire affair somehow led to Canibus releasing a diss song about L.L. Cool J accusing him of “smoking weed recently” (long story) that was produced by Wyclef Jean and featured interludes with Mike Tyson egging him on. It cracked the top 40 and became an instant classic diss track, and by 1998, Canibus had been catapulted from freestyle hero who rapped about speaking “at frequencies dogs would have trouble hearing” and spent portions of verses just doing math to someone who everyone, somehow, expected would achieve commercial success with a conventional hip-hop album.

This is basically the only context in which Canibus excelled during his early days.

This did not happen. Instead, he gave his label Can-I-Bus, a record that had a bunch of smooth production from Wyclef Jean and songs about how Carl Sagan was part of a conspiracy to cover up the truth about aliens, Britain’s royal family, math (again), plus one track where he rapped from the perspective of a sperm. And so, faced with the fact that they had a gigantic nerd on their hands, the label had Canibus lean into his dorkiness. A New York Times profile that came out in advance of the record described the rapper as “a self-confessed computer junkie who can’t stay away from the internet.” In an interview with The New York Daily News, he complained to the reporter that, “I haven’t been on [the internet] in about four or five days,” and that being offline for song long made him “feel like I haven’t brushed my teeth.” That same profile marveled at Canibus’s ability to create and maintain his own website, WWW.Canibus.Com (sadly defunct), interpreting the fact that it had drawn 350,000 hits as “a sure sign that the entertainer [...] will be a breakout debut artist.” Just in case you didn’t get the message that Canibus was really into the internet, the album also began with the sound of a modem firing up.

Unsurprisingly, the world was not ready for Can-I-Bus. Despite hitting number two on the charts and selling half a million copies off of sheer momentum, the album was panned and widely regarded as a flop. And given that the nerd stuff was tempered by an unhealthy dose of homophobia and that its catchiest song was called “Get Retarded,” the world may never be. It remains a curio of hip-hop history, a time capsule pointing to a weirder and more cerebral direction that the genre might have headed in long before Kendrick Lamar showed up. Canibus fell from grace, leaving the majors (and, thankfully, his more problematic lyrical tendencies) behind him. He found solace in the internet, the place his record label presumably told him to yap about in interviews.

By the early 2000s, Canibus had a new website, a better one, called MicClub.Net. It is also sadly defunct, but you can access an archived version of it here. (Fair warning, it used a LOT of Flash so it’s basically unnavigable on modern browsers.) Though more musicians were catching onto the internet by then, Mic Club, which shared a name with Canibus’s 2002 album, was a fairly immersive experience for its era. Canibus posted exclusive tracks, sold merch, and maintained a page of links to fan forums. He would post his lyrics on the site, as well as desktop backgrounds for all the turbo-fans out there.

You can’t see it now but the mic in this photo swings!

You can’t see it now but the mic in this photo swings!

Being able to communicate with his fans in this way would have been important to Canibus, given that he was in the military at the time. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention: After 9/11, the gold-selling rapper, who was then in his late 20s, enlisted in the Army. Here he is freestyling in uniform in front of a tank, and here’s a photo gallery on his site where you can see pictures of him wearing camo, scowling while holding guns in the field, and generally looking like a troop. Letting fans into your behind-the-scenes life is now benign in our current celebrity age, but this was the early 2000s, an era of hip-hop defined in part by 50 Cent’s “In da Club,” whose video literally featured Dr. Dre and Eminem constructing a 50 Cent robot in an underground lab — effectively telling listeners, “We are giving you a rapper who is in no way human.” While rappers such as Kanye West were busying themselves breaking the fourth wall in their music and celebs of all stripes were letting camera crews from MTV Cribs into their homes, Can’s internet candor was unique. It wasn’t bragging, it wasn’t marketing, it was just him.

If you read interviews with Canibus from around this time, it seems like he enlisted partially out of a sense of post-9/11 fervor, but mostly because he wanted to stop being Canibus, the guy whose album flopped because he couldn’t stop rapping about math. After being thrust into the limelight, he told an interviewer in 2006, “all my ambitions [outside of rap] took a backseat.” He continued, “I wanted an opportunity to go back to some of the things I left off with.” Unfortunately, you can’t be a guy who’s known professionally as Canibus and not have weed jokes follow you around, and after leaving active duty, online rumors began to swirl that the rapper had been kicked out for smoking cannabi — uh, marijuana.

As far as I can tell, there aren’t any legit news stories to substantiate that claim, and in that same 2006 interview he describes himself as “currently” in the Army, but because he named himself after drugs, the rumor has calcified into internet lore. It’s on his Wikipedia page and everything. To complicate the matter further, on his 2005 album Hip-Hop for $ale, he raps, “Join the Army, smoke Bob Marley / The sergeant major honorably discharged me for my centimil, yah, and my hemp incense,” which could either confirm the rumor or just be a line he thought sounded cool.

After leaving the Army for reasons that may or may not have to do with getting caught smoking pot, Canibus did something so ambitious that I’m pretty sure no one else has done it before or since — he recorded an hour-long song, broke it up into five parts, and then created a web player that layered each 200-bar section and played them simultaneously, offering the user the ability to choose which song stem was audible. Manipulate the Canibus soundboard fast enough, and it became a tool to effectively create your own Canibus song. This might be the most genuinely interesting musical experiment an artist attempted in the 2000s, and it prefaced a lot of the conversations we’re now having about artistry and authorship in the age of algorithms and artificial intelligence. Though the site is no longer functional, you can listen to the hour-long, non-soundboard version of the track here.

Sadly, the arc of the extremely online is long, strange, and often bends towards InfoWars. In 2014, Canibus released an album, Fait Accompli, in which nearly every song was prefaced by a sample of Alex Jones bloviating about chemtrails or the Obama Decepticon or whatever. This, I imagine, must have alienated all but a very small cross-section of his remaining fans. When he resurfaced from his internet hole a year later to release Time Flys, Life Dies… Phoenix Rise — easily the best album of his career, one where he looks back soberly on the failures of his career on one song, having his poop sucked out of his butt during an alien abduction on another, and even lets his robot-soundboard self kick a verse on a song — it was too late.

These days, Canibus is hands-off with his online presence. All of his old websites redirect to spam pages, and he doesn’t seem to run his own Facebook page. Don’t worry, though, he is still online enough to the point that his most recent songs were all about cryptocurrency.

Still, Canibus’s lyrical miracle historical conspiratorical (sic) rap style may prove to win the day after all. Rappers such as J. Cole and Ab-Soul have both cited him as an influence, while underground hip-hop’s current phenomenon, JPEGMAFIA, shouted out Can’s Rip the Jacker album on his mixtape Communist Slow Jams. Before he went off making songs about crypto, Canibus even reunited for a song with Wyclef Jean where they address the fact that he went crazy and dropped off the map. Today, every musician is expected to do what Canibus did two decades ago: create a web presence, directly engage with your fans, be plagued by online misinformation that’s just outlandish enough to be believable. But nobody expects you to be ahead of your time.

Please listen to this Spotify playlist I made; I put all the best Canibus songs on there.