Hard Knock LifeIndie rapper Cage cleans up and spits out a new album

“Collectively, I’ve done more press surrounding this record than I’ve done my entire career,” says rapper Chris “Cage” Palko while speaking on the phone from a hotel in Seattle. “And every interview is about the same thing: the new me, this new thing, which I don’t have a problem doing. I set out to change myself, and apparently I did.”

Cage’s second album, Hell’s Winter, captures a harrowing portrait that draws strength from his lyrics and beats produced by El-P, DJ Shadow, RJD2 and others. Some of the songs are autobiographical, such as “Too Heavy for Cherubs,” a rap about how Cage was forced as a child to tie off his father’s arm so the latter could shoot up heroin. For others, pungent language describes phantasmagorias. On “Subtle Art of the Break Up Song,” he rhymes about being so high on the drug ketamine that he accidentally kills his girlfriend in a car crash. “I pump my fists to bleed out to catch her and let the worms play/And I tell her I’m sorry I gave her death for her birthday,” he raps.

Many of the newspaper, magazine and online stories being written about Cage and his recent album follow the same timeline: Rapper suffers through troubled childhood becomes enfant terrible of underground rap, consumes copious amounts of drugs, and beefs with other rappers (including Eminem and 7L & Esoteric), then finally grows into a mature artist. His bracing candor and eagerness to own up to past ills enhances the narrative. “I’m the first one to tell you that I was a shitbag,” he says. “All that history is the reason I had to change.”

Cage may be a new personality to those who don’t know anything about indie rap except for the Definitive Jux roster (Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif, El-P, RJD2) and a few others. In the mid-’90s, Cage and a few dozen others defined the independent hip-hop scene that still stands today. Most of these artists (including MF Doom, Hieroglyphics, and others) were former casualties of the mainstream rap world: Cage first appeared on former Third Bass member Pete Nice’s Dust to Dust, then almost secured a deal with Columbia Records.

“I got into the music industry six months after being in a mental hospital,” remembers Cage. After the Columbia deal didn’t come to pass, he eventually recorded his debut single “Radiohead/Agent Orange” for Fondle ‘Em Records in 1997. Surrealistic and sardonic lyrics fill the influential single, long rumored to have inspired Eminem’s “Slim Shady” character. Cage would often claim as much back then, going so far as to record Eminem dis tracks such as “Haterama.” “When Fondle ‘Em [a label started by New York B-boy legend Bobbito Garcia in the fall of 1995] emerged, I jumped right into that headfirst, head full of PCP. And [the PCP use] didn’t stop until 2003,” he continues.

As a recovering addict of sorts (Cage is “mostly clean” but admits that he smokes weed sometimes), his memories of that era and the music he made are colored by his disgust for his personal behavior. “I remember being just a complete loon,” he says. But it’s clear that none of the records he produced — singles, albums and guest spots — ever capitalized on the promise of that initial underground hit.

Cage, for his part, contentedly dismisses the lot of them. He reserves special scorn for the Smut Peddlers, a supergroup he formed with Mr. Eon and producer Mighty Mi from rap duo the High and Mighty. The trio made one album, Porn Again, for Rawkus Records in 2000. From a sales perspective, it is probably his biggest record to date. The songs range from entertaining in an outrageously knuckleheaded way to boorish and loud. Infamously, the group employed Beetlejuice, a bizarre-looking man that suffers from microcephaly and mental retardation (and has often appeared on Howard Stern’s radio show), as a mascot.

“I definitely regret Smut Peddlers. Smut Peddlers is a joke,” says Cage. “Everything on the Smut Peddlers record I wrote in the first 30 minutes. The whole Beetlejuice thing was disturbed. It was Rawkus throwing a disabled person into the group for laughs, as if that was going to do something for us.

“I didn’t have anything to do with any direction of the record, the artwork or anything,” he adds. “I showed up, I did my verses, and collected like $15,000 to $20,000 and that was that.”

Cage went on to record several albums for the High and Mighty’s record label, Eastern Conference Records. The first, 2002’s Movies for the Blind, explores his wonder years, from his suicide attempt as a teenager on “Suicidal Failure” and a subsequent stint in an insane asylum on “Stoney Lodge,” to the debauched existence as a hardcore rapper “Under Satan’s Authority.” Weatherproof was an odds-and-sods EP, pairing new songs with previously released tracks. He also issued concept albums such as 2003’s Nighthawks, where he and rapper Camu Tao twisted the Sylvester Stallone movie into the story of a crooked cop; and 2004’s Waterworld, an album with Tame One as the Leak Bros. All of these were firmly in the “backpack thug” tradition of grimy MCs who appealed to an indie hip-hop audience and made lyrically dense songs that were mini-action movies full of violence and sex.

Near the end of last year, Cage broke from Eastern Conference Records, claiming the label owed him unpaid royalties. He then signed a recording deal with Definitive Jux. Most rap fans expected him to produce another grimy release, albeit with beats by El-P instead of Mighty Mi. Instead, he sobered up and made Hell’s Winter.

“For far too long, I’ve made music for this specific group of people,” he says, referring to the thousands of wanna-be backpack thugs who followed his career. “I eliminated the misogyny. I eliminated the braggadocio, battle-rap nonsense, y’know, talking about myself. I wanted to stay away from all the pretension and just make honest, real music.”