Camu Tao passes away from lung cancer

Camu Tao, the Columbus, OH producer and MC known for his work with Cage and various artists on the Definitive Jux label, passed away on May 25 after a long battle with lung cancer. He was 30 years old.

Before he was diagnosed with cancer, Camu Tao was working on a solo album for Definitive Jux. (Judging from a cached page on Definitive Jux’s website, it may have been tentatively called Death, Where Have You Been All My Life?) His beats and rhymes can be found on several popular albums, including RJD2’s Deadringer, Cage’s Hell’s Winter and El-P’s Fantastic Damage and I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. He may be the most underrated member of the Definitive Jux movement.

On Sunday, May 25, El-P announced the news through “Angel,” a statement posted on MySpace and his blog:

Today, at around 2pm, our dear friend, family member and musical collaborator Tero “CAMU TAO” Smith passed away in his home town of Columbus, Ohio. Tero had been quietly fighting for his life for the last year and a half after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

To those who knew Tero, he was an almost uncategorizable force of nature. Wild, hilarious, proud, loving, tough, outspoken, spontaneous and brilliant. He wore his heart on his sleeve and he dripped
creativity, leaving inspiration and awe in the hearts and minds of anyone who was fortunate enough to see him work.

We, his friends and family, have truly had our collective hearts broken by his passing. Not only because of the loss of our friend, but because of the loss of his contribution to those who never knew what we knew about his talent and his potential. He was the secret that no one wanted to keep and we always knew that one day his vision and his heart could change music forever the way he changed all of our lives.

His departure from us all 1 month away from his 31st birthday is nothing less than a tragedy… nothing less than a crime. he was a gift to us all and he is irreplaceable. Rest in peace, Mu. We will love you
forever. May god bless you and your family.

Tero “CAMU TAO” Smith
born 6/26/77, passed 5/25/08

jaime “el-p” meline (on behalf of many, many wonderful and broken hearted friends)

That same day, Cage also posted a statement on his MySpace page:

I am writing this only to kill all the speculation and nonsense.I believe something official will be announced soon.Tero had been fighting lung cancer for the past 2 years of his life on chemo.He didn’t want to go public until recently.His time was cut way too fuckin short.Music was his life.His pain and suffering is over.His music will live forever.

Born Tero Smith on June 26, 1977, Camu Tao first appeared as a member of Mhz, the Columbus-based supergroup that also featured Tage Prototype and Copywrite. The trio issued their debut single, “World Premier b/w Camu,” on Fondle ‘Em in 1998. Later, after Jakki the Motormouth and RJD2 joined the group, they released a second single, “Rocket Science.” “World Premier” would eventually appear on the Farewell Fondle ‘Em compilation in 2002. Despite those early singles, however, Mhz never released a full-length album. Instead, its various members pursued solo careers. (Table Scraps, a compilation of singles, demos and radio freestyles, was released in 2001.)

In 2001, Camu Tao joined El-P’s Definitive Jux, which was then one of the hottest independent labels in the country. He contributed to several of its projects. One of his songs, “Hold the Floor,” appeared on Definitive Jux Presents II. He became part of the Weathermen, a loosely-assembled supergroup of MCs from Definitive Jux and another New York label, Eastern Conference Records. The Weathermen planned to release an album, The New Left, and for years it was a highly anticipated project. But it never came out. Much like Mhz, there is only an odds-and-sods compilation commemorating that era — The Conspiracy, which Eastern Conference Records released in 2003 — and random 12-inch singles such as “Same As It Never Was” and “5 Left in the Clip.”

El-P also formed a duo with Camu Tao called Central Services. In 2004, the duo released a 12-inch, “WMR (Weatherman Radio).”

The following statement was posted on the Weathermen’s MySpace page yesterday:

On 5.25.08 at around 2:00 pm eastern time, we lost one of our dear brothers, Camu Tao, to a 2 year bout with lung cancer nearly one month shy of his 31st birthday. Camu was from Columbus Ohio, one of the founder’s of the Weathermen crew and responsible for countless production for indie releases from labels such as Eastern Conference and Definitive Jux among others. A beautiful inspiration to all those whom he came in contact with, Camu Tao is a true legend and a hero. We miss you so much Mu.

In 2003, Camu Tao joined with fellow rapper Metro to form S.A. Smash. Their album, Smashy Trashy, may be Definitive Jux’s most misunderstood album. It divided critics and fans, who had grown used to the spacy, progressive sounds of Def Jux classics like Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein and RJD2’s Deadringer. Its unrelenting focus on sex, drugs and violence epitomized the backpack thug era, a movement when many New York MCs adopted the same coarse themes as popular rappers like the Diplomats, the Lox and Beanie Sigel’s State Property.

Smashy Trashy was a major critical and commercial disappointment. Coupled with other controversial releases such as Aesop Rock’s Bazooka Tooth and Party Fun Action Committee’s Let’s Get Serious, it effectively ended Definitive Jux’s honeymoon with alternative rap fans. (The label bounced back the next year with Murs’ best-seller 3:16: The 9th Edition.)

Years later, it’s debatable if Smashy Trashy truly deserved such withering criticism. On the one hand, the group’s songs — many of them produced by Camu Tao — are sharp and snappy, with Camu Tao and Metro spitting hard raps like an East Coast Slum Village. But the indie rap audience has grown used to outrageous, hard-boiled rhymes. It has learned to embrace underground thugs like Guilty Simpson as well as mainstream coke rappers like Clipse and Lil Wayne. Meanwhile S.A. Smash’s party themes, expressed on standout cuts like “Clout” and Love to Fuck,” presaged today’s club rap era. If it was released now, Smashy Trashy would most certainly find a more receptive audience.

In addition to his work for Definitive Jux, Camu Tao also had a long association with Cage. For years, the two were members of the Eastern Conference All-Stars, and Camu Tao frequently appeared on Eastern Conference’s releases. He produced tracks and added vocals to Cage’s three albums: Movies for the Blind, the Weatherproof compilation and — after Cage left the now-defunct Eastern Conference for Def Jux — Hell’s Winter.

Significantly, he formed a project with Cage called Nighthawks, a concept based on the Sylvester Stallone crime movie. (Just like the movie, which paired Stallone with Billy Dee Williams, Nighthawks featured a black MC and a white MC.) Released in 2002, Nighthawks’ self-titled album drew appreciative reviews from the hip-hop press. Prominent Bay Area journalist Eric Arnold wrote in the East Bay Express that year, “This hardcore hip-hop concept album explores the gritty world of urban streets (drugs, guns, prostitution, etc.) from a new angle. Taking on the persona of dirty cops, nasty-mouthed rappers Cage and Camu Tao hit the nail on the head, probably because they hammer on an extra-relevant topic — just ask the Riders.”

Other Camu Tao projects include Cardboard City, a collective led by Daryl Palumbo of Head Automatica. In January, he made a final appearance on Yak Ballz’s Scifentology II. Posthumous material may arrive in the months and years to come.

Yak Ballz posted a statement on his MySpace page as well:

Tero “Camu Tao” Smith passed away today 5/25/08 at 30 years old of lung cancer but his legacy will shine on as he did in the physical. He will forever be held dear in our hearts. Rest Peacefully big brother.
Love. WM.

The “WM” stands for Weathermen.

Camu Tao never became a famous artist. It’s telling that El-P commemorated Camu Tao on his MySpace page by posting Camu’s contribution to Definitive Jux Presents II, “Hold the Floor.” Released in 2002 at the height of Def Jux mania, it is one of Camu’s best songs, and it may be his best known one.

However, Camu Tao was more than an anonymous cog in the Def Jux machine. He was a prolific and accomplished musician. He contributed to over 100 releases during his decade in the business, an impressive feat for any artist. As a producer and a rap artist, his legacy encompasses four distinct eras: the rise of underground hip-hop in the Midwest during the mid-to-late 90s; the “heavy mental” progressivism of the early millennium; the super-ugly thug excesses that typified 21st century New York rap; and the post-thug maturity and political activism that courses through that great city’s underground scene today.

In time, fans and scholars will realize that Camu Tao was an important and invaluable contributor to independent music culture.

Camu Tao, RIP.

Photo by Tone.

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