When researching “Phobos Deimos,” you can brush up on your astronomy and classical mythology at the same time. Phobos and Deimos are the two satellites orbiting Mars, who is named after the Roman god of war. The Greeks knew him as Ares, whose twin sons Deimos and Phobos accompanied their father in battle as charioteers, one representing dread, the other fright. If these references seem too distant to relate, look no further than the crew’s moniker to spark your imagination. That is, if you’ve ever had the unfortunate experience of having a colony of red ants crawl over your body and burn your skin with formic acid. The Red Ants that have come to spread fear and panic by musical means are based in Toronto. The project was conceived in 2002, bringing together two emcees of Guyanese heritage, Modulok and Predaking, who had been collaborating since their high school days. They were joined by producer Vincent Price, yet as they geared up to record “Phobos Deimos,” Predaking found himself trapped in the belly of the beast.
As a two-man team Red Ants make for an adventurous duo treking decisively towards the outer limits of the rap world. In an intriguingly bizarre mash-up of conservative elements and non-conformity, Modulok and Vincent Price come to disturb the peace with “music for the dirty hooligans who like their rap loud.” Announcing, “This is rap music, paranoid and aggressive / for schizophrenic bi-polar manic depressives,” they stage a “b-boy massacre” of “Teletubby rappers with a flimsy handshake.” Populated by “unsavoury characters of the urban wasteland,” the Red Ants’ “village of the dead” is a world so far out that it comes back around again looking strangely familiar. Maybe it is no coincidence that “Phobos Deimos” has the appeal of an elaborate b-movie soundtrack, creating harmony out of seeming dissonance, never leaving tracks stagnant but upgrading them constantly with often foreign but ultimately fitting instrumentation. From a hip-hop perspective, Price’s compositions are ridiculously compelling, to the point where they’ll have you wondering why underground hip-hop often sounds so uneventful when so little is required to breathe new life into it. Obviously, it’s not enough to just stitch some obscure samples together, so every track here is carefully constructed. Beginning with “Cockroach Omen,” where ominous drums build up slowly to evolve into a fully orchestrated beat worthy of opener status.
Its sound being always clean but never tidy just for the sake of it, “Phobos Deimos” clearly rejects what Hurricane Gloria (while pep-talking Redman) once referred to as “that punk smooth shit.” Check “Lot’s Wife,” introduced by a sparse, stoically pulsating bass note, layers of atmospheric disturbances and lone, spooky harp strings seguing into a combination of an industrial bassline, shuffling drums, dashes of percussion and faint vocal snippets of feline and female origin. But Vincent Price’s beats would only sound half as interesting were it not for the constant changes they undergo. “Phobos Deimos” is always subtle in its ways, but every move is calculated and measured. Case in point, the stomping “Symbiotic Killing Fields,” where the dominant martial stabs are supported by agile, layered drums and accentuated by ill xyplophone drops, while Modulok likens his own style to “a Paul Anka song played through the headphones of a crippled athlete.”
Modulok himself is quite an interesting figure. While not particularly diverse lyrically or vocally, his loud, obnoxious style prevents him from getting overshadowed by the music. Yet sensing what he has in said music, he also knows when to hold back and give his partner his due shine. But like every other rapper Modulok’s got issues. A substantial amount of his mic time is consumed by battle raps that are sarcastic and simplistic at the same time, often involving his opponents’ girlfriends and mothers. Example: “You won’t see me at your chichi hip-hop event / I was drinkin’ forties with your girlfriend on a public bench.” More than once he experiences a juvenile fit, as if to remind himself that his moniker is borrowed from the Masters of the Universe toy line, deliberately taking ’em back to school: “We can settle this like little kids / on the front lawn with garbage can lids and hockey sticks / gladiator shit, my style is like that / your mama’s on the porch waitin’ with the ice pack.” The pre-pubescent to adolescent analogies just keep coming, whether he complains, “Like the dirty kid at school nobody wanted to play with / these puffy pillow DJ’s always keep me out they playlist,” or cautions, “In this hip-hop sandbox I’m the kid you shouldn’t play with / new kid at school, raised by wolves in the wilderness.”
At the same time Modulok roams the more complex realms of the adult world as a confessed “maladjusted citizen”. “Asphalt Static” combines elements of observation, introspection, storytelling and battling into an ambitious six-minute epic about living under a sun that mocks “your futile efforts to breathe.” The conclusion is delivered not in the final note but found somewhere in the middle, waiting to be stumbled upon:
“It’s a strange life, but I didn’t choose it
Can’t make a living, might as well make music
At your job it would seem you’re just a cog in a machine
workin’ your hands to the bones for another man’s dreams
On your back they build their monetary wealth
at the expense of your sanity and health
But where would I find time to rap if not in this factory?
What would I rap about if not for struggle and misery?
Discontent I write raps and record ’em
Best believe bad luck is better than boredom
Won’t waste my breath askin’ life to be easy
Trust me, you don’t know half the story when you see me
A lot of things in this world seem horribly wrong
As long as it stays interesting, I’ll play along”
An opinion that is rather interesting itself. “Phobos Deimos” is rarely so on point, but if it were, it probably wouldn’t be as intriguing. After all, when’s the last time you heard conspiracy theorist and communist verbiage on the same rap album?
By the time track number ten closes the album, you realize that these two weren’t kidding about how “Modulok and Vincent Price got the baddest chemistry”. For once you have an album where you can assume that neither producer nor rapper had to compromise in order to work together. “Phobos Deimos” is not about a seamless blend of beats and rhymes, it’s about two individuals who could exist independently but who have found a wavelength to share, one a little bit different from where everyone else broadcasts on. In short, this is another piece of noteworthy indie hip-hop.