Camu Tao: The Cancer Diaries
Camu Tao knew he was sick long before he was diagnosed. The Definitive Jux mainstay felt particularly run down after returning from tour in the summer of 2006. After being forced by his fiancÃ©e to seek medical help, he learned that he’d need chemotherapy to fight his late-stage lung cancer. He finally succumbed on May 25, 2008, at age 30.
The last two years of his life, however, were perhaps his most creatively fulfilling. Though he’d produced, rapped and sung on countless Definitive Jux releases – with acts like The Weathermen and S.A. Smash – he’d never managed a solo album. It took his impending demise for him to make King Of Hearts, his wrenching and uplifting masterwork, which sees release this week. “Although many times it was difficult for him to get out of his bed and go into the studio and work on it,” says his fiancÃ©e, Gayle Gutter, “he thought, ‘This is my last chance. I have to leave a mark, even greater than I already have.’”
A Columbus, Ohio, native born Tero Smith, Camu Tao pronounced his artist name ca*MOO TAY*oh, and Gutter is one of the few people who knows what it means. But her lips are sealed; She only notes that it has nothing to do with existentialist Albert Camus or Taoism. “He was a very private person,” she adds. So much so that for a long time he didn’t share the news of his illness with comrades like Cage, a Definitive Jux artist who counted Camu as his closest friend. The sad stuff didn’t really go with his life-of-the-party personality, after all. “He was always on, always the funniest, loudest person in the room,” Cage says.
Camu broke out in the late-’90s with Columbus group MHZ, which also featured rapper Copywrite and RJD2, a highly-touted beat maker who came to fame on Def Jux. Camu, noted for his dark-yet-infectious production style, raw rapping and unorthodox singing, co-founded the indie-rap super group The Weatherman in 1999, and released his acclaimed 12-inch debut Hold The Floor in 2001. The next year he collaborated with Cage on a project called Nighthawks. And, yes, in case you’re wondering, it was based on the unmemorable 1981 thriller starring Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams.
“We watched the movie, and he was like, ‘I’m Billy Dee, and you’re fucking Sly Stallone, let’s do a Nighthawks album,’” Cage remembers. “I was like, ‘What? That’s ridiculous. He was like, ‘No, let’s do it.’” They made the entire album in a week, and Camu continued crafting obscure recordings with silly alter egos, like Blair Cosby, a combination of Blair Underwood and Bill Cosby, a heartthrob who could solve all of your family’s problems. Funny stuff, but it left him little time to make actual albums. “We were like, ‘Camu, you need to record this shit, for real, and not just make demos,’” remembers Cage.
Though he’d already begun work on King Of Hearts, his resolve was strengthened by his terminal illness, a rare form of lung cancer not caused by smoking cigarettes or asbestos, says Gutter. The songs served as diary entries as his health deteriorated, and many are exceedingly bleak. On “Death,” he wonders, “Death, where have you been all my life?” and album closer “Kill Me” is a string of nervous, profane, a cappella taunts. Still, the work maintains a certain vitality and is full of bright production, particularly on the more light-hearted tracks like, “Play O Run” and the Elvis Costello-sampling, “Be A Big Girl.”
Camu completed most of them before he died, and El-P later traveled to the Columbus home he shared with Gutter to retrieve his files. “They were mostly demos on Garage Band, some Pro Tools stuff, and some stuff we couldn’t find at all, so they were just mp3s,” says El-P. Fortunately, Camu had already sequenced the work, so putting King Of Hearts together as he’d intended it was relatively easy. Nonetheless, El-P found the music both painful and profound. “There’s not a much more powerful artistic experience than death,” he says. “People talk about death, and they get obsessed with death, but he was literally dying. Yet [the album's] not morose, it’s this really alive-sounding thing.” Released in conjunction with Oxford, Mississippi, label Fat Possum Records, it will be Definitive Jux’s final album of original material for the foreseeable future, El-P adds.
For Gutter, Camu’s swan song represents not just her longtime partner’s evolution as an artist, but as a person. He learned to deal with his illness without being overtaken by fear, and in doing so brought them closer together than ever. “During those two years we truly emerged as best friends,” she says. “He became someone that I admired even more.”
One day after he’d passed, she was listening to his recordings when she came across one she hadn’t heard. Called “The Perfect Plan,” it references a statement he’d often make when they argued. “It’s all a part of the perfect plan,” he’d say with a smile. For Gutter, finding the track was like receiving a love letter from the grave. “He’s not the kind of guy who gets you a bouquet of flowers, but he writes you a song,” she says. Listeners who didn’t know Camu personally will find similarly unexpected gems on King of Hearts. A celebration of life disguised as a morbid farewell, it contains the material everyone knew he had in him, but never expected to hear.