By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
Picture the following gang of hip-hop misfits: two Harlemites one an imposing 300 pounds with a booming Zeus-like voice, the other cherub-faced and sporting an incongruous nasal twang who interweave sci-fi imagery into their hyperrealist ghetto tales; a dreadlocked freestyle champ with a socialist agenda and a knack for conceptually mesmerizing rhymes; a slinky former art school student with a tightly wound flow and a steady stream of fractured, Dadaist poetry; an underground hip-hop legend known for his controlling nature and dense, hyperkinetic productions.
This ragtag group of brilliant miscreants forms the nucleus of Definitive Jux, the decade's most artistically vital and commercially viable independent hip-hop label. The music it released in 2001 and 2002 Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein, El-P's Fantastic Damage, Mr. Lif's I Phantom, RJD2's Dead Ringer, and Aesop Rock's Labor Days would change the way people look at underground hip-hop. It would significantly broaden the genre's aesthetic and thematic boundaries without fully divorcing itself from hip-hop's compelling beats and rhymes.
Indicative of transformation, Def Jux's music was divisive, turning away so-called purists as it recruited those who had never owned a hip-hop album. As the label lost the plot over the past two years with a slew of mediocre, half-baked releases, naysayers prematurely declared that the Def Jux era had come to an end. And as the label has started to get back on track recently beginning with the September release of Cage's excellent Hell's Winter those same critics have been slow to acknowledge its re-emergence.
The story of Def Jux begins in a thriving mid-Nineties NYC hip-hop scene. As Pharoahe Monch, Mos Def, O.C., and Big L were delivering some of the most compelling rhymes ever committed to wax, 88 Keys and Shawn J. Period were perfecting the sweetly soulful sampling aesthetic that Kanye West would borrow years later. During this time, a young MC from Brooklyn who went by the name of El-P hooked up with fellow rhyme-slinger Bigg Jus and producer Mr. Len to create Company Flow.
"There was just a lot of energy in that scene," El-P comments. "It was before hip-hop was clearly defined, and it was before the media had caught up with it. There weren't any subgenres of rap music apart from maybe gangsta rap and there was no distinction between being street and being creative. The ideas that were floating around were just really raw and visceral. That's what defined hip-hop for me. I still look at it through that lens."
But definition and commodification would come soon enough in the form of Rawkus Records. Founded in 1995 by Brian Brater and Jarret Myer, Rawkus would go on to corral many of the scene's top talent, including Def, Talib Kweli, Monch, L-Fudge, and Sir Menelik. Despite being underwritten by Rupert Murdoch, a fact not then widely known, the label epitomized the scene's left-leaning politics and DIY spirit.
In 1997 the label made Company Flow's debut, Funcrusher Plus, its first full-length release. The album was politically confrontational, sonically cacophonous, and relentlessly restless. "The Fire in Which You Burn" embraced Bollywood samples years before Timbaland got his freak on; "Last Good Sleep" deals with domestic abuse; and the group's unofficial motto "Independent as Fuck" was inscribed in the CD's jewel case. Surprisingly the album was a commercial success, selling more than 100,000 units.
Funcrusher Plus was followed up by equally successful Rawkus releases such as Mos Def and Talib Kweli's Black Star and Pharoahe Monch's Internal Affairs.
Yet Rawkus's distribution and media promotion units were uneven and unreliable, there were murmurs from various artists' camps that royalties weren't being paid out, and their artistic vision would grow increasingly suspect.
"You listen to a lot of those records and it's the same formula: Get a shitload of artists who are more famous than we are and try to sell this record. But your album ends up sounding like a fucking compilation. That's the Rawkus trick," comments MC Cage, who was signed to Rawkus as a member of the Smut Peddlers.
El-P puts it more succinctly: "Rawkus made a conscious effort to try and move towards mainstream music, and it just didn't work."
For El-P and Company Flow, the situation reached a boiling point when they released their followup to Funcrusher Plus, 1999's Little Johnny from the Hospital. Realizing it had limited commercial potential, Rawkus decided not to promote it.
"There was no honor in that," El-P states. "This happens a lot [in rap], but most people don't have the will or the options to break out. I stepped to my manager and told him that I was thinking of forming [Def Jux]. We had made a lot of money for a lot of people and I thought that I could get distribution."
El-P envisioned Def Jux as effectively recapturing the spirit of early Rawkus, but he had yet to devise a roster or even decide what his role would be in the label. "It was a weird time for me because I always intended in being in Company Flow and I never thought that I would be a solo artist," El-P says. "I was so sick of everything that I was doing before and it took a minute for me to figure out what I wanted to do."