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During this period, he met Harlem MCs Vast Aire and Vordul Megilah, collectively known as Cannibal Ox. El-P remembers them as being "young, hungry cats," and he soon decided he would produce their debut album. Feeding off of El-P's optimism, the members of Can Ox fully threw themselves into the album. The duo even went as far as moving into El's Brooklyn loft for the duration of the recording.
Meanwhile El was recruiting other artists. Mr. Lif an MC best known for his stage prowess and politically charged raps came down from Boston; producer RJD2 migrated from Ohio; and Aesop Rock swooped in from Manhattan. El's pad soon became the "go-to crib," as Aesop calls it. He would regularly sleep on the couch, Lif would stay there when he came down from Boston, and RJD2 could be found in the closet/studio in the corner of the loft.
In these tight confines, the crew quickly grew close. "I remember a lot of times Vast, Vordul, and I would be packed into that tiny little studio," Aesop relates. "We're all big guys and there was barely any room to even move. It was so small that we would've never accomplished anything in that studio if we weren't friends. To me, that defined how grassroots we were."
The label made its first real impact with the May 2001 release of Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein. El-P's production is jagged and claustrophobic synth lines spread across beds of distorted breakbeats and swabs of musique concrte while Vast and Vordul borrow the bleakest page from the Wu Tang Clan's playbook, mixing postapocalyptic, sci-fi dread with modern urban despair. "Cannibal Ox fucked up a lot of people's heads," comments El-P. "It's the sort of record that confuses people, but in all the right ways."
The Cold Vein is perhaps the most critically acclaimed underground hip-hop album of the decade. In the Village Voice's "Pazz and Jop" poll, which compiles the year-end lists of roughly 1500 critics, the album placed fifteenth the third highest for a hip-hop album.
Def Jux had everyone's ear, and the crew didn't disappoint. Later that year, Aesop Rock released Labor Days, an album that balanced sensitive, blue-collar narratives with verbose, metacritiques of hip-hop and art. And 2002 saw the release of RJD2's widely lauded debut, Dead Ringer; Mr. Lif's epic concept album, I Phantom; and El-P's own solo debut, Fantastic Damage. These releases were among the strongest hip-hop albums of the decade.
By 2003, Def Jux had surpassed Rawkus as independent hip-hop's most important label. But the label stumbled. The attention lavished upon Def Jux was so intense that a backlash was inevitable, but there was also a string of releases that many felt weren't up to the label's standards.
"I know how people look at us that the first couple of years we just had this incredible release schedule," El-P concedes. "And, yeah, we took some risks and put some records out that didn't sound like what people expected. They were records that were risky by artists that were unproven."
The label's release schedule for 2006 which includes highly anticipated new albums from Aesop Rock, Cannibal Ox, and El-P is the most promising in years. But perhaps the Def Jux renaissance quietly began earlier this year with the release of Cage's Hell's Winter.
Cage spent much of his career as the hip-hop equivalent of a shock jock, intermingling adolescent sexual fantasies with sensationalistic snapshots from a sordid personal backstory that includes child abuse, mental illness, and drug addiction. It was an approach that was jolting. But by the middle of this decade, Cage's work had largely dipped into self-parody.
"I hated what I was doing, but it took that for me to reach a bottom. I was searching for a change in lifestyle. I was looking for some kind of clarity," Cage admits.
El-P witnessed Cage's nadir during a February 2004 recording session for Prince Paul and Dan the Automator's Handsome Boy Modeling School album. After overdosing the night before on a half-ounce of psychedelic mushrooms, Cage fled the hospital his arms riddled with cigarette burns and feeding tubes and took a train to the recording studio. El-P was concerned. "El-P took one look at me and was like, öJesus, what the fuck is wrong with you? Snap out of it!' I woke up the next morning in a different skin," Cage remembers.
The next few months would be filled with these kind of "visions," as Cage terms them.
"The truth bit me like a snake," Cage declares. "I didn't want to be the conniving, misogynistic asshole that I was when I was a full-on drug addict. People who are misogynistic are miserable. I realized that I didn't want my daughter growing up in that kind of atmosphere."
Cage had approached El-P the previous year about signing to Def Jux. While El had immense respect for Cage as an artist, he wanted his friend to not only clean up his personal life but also grow as an artist.
Cage agreed and decided to craft an honest portrayal of where he was in his life. "I jokingly told El-P that I wanted to make an album with no misogyny, no braggadocio, no self-indulgent bullshit, or any of that Simian luxury," Cage says. "I half-seriously said let's make a record about me trying to change my life and the psychology about who I am and how I've become this way. And El said, öYes, that's it.'"