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."
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.'"
The resulting album is perhaps the finest Def Jux release of 2005. Songs such as "Too Heavy for Cherubs" and "Peeranoia" effectively and realistically deal with Cage's drug addictions without glamorizing the lifestyle. And the DJ Shadow-produced "Grand Ol' Party Crash" is a scathing indictment of George Bush's presidency that features Dead Kennedy Jello Biafra offering up his best Dubya impression. But the album reaches its high point with "Stripes," where Cage recounts his harrowing childhood and a drug-addled military father.
"The album was cathartic to make," Cage recounts. "My previous work would be sprinkled with anecdotes from my past, but I oftentimes glorified things that didn't need to be glorified. This time around I did it very carefully. I didn't want sympathy; I didn't want to play the victim. It was difficult. But once I tried to be honest in my work, I realized that dishonesty had always been a big issue for me."
"Cage went through a pretty intense transition. He didn't change because he did the record, but one unlocks the other and it was pretty crazy to watch," El-P comments. "I'm proud of him. He risked alienating people who were really only looking to him for that one shtick. That's the kind of artist I want to work with."