Pop & Hiss

The L.A. Times music blog

« Previous Post | Pop & Hiss Home | Next Post »

Farewell Def Jux: A recap of the NYC label's finest moments

February 10, 2010 |  5:18 pm
1168987565_defjux_200“Now the evening has come to a close and I've had my last dance with you/so on to the empty streets with me/and it might be my last chance with you/so I might as well get it over with/the things I have to say/won't wait until another day."

So commenced El-P’s debut solo album, 2002’s “Fantastic Damage.” The 27th release on Definitive Jux distilled the trailblazing label’s aesthetic down to 70 minutes – it was a hard-boiled, cigarette-huffing hallucination through post-9/11 New York. Like all the first round of Def Jux releases, it exploded with the brisance of a cluster bomb, shrapnel flying in furious metallic streaks. Filled with caustic poison-pen rants against alcoholic stepfathers and war-mongering presidents, "Fantastic Damage" also saw the Brooklyn-based rapper offer heart-on-sleeve laments to ex-girlfriends and issue sardonic salvos aimed at unethical record labels.

Around the time Y2K fears dissipated, the Def Jukies took the torch from an already-on-the-decline Rawkus Records and flipped the underground paradigm on its wool-knit beanie. Carefully attuned to the jittery zeitgeist of Giuliani-era New York, El-P, Cannibal Ox, Mr. Lif and Aesop Rock had no use for jazzy neo-soul boom-bap, instead twisting familiar samples into fractals, re-shaping clean angular landmarks into polygonal Frank Gehry facades. Agitated and out to inflict pain on everything from greedy corporations to  politicians to a deck ostensibly stacked against its artists, Def Jux held strong as one of the last citadels of un-compromised hip-hop while their indie peers fell by the wayside.

For a generation weaned on hard-core but turned off by the genre’s descent into corporate yacht rap, Def Jux offered a safe port in a sea of sterility. Unapologetically intellectual but never egg-headed, the label refused to dumb things down or make concessions, and in that (cold) vein, it bore a closer resemblance to such Golden Age heroes as KRS-One and Public Enemy than almost anything else over the last decade. Of course, the label fell victim to the same industry shifts that plagued every operation, with illegal downloading and its flagship artists’ slow working schedules doing it few favors. Rumors of improper business practices trickled out from disgruntled ex-Def Jux artists, while Murs and RJD2 departed in search of greener pastures.

By the time El-P announced the label’s partial closure/extended hiatus last week, most acknowledged that Def Jux's zenith was at least a half-decade in the past. Yet its impact remains incalculable, and its place is forever secured in the pantheon of all-time great hip-hop labels, independent or otherwise. With no logical successor, the label’s demise leaves a crater in the rap world. It will be sorely missed.

In honor of the defunct institution, Pop and Hiss has compiled a list of the label’s most seminal releases.

Company Flow/Cannibal Ox, “Iron Galaxy/D.P.A. (As Seen On TV)” 12” (2000)

The first Def Jux release both closed the door on Company Flow (arguably the first great indie rap group of the late '90s backpack boom) and opened it wide to greet Cannibal Ox, a highly gifted duo obsessed with the cosmos and comic books. At a time when the indie field was still crowded, Def Jux’s first 12” release staked an immediate claim for the imprint at the top rung of the underground.

Cannibal Ox, "The Cold Vein" (2001)

“Life’s Ill, sometimes life might kill,” began Vast Aire at the start of the “Cold Vein,” an album that sounds like you might expect: both icy and capable of corroding your major arteries, a wintry, bleak record with baleful beats from El-P. Much to the chagrin of their rabid fan base, the duo never recorded an official follow-up, but they hit the jugular on their only attempt, one that’s still widely regarded as the label’s signature release.

Aesop Rock, "Labor Days" (2001)

Branded everything from neo-Marxism to a blueprint for weed smoking English majors seeking a justification for their wake-and-bake inclinations, Aesop Rock’s Def Jux debut was really about being given the opportunity to follow your dreams. With chief beatmaker Blockhead providing cinematic strings and esoteric samples and Aesop kicking symbolist rhymes, the duo seemed the indie-rap equivalent of Ghostface Killah and RZA, filtered through Beat ideology and a few years at Boston University. It was "On the Road" in rap form.

RJD2, "Deadringer" (2002)

Already an established indie hip-hop commodity from his work producing MHz, the Columbus, Ohio-bred Ramble John Krohn updated DJ Shadow for the aughts on “Deadringer,” a gorgeous collage of dusty soul samples and break beats that found a home in the hearts and heads of college students and marketing directors everywhere. RJD2 crafted an instant classic, one that a decade later he and the rest of his instrumentalist peers have yet to top.

Mr. Lif, "I Phantom" (2002)

A former Colgate student, Mr. Lif (né Jeffrey Haynes) emerged as rap’s Amiri Baraka on “I Phantom.” While many of his peers were scared to criticize the status quo, Lif was filled with bluster and vitriol at the racism, classism and saber-rattling of George W. Bush's America. With a slate of epic beats from El-P and Edan, Lif’s magnum opus was a concept album dedicated to death, rebirth and apocalypse, offering a voice to the nation’s most cynical surmises.

El-P, “Fantastic Damage” (2002)

See above.

Party Fun Action Committee, “Let’s Get Serious” (2003)

Once described by Blockhead as the “best worst-selling album ever made,” “Let’s Get Serious” was treated to something worse than withering reviews: practically no response at all. The caustic and hysterical satire of two clueless record executives obsessed with Ja Rule and R. Kelly clones flew miles above the heads of those expecting another underground hip-hop record. The Lonely Island years before its time and with a far more subversive wit, “Let’s Get Serious” remains the gold standard of comedy rap records.

Murs, “Murs 3:16: The 9th Edition” (2004)

Murs’ first collaboration with producer 9th Wonder struck the ideal compromise between his more traditionalist Living Legends work and the more avant-rap skewing “The End of the Beginning.” Relentlessly fun and filled with aching soul samples, “Murs 3:16” established the template for the eclectic post-gangsta West Coast sound. Famously describing himself as “more Coldplay than Ice-T,” Murs was conscious without being hectoring, always amiable and ready to offer a timeless and colorful blast of L.A. sunshine rarely heard on the New York label.

Cage, “Hell’s Winter” (2005)

Cage had bounced around the underground for a dozen years prior to dropping his Def Jux debut, with stops at Fondle Em, Rawkus and Eastern Conference Records. Best known for his "A Clockwork Orange"-referencing classic “Agent Orange,” a short-lived beef with Eminem and a prodigious drug habit, Cage's career was resurrected by “Hell’s Winter,” which introduced the world to Chris Palko’s Dickensian back story. Enlisting an all-star cast of beat makers, including Blockhead, El-P, DJ Shadow and RJD2, Cage spun a poignant autobiography about drug addiction, mental breakdowns and growing up with an abusive stepfather. Rap has rarely been more harrowing or heartfelt.

El-P, “I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead” (2007)

Finding the halfway point between Nine Inch Nails and the Bomb Squad, El-P’s second solo album managed to be polemical and subtle, impassioned and agnostic and always rife with rage at the status quo. A fitting capstone to the Bush era, El-P’s masterpiece captured the tabloid torpor of America's nadir like little else. Completely obliterating the lines between the personal and the political, with samples of Cat Power, TV on the Radio and NIN mangled into unrecognizable shards, “I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead” is the sound of carnage. While his peers tried to re-create the classic New York sound, El-P sought to capture what the city sounds like: jackhammers, car alarms, horns and a persistent dull rumble. Reportedly at work on its followup, El-P still has time to spare – this collection is so far ahead of its time that its real impact has yet to reverberate.

-- Jeff Weiss