Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Def Jux R.I.P. ????

In early February of 2010 Definitive Jux records announced a massive restructuring that many fans and industry heads have interpreted as the label closing its’ doors. While this reorganization may be one of the many moves in the storied label’s history that will keep it on the cutting edge of the music industry (Def Jux created a thriving online community, distributed music via an iPhone app and created revenue streams from live shows and merchandise way before the rest of Hip-Hop), the statement from CEO/Artist/Creative Mastermind El-P did not seem so optimistic. Whether or not the label releases any more groundbreaking music in the future, the example it set for independent record labels in the last decade is a marvel both artistic and commercial fronts.

Def Jux rose from the ashes of Company Flow (the NYC underground crew comprised of El-P, Mr. Len and Big Jus) and Rawkus Records (the label responsible for bringing NYC’s bourgeoning indie Hip-Hop scene to the masses). Following the release of the undeniable classic “Funcrusher Plus” in 1997, Company Flow broke up with all members similarly disenchanted with the corporate structure of record labels, Rawkus included. In the late 90’s frontman/producer El-P began to recruit talent and build a buzz for his next venture: Definitive Juxtaposition Records. The name itself was a perfect fit for the new aesthetic being pushed by the artists because the label represented the “Juxtaposition” of so many things. Def Jux releases combined hardcore Hip-Hop beats and rhymes with elements from the art world (high and street), science fiction lure, end-of-the-world nihilism, indie rock and themes and concepts that were at once universal and intensely personal.

Def Jux officially opened for business in 2000 and released more groundbreaking, genre bending and ahead-of-it’s-time music in its’ first few years of existence than most labels release in their entire lifetime. Albums by Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock and El-P’s solo debut are some of the most universally praised and commercially successful indie LP’s of the early 2000’s. As the decade progressed, Def Jux branched out and released projects from such varied artists as Murs, Cage, Del the Funkee Homosapien, Chin Chin and RJD2 that were all well received by fans and critics. Throughout the decade the label kept core fans satiated with a steady stream of releases featuring the classic, futuristic yet hardcore, Def Jux sound (once described by Entertainment Weekly as “a laser being cut by a buzzsaw”) and an expanding palette of sounds including Hip-Hop from the South (9th Wonder) and West Coast (Murs, Del), instrumental (RJD2, El-P) and an increasingly rock-influenced sound (Cage, Chin Chin). By the end of the decade the “Def Jux Sound” was so progressive and diverse that it became difficult to classify it at all.

Def Jux provided a vehicle for many of the most talented underground rappers/producers/musicians to be heard on a national level for the first time. Aesop Rock, Cage, Murs and C Rayz Wallz were all established artists that reached new artistic and commercial heights once signing with the label. This keen eye for talent, combined with visionary production skills and a tight grip on quality control is what separated El-P from many of his less-successful peers. Supporters of the label were receptive to anything with the Def Jux logo because the label had such a stellar track record.

This track record extended to Def Jux live performances that were not mere underground Hip-Hop shows, but EVENTS. The Def Jux sound was so big and the rappers/DJ’s were so talented that it was hard to contain them in the small clubs and venues that they regularly played. From Aesop Rock’s ability to spit insanely complex rhymes at a dizzying pace to Cage’s charismatic/scary stage persona Def Jux artists, from opening act to headliner, were all well worth the price of admission.

Def Jux was also ground breaking in the way they packaged their material and their emphasis on providing fans with high-quality merchandise. Album Covers, T-Shirts and Posters were not merely promo items, but works of art designed by some of the hottest artists of the decade. Jeremy Fish, Alex Pardee and many others got the chance to create compelling art based on the compelling music. This burning desire to push all aspects of the music, including beats, rhymes, live performances, artwork and merchandise, to the absolute limit may be Def Jux’s lasting legacy.

The future of Definitive Juxtaposition Records is currently unclear, but what is abundantly clear is that the label has given us a decade of consistently ground breaking music that defined the decade for indie Hip-Hop. As the artists, employees and fans of the label take the next step in their evolution, www.fifthroundmovement.com would like to thank them for all of their hard work and amazing musical output and wish them the best of luck in the future.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Top 5 Def Jux Albums

Also available at www.fifthroundmovment.com

*Listed In Chronological Order of Original Release*

Cannibal Ox: The Cold Vein (2001)

Released barely a year into the label’s existence, Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein set the standard for all future Def Jux releases and set anxious fans at ease about the direction of El-P’s new label. The production is a combination of space-age soundscapes and hard NYC-inspired beats which laid the groundwork for the the science-fiction/dystopian future/hardcore Hip-Hop the label would eventually perfect on later releases.

While El-P’s production may take center stage at first listen, mainly because nothing has sounded quite like this before or since, upon repeated listening it becomes apparent that lyricists Vast Aire and Vordul Megilah are more than competent at complimenting the claustrophobic beats with intricate rhymes and genuine emotion. The outstanding “F Word” explains in detail what it means to be stuck in the “friend zone” and shows that these futuristic B-Boys have feelings too. This mixture of futuristic production, head spinning lyrics and actual emotion separated Def Jux from the pack of indie labels in the early 2000’s and firmly established the label as a critical and commercial force to be reckoned with.

Aesop Rock: Labor Days (2001)

Labor Days is not Aesop Rock’s first album, but it is the one that made him a hero to underground Hip-Hop heads, indie rock fans and english majors everywhere. Also, this is the first Def Jux release to take an established underground artist and provide him with the platform to take his career to the next level, a common theme in the legacy of the label (i.e. Cage, Murs and Del Thee Funkee Homosapien).

Labor Days is not merely a collection of songs, but rather a cohesive body of work in which the artist examines the current state of “wage slaves” in the working world of contemporary America. The lyrics are so dense and multi-layered that fans are still deciphering the somewhat cryptic content almost a decade after its’ release. Classics like “No Regrets,” “Day Light,” and “9-5er’s Anthem” display Aesop’s intricate storytelling and gift for bending the English language to his will and longtime collaborator Blockheads’ unique production.

This album was just the beginning to successful and still thriving career including several critically acclaimed albums, EP’s, collaborative projects, extensive touring and production work for both Aes & Block. While subsequent albums like “Bazooka Tooth” and “None Shall Pass” are widely considered classics, it is “”Labor Days” that stands as the best example of Aesop Rock’s musical prowess and Def Jux’s ability to identify and cultivate true talent.

Murs & 9th Wonder: Murs 3:16 The 9th Edition (2004)

By 2004 Murs was already a West Coast underground legend and 9th Wonder’s soulful production was gaining widespread acclaim due to his extensive work with Little Brother and producing “Threat” on Jay-Z’s swan song “The Black Album.” However, Murs 3:16 brought both artists to previously unseen heights of notoriety. 9th’s production is so soulful, warm and organic it’s hard to believe it’s almost exclusively crafted on a computer and Murs’ everyman persona and thoughtful lyrics are so inviting that the album almost dares you not to like it. The record is incredibly short and incredibly powerful, there is not a single wasted bar on the entire album and nearly every track is a fan favorite.

Murs 3:16 is a bit of a departure for Def Jux as there is minimal input from El-P and no guest appearances from the usual Def Jukies, however it represented the first time the label branched out from it’s established artistic/business model and proved it could successfully create and market an album outside of the New York indie scene.

Cage: Hell’s Winter (2005)

Hell’s Winter is the product of taking one of the most talented and troubled MC’s in Hip-Hop, removing hard drugs and shock value from his repertoire and putting him in the studio with some of the most talented musicians in Hip-Hop (El-P, Aesop Rock, Tame One), indie rock (Daryl Palumbo, Jello Biafra) and electronic music (RJD2, DJ Shadow). The varied production allows the MC to be more emotive than on former releases and suits the tortured nature of many of they lyrics perfectly. The album is not only a resounding success in it’s own right, but stands as the crowing achievement of Cage’s long and legendary career.

The Cage on Hell’s Winter is more mature (both emotionally and artistically) than the drug addled horrorcore MC on previous releases. This incarnation leaves behind tales of murder and sexual conquest in favor of soul-baring lyrics about his childhood, the ups-and-downs of being an “underground rap star” and his unique place in the musical landscape. Hell’s Winter showcases a man struggling to leave behind the pain of his past in order to live long enough to enjoy his bright future.

El-P: I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (2007)

El-P’s ISWYD is the Def Jux ethos come to full fruition. The album starts with an ethereal voice asking an bizarre question and ends with a reprise that sounds like it could have been lifted from a science fiction movie, in between, issues as diverse as the state of Hip-Hop, the end of the world, religion, drug use, relationships, the automobile industry, military service, prison and fame are examined in detail. ISWYD is so solid from beginning to end and the concepts are so compelling that the album deserves a place on any list of the best albums of the decade regardless of genre.

If El-P’s first solo release (2002’s “Fantastic Damage”) represented the fear and paranoia felt by many, ISWYD is what the apocalypse sounds like. The beats are big and immersive, the lyrics are straightforward, but contain complex concepts, the guest appearances (including The Mars Volta and NIN frontman Trent Rezner) actually add to the overall concept of the album and the finished product stands as the visionary artists’ best work to date.