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*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.