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In the past few years, El-P has evolved from alternative hip-hop legend to mainstream pop star. That’s slight hyperbole, but as one half of Run The Jewels, the duo he formed with Killer Mike in 2013, El-P now appeals to a massive, global audience. The group even opened for Lorde on her most recent tour.
Performing to sold-out arenas filled with mostly teenagers is just another phase in the long, strange and always fruitful career of El-P. Nearly 20 years ago, however, everything was different. Company Flow, the underground New York hip-hop trio consisting of El-P, Bigg Juss and Mr. Len, had split up. El-P decided not just to pursue a solo career, but to form his own label in the process.
The result was Def Jux, a label that would become one of the premier distributors of raw, experimental and alternative hip-hop. The label formed at an opportune time. The first full-length album Def Jux ever put out was Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein, just a few months before the Twin Towers fell and the world changed forever. With El-P, his roster of rappers and label headquarters all located in New York City, Def Jux became the voice of the marginalized, defiant youth.
Among other topics, El-P and his friends spoke frankly about the state of the nation at a time when most popular rappers had flashy beats and empty braggadocio on the brain. Call it conscious rap or call it alternative, either way, Def Jux cut through to a new audience on an elevated plane. Without taking away credit from the genius assortment of minds surrounding him, El-P was at the helm of every album released on Def Jux. Below, read about the label’s 10 best.
Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein was the first full-length album to be released on Def Jux. It’s the only album Cannibal Ox—comprised of Harlem MCs Vast Aire and Vordul—released on the label. The impact of the LP was immediate upon its release in 2001, with the term “classic” being muttered by critics and fans alike before its lasting effect had a chance to truly gestate. The success of the album demonstrated just how eager fans were to hear anything at all from the newly established Def Jux, and the trust they placed in the label’s leader.
The Cold Vein is gritty New York street rap that’s stylistically similar to music released around the same era, but with the added element of consciousness, intelligence and head-spinning bars. The vibe of the album can be summed up by Vast Aire’s opening verse on “A B Boy’s Alpha,” in which he raps, “Hated the sound of grandma’s crying the crooked letter / You could hear it from the ground or where the sky thunders / Make you wonder about early Sunday morning / Relatives dressed in black and they’re all mourning / Flows be banging in the paint, throwing elbows / My first fight was me against five boroughs.” It’s an unabashed portrait of New York, as depicted from the underground.
Cannibal Ox was the first group that Def Jux rallied behind. El-P’s meticulous production augmented the dynamic between Vast Aire and Vordul, forming the album into a unified vision. It’s unfortunate that Cannibal Ox never made an album with El-P again, but The Cold Vein still laid a strong foundation for what was to come on Def Jux. Seventeen years after its release, and that initial critical praise remains justified. The Cold Vein is, in every sense of the word, a classic.
Mo’ Mega came out in 2006, toward the end of the Bush administration, when the previously patriotic American public was finally coming to terms with the fact that both their government and their culture at large were not the standard of perfection many once believed them to be. The subject matter was nothing new for longtime fans of Def Jux or Mr. Lif, whose politically and socially conscious debut album I, Phantom came out on the label in 2002. But Mo’ Mega at least slightly widened Mr. Lif’s audience, landing him a spot alongside Aesop Rock at the inaugural Pitchfork Festival in the same year the album was released.
Like most albums on Def Jux, Mo’ Mega contains a roster of familiar names. El-P handled the majority of the album’s production, sans “Murs Iz My Manager,” produced by Edan, “For You,” produced by Nick Toth and “Washitup!”, produced by Mr. Lif himself. “Murs Iz My Manager” is an ode to Mr. Lif’s fellow Def Jux rapper, with a feature from him that similarly takes aim at the Bush White House.
Despite the album’s relative success and a mostly positive response from critics, Mo’ Mega remains among Def Jux’s most underrated releases. Mr. Lif is relentless across 11 dense tracks, handling El-P’s production at a tier few MCs are capable of reaching. Mo’ Mega didn’t catapult Mr. Lif out of the underground, but it more than justified his coveted position on the Def Jux roster.
RJD2 predates electronic music’s mainstream breakthrough by at least a decade, but it’s hard to imagine his work not appealing to the young producers of the modern day who incorporate elements of hip-hop into their instrumental music. That’s not to say RJD2 pioneered a genre. He emulated artists like DJ Shadow and J Dilla, contemporaries of RJD2 who made fully formed hip-hop albums that happened to have little-to-no lyrics accompanying their beats. But Deadringer, released on Def Jux in 2002, was definitely ahead of its time.
Like El-P, RJD2 has a knack for flipping obscure samples in erratic directions, adding found vocal elements and skittering drums into off-kilter patterns. Deadringer spans 18 tracks of varying length, veering in myriad directions without ever losing focus. The tone tends to be laidback, using funk and soul samples to a more subdued effect than, say, Kanye West, who was blending similar sounds around the same time. “Ghostwriter,” despite being a five-minute instrumental track, somehow has distinct, identifiable verse and chorus sections. The way RJD2 timed the vocal humming, horns, and other parts of the track is masterful, and it makes sense that the single became his biggest track to date. The album not only introduced RJD2 to the world, but it raised the bar in terms of what Def Jux artists were expected to bring on the instrumental side.
By the time Cage joined Def Jux, he was already an established artist with a loyal following, a well-publicized feud with Eminem, and a debut solo LP in his arsenal and his assimilation into the label’s roster made sense. El-P produced a track on Movies for the Blind, Cage’s debut studio album on Eastern Conference Records. That label and Rawkus, which put out an album by Cage’s fleeting supergroup the Smut Peddlers, both had deep ties to Company Flow, El-P, Aesop Rock and the rest of the Def Jux affiliates. New York may be a big city, but no one was too many degrees of separation away from each other in the early 2000s underground hip-hop scene. The history between the various labelheads and their respective, at times alternating rosters of talent didn’t always end amicably, but the reality is that they all ran in similar circles.
Cage tracks his indie label journeyman status on the title track of Hell’s Winter, rapping, “Had a following fondling that wouldn’t let go / Till I spiked the EC football into the Def Jux end zone.” The “fondling” in the sentence refers to Fondle ‘Em Records, which put out a few Cage singles, and “EC,” of course, refers to Eastern Conference Records. Even though he’d return to EC years later for Kill The Architect, at the time, he sounded as if he’d finally found his true home.
With El-P at the helm, Cage’s music had a more refined focus. Movies For The Blind played primarily for shock value, with its Clockwork Orange imagery and descriptions of sinister violence. Hell’s Winter wasn’t a significant departure from Cage’s offensive beginnings, but the album did find him toning down the persona he’d created in favor of more grounded descriptions of his own troubled past.
When he first came out, though, Cage was an anomaly. Hell’s Winter shows him at his finest, the midway point between the wild, embellished persona and the later-career rapper who never could figure out how to either keep up the act or evolve it into something new altogether. Def Jux may have been a brief refuge on Cage’s long, ongoing journey, but it remains the best home he ever found for his music.
Owning a label is the ultimate dream for an independently minded artist, but allowing oneself total creative freedom doesn’t always benefit the fans. Sometimes an intermediary is needed. Every artist can benefit from someone else in charge telling them what works and what doesn’t. El-P just happens not to need that extra bit of help.
Fantastic Damage represented El-P’s departure from Company Flow and the pursuit of his solo career. Although The Cold Vein was Def Jux’s first official release, in many ways there was much more riding on the reaction toward Fantastic Damage. Unsurprisingly, the album was a success. It didn’t exactly succeed commercially, although it did crack the Billboard Top 200, at No. 198. But the album represents the launching point of a long and fruitful solo career. While longtime fans may regard Fantastic Damage as the pinnacle of classic El-P, the most underrated aspect of the album is this: It led him to create I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead.
I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, released five years after Fantastic Damage, is El-P’s best album. Where Fantastic Damage demonstrated that El-P could succeed on his own, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is proof that his best quality has always been working with others. The album features a handful of unlikely contributors in addition to the typical Def Jux cast, including Mars Volta, Trent Reznor and Cat Power. It’s a true producer’s album, bringing a multitude of artists together to create something greater than the sum of its parts.
I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is bigger than any of El-P’s other work, and the features and production choices almost suggest he was aiming for wider appeal. It’s surprising that the album never reached audiences as big as his work with Run the Jewels has done. Unlike the RTJ trilogy, however, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead contains a logical tracklist flow, high concepts and a feeling of completeness. It’s a mid-career masterpiece, from a producer at the peak of his game.
A common criticism of Aesop Rock is that listeners need a dictionary and an encyclopedia on hand in order to decipher what he’s saying. There’s an element of truth to that thought. Aesop is a dense writer with quick delivery. It’s hard to decipher what he’s saying at any given moment, especially when your mind’s attempting to process both his words and the beat he created beneath it. But even though it’s not intended for this purpose, the scratched vocal sample on the title track of None Shall Pass explains the truth behind Aesop’s raps: “I am not trying to trick you / I am trying to help.”
Aesop Rock, like Cage, has had a disturbed past. While he doesn’t express his anguish as darkly as Cage does, his work has always appealed to the disaffected. He’s also always excelled at adding light-hearted humor and absurdity into the equation. None Shall Pass isn’t an exception, but the production choices and catchiness of the hooks moved Aesop in a more positive direction. “Bring Back Pluto,” for instance, has a hook that lists the first eight planets before a pitched-down, scratched voice calls for the ninth planet’s return. It came out in 2007, just a few months after the International Astronomical Union downgraded Pluto to a dwarf planet. Only Aesop Rock could make a great song out of that topic, while making your head hurt in the process.
The most unusual collaborative choice on the album is John Darnielle, indie rock darling and frontman of the acoustic guitar-driven band The Mountain Goats. Darnielle crushes his verse on “Coffee,” the album’s closer. There’s a long silence, and then, a hidden track. It’s easy to forget the art of the hidden track, especially with the advent of streaming services with easy fast forward capability. But on None Shall Pass, Aesop Rock masters the concept. He shows restraint, then gives you what you want. He is trying to help.
Eleventh Hour is Del The Funky Homosapien’s fifth album, but eight years passed between its release and Both Sides of the Brain, his previous work. Like Cage, Del was a previously established artist before joining the Def Jux roster and ultimately moving on. If anything, El-P simply provided a home for this long-anticipated release to hit the shelves.
Although Eleventh Hour is nowhere near Deltron 3030 and is far from the best release in Del’s solo catalogue, it stands out on Def Jux’s list of albums because it differs so drastically from the rest of the catalog. Like most everyone else on Def Jux, Del excels most when rapping over his own production. Unlike everyone else on Def Jux, however, Del possesses a natural charisma, sense of humor and more lackadaisical approach to his flow. His beats are sparser, his lyrics slightly terser. He’s from Oakland, and the influence of that city is evident throughout his music. Aligning with Def Jux didn’t mean letting any New York into him. Del isn’t necessarily the first rapper that comes to mind when the words “Def Jux” are uttered, but the label did the world a service by letting Eleventh Hour be heard.
C-Rayz Walz is somewhere in between Del The Funky Homosapien and Cannibal Ox in terms of fitting in on the Def Jux roster. His delivery and beat choice is closer to the former, but he spent years entrenched in the New York underground scene, collaborating with the latter. He’s a seasoned battle rapper and, by default, his lyrics end up more punchline heavy than most of Def Jux’s MCs. Even when C-Rayz Walz talks in goofy voices, though, he still delivers a message. See “Dead Buffalos” for a prime example of how conscious rap can sound upbeat and not overly serious. Although C-Rayz Walz differs from the rest of his labelmates, Ravipops (The Substance), the first album he put out on Def Jux in 2003, somehow makes perfect sense among the label’s discography.
Unlike Year of the Beast, the only other full-length release C-Rayz Walz put out on Def Jux, Ravipops (The Substance) doesn’t heavily feature the label’s standard cast of characters. There are no features from El-P, Rob Sonic or Aesop Rock. The album does have some strong features, though, including Wordsworth, J-Treds, Thirstin Howl III, Vast Aire, Breezly Brewin and MF Doom on the appropriately-titled “The Line Up.” Most of the album features C-Rayz Walz alone, which ultimately works out to his benefit. The album plays more like an introduction of what he was capable of doing, made for the Def Jux audience that may or may not have already been familiar with him.
Bazooka Tooth is the second of three albums Aesop Rock released on the Def Jux imprint. Although the production is handled by the same three characters—Aesop Rock, Blockhead and El-P—the tone of this album is entirely different than the other two. The beats are less fleshed out, with Aesop rapping over almost mechanical, clanging sounds.
Even though Bazooka Tooth is technically Aesop’s fourth studio LP, it feels like a sophomore album. By aligning with Def Jux and releasing Labor Days, Aesop reached a much wider audience than that which he had previously been accustomed. As he says on the opening of “Easy”, “Cameras or guns / One of ya’ll is gonna shoot me to death.” His next album was an exploration of the same themes with a slightly shifted perspective. It was not quite a stepping stone to None Shall Pass, but a brief foray into an eerily familiar parallel universe.
Once again, Bazooka Tooth is rife with vivid imagery, head-spinning lyricism and captivating delivery. The humor is there if you’re able to detect it. There are songs with titles like “Babies With Guns” and “The Greatest Pac-Man Victory In History.” On the latter, Aesop raps about acid in the most elevated mind state imaginable, with almost the entire final verse consisting of words starting with “L,” “S,” and “D” in that order. It starts “Lazy summer days / like some decrepit landshark dumb luck squad dog / lurks sicker deluded” and gets wilder from there.
Aesop has lent his voice to several labels throughout the years, and these days he may be more commonly associated with Rhymesayers. But the trio of albums he put out on Def Jux are amongst the label’s best, and significantly raise the quality of an already strong discography.
Will Hagle is a writer living in Los Angeles, and co-founder of media empire In The Points.