The Def Jux Manifesto
[ed note: I started writing this post about 8 months ago and then let it get lost in the hubbub of finishing college (as evidenced by the complete lack of posts here between March and September of this year). I was going to revive it in honor of Cannibal Ox getting back together enough to tour - in fact, I would be at said concert right now if Vast Aire and Vordul Megilah could actually get along enough to rap on the same stage. Man, did they put on a fucking amazing live show back in the day.]
I’ll first go out on a limb and say that my knowledge of hiphop from the past 30+ years is patchy at best. I can talk about the high points and am generally familiar with the major figures - the Run DMCs, the Eric B and Rakims, the Public Enemies, the De La Souls, the Nas, the Wu-Tangs, and the Kool Keiths of the world - but go much deeper than that, and I’m at a bit of a loss. Having done a radio show at WPRB for 4 years has exposed me to lots of other bits and pieces of the hiphop world, but I am still in many ways only just starting to really get a feel for some of the grand narratives and so forth that have shaped the direction of the hiphop world. Working at a record store that deals in lots of hiphop vinyl for the past 2 months has helped some, but only marginally. So this whole post might be idle speculation, but I don’t think so.
That said, I have come to the conclusion over the past while that four records from 2001 and 2002 more or less change the face of underground hiphop. Those four records - Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein
, Aesop Rock’s Labor Days
, El-P’s Fantastic Damage
, and Mr. Lif’s I, Phantom
, all on the Definitive Jux record label - when taken as a whole, are just as revolutionary as some of the great albums of the late 80s. All five of you who read this blog should already know these four albums already, and if you don’t, do yourself a favor and listen to them until there are no grooves left in the vinyl. The way in which they rethink the tropes of underground hiphop and synthesize vastly different elements into a coherent whole is something completely new. And the fact that they all came out on the same label with similar sets of aesthetics but vastly different goals speaks to Def Jux’s truly innovative nature, especially in the early years of its existence.
I won’t deal with the prehistory here, other than saying that El-P’s previous group Company Flow is a critical element in all four of these; it’s production values and hiphop deconstructionism set up what all four of these groups would do. They may all back away from the obscenity and scatology of Funcrusher Plus
, but they’re all just as in your face with their agendas.The Cold Vein
comes first, both in chronology and originality. As a first full-length for Def Jux, this is one motherfucker of a starter. Vast Aire and Vordul Megilah spit out raps that alternate between alienated but honest social commentary (a theme on all four of these records), intricate wordplay, surrealism, and what I can only call “Hobbit rap.” It could be said that they stole that combination from the Wu-Tang Clan, but The Cold Vein
feels more like two guys bending words to do their bidding, while so much of Wu-Tang sounds like a big party between a bunch of guys who also happen to know how to put words together. Can Ox are definitely having a good time - how else can you explain in “Raspberry Fields” when Vast Aire quips “The sample's the flesh and the beat's the skeleton/You got beef but there's worms in your Wellington/I'll put a hole in your skull and extract your skeleton/Oh my God, said a word twice” - but any humor is undercut by a kind of bitter irony that is nowhere in any of Wu-Tang’s oeuvre. The Wu-Tang comparison gains a bit of ground in the production, though. El-P creates an intricate, intense, and terrifying backdrop for Can Ox to rap over that would be reminiscent of the GZA if it weren’t nearly as busy. It is arguably El-P’s best production work, even better than on his own album, since it so distinctly matches the mood and tenor of everything Can Ox have to say. The only person doing anything remotely similar to this is possibly MF Doom, but he’s to silly and flat-out weird to ever create anything like The Cold Vein
If Cannibal Ox are Def Jux’s Wu-Tang Clan, then Aesop Rock is their version of Kool Keith. Now, he’s nowhere near as crazy as Kool Keith; he’s got no alternate personalities or crazy album concepts or anything like that. The analogy is only in his voice, which is just as supple and agile as Keith’s and makes itself the center of every song it appears on. Labor Days
is nowhere near as immediately confrontational as The Cold Vein
but it packs a similar punch. The beats are loose, warm, and inviting, and allow plenty of space for Aesop to speak, and when he speaks, it’s on a much more down to earth and “real” (in the sense that it’s not dealing with issues abstractly) than Can Ox. He raps in fables and conversations, dotting them with myriad references to all kinds of things and thus forms a deep connection with the listener who can instantly relate to his sentiments.
The final two albums of the set are essentially younger siblings to The Cold Vein
and Labor Days
. Fantastic Damage
sounds roughly like an even more urban Cold Vein
, though despite having crisp production, I still feel like El-P did a better job with Cannibal Ox’s record. El-P has more b-boy braggadocio and cocky swagger than anyone else on Def Jux, and he brings it out in full force, though his b-boy is probably unrecognizable compared to the regular definition of b-boy. And Mr. Lif makes a great complement for Aesop Rock. They have similar lyrical styles and obsessions, though Lif is more surreal. I, Phantom
is also the closest thing Def Jux would get to a party record at this stage of their existence. But despite their catchiness, songs like “New Man Theme” are still experimental in the way they’re constructed.
You really need to listen to this set of albums as a chunk to get the full effect. In tandem, they mark the beginnings of the 21st century underground hiphop sound. And much like all the developments in hiphop, the changes and advances are both instantly noticeable as new but simultaneously references to what came before. And even though I’m not fully versed with what the underground hiphop scene was like in the late 90s, I’m pretty sure it didn’t involve any single group of musicians making a unified statement of purpose like Def Jux did. In a decade, when we look back at these records, they’ll probably sound horribly dated, but then so does every “great” hiphop record from 15 years ago. It’s all part of the cycle, though I’d like to think that these are the albums that groups will be emulating a few years down the road.