Monday, February 22, 2010

R.I.P. Def Jux


I guess I shouldn't be surprised, what with the rigamortis-like state of the record industry these days, but I just heard the other day that indie hip hop label Def Jux shut down. It's too bad - when the label started, it had one of the most promising line-ups in modern hip hop: Innovators Company Flow, rising star Aesop Rock, DJ/producer virtuoso RJD2, underground vampires Cannibal Ox, and smurfy Mr. Lif. Their early releases likewise were all heat. Mr. Lif's debut Enters the Colossus, Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein, and compilation Def Jux Presents were some of my favorite records of the era, largely due to the fact that beat maker/rapper/label head El-P produced much of the initial output. His production style is unlike any other; it's a dense, claustrophobic and cluttered hybrid of hip hop and industrial music. It sounds like where he's from (New York in the 22nd century). Other notable releases of that time included El-P's debut solo release Fantastic Damage and Aesop Rock's Labor Days.
But like so many other trends, the quality couldn't be kept up indefinitely. El-P started producing less and less, and outside talent began creeping in. I had always equated the sound of Def Jux with El's production, and the songs he didn't touch always sounded a bit lackluster. Also, Aesop Rock quit working with producer Blockhead (who fit his style like a glove), and his subsequent efforts fell short. Cannibal Ox never had a follow-up to their debut (except for a live record), and both members left the Def Jux fold to pursue other interests. RJD2 left in 2004, and changed his style.
In an attempt to expand, Def Jux enlisted outside talent to swell their ranks. The Weathermen, Atoms Fam, C-Rayz Walz, Rob Sonic, Cage and Camu Tao were all promising enlistees, but in many cases these new artists seemed like an ill fit. Yeah, I'm talking about mistakes like Murs and the Party Fun Action Committee, or whatever they were called. The Weathermen never got beyond a mix tape, Atoms Fam went their own way, Cage became an emo, and the amazing Camu Tao unfortunately passed away.
In the latter days, El-P tried his best to rally. He released his sophomore cd, which was more focused than his debut, but lacked the energy of Fantastic Damage. Def Jux also saw the release of west coast legend Del the Funkee Homosapien's latest record. But it was too little too late.
It's unclear if Def Jux is shut down for good or merely on hiatus, but the results are the same: it's another sign that the American music industry is no longer viable.
Burn a candle and think of them in this unknown country, while you listen to a few of my favorite tracks from the late label's heyday.

Iron Galaxy - Cannibal Ox


Kill 'Em All - Aesop Rock (RJD2 Remix)

El-P - Tuned Mass Damper

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