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A Hardcore History of: Def Jux Records

In 2000, New York City’s primacy in the rap food chain was well established. The agglomeration of talent, capital, media, and industry in New York meant that no matter where you lived, the city’s stars were part of your local radio broadcasts, ever-present on MTV and BET, and only a turn of the page away in The Source and XXL.

But despite the record industry’s rude health, New York’s foremost underground rap label, Rawkus, had begun to falter. One of the label’s best known acts, Company Flow, had left, and they themselves began to splinter. With neither record label nor rap group, Company Flow’s El-P decided to found his own imprint alongside friend Amaechi Uzoigwe. From the wreckage of an underground rap empire, in the shadows of industry giants, emerged Def Jux.

In an interview with Pitchfork, El-P described his idea for Def Jux: “The vision that I hoped Rawkus would have: to put out consistently good and interesting music of different varieties with different voices and different production styles. Basically, have a record label that’s introducing new music to the world…”

Rawkus’ budget, secretly inflated by backing from Rupert Murdoch’s son James, allowed the label to offer large advances to high profile acts*—Def Jux would have no such luxuries, and it didn’t need them.

2001 saw Def Jux release two albums that’d define the label, and propel the rap music forward: Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein (featuring production from El-P) and Aesop Rock’s Labor Days. The intense, claustrophobic sounds of The Cold Vein and Labor Days explored the deepest depths of boom bap. Funk, soul, and soul-jazz samples—hallmarks of New York’s canonized producers—were substituted by maladroit tones and dissonant samples. This was the future of New York rap, already hinted at by Rawkus’ Soundbombing compilations, thrown into hyperdrive. It was the same New York as Jay-Z and DMX, but viewed from a bookish, avant garde perspective.

And so the early 2000’s were golden for the plucky upstarts. Def Jux released critically acclaimed albums from beatmaker RJD2 (Deadringer), Cage (Hell’s Winter), El-P (Fantastic Damage), a collaborative album from Los Angeles rapper Murs and producer 9th Wonder (Murs 3:16: The 9th Edition), an Aesop Rock follow-up (Bazooka Tooth), and the poorly-aged, once-funny joke rap of Party Fun Action Committee (Let’s Get Serious). What was once a small operation morphed into a larger undertaking for Def Jux, and, more widely, was seen as a paradigm shift; Def Jux became a nexus for anomic males with ink-pen-stained Jansports, although after a string of successful records, El-P openly stated that he wasn’t sure any record label could sustain that kind of attention.

As it happened, while Def Jux’s original, core acts were between albums (or in Cannibal Ox’ case, breaking up), the second wave of rappers signed to the label were struggling to maintain the momentum. El-P told Rolling Stone that, with the pressure of running Def Jux mounting, he retreated to Montreal for three months in the winter of 2007 to make I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead; shortly thereafter, labelmate and friend Camu Tao died of lung cancer. El-P’s financial problems stemming from Def Jux, emotional exhaustion, and constant substance abuse took their toll on the label. In February of 2010, El-P and Uzoigwe announced that Def Jux would cease releasing new music, effectively ending the label’s run.

Despite a noticeable downturn in quality during the final years of Def Jux, the label is remembered fondly by rap fans of a certain vintage. Def Jux, at its peak, dominated underground rap, and gave voice to rap fans disillusioned with the status quo. This, more than moralizing about hip-hop’s four elements, or spawning a generation of rappity-rap purists, is their legacy.

*One particularly notable case involves the fiduciary disaster of Kool G Rap’s The Giancana Story.

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