A History of UTFO and the Roxanne Wars

by Dustin

UTFO

The 1980s were an interesting decade for hip-hop as a genre that had just begun to find its footing. The classic artists of this era are often remembered for one of two things: infectiously bouncy party music, or gritty socially rooted rap. Yet, aside from the big names – N.W.A, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Run D.M.C., The Beastie Boys, and a few others – rap from this particular point in history seems have found itself overshadowed by the behemoth that is 90s rap. Yet, if one is up to doing a little digging, there are a ton of very interesting artists to be discovered. One such group was Untouchable Force Organization, or as they were more commonly called, UTFO. An east coast rap group that brought a unique flavor to the sounds of the 80s.

UTFO formed in Brooklyn, New York in 1984 when two of Whodini’s regular break-dancers, Doctor Ice and Kangol Kid, made the decision to pursue a music career of their own. The two enlisted the talents of The Educated Rapper and Mixmaster Ice to round out a quartet. Thanks to the group’s pre-existing connections to the music industry it didn’t take them long to find a label to call home. In this case, it was Fred Munao’s Select Records that decided to take a chance with the group. The slightly more experienced R&B outfit Full Force was brought into the fold to assist the newer UTFO, tasked with overseeing the production of their debut studio album. Full Force took this job to heart, and sought the help of sampling and sound design expert Gary Pozner to assist with the instrumental portion of the record. Armed with some of the best in the industry, UTFO was primed to make a splash in hip-hop with their self-titled debut album. Which, is exactly what they did; in fact, the group probably got a bigger response than they bargained for.

Their freshman release is regarded by many hip-hop enthusiasts as a slept on classic, with its unique beats and flows for the era; however, UTFO as an album is still mainly known for setting off a massive string of diss tracks known as the Roxanne Wars. During the promotional run of the album, a track tilted “Hanging Out” was released and performed relatively terribly in terms of pure numbers. The b-side of the single, however, would go on to receive huge amounts of airplay. This song was titled “Roxanne, Roxanne,” a comical track about a hypothetical girl who had ignored the advances of the various UTFO members. Around this same time, UTFO missed a scheduled performance, much to the dismay of venue promoters Marley Marl and Mr. Magic. A 14-year old Lolita Gooden (known by her stage name Roxanne Shante) heard the men discussing the problem, and offered to write a song to fire back at UTFO. Surprisingly they took her up on this offer, and Marley Marl opted to handle the track’s production.

The fruit of their labor would be released not long afterward. It borrowed the original beat from “Roxanne, Roxanne” and was named “Roxanne’s Revenge.” Local radio stations adored the song, thrusting it into instant hit territory with continuous airplay. UTFO and Full Force saw the humor in the situation, and promptly contacted Elease Jack to perform vocals on their own answer track, “The Real Roxanne.” On this song, Elease claimed to be the actual Roxanne originally dissed by UTFO, and took jabs at all four members. This sparked Roxanne fever in the New York hip-hop scene, and artists entirely unrelated to the original incident began releasing Roxanne songs. Topics ranged from claiming to be Roxanne, claiming to know Roxanne, or in one particularly outlandish case, claiming that Roxanne was a man all along. It was such a craze that close to a hundred Roxanne songs were estimated to have seen release in the span of a few years. Though this seems highly likely to be exaggeration, there is no doubt that UTFO made their biggest splash with “Roxanne, Roxanne” and the time period around their debut album.

Perhaps unexpectedly, this was basically where UTFO’s career peaked. The Educated Rapper wasn’t on the group’s sophomore effort, Skeezer Pleezer. And the album itself didn’t garner much attention, apart from the song “Split Personality.” Their next three albums would also fail to meet expectations even though the group experimented with other sounds such as rock, swingbeat and reggae. Ultimately, the hypersexual Bag It & Bone It released in 1991 served as the endpoint for UTFO. The four men parted ways on good terms, and stayed active within the music industry in more subdue roles. They knew when it was time to call it quits, and that never impacted the lifelong respect they had for each other. A true testament to this was in 2017, when all of UTFO were reportedly by Educated Rapper’s bedside as he lost his battle to cancer.

Though they faded out of rap in an unspectacular manner, UTFO’s legacy should probably be spoken about more than it is. As ridiculous as they may have been, the Roxanne Wars were one of the first instances of beef extending beyond a one off diss and response. Their influence on modern artists was also far greater than one would expect, as evidenced by the outpouring of respect and love over the internet following The Educated Rapper’s death. UTFO helped paved the way for individuals that didn’t fit perfectly with the sound of their time. In most respects they were absolute eccentric oddballs compared to their contemporaries, but the group’s genuity left a lasting impression on the hip-hop scene. In retrospect, the present day alternative artist may not have even existed without the lane UTFO began to carve. While they may appear to have been a one hit wonder on the surface, it goes much deeper than that. Doctor Ice, Kangol Kid, The Educated Rapper, and Mixmaster Ice were four of the most important, but least spoken about individuals in the support structure of hip-hop.

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A History of Definitive Jux

by Dustin

DJX

The story of Definitive Jux really starts with Company Flow in the early nineties. The group – consisting of Bigg Jus, Mr. Len, and a very young El-P – was turning the heads of underground labels due to their heavy presence on the WKCR 89.9 radio in New York; however, the group still found it rather difficult to find a home initially. Loud Records opted to sign the now legendary Mobb Deep instead, and Tommy Boy Records didn’t believe the trio had what it takes to make it in the music industry. Despite the rejection, Company Flow pushed on and released the original Funcrusher extended play on the much smaller Official Recordings. During this time the group would also meet Amechi Uzoigwe – a video production assistant at the time – who would ultimately become their manager. The goal was simple: to keep on the independent grind until a record deal could be found on their own terms.

This would eventually happen when the group signed on to underground powerhouse Rawkus Records, and released Funcrusher Plus shortly thereafter in 1997. This album became one of the most influential underground releases of the 1990s, and spawned nearly two years of touring and promotion. Following this, Bigg Jus departed from Company Flow on good terms with the intention of pursuing a solo career. Not long after, the remaining group members’ relationship with Rawkus began to deteriorate rapidly. Feelings of financial mistrust and talent mismanagement soured Company Flow on the label, and El-P would ultimately make the decision to depart. These events effectively dissolved Company Flow. Aside from an instrumental release and a few loose tracks post-Jus, all members would remain active, but as solo artists.

Disillusioned with the music industry due to his experience at Rawkus Records, a disgruntled El-P went on to team up with manager Amechi in order to form a label named Def Jux in 1999. Ultimately, Def Jux sought to provide amenities such as covering the overhead on projects and offering 50% earnings on all record sale royalties to the original musician. Def Jux didn’t want to be shoehorned into any particular sound or facet of hip-hop, they wanted to grant artists the freedom to be genuine to themselves and release music that reflected such. They wanted to thrive with individuals who would normally be relegated to little more than open mic events and college radio stations. No mainstream expectations, no compromising, just raw hip-hop. A tall order, and a massive risk to be sure, but El-P and Amechi were driven by a burning desire to treat musicians with respect.

The label released Def Jux Presents in March of 2001 as a sampler of what they had to offer, but their first real success would come in May of the same year with Cannibal Ox’s El-P produced debut album, The Cold Vein. This record is still considered a seminal release to this day, and put Def Jux’s name on the map in the world of hip-hop. They would hit a second home run in September, when Aesop Rock dropped the critically lauded Labor Days. Def Jux would experience a slight hiccup that year in the wake of its initial success, however. Def Jam Recordings sued over the similarities in name. This was eventually settled out of court, and the label officially change to Definitive Jux to avoid any future legal issues. Despite this brief tie up in litigation, 2002 saw the release of El-P’s Fantastic Damage and Mr. Lif’s I Phantom, two records that were met with universal critical acclaim. The label had laid an extremely solid foundation, and was poised for nothing but growth and victory going forward.

Expansion, progression, and success certainly rung true for Definitive Jux through the middle portion of the new millennium, but not without a healthy dose of conflict leading to significant retooling. The relationship between the label and Cannibal Ox (specifically Vast Aire) crumbled, and the enigmatic duo would never release another record through El-P’s outfit. Holes in the Definitive Jux roster would gradually be filled with individuals such as Murs, C-Rayz Walz, and El-P’s longtime friend Camu Tao (of S.A. Smash and rap super collective The Weathermen). The label also signed fellow Weathermen member Cage after his nasty falling out with Eastern Conference owners The High & Mighty. Boasting a newly revitalized talent pool, in addition to retaining Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif, and a few others, Definitive Jux proceeded to go on another absolute tear of record drops. The standouts of which, just to name a few, include: The End of the Beginning, Black Dialogue, Since We Last Spoke, Hell’s Winter, Mo’ Mega, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, and None Shall Pass. The label had a firmly established cult following by this point. Renown for being different while also embodying the spirit of hip-hop. Though, the seemingly never ending success story proved shortly to be unsustainable.

As unfortunate as it is, the history of Definitive Jux is not one with much of a happy ending. Near the end of the 2000s things began to unravel rather quickly. The turning point was likely the passing of Camu Tao in 2008. A long time Definitive Jux member and best friend to many, his death shook the label to its core and created tension between certain artists. El-P had also allegedly become somewhat unhappy with the state and development of Definitive Jux. Feeling proud of all the label had accomplished, yet regretful that they had become too homogeneous in sound and created a bit of a splintered audience away from hip-hop itself. Definitive Jux, at times, seemed alienated from the rap community. Cited as being too weird or too niche, many turned their noses up at buying into their offerings. Being that El-P had come up in the east coast hip-hop scene, he began to feel a strange disconnect from his brainchild as if it no longer represented himself or its original ethos. After a run of uninspired releases and reissues (aside from Cage’s excellent 2009 album Depart From Me), El-P finally announced that he would be stepping down as creative director of Definitive Jux and placing the label on permanent hiatus in 2010; moreover, he stated the he would be moving on to focus on his career as a hip-hop artist.

This announcement also revealed that Camu Tao’s posthumous King of Hearts would fittingly be the final release prior to the label closing its doors. A collection of rough song ideas Camu wanted people to hear, touched up and arranged by El-P, King of Hearts released August 17th 2010 in conjunction with Fat Possum Records. Just like that, Definitive Jux’ reign over independent hip-hop had come to a close. A decision which, El-P would note years later, felt like the right one. The label had run its course and ended when it needed to before hurting its legacy. The remaining roster dispersed, with most finding homes on other independent record labels. Of the most notable, El-P moved on to release another solo album before forming Run the Jewels with Outkast affiliate Killer Mike, Aesop Rock would seek refuge on Rhymesayers Entertainment, Cage reconciled with Mighty Mi to rejoin Eastern Conference, and Mr. Lif eventually found his way to Mello Music Group.

Though it may have felt as if it ended just as soon as it started, Definitive Jux remains relevant even in the modern context of hip-hop through its influence. While labels like Bad Boy had attempted to glamorize the sound of New York hip-hop for the masses, Definitive Jux tried to keep it true to its roots while also developing an alternative lane for artists that is still flourishing today. El-P and Amechi also managed to revolutionize the status of independent hip-hop labels. Setting an example of how to break out of the mold set by the major corporations in music by placing the artist before the business whenever possible, while also operating sustainably. Though El-P may have some regret when reflecting back on the label, ultimately he did achieve his goal. What spawned out of frustration toward the music industry, would help set the bar higher for the treatment of underground acts in hip-hop. Between this influence and the amazing music released during its decade long run, it is hard to call Definitive Jux anything but a success in retrospect.

A History of Canadian Hip-Hop in the 1990s

by Dustin

Canada1

During what many would call the “golden era” of hip-hop in the United States, Canada’s hip-hop scene was just beginning to enter its development. Through the very late eighties and early nineties it was nearly impossible for Canadian hip-hop acts to gain exposure. Due to the lack of label support and general resistance, these artists had an incredibly difficult time getting their product placed in record stores; moreover, the fight for airtime on the radio was a losing battle. At the time there were no stations playing hip-hop music, and Milestone Radio’s application for an urban music station was ultimately turned down by the CRTC in favor of a country dedicated station.

This was particularly unfortunate as it would have been the first of its kind in Canada, and provided an exposure outlet for hip-hop artists. Canadians living close to the border could listen in on American urban broadcasts, but these stations rarely, if ever, played music from Canada.

Despite the overwhelming lack of support however, some artists did manage some success during this time period. Most notably Maestro Fresh-Wes (now known as Maestro) managed to enter the Billboard top 40 in the United States with his debut single “Let Your Backbone Slide” in 1989. In addition to this, one of Canada’s first female emcees, Michie Mee, landed a record deal with an American label. A feat which has been incredibly difficult just years early.

Others, such as Dream Warriors, Organized Rhyme, and Get Loose Crew had varying degrees of success in the nineties as well; however, Canadian hip-hop was still failing to garner respect and recognition with listeners. Domestic support for artists was still scarce, and to make matters worse international interest was practically non-existent. Those who attempted full moves into the American market, such as Maestro who moved to New York (and released Naaah, Dis Kid Can’t Be from Canada?!!) saw their careers hit an abrupt standstill.

Frustration was high for any hip-hop artist trying to make it in Canada. Domestic media didn’t seem to care, leaving many disgruntled.

The dissatisfaction with Canadian media would boil over at the infamous 1998 Juno Awards. A hip-hop group from Vancouver called the Rascalz, won best rap recording for the album Cash Crop. Much to their dismay, the award was briefly presented during a non-televised portion of the award ceremony, and they were told to give their acceptance speech in a press room backstage. Citing general frustration and a lack of respect for the genre, Red1 convinced the rest of the Racalz to protest the award.

Their decision was discussed at length by artists, journalists, and fans. The context of racial tensions, as well as the lack of exposure for Canadian artists put a spotlight on a genre that was often on the back-burner.

The Rascalz had support country wide for the protest, and ultimately it was successful. The following year the Juno Awards would move hip-hop to the main televised stage. Simultaneously, a new generation of Canadian hip-hop artists began to crop up. Kardinal Offishall, Saukrates and Choclair made their debut efforts in the mid to late nineties, and would cement themselves as mainstays in the genre. Even though commercial success was still relatively rare, hip-hop in Canada as a whole was beginning to grow.

Authors Note [March 17th, 2018]: This article was originally intended to be part of a series back in 2016. This series never happened; however, with the creation of our “Hip-Hop History” section of the site this article has seen a few edits and been moved into this category to better organize our articles.