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.

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S. Reidy Discusses Until the Darkness Comes, Mental Health Concerns, and Putting in Work

by Dustin

sreidy

Not long ago, we were approached by an artist with an album – a regular occurrence as a music blog. Something was different this time though…the music had a different feel to it. It was genuine, unique, and encapsulated the alternative hip-hop vibe without derivation. After a few weeks (or a month, sorry Shawn) of sitting on the album, it became apparent that a review simply would not be enough. When an up and coming musician drops something as fully realized as Until the Darkness Comes, the most important things that can be said will only come from the artist in question. That’s why we’re here today. To discuss a project, among other things, with an emcee following their own vibe and nobody else’s.

Ladies and gentlemen, S. Reidy:


EN: First and foremost, I’d like to invite you to introduce yourself a little bit. A bit of a self-bio for readers who might be unaware of you as a person. Who is S. Reidy?

S. Reidy: S. Reidy is a rapper from Norman, Oklahoma. He likes to blend hip hop, emo, and indie music, and has opened up for acts like The Palmer Squares, Milo, Open Mike Eagle, and even bands like Walter Etc. He’s also remarkably handsome and has held hands with females on many occasions.

EN: Before we jump into discussing your album, I did want to ask something about coming from Oklahoma. It’s not a state really known for its hip-hop scene. When you were growing up and being exposed to music, what sort of rap was it that you were hearing most predominantly?

S. Reidy: When I was in 7th grade that’s when Soulja Boy was popping off, and man I hated it. I was way more into My Chemical Romance and Senses Fail and stuff like that. But around 10th grade Lil Wayne dropped the song 6 foot 7, and that was the game changer [laughs]. That song was so full of jokes, and personality. Subconsciously I think when I started discovering that, I was destined to become a hip hop artist.

But you know, to answer the question, I was just exposed to all the really popular music. Some dumb study was made recently saying “Rap just took over Rock as the most popular music”, but I honestly feel like it’s been that way for almost 10 years. Especially when that’s what a 16 year old boy from Oklahoma was most exposed to.

EN: You were exposed to popular rap, but do you feel like the other genres you were into really helped shape your sound too? You mentioned My Chemical Romance and Senses Fail, and I know guys like Open Mike Eagle consider their outside influences (They Might Be Giants in his case) to be like, equally as important as the rap they grew up on.

S. Reidy: Oh yeah, absolutely. You can definitely hear a similar brand of white kid angst in my music as those bands [laughs]; however, my sound was really shaped by other genres I listened to once I graduated high school and started listening to more wordy and nerdy artists like Neutral Milk Hotel, Sufjan Stevens, Walter Etc., and stuff like that. Oh, and definitely Pedro the Lion too.

EN: With that in mind, do you feel like coming from somewhere without an established hip-hop sound gives you a bit more of a blank canvas when approaching your own music? Because to me it seems as if you’d be pretty removed from influences and pressures to sound a certain way to fit with the scene.

S. Reidy: It definitely was a strange advantage, but honestly I feel like I’d be making this music no matter where I came from. I’ve always been the kind of guy to do something different just for the sake of balancing out what the norm is.

EN: When I was listening to your album I noticed that – but it also felt very natural to you. Some people seem to really force trying to be “different” just for the sake of it. How important is being genuine in music to you?

S. Reidy: Its everything to me. It’s cliche, but when you take time to really mediate on who you are, and what makes you yourself, everything starts to fall in line, because at the end of it all it’s very clear that you’re the only person who can be you. I didn’t mean to turn the interview into an after school special there… but what are you gonna do [laughs]?

EN: So, when someone gets a chance to listen to Until the Darkness Comes, there’s no playing. It’s just an honest to goodness part of Shawn Reidy being put on display?

S. Reidy: Oh yes. It might not be exactly who I am as person at this very moment, but it’s all feelings, stories and emotions I’ve dealt with the past 2 years or so.

EN: Almost like reflecting on a diary?

S. Reidy: Man… I’ve never thought of it that way, but that is exactly what it is. Someone on YouTube reviewed my album and called it musical meandering, which I though was also super accurate [laughs].

EN: Did you set out with the intention of having the record be an open book about yourself, and experiences, or is that what comes naturally to you when writing lyrics?

S. Reidy: You’re nailing all of these questions right on the head [laughs]. I absolutely do, and that goes into what I was saying earlier about how if you can truly sit down and block out all the worlds expectations of you, and just be yourself, you’ll never have a problem trying to be unique.

EN: Is there a particular aspect of the album that you’re most proud of as an artist?

S. Reidy: Oh dude, by far what I’m most proud of is the distinct sound I was able to come up with on this record. All my other projects sound so scattered as far as a cohesive sound goes. This project is my first that really feels like an album.

EN: Do you feel that being hands on with all stages of the album allowed you to achieve that cohesion? Was that the reason you sought to be the driving force behind all stages of its development, from production to lyrics?

S. Reidy: Oh for sure. I recommend it to everyone. Don’t wait for other people and influences to come and change your sound up. Listen to everything, and engulf yourself in it. Find identity in the music you listen to, and don’t just listen to one or two genres. If you love music, then love music, you know? And then you don’t have to rely on a producer or another musician to help you craft a sound. At least that’s what’s worked for me [laughs].

Just also make sure you get hella opinions from your friends and family, because you don’t wanna get too inside yourself either. Find a happy medium. That’s what I’d recommend.

EN: I’m curious about what your construction process was like for this album. Did you approach creating beats with topical ideas already in mind, or did you produce first, and then figure out what would fit?

S. Reidy: Most of these songs I wrote the best first, and based it on a feeling. After the beat was done I wrote all the lyrics to the song in like 10 minutes or so just to get my rawest response I could from the track, and I would clean it up from there. I’ve been writing songs that way for awhile now.

Guess I kind of just gave away my secret recipe [laughs].

EN: Now, obviously we can’t tell people how to enjoy art – but would you encourage people to approach your album as a full listen rather than just picking and choosing songs to play?

S. Reidy: I don’t know if I would encourage people to, but if you like digging into albums there is more than enough here to really sink your teeth into. If you just wanna hear my popular songs you can do that too though [laughs]. But you’re not gonna get the most out of the album that way.

EN: Popular songs aside, what’s your top three songs off the album, and why?

S. Reidy: Woah, jeez that’s hard…I’m sure this answer would change in thirty minutes too [laughs]. For now though, I wanna say: “Galavanting” because of visceral production and the cool lyrics, “Blackout” just because I feel like it’s uplifting without being corny, and probably “Nobody Nose” because of the guitar and the sweet hook.

EN: Is there a particular lyric you’re most fond of on this record? One that maybe stands out to you as some of your best work.

S. Reidy: That’s also so remarkably hard…when I think about it long enough, I think maybe the line “bagged eyes screaming in your pillows till they drip/ Till you find one day you weren’t crazy to begin with.” I think if you had to describe the album in one line it would be that one.

EN: It’s lyrics like that which made it feel to me like you had a lot to say, particularly in the realm of mental health. We spoke about it a bit beforehand, but just how much does it mean to you to be able to speak freely and candidly about those issues?

S. Reidy: You know I was thinking the other day about how almost every song on the album is about mental health one way or another. Depression is something I had to deal with for two years a couple of years ago. As best as I can I like to open up discussions on mental health and try to help people work out whatever they’re going through, as artfully and carefully as I can.

EN: When including mental health as a topic artistically, do you feel it important to actively attempt to not sound as if you’re glamorizing the “tortured artist” mindset?

I ask because having gone through depression myself, some of the music this newer generation of artists produces can be scary. Like, depression has almost become a brand. But then I see artists like you who approach it more candidly (as mentioned), and I wonder if that’s a conscious effort.

S. Reidy: It’s not conscious as much as it is just a reflection of my reality that depression is really ugly. It’s dark, deep, and numbing, at least it was for me.

As far as acts on the other end tend to sway, I never want to be a person to tell someone how to live their life. This zeitgeist of Instagram depression, is worrisome in the sense that if I had seen more of this stuff when I was depressed, I would have felt very belittled. It’s also dangerous because when people who genuinely are depressed might find some hollow fulfillment in stepping into the more glamorous side of depression, and the lines start to blur between what’s real, and what’s the act you’re putting on.
Once again, I’m not trying to tell anyone how to deal with their depression, everyone does differently. But artist and fans need to start approaching these things with a different attitude, because we’re seeing the repercussions of not taking depression seriously right before our eyes.

EN: I think the Lil Peep death in general exposed that blurred line between reality and act, that you just mentioned. People close to him are saying he was “performing like people in the WWE,” and that it was a character. But at the same time, you would have to be suffering from something mentally to be abusing drugs and thinking it’s okay to put on a depression act. The glitz and glamour that a lot of people put behind it, I think, distracts from taking it seriously. Which is a shame because a lot of people are losing their battles with these issues. And even someone like Eyedea who was very blunt about his mental state and addiction issues ended up succumbing to it.

How do you think musicians as a collective can approach things different to help mental illness be taken more seriously?

S. Reidy: That’s a really really good question, and I don’t believe that there is one answer to it.

I think the best catch all solution you’ll find here, is to make music honest to yourself. Don’t compromise hard to digest topics for music that’s easy to listen to. And do what artists are put on this earth to do. Be vulnerable.

And as listeners we need to actively pay attention to the struggle of these artists and open up discussions on how we can put all of ourselves in a better situation.

EN: Do you think that the vulnerability could also inspire others to open up to their family and friends about issues they’re experiencing? Given that even underground musicians can be huge role models to their fan base. Especially to younger teens and kids.

S. Reidy: One can only hope man… I just do what I can to the best of my ability and hope that it’s enough. Hopefully our best really is good enough when it comes down to it.

EN: Sort of touching on something topical right now, what are your thoughts on the idea (presented by DJBooth originally) that underground hip-hop is dead due to the accessibility of artists online?

S. Reidy: [Laughs]. Oh that thing huh? You know I don’t have much of an opinion about it honestly. I think I understand what they think they were saying, but if you think there’s no difference between an artist like Drake and WIKI I think your opinions are a little misguided.

But I mean, I can’t change that writers definition of mainstream and underground. It is what it is.

EN: Do you ever worry about a music writer stumbling upon your music and misconstruing things you say? Media coverage can be big, but I imagine it could be frustrating if something was read into entirely incorrectly.

S. Reidy: That’s happened to me before in a super minor way. But honestly I’m not that worried about that kind of stuff, I know in my heart that I’m a good person and if anyone every tries to challenge that based on something I’ve said or did, I have no problem confronting that.

It’s a weird hobby folks have now, attempt to twist things any which way just to ruin someone. It’s pretty lame to be honest. It’s almost of a matter of when they’re gonna come for you rather than if. But I’m 100% prepared for that kind of thing, because once again, I know my intentions, and I never mean any form of harm on anyone or anything.

EN: So you try to be genuine not only in your music and candidness with difficult subjects (such as mental illness), but also in your approach to tour music career?

S. Reidy: I mean, I don’t see any better way of approaching it. I truly believe if you’re a good person, you have nothing to hide. And if people try to chastise you for the life you’re living, just continue being the best person you can be, and the universe always has a way of paying you back.

EN: Does it ever get intimidating opening for more established acts than yourself? I imagine it’s an amazing opportunity, but if I was in that position I would be terrified.

S. Reidy: [Laughs]. Honestly, performing is the easy part. The hard part is being backstage with these artists and acting like I don’t want to take a million pictures, ask them about all their albums, and see if they wanna do a mixtape together. I’m a music dork just as much as I am an artist, so the scary part when performing with these acts is attempting to not look like a dingus in front of my heroes…

EN: Do you ever get the opportunity to soak up any wisdom from them during the process though?

S. Reidy: I mean… I started writing this album after me and milo had an hour long conversation in my garage [laughs]. I wish I could record all the conversation I’ve had with these other artists, because when I talk to them I’m always thinking “these are the words of a person with the mindset it takes to get where they are.”

EN: Do you find that these established guys have a different outlook on things than your average indie emcee who hasn’t quite figured themselves out yet? As in, I guess I mean… Do they speak about things differently?

S. Reidy: I don’t think it’s a different outlook, I think it’s just knowledge.

What I’m learning more about the people I look up to the closer I get to them, is the fact that these are people who have made a thousands of mistakes. But mistakes don’t discourage them, and they’re super happy to make them, because all that means is that they know exactly how not to do what they’re wanting to do. The confidence in yourself to remember what it was that got you where you are. That’s the kind of wisdom I’m working towards.

EN: Say a young artist approached you tomorrow, and they were extremely frustrated with their own music due to making mistakes and not hitting the mark they’ve set for themselves – what sort of advice would you pass on to them?

S. Reidy: [Laughs]… Dude unfortunately I’m terrible at motivational speeches.

My whole thing is, do you love music? Can you not picture your life without creating? Then you don’t need motivation from me. I hate when people tell me they want to make music but they never feel inspired. Like, dude, you’re never inspired? Nothing inspires you? You need to either broaden your horizons, or just admit that music isn’t what you’re supposed to do. I know that sounds harsh [laughs], but being an artist is work, if you aren’t willing to clock in to your job, then quit. You know?

EN: Plus like…do you even think inspiration is necessary to get started in art? For me anyway, in my music production side project, there are times when I’m totally not inspired, but I can still sit any play around with things and try something new. Then when I’m feeling it emotionally, I can really sit down and apply those things. There’s something to be said for just messing around and learning too, don’t you agree?

S. Reidy: Or just listening to different guitar tones for an hour and seeing which one you like more, or trying ever single drum groove you can think of that might compliment the melody of the song. Studio time and creative space isn’t always fireworks and magic, and I think that’s a big misconception among new artists.

EN: Do you think they only see end results from their favorite artists and maybe assume that just happens, without considering all the foundations that are laid first?

S. Reidy: That’s absolutely the problem, or people are just to caught up in wanting to be rockstars that’s they don’t understand that 80% of it isn’t even fun. Not that work isn’t fun, but you have to love it.

EN: Word. I think that’s a valuable lesson that everyone making music needs to learn eventually. So, I do gotta ask, what’s next for you now that you’ve released this album? What steps do you take to keep advancing your music career?

S. Reidy: I’m gonna just keep recording music, videos, do tour, interviews, tweet Anthony Fantano 43 times a day to review my album, and do the DIY thing with it man.

Album Review: Open Mike Eagle – Brick Body Kids Still Daydream

by Dustin

2017-09-18

9/10

There’s not much that hasn’t been said about Mello Music Group mainstay artist Open Mike Eagle. He’s rap’s every-man, and an artist who isn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. Since his studio album debut Unapologetic Art Rap at the beginning of the decade Mike has brought his unique take on hip-hop to new levels seemingly every year. His second full length on Mello Music Group, Hella Personal Film Festival, saw Mike take massive strides as an artist and was a wonderful release. A year and a half later he’s back with a brand new collection of works, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream. And, well…it’s really good. Like, really good.

With that in mind, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is a bit of a different listening experience than one would come to expect from an Open Mike Eagle album. Gone are lines obscured by absurdist humor and hyper-exaggerated storytelling, replaced by emotionally hard-hitting honesty. It can be perhaps a little jarring, yet this sudden shift adds to the urgency of what’s being said on the album. On full listen, it feels if all twelve songs have at least one line designed to hit you in the stomach; however, his depictions of the American projects and ghettos managed to be honest without relying on shock-bait and emphasis on negativity. Mike made a point of showing the listener that through the institutionalized racism, a lot of amazing people and happy memories are made in these situations. That even though America needs to improve its treatment of marginalized individuals severely, those who grew up in the projects shouldn’t be written off as hopeless.

His personal connection to the projects and focus on the emotional aspect of the experience made Brick Body Kids Still Daydream a beautiful yet challenging listen. As it should be.

Mike also added another dimension to his vocal performances on this album. There were still plenty of moments with his familiar sing-rap soft spoken delivery; however, the energy he brought to some of the songs on Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is unmatched by his back catalogue. He sounded more inspired, focused, and confident than perhaps he has in his entire career, and it was a lovely surprise. The only song that really stood out as not exceptional was “Wedding Ghosts”, but even that sounded good and had its place within the tracklisting.

No services underground,
No sound, when I’m calling home,
City broken my brothers down,
Now I’m standing here all alone,
Sun weathered my monochrome,
My hollow bones, David Bowie told me I’m not alone,
I’m overgrown, but these model homes,
Still here if it’s hot or cold,
Still here if my body move,
Still standing on Cottage Grove.
(Brick Body Complex)

Open Mike Eagle has always had a very keen ear for production, and this release is no exception. Though it’s a bit of a sonic departure from the zaniness of Paul White’s instrumentation on Hella Personal Film Festival, the depressive tone to most of Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is exceptionally well done. The beats all fit together quite nicely as well, which is slightly surprising given the variety of influences on the album. From experimental to 8-Bit, the production team Mike rounded up for this album blended a plethora of styles into hip-hop seamlessly. Brick Body Kids Still Daydream sounds incredibly fresh without trying too hard to be different. It feels natural, and it suits Open Mike Eagle’s style exceptionally.

22 grandkids, one apartment,
Turn the stove on cause we done with darkness,
Social workers don’t want sons with fathers,
When they visit, people bite they tongue the hardest.
(Beezeway Ritual)

As an additional note, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream wasn’t very feature heavy which was nice. That being said, Sammus and Has-Lo brought excellent verses to their respective songs and deserve praise for fitting into the album perfectly.

Brick Body Kids Still Daydream may be the definitive Open Mike Eagle record. It’s somber, quirky, thoughtful, and an excellent showcase of his various styles. It’s undoubtedly too early to say anything for sure, but Mike’s ability to continually push himself forward with each new release is admirable to say the least. Whether or not you grew up in the projects, don’t be afraid to pick up this album and give it a listen or two. Relatability will vary with the listener, but the heart that went into the songs is undeniable and an excellent entry point into Open Mike Eagle’s impressive catalogue of work; moreover, this is easily one of the most unique and enjoyable albums to be released in 2017.

Album Review: milo – who told you to think​?​?​!​!​?​!​?​!​?​!

by Dustin

whotoldyoutothink

9/10

At times it feels as if no independent hip-hop artist’s stock has risen as much in the past three years as milo. A protege of sorts to Busdriver and Open Mike Eagle, milo’s rise in the alternative scene was met with some speed-bumps; however, after the collapse of Hellfyre Club, he’s seemingly risen from the ashes as one of the best young emcees in rap, period. With the release of 2015’s so the flies don’t come, milo showed that he had the ability to truly reach his potential as an artist. Following this, he would slip into the shadows to work on his next project, while also sharing a couple of short releases under his highly experimental Scallops Hotel alter-ego. Two years later milo has reemerged with his latest piece of work, who told you to think​?​?​!​!​?​!​?​!​?​!.

who told you to think​?​?​!​!​?​!​?​!​?​! is an album with a sound entirely unique to itself. While it does clearly keep one foot in the roops of hip-hop and rap, there’s also a very clear effort on milo’s end to be his own artist. There’s an impishly playful (and sometimes coy) nature to the way milo rattles off bar after bar; moreover, it’s the type of album where the humor and poignancy is not made overwhelmingly apparent. This sort of subtlety makes who told you to think​?​?​!​!​?​!​?​!​?​! an incredibly addictive listen. milo kept his writing as sharp as ever though, bringing a unique wit and thoughtfulness to each song. Each verse listens as if milo is beside the listener spilling everything he feels. Happiness, sadness, love, you name it.

If there’s a weak point to note on this album it’s milo’s hooks (or lack thereof), but honestly this seems like an aesthetic choice and didn’t really detract from the listening experience at all. Just don’t be surprised if a hook is a single phrased repeated for a break in the song. Fortunately it works well with his style, and his selection of live vocal effects keep things interesting.

Perhaps one of the main reasons who told you to think​?​?​!​!​?​!​?​!​?​! is so enchanting is that it’s as complex of a listen as one wants it to be. The evolution of milo’s style has taken him to a place where his music is lyrically challenging, yet soothing and easy to consume. Compared to some of milo’s earlier works, who taught you to think is easy to vibe out to if the listener doesn’t feel like focusing too heavily on the content; however, there’s more than enough going on to feed the lyric obsessed on many subsequent listens. These seem like contradictory statements, but milo did an excellent job of balancing these aspects.

The features on who told you to think​?​?​!​!​?​!​?​!​?​! were a lovely assortment of frequent milo collaborators. Of note are Busdriver, Elucid, and Deathbomb Arc associated Signor Benedick the Moor. Though Busdriver stole the show as far as feature go with his hyperactive energy, everyone brought their best. There’s not much else that can be said, aside from the fact that the features really added a great extra dimensions to the songs on which they appeared.

The production is absolutely fantastic. Handled by a variety of different producers easily recognizable by fans of milo and his close peers (such as DJ Nobody and Kenny Segal), who told you to think​?​?​!​!​?​!​?​!​?​! is a close knit collection of Los Angeles beat-scene inspired glory. The blending of jazz and soulful easy listening samples boast an impressive soundtrack behind milo’s vocals. There’s also a wonderful usage of negative space on this record instrumentally. Nothing is overwhelmingly busy or dense, but at the same time it manages to be strong enough that it could stand on its own. This album hits that rare equilibrium of the artist and the production complementing and elevating each other, rather than one stealing the show all on their own.

Regardless of if you are a fan of milo currently, who told you to think​?​?​!​!​?​!​?​!​?​! is an album worth investing some time into. He’s an excellent young artist armed with one of the most unique sounds in hip-hop currently. Between this and so the flies don’t come, it is quickly becoming apparently that he’s come into his own and realized the potential that many fans saw in his earlier releases during the Hellfyre era. If you really like the release, be sure to support the artist. milo is independent in every sense of the word, and every cent counts.

Put your money on the green horse for rap.

Album Review: Nocando – Severed

by Dustin

Severed

3.5/10

Those who have followed Los Angeles’ amazing alternative hip-hop scene will recognize the name of Hellfyre Club. Through the early 2010s, Hellfyre Club was an independent powerhouse that played home to a mass of independent mainstays. Busdriver, Open Mike Eagle, milo, VerBS and Anderson .Paak are just a few of the names to have been associated with the label’s roster alongside rapper and founder, Nocando; however, things started to go awry for the label in 2014. Dozens of fans didn’t physical copies of releases ordered through Hellfyre’s Bandcamp and took to review boards to voice their concerns. Additionally, tensions between milo and Nocando allegedly began to boil over when the label failed to compensate the young artist for his album A Toothpaste Suburb. This lead to the departure of most of the outfit’s main acts, such as Open Mike Eagle, Busdriver, and milo himself. The trio would release a free “farewell” EP, The Catcher of the Fade, with a handful of ex-Hellfyre Club musicians (with no involvement from Nocando) before moving onto greener pastures to continue crafting their art.

While the majority of the former members never spoke out against Hellfyre Club personally, there was a clear distancing from Nocando and the label. Busdriver once mentioned over Twitter that the vision of the label had died and that it was time to move on. The label sat in static, halted to indefinite hiatus after the release of Nocando’s 2014 album Jimmy the Burnout. Like most things however, Hellfyre Club was not allowed to stay as a memory. In early May of 2017 the label would see its first release in over three years with the very quiet release of The Life I Live EP by Cadalack Ron.

Flash forward less than a month, and Nocando has decided to release his first album in three years, Severed, under the Hellfyre Club moniker as well.

As an emcee, Nocando really doesn’t offer up a lot of versatility or creativity behind the mic. He’s pretty decent at what he does – which is a very punchy, sometimes crude, and simplistic throwback approach to rap – but seems to confine himself to his comfort zone. This really does not change on Severed either. Nocando does what he’s always done, and after a while the verses begin to feel like a bit of a homogeneous blob. He’s got an incredibly grating, gruff delivery on this release that feels incredibly out of place on some of the production. It’s as if Nocando is angry for the entire duration of the album, even when the overall tone of a song is nowhere near that emotion. He attempted to make up for a lack of personality by sounding aggressive, and to be honest itt did not work at all.

To make matters worse, nearly every feature outshone Nocando on this record and most of them weren’t even that interesting. Slug dropped a really nice verse on the song “Useless” (which also had one of the best instrumentals on Severed), which is well worth hearing. Aside from that though, no one really stood out. They just happened to be better than a very underwhelming lead emcee.

On a more positive note, the album art is really cool. But also, Severed feels much more focused than Nocando’s previous work. For example, Jimmy the Burnout felt like an incredibly scattered release. It listened more like a up-and-coming rapper’s debut mixtape than a studio album by a veteran underground emcee. Severed on the other hand, while boring at times, is quite cohesive. There seems to be an attempt at establishing an overarching sound for the album, which is something Nocando has struggled with in the past. It was a a bit of a surprise, but most certainly a pleasant one.

Unfortunately this has more to do with the production than his rapping. The instrumentals on Severed are actually pretty cool for the fast majority of the album. There’s a lot of trap flavor to the production, and tracks such as “Villain” certainly have a unique sound. What really is a bother however, is the absolutely dreadful mixing on this tape. The vocal volumes are all over the place from track to track. For example, “Useless” is significantly louder than its follow up song “Villain”. Add in frequently cracking “s” sounds and instrumentals that are way too quiet, and you’ve got a release with technical issues so severe that it detracts from the listening experience. Not good. The departure from Daddy Kev as an engineer was a very poor decision.

Overall this is a pretty weak release that ultimately feels unnecessary. Outside of the context of his once amazing underground collective, Nocando is just another rapper. He’s at his best when surrounded by talent with more charisma than himself, such as his group work with Busdriver as Flash Bang Grenada. On his own, he lacks the ability to create a great album. This was much of the issue with Severed. It was just so overwhelmingly generic and poorly handled. It’s a shame too, because there did genuinely seem to be some good ideas behind the album, Nocando just dropped the ball when it came to executing them in a way that makes for an enjoyable listen. He’s failed to address his shortcomings as a rapper, and they’ve only began to compound and worsen.

It’s hard to see the appeal in Severed unless you’re a big Nocando fan or desperately clinging onto the nostalgia of Hellfyre Club. A label that should’ve been allowed to rest permanently after the mistreatment of fans and artists around the time of its initial demise.

EP Review: CURTA – CLICK BAIT

by Dustin

clickbait

7.75/10

CURTA is a two man band consisting of CURTA on the mic and 4Digit on the instrumentals. Are you confused yet? Don’t be. Much like many assume Slug’s stage name is “Atmosphere” (poor Ant), the same situation happened with CURTA. People saw an emcee jumping around on stage an it was assumed he was the only one under the namesake. So he adopted the name, and his excellent producer took on the title of 4Digit for easier crediting. It’s a beautiful compromise, and they do create all CURTA music together as a team. Truth be told, the music is a thousand times more notable than the slightly tricky name situation for one simple reason: it is really good. Their new EP – coming via FilthyBroke and Hello.L.A – is no exception to this either.

Also, it’s called CLICK BAIT, which is potentially the most culturally relevant album name in the last couple of years.

The production on CLICK BAIT is its most intriguing, and difficult to describe, feature. The overall vibe is inherently hip-hop, but the instrument selection is some sort of delectable electronic chaos. It feels reminiscent of Hellfyre Club’s sound through their early 2010s reign, or perhaps the long lost sonic cousin of 2005 Definitive Jux. It is strange. For instance, the song “Sky High” featuring Serengeti’s alter-ego Kenny Dennis (which should be noted as an amazing feature) has an instrumental that sounds like an acid trip through the scariest carnival imaginable; moreover, every single track on CLICK BAIT has a beat that is equally as interesting. On a short listen like this, that is a wonderful thing to be able to claim. It makes the overall listen feel much more fleshed out than one would expect from a six track release and aids in listener engagement.

With such involved production, there is always a worry about the emceeing on top of it; artists run a very real risk of their voice getting lost behind the lush backdrop. This is not the case on CLICK BAIT however, the rapping is charismatic and manages to blaze its own trail. This is a band, after all, and they’ve got the chemistry to back up that label.

With that in mind, the rapping on CLICK BAIT isn’t going to blow you away with technical prowess or hyper-intricate eight syllable rhyme patterns. Nor are you going to find disgustingly catchy hooks on this project. Let’s be honest though, that style of delivery would be way too boring over 4Digit’s darting electronic production style. Instead, the CURTA style is one of a smooth-yet-strained emotional punchiness. His intensity matches that of the instrumentation, the lyrics hit surprisingly hard, and very rarely does he misstep. His rap style shares similarities with that of an artist like Soul Khan, and has a palpable tension behind every line. His rapping is the exact style this sort of music calls for, and the complimentary nature between instrumentals and their paired vocals is a delight.

As with most EP releases, the only real issue with CLICK BAIT is that it is a bit of a musical cock-tease. The songs plow full steam ahead, but never quite take flight like you would see in a long-play album. This isn’t a criticism of the music itself, quite the opposite actually; the tracks on CLICK BAIT are so enjoyable that it is nearly disheartening when it ends. As mentioned, this is standard drawback for any really good EP, but it is worth noting nonetheless.

At the very least, this small packet of music from CURTA is more than enough to spark interest in the duo. It might end just a little sooner than one would like, but every moment on the release is enjoyable and well worth the listen.

Album Review: Jonwayne – Rap Album Two

by Dustin

rapalbumtwo

8.5/10

For a handful of years Jonwayne was an incredibly prolific underground artist. As an instrumental genius he dropped wave after wave of beat tapes, video-game inspired soundtracks, and rare odds-and-ends that fans happily ate up. Once moving into the rap scene, his series of Cassette mixtapes sparked interest among the alternative rap community; Jon’s rich voice and subdued delivery paired excellently with his Dilla-inspired production. Stonesthrow, his label at the time, seemed like the perfect home for his style. This culminated in his 2013 debut studio rap album, accurately named Rap Album One. Though it seemed as if Jon was still finding his voice on that record, the potential was evident and it was met with generally positive reviews. It seemed as though Jonwayne was destined for big things.

However, not all career paths can be so beautifully lineal. Jon’s mental health and lifestyle choices, namely those involving alcohol, quickly caught up to him. Things soured at Stonesthrow, leading to his departure. After battling through these issues and bringing a semblance of order back to his life, Jon would reintroduce himself to the music scene in 2015 with Jonwayne is Retired and Here You Go. A rap extended play, and a two part beat tape series respectively. After a little more waiting and teasing Rap Album Two found its way to eager ears on February 17th 2017.

As it turns out, the delay for Rap Album Two was well worth it. This record is easily Jon’s most personal work, and the lyrics offer a deep insight into his emotions, feelings, and the struggle of someone recovering from addiction. Though these are topics that have been explored extensively in various genres, Jonwayne makes it special by offering a sense of solidarity to those dealing with the same issues as himself; the most impressive part of this is that Jon manages to present what he went through without seeming as if he was purely seeking sympathy. The lyrics on Rap Album Two are bluntly honest, and he puts his own faults and shortcomings on full display.

The writing style on this album is also quite unique. There are times where Jon abandons conventional rap structures and is more in line with written and spoken poetry. The rhyme structures aren’t always laid out in a simple couplets patter, and his focus is very rarely on multi-syllable schemes. This can take a bit to get used to, but ultimately it’s a refreshing journey away from the expected.

And on the way I know I gave away some friends,
And every day I wish that we could speak again,
But every time I wanna make it right I freeze up,
and the visions of the shadows of my demons who went out of sight,
They went out of sight,
Until now.
(Out of Sight)

Unsurprisingly, the instrumentation on Rap Album Two is superb. Jonwayne established himself long ago as one of the many talented producers to build on the influence of Dilla. The thriving west coast beat scene offered the perfect incubation environment for his style, and it has blossomed on this album. Jon’s production has always had experimental elements mixed in with more classic hip-hop sounds, but he’s finally achieved a sense of balance between the two. The beats are rustic glory updated for modern times. They fit his spoken poetic rap style wonderfully,

And that’s the thing about Rap Album Two. None of the tracks on this album jump out as better than the rest of the group. They all pay together perfectly, and the album is best experienced as a long play. Every song has its place, and they transition very well.

I just cancelled my tour,
I just woke up in bed,
I had last nights dinner on the sheets,
I had a burning in my throat I couldn’t swallow,
I had shuffled to the mirror and saw death over my head,
If i was sleeping on my back I would’ve died,
Jameson in my blood,
Jameson in my eyes,
Jameson on my mind,
I know I need to stop,
But if I’m flying, it’s Jameson on the ride,
This how I’m making money but a cost to my life.
(Blue Green)

There are some moments on Rap Album Two that feel slightly out of place. “LIVE From The Fuck You” and “The Single” in particular are uncharacteristically humorous in the midst of an incredibly serious album. That being said, they do serve a bit of necessary comic relief to cut the tension. Aside from that, Rap Album Two is a juggernaut of cohesion. Jonwayne’s all encompassing creative control shines through on this album, and a meticulous attention to detail is evident. Though none of the songs really jump out on their own, Rap Album Two is a powerful complete listen. It’s the kind of album that seemingly needs to be listened to in its entirety; moreover, it’s also the perfect length for this sort of release at 44 minutes.

Rap Album Two feels like a modern album that captured some of the magic of rap’s golden era. The emotional connection Jonwayne is able to establish with the listener far outweighs any of his technical flaws on the mic. If you’ve been through any kind of struggle in your life, which most have, this album will offer some degree of solace. And it is an absolutely gorgeous listen, if not one that is a little challenging. Welcome back, Jon, and thank you for the album.