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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Album Review: Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3

by Dustin

rtj3

9/10

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring… Aside from Killer Mike and El-P, who decided to surprise release Run the Jewels 3 as a Christmas present to their fans! For those unaware, Run the Jewels is the collaborative effort between Atlanta based emcee Killer Mike, and New York’s own producer-slash-alternative-rapper El-P. The duo worked together on Killer Mike’s 2012 solo album R.A.P. Music, before releasing the first Run the Jewels album in 2013. Run the Jewels 2 would come roughly a year later, and the jewel runners have been preoccupied selling out shows and touring the world ever since.

But after more than two years the third installment is finally here. The main question most will probably be asking is, “was this really worth the extended wait”? The answer is a simple and sweet “hell yes”.

The atmosphere on Run the Jewels 3 is truly terrifying. Mike and El take all the anger of the current social climate and twist them into songs that knock hard enough to give a listener whiplash. Though the album definitely has tongue-in-cheek moments, and hilarious one liners at times, the overlying tone is one of bottled rage being unleashed upon the world. Even the tracks that fall more in line with classic brag-rap have politically based lines tucked in ever so cleverly; moreover, none of the social commentary on Run the Jewels 3 seems forced. Killer Mike and El-P did an excellent job of making sure that lines actually fit where they’re placed, and don’t detract from the overall vibe of a song.

We return from the depths of the badland,
With a gun and a knife in our waistband,
Went to war with the Devil and Shaytan,
He wore a bad toupee and a spray tan.
(Killer Mike on Talk to Me)

Run the Jewels do show their emotional range at times too. For instance, the song “2100” delivered a beautifully sad-yet-uplifting anthem of solidarity for trying times. “Report to the Shareholders” and “Down” also take on a much more mellow sound, breaking up the waves of braggadocio and fury.

Features on this album are used relatively sparingly. For the most part, guest artists are limited to a hook or the odd short singing verse (mainly Tunde Adebimpe on “Thieves!”). Danny Brown provided an absolutely insane and hard hitting feature on “Hey Kids (Bumaye)”, as one would expect. There’s also a special unlisted guest feature who absolutely shredded their verse (but we won’t spoil the surprise, so you’ll just have to listen and find out). Overall, all the features were wonderful and added positively to the songs on which they appeared.

Good day from the house of the haunted,
Get a job, get a house, get a coffin,
Don’t stray from the path, remain where you at,
That maximizes our profit,
Is that blunt?,
Oh well, hell, so’s this boot,
We live to hear you say “please don’t shoot”.
(El-P on Don’t Get Captured)

El-P’s production on Run the Jewels 3 is a treat to the ear. Everything felt much more true to the style he’s developed over the years, in comparison to the stripped down instrumentals on the first two group albums. Some of the beats on this record feel absolutely enormous, and dense to the point that one can pick up a new sound upon every subsequent listen. Fans of El-P’s solo discography will notice that some instrumentals almost feel like throwbacks to his previous works; however, everything has progressed into a heavy, angry, bass intensive style that fits perfectly under he and Mike’s vocals.

It needs more time to digest, but Run the Jewels 3 may have the most enjoyable production of the three records. Given how acclaimed the instrumentals from the first two are, that is saying a lot.

There’s really not much else to say to sum up Run the Jewels 3. It’s a face-melter album that may just make you want to punch a hole in a wall. Killer Mike and El-P closed the year by surprise dropping one of the best albums in 2016. They also released it for completely free, so really there’s no excuse: check this out as soon as you can. Even if you’ve never been a Run the Jewels fan before, do it. Do it right now.

Halloween Goodies: Movies for the Blind, by Cage

by Dustin

mftb

Halloween is always a fun time of the year. The kiddos are out in spooky costumes collecting enough candy to become diabetic at eight years old, young adults are out in costumes slutty enough to make a stripper wince, and everyone is generally just out to have a good time. More importantly for this site however, there’s also a huge array of horror themed hip-hop out there to fit the mood of the season. We’re not talking about struggle-Juggalo horrorcore however. What we want to discuss is the artists that went deeper, combining horror elements with conventional hip-hop to create near-movie like albums.

Welcome to Extraordinary Nobodies’ first ever Halloween Week, where we will have a look at four of our favorite horror inspired albums for an entire week leading up to Halloween (though surely you have figured that out by now).

The first album on the menu is perhaps the least Halloween-flavoured of the bunch, but it’s got one foot firmly planted in the horror genre. Cage’s Movies for the Blind, released in 2002, combined shock rap with New York hip-hop in a way not many had attempted. Though he’s probably most notorious for a short lived beef with rap megastar Eminem, Cage’s first two releases are regarded by many as underground classics. Movies for the Blind started it all, and it’s a record that will leave you feeling utterly disgusted in the best way possible.

Lyrically, Movies for the Blind is the ultimate channeling of rage, drug abuse, and mental illness into bar after bar of tantalizingly shocking lines. Setting the tone is an album opener with Cage expressing an unbridled affinity for PCP and destruction. The album doesn’t quit either, with jump-scare like lyrics woven into even the most New York sounding tracks to keep you on edge. No content is off the table on this record. Murder, suicide, and violence find themselves as staples on what is a freak-show of atrocities. Dips into the norm are rare, but when they do happen it serves as a necessary break from the amazingly grotesque images Cage paints with his words.

Blue collar to corporate blessed the unfortunate,
Like when I put my foot down that bitch still aborted it,
Stuck the canister under my jacket like the lucky one,
‘Uh, sir you can’t leave with that,’ bitch this my fucking son!
(Too Much)

Unlike Hell’s Winter, which saw Cage take a more introspective approach to his music, Movies for the Blind lacks any form of self-awareness. It is an album with an emcee at his most unhinged, unloading rage and hate at anyone who will listen. It’s beautifully executed, and forces you to feel a level of discomfort that most horrorcore albums simply haven’t been able to achieve.

His charisma is also undeniable. It gets to the point that he nearly comes across as a sociopath.

I’m a suicidal failure, look my life’s a failure,
I can’t make it in rap, even my birth’s an error,
Do what I can to catch a quick death,
But I’m meant to be here and that’s the fuckin’ hell I live with.
(Suicidal Failure)

Interestingly, the production on Movies for the Blind is relatively subdue and typical for the underground New York scene at the time. The album featured production primarily by DJ Mighty Mi, but also the likes of El-P, Necro, and Camu Tao (plus a handful of others). With the lineup, it’s no surprise that the sound is so distinctly east coast. Movies for the Blind fools you into nodding along with the gritty production, while throwing lines about suicide and death in your face. The contrast is absolutely wonderful to experience; moreover, the instrumentals are brilliantly cohesive throughout.

Movies for the Blind may not be the ultimate Halloween record, but there are qualities to it that definitely make it a terrifying listening. It’s quite interesting how this album plays out like a series of short snuff films. It’s more disturbing than scary, but it remains as grimy today as it was 14 years ago upon release. Movies for the Blind is also a gem from a time where Definitive Jux and Eastern Conference (the latter of which would release the album) were just beginning to take over the New York underground scene. Whether you’re interested in records from that era, or just looking for something gory to celebrate Halloween, Movies for the Blind remains an underground classic that is wholeheartedly recommendable.

Not for the faint of heart, however.

East Coast Rapper MCrv Discusses Life as a Working Class Hip-Hop Artist

by Dustin

mcrv-glitched-9-10-2016-5-17-32-pm

The east coast has been a powerhouse in rap for as long as the genre is old. Under the surface, the east coast has developed some of the most unique underground acts of all time. Of these, Definitive Jux was one of the most notable throughout the 2000s. Lead by independent hip-hop star El-P, the Jux crew was consistently putting out their unique brand of experimental east coast rap.

Nearly seven years after the label was put on indefinite hiatus, those influenced by Definitive Jux are starting to find their own voice in hip-hop. MCrv is one of these rappers. A student of the independent hip-hop scene, MCrv spoke with us on life as a working class rapper, balancing family life, and how he sees his own music.

Read the interview below, and then go ahead and check out MCrv on Twitter, Bandcamp, and Facebook.

EN: I figure we should probably start with the basics to help people learn about you as an artist, if that’s okay with you. How long ago was it that you started rapping, and how did you get interested in it?

MCrv: I started rapping when I was about 15. I’m 25 now… So, ten years I guess. I didn’t really take it serious until I was 20 or 21. It was just for fun with two friends of mine, Dan and Tony. We we bored teenagers, [and] I was like: “lets make a rap song”.

Dan played drums, Tony did bass, and I rapped. They were [just] dumb songs about high school and partying. we stopped after five six songs until I turned 17 and a friend gave me a copy of Hell’s Winter and Labor days and I found out these dudes were making music themselves and rapping about all sorts of shit. I was fascinated. So my senior year of high school (2008-2009) I started learning how to use GarageBand and [my keyboard], and writing lyrics. And [I was also] discovering more artists on Definitive Jux and Rhymesayers, and anyone they collaborated with.

Some of my first ideas were made at the school computers in Manville High. Once I learned I could record at home, I was obsessed with saving for my own studio. [However], before I graduated I got into some trouble with my parents about abusing prescription pills. I left my parents house moved in with my grandparents because there was so much tension; everyone thought I had addiction problems. It was more experimental, but it didn’t matter [because] I broke their trust… It was hard after high school. I ended up doing out-patient rehab before I left New Jersey, and learned a lot about addicts. [I] realized I had potential to end up down that road, but never had the desire.

While all this drama was going on I kept [trying] ideas on my Yamaha keyboard, and recording vocals in Audacity with a ten dollar mic. I would record my beats off the keyboard speakers into Audacity then record my vocals [to] hear my ideas.

Some time went by and I decided to move to New York state with some family after living in New Jersey for 18 years. [Mostly] to start fresh and find some solid ground, since things were rough with my immediate family. I got a job and stayed focused on saving money. Within a year I saved enough money to buy myself an iMac and Pro Tools! I also picked up an Axiom 49 and I started to teach myself how to record using Pro Tools when I was about 19.

EN: That’s pretty crazy, so now have you got yourself a little home-studio setup? I noticed listening to your tape that it was super clean quality wise, moreso than I notice from a lot of rappers on the do-it-yourself path.

MCrv: Yeah, I have my own set up at home, and thank you. I’ve worked really hard to show progress in the quality of my music. My set up is realy simple: two monitors, an interface, an Axiom 49, and I switched recently from Pro Tools to Logic which has been great. I have a mic that I record my rough vocals on at home, but for all my final vocal tracks and final mixing I go to my friend Jim Servedio at his home studio and he puts his ears and hands in… He actually sold me my equipment when I moved to New York six years ago, and he’s been helping me with my mixes and recording ever since. [Jim] has been working with music and studios for almost 30 years, and we have a natural chemistry in the studio as far as what we are looking for sound wise. It hasn’t been easy, but he’s been patient and has allowed me to grow at my own pace.

EN: It’s great you’ve got a bit of a mentor in that regard though; to me, it seems like audio quality holds back a lot of young artists. You’ve already surpassed that hurdle. Moving onto influences for a moment, I remember when I first messaged you we talked about Colors and Sounds having a bit of an early Definitive Jux sound. You kind of came up on artists from that era and roster, correct?

MCrv: I’m [just] really lucky to have Jim. He has helped me so much… I don’t think I would know as much about the actual process of music making if it weren’t for him.

Yeah, I feel like I got really into it all when None Shall Pass, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead and Depart From Me were still fresh. People started realizing there was more to underground rap than what they previously thought. At least that was my take [on it].

EN: Man, you had to go and name drop I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead haha. That’s my favorite album of all time, by far. It got me through a really rough period in life. Anyway, more to the point. You’ve definitely got influences, but your style is very much your own. Is it important for you to develop a unique sound for yourself?

MCrv: That album helped me a lot too! [Particularly] during my teen years and early twenties. “The Overly Dramatic Truth” [off I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead] still brings me back to those feelings.

And yeah, it is very important for me to have a unique sound for myself. That’s what drew me to Def Jux so much. Each dude had their own style [and] their own niche that I could get lost in and appreciate. I study those things, and have found what I like in myself. I [try to] bring [that] out in my music, and find my own signature traits that make MCrv, MCrv.

I still find it fascinating that you were able to dissect my influences based on my music, because anyone who knows me, like my close friends, if you asked [them] “what rapper or label does mcrv appreciate?”, they would say Aesop Rock, Def Jux, or Rhymesayers [laughs].

EN: Ah man, when I heard it the first time I was like this dudes got a super unique sound but at the same time there’s a flavor to this music that I recognize. So I spun it again, and then put on Bazooka Tooth I think and I was like holy shit, he sounds like he could have been a Def Jukie back in the day [laughs].

MCrv: Dude, thats crazy! I told myself when I made Colors and Sounds that this was my Bazooka Tooth [laughs].

EN: Then at that point, because that’s where my music tastes are pretty firmly I needed to talk to you for the site [laughs]. Like, I feel that even though Def Jux was pretty big, you don’t see a lot of the new generation building on that sound. (even thought the indie scene is strong as ever). Would you agree?

MCrv: I would totally agree. I feel I hear a lot of underground and commercial elements mixed together in a lot of the new generation stuff. I feel like there is a lot of risk in the music those [Def Jux] artists put out. There is meaning in their every sound and word. The messages and subject matters are like nothing any other artists have touched. There is a very peculiar way they’ve made music that I really don’t hear in others.

EN: I guess you’re somewhat of a revivalist in that way then, because it feels like that era ended so abruptly [laughs]. So tell me a bit about the process of your album, how long did you work on it and such?

MCrv: [Laughs] That’s a sweet thought… Trust me, I would love to see that label shine through again. I’m no savior though, I just know who I have to pay my respects to because those dudes showed me life pretty much… They taught me about life.

I worked on Colors and Sounds for about a year. I recorded everything at home… I made all the beats first and then wrote each song. [I] rehearsed them at home, and once I knew them well enough I took them to Jims house. We mixed the beats there, [and] then I record my vocals in his booth and we sat and mixed them in together. We’d usually go back a few days later and mix [again], and then once we were happy with [it] we’d do a little mastering.

[Occasionally] I write lyrics before the beat, but most of the time I make a beat then write the song. I enjoy creating the scene first. The little world all this shit is about to be said in, [and] then I just say it.

EN: Was there a particular place the album came from emotionally, or were you creating purely on your drive to make music?

MCrv: I had made eight songs before Colors and Sounds. They were about my depression, my separation from my family, and songs about how I found music and how I made it home. Colors and Sounds was kind of my acceptance of all that, [plus] realizing I got past it and can move on. I was able to deal with my depression with certain songs like “Bangarang” and “When the Heart Unfolds”.

Other times I wanted to have fun and be creative like “Spacemandude – A Galactic Tale” where I came up with a story for “Spacemandude” who’s like a secret-agent-spaceman, [and his] rival “Supreme Cream”.

Then there is an actual love song called “Unexpected Beauty” that I made for my girlfriend, who is also the mother of my beautiful daughter. [This] later led to “Say Grace”, which is the last track on the album. I made [it] for my daughter Ramona Grace.

Emotionally I was everywhere a little bit. Us expecting a child changed my attitude and mindset from focusing on how to feel better about my surroundings and current being, to realizing I’m going to be a father.

EN: Is there a goal for you, as far as evolution as an artist? Do you want your sound to continually grow and evolve with each release?

MCrv: Yes of course, I feel growing and making progress is very important to me. In all aspects really. [From] the actual recording and technical parts, to actually capturing my feelings with instruments, to allowing myself to try new rhyme schemes. I feel I have evolved with each release. Every time I make a new project (or collection of songs) my goal is to not just make it better than what I previously made, but to [also] implement the new things I’ve learned. And also to do some of the things I didn’t fit in on the previous project.

I feel like my evolution has been real natural, and I make what I feel comfortable with.

EN: That’s really admirable, to feel comfortable with the sound you’ve developed but still be focused on evolving naturally. What’s next for you, do you think? Do you hope to release more albums going forward?

MCrv: Yeah, I’ve felt like I’ve developed my own style. I know what my beats sound like, and I know how they could sound if I keep making progress like I intend.

Right now I’m about to record a five song EP I have been working on. A friend of mine helped with some of the instrumentation for each song. I played with some random ideas when I first got Logic, and he would hear what I had so far and add a part. Then I would fit that in, and build the track. I plan on releasing it sometime early fall. Its called Cluttered Souls. Its probably my favorite thing I’ve made so far… there are a couple songs on there were I feel I stepped out of my box and spoke up.

Also I’ve been working on new beats. I’m constantly working on something. I don’t get a lot of beats sent to me. I have a few friends who I have some things in the works with, but nothing really solid. I have a few singles I wanna release too. Just some different things I have been experimenting with. So really I’m just continuing my journey…

I think my next real goal is to make an album. I have one planned out and am very excited to start building solid foundations. I have ideas already rolling, but that’s probably what will consume most of my time after summer is out and the seasons change.

EN: I saw on your Facebook that you do some live shows. What’s that experience like for you as an independent artist?

MCrv: Its been pretty awesome to perform. I’ve done a bunch of open mics around central New York and those have been fun. Its usually really quiet and I’m use to being the only rap act. Most of the time its people singing with an acoustic, singing behind a track, or reading poetry. When I wait my turn to go up I get anxious and excited, ’cause its my chance to change things up and create a new environment for ten minutes. People are pretty respectful. There isn’t a lot rapping, like I said, so its cool to see people listen and nod or move a little to the music even if rap isn’t their thing.

I did an open mic one night in Binghamton and I felt really good about my performance. My only goal that night was to have fun and feel good about my songs. I did just that and it went very well. This dude Chris who writes for the Carousel Paper asked me if I wanted to open for this band, Telekinetic Walrus, so I took that opportunity. That was fun too. I’m pretty private about things. I don’t have a lot of friends I have a few close ones, and if everyone has to work (including my girlfriend) I’m on my own [laughs]. So it was me [with] my backpack, some CDs, and a laptop with my set in a playlist. I met some people and greeted everyone then I sat quietly in the bar drinking a glass of water [laughs].

I don’t drink or go to bars so everyone’s drinking around me and I’m sitting there alone listening to music. When it came time to go up, I introduced myself and interacted with the people. Everyone was really loud [laughs], they were all drinking and socializing. They didn’t know me or what I had to offer so when I started doing my songs it was loud… Not to mention the sound man had no monitors for us to hear ourselves (let alone care about how anything sounded) so it was hard to hear my music.

I did feel really good about my performance and making sure the people were still with me in some way despite the fact they couldn’t care less about what I was doing [laughs]. There were a few people who were really interested and listening to what I was saying though. I had a guy come up to me and thank me for what I did. He told me he really related and heard where I was coming from. We talked for a bit about how much time it takes to make music and all that then asked me for a CD, and a few other people grabbed CDs. Its been a pretty good experience so far. I really focus on performing my best and approaching people with a sincere and clear presence to get them to feel something.

EN: Is it intimidating to put yourself out there, in live shows, as a smaller-scale independent artist?

MCrv: Initially it was. A lot of that was because all my music and performing falls on me. I would be nervous because I had doubt’s like “what could one dude doing all this on his own have to offer people”? But once I got more comfortable with myself and people’s reactions when I perform, I realized there was nothing to be afraid of except not continuing to grow as an artist and overcoming [those] fears.

I mean, certain aspects are still intimidating. I’m not very well known or anything. When people go from listening to a song or two, then all I hear is talking during my performance, it kinda crushes you a bit… But, I try not to let it discourage me too much. Plus there are usually a few people who really are paying attention. All I can do is my best, and appreciate the time I get.

Which I do, very much [laughs].

EN: As a working class rapper, do you find it hard to balance other responsibilities while also finding time to work on your art?

MCrv: Yeah, sometimes it is difficult to balance everything. My girlfriend and I both work full time. The days she works late it is just my daughter and myself at home. Once I’m outta work I make sure the house is picked up, my animals are fed and watered, and I make sure my daughter is happy and full at all times.

Its been a bit of an adjustment since I’ve become a father. I could have plans to work on a beat or write and if Ramona needs to be fed, or she just simply wants me to hold her I put my music aside until I feel she is content. I wouldn’t trade any of it for anything though.

It’s hard work coming home from a job, raising a family, and trying to build something that’s going to last a lifetime (or at least hope it does), but it’s all worth it. I feel all the responsibility and pressure has helped me grow as a person. I have been able to value my personal time, and the time I have with my family. Once you find a routine (and make changes to that routine as new things arise) that sense of fulfillment is like no other. At least that’s what I’ve come to learn.

I’ve always been pretty disciplined with my music making and managing my time. Ask any of my friends [laughs]. They haven’t seen me in two months because I’m focused on my next project. I write myself lists of what I need with each song, and ideas I want to incorporate so I don’t have to think about it as much when I’m not working on them. Any little thing I can do to help keep organized I try to utilize.

EN: I respect that so much, the determination to still put in work musically while making sure your daughter comes first. That’s something I can never say anything bad about. Okay, now I’ve gotta ask the question I ask everyone as we wrap this up. Who are your five dream collaborations, dead or alive?

MCrv: I appreciate that man, thank you.

[Laughs] I’ve never thought about that much. I’m always like “my heroes don’t wanna fuck with me” [laughs]. Aesop Rock for sure. I always dreamed about him rapping on one of my tracks when I felt I was ready. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready [laughs].

I would also love to do a song with Blueprint. He’s been someone I listen to and followed for years. 1988 was an album I rapped along to when I really started taking song crafting more serious.

MF DOOM as well. I love all his music no matter what alias.

I would really love to do a song with Busdriver. That dude has the craziest beats and flows and I feel like that would be a challenge.

Blockhead would be another one for me. He use to make beats for Aesop, and has made great instrumental projects and other collaborative albums that rock.

EN: Ah man, I know I said we were closing it up but I have to ask this too because I’m a huge Busdriver fan and I see so little discussion about him. What’s your favorite album of his? I’ve been in love with Perfect Hair since it dropped, and Temporary Forever is a classic.

MCrv: Oh man, I really love both those albums. RoadKillOverCoat is probably my favorite album by Busdriver, [it has] so many great songs. Thumbs was great as well one of the best albums of 2015 hands down.

EN: Thumbs was dope too! I actually bought the cassette release of it, it’s pretty sick. Alright man, it’s time for the final question, but first I’d just like to really thank you again for doing this. If you had to describe what you bring to the table as a rapper (to convince someone to listen) what would you say?

MCrv: Well thank you my man for taking the time to get to know me a little, and [for] taking interest in the music and process. I very much appreciate it, its been fun having you throw questions at me.

To answer your question, I would have to say change. I usually write about things I’m going through or circumstances that need to change or evolve if you will. I am always striving to make natural progress with what I have in this life, and change is a part of that on a constant basis. I feel each song I tackle something I’m adjusting to, or I am accepting about the world or myself.

When I finish a song I feel grounded. I feel like the person I know I can be, want to be, and will be as long as I continue to learn and make adjustments (change) when necessary. I’ve always been a dude to make plans with set times and deadlines. That works to a degree, but there is always a natural flow of things and left turns to be made when least expected.

Album Review: Mr. Lif – Don’t Look Down

by Dustin

mmrlif

7.5/10

Mr. Lif, one of the earliest members of the now defunct Definitive Jux record label, has been on somewhat of a hiatus… His last solo release came way back in 2009, but the time is finally right for his return to hip-hop. He has found a new home on the independent powerhouse Mello Music Group, which plays host to his fourth solo album, Don’t Look Down.

Lif has a reputation of quality, with all of his prior releases receiving critical acclaim. While many musicians lose a step when being away from their art for an extended period of time, Don’t Look Down continues this trend of excellence from Mr. Lif. The underground veteran has seamlessly picked up where he left off, delivering a pleasurable listen.

Don’t Look Down may not knock your socks off, but you will not walk away from it disappointed.

Well I’m sitting at my table now, hands crossed, blast off,
Thinking about some opportunities that I had passed on,
Hindsight is 20/20, thinking isn’t helping any,
Drinking will just serve to end me.
(Everyday We Pray)

Lif’s rapping was really enjoyable on this album. His writing is as strong as ever, and can be quite unique in structure. He’s not afraid to switch between poetic approaches, personal analysis, and even to delve into the more abstract. Don’t Look Down is the type of album that deserves multiple listens, if for no reason other than to digest the lyrics. As is the case with most emcees who came up in the same scene as Mr. Lif, his style can be pretty dense; moreover, Don’t Look Down has relatively quick pacing, so there will undoubtedly be things you miss on the first play-through.

That is to say, if the record doesn’t click with you on the first listen, don’t be afraid to give it another chance. It may only be 36 minutes long, but Mr. Lif packs an incredible amount of content into this running time.

I used to look up at night and see the sky,
Now I am the sky,
Now the planets I,
Used to use a telescope to see,
Are a part of me,
I’ve got Saturn in my arteries.
(Don’t Look Down)

Some of the production on this record is very reminiscent of the early 2000s Definitive Jux sound. “Whizdom” in particular has a wonderfully unorthodox instrumental. It manages to be head-nodding and addictive while simultaneously sounding like an ink-jet printer grinding out a thirty-two page university paper. That being said, Don’t Look Down does take on a more conventional approach at times as well. There is enough variation to keep the album sounding fresh throughout while not losing cohesion.

It should also be mentioned that every single instrumental compliments Mr. Lif’s vocals nicely. He clearly had a concrete direction in mind during beat selection, and it shows in the final product.

While Don’t Look Down may not exactly be comparable to I Phantom, it is a glimpse at a more mature Mr. Lif and should be approached with that in mind. It’s a very easy album to enjoy. Don’t Look Down is short, content dense, and while it’s certainly alternative, it still seems like an easy album for new listeners to jump into. For longtime fans, it will be a pleasure to hear new material after a long hiatus, especially since he delivers so well with this release.

Welcome back Mr. Lif.

How Hip-Hop Helped Me Deal with Mental Illness

by Dustin

Depressionarticle

I’d like to discuss something that I’ve only ever told the closest people in my life – I struggle with mental illness. I knew something was wrong since my early teens, but I didn’t admit it to myself (and seek formal diagnosis) until I was in my first year of university. After I saw my doctor, I let the stigma surrounding anxiety and depression rule my life. I felt ashamed, and I didn’t think anyone would understand what I was feeling. I held back from talking with people because I didn’t want to be judged negatively. I isolated myself out of fear that one of my friends or family members would find out that I wasn’t okay.

At one point I was sitting alone in my dorm drinking myself to sleep every day, I had stopped attending class, and my workout regime crawled from seven days a week to zero. I gained close to fifty pounds and was placed on academic probation. It felt like I had hit rock bottom, and it was incredibly scary. I was worried that I would end up doing something to hurt myself, and I couldn’t stomach the thought of putting my family through that sort of trauma.

I also knew that depression wasn’t something I could deal with alone, but I still wasn’t ready to ask for help.

It’s the stuff I find hard for discussion,
How the fuck do you explain your own self destruction and still remain trusted?
(El-P – Poisenville Kids No Wins)

In the meantime, I buried myself in music. During the twelve awake hours a day I was spending isolated in a twelve foot by twelve foot dorm room, I nearly always had my laptop playing some sort of music. The majority of the time I was just laying there listening doing nothing else, and it very much became my life.

Hip-hop in particular became home to me, and I started exploring and experimenting with new artists. I really started to get into music by El-P, Killer Mike, Open Mike Eagle, Blueprint, Shad, Eyedea, The Roots, Aesop Rock, and so many others that I won’t even attempt to list them off right now. For the most part, the music just served as a distraction that I happened to enjoy. I found everything from the production methods to writing styles interesting.

More importantly however, these artists were at times exploring dark paces they’ve been, and I felt like I could relate to the music. That’s when it really clicked. Holy shit, I’m not by myself in this. There are other people who are experiencing the exact same thing as me who probably also feel alone.

It took about a year to get to that point, but my perspective changed entirely.

Now if you never had a day a snow cone couldn’t fix,
You wouldn’t relate to the rogue vocoder blitz.
(Aesop Rock – None Shall Pass)

As crazy as it might sound, it really was a bit of an epiphany. The idea of opening up to those close to me didn’t seem quite as daunting. I told family members, I told some of my closer friends, and for the first time in a long time I was honest with myself about the severity of where I was mentally. As you’d expect, the people I opened up to had various reactions. A few withdrew themselves from me, but most were beautifully supportive and remain friends to this day.

Most importantly though, a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. I started getting professional help. Not a whole lot of it, due to financial issues, but enough that things started to turn around. I started to pick up athletics again, my grades improved dramatically (though, I ended up dropping out two years later, but not for performance reasons), and I stopped drinking every day.

For lack of better phrasing, I felt like a different person.

Make you wanna sing, clap your hands to it,
Nod your head a little bit, maybe dance to it,
And reminisce about the good times you had to it,
Not sure what I’d do if I never had music.
(Blueprint – Mind, Body and Soul)

Now, I’d be fully lying to you if I said things ended completely happily. Anxiety and depression are still things that I battle with at times. Recently I hit another low. It didn’t last nearly as long, but it was a reminder that these things can linger. The difference now is that I’ve established the support network to fall back on when things get difficult, and it’s become an invaluable personal tool for keeping myself in check. I feel like I owe reaching this point to music.

So what I really want to say is, thank you to the artists who showed that personal side and vulnerability. As much as none of them will probably read this, it helped me accept things about myself that were incredibly difficult to come to terms with. I’m in a much better mental place because of it.

If you’re reading this and you think you’re dealing with something similar, remember that you’re not alone. I know that it’s really easy to slip into mental isolation, and there are still times where I have to really force myself to not purposely cut people out as well. I can’t stress enough how much simply opening up to someone supportive can help. Take advantage of whatever resources you have. It’s never easy, but I believe it’s worth the fight in the end.

A Reflection on Definitive Jux

by Dustin

In February of 2009 El-P would take to the internet to announce the permanent hiatus of Definitive Jux. A label which he co-founded after a falling out with Rawkus Records, where he previously was signed as a member of Company Flow. Definitive Jux would quickly establish itself as a powerhouse in the independent hip-hop world through many critically acclaimed releases at the start of the millennium.

Definitive Jux had an extensive discography over eleven years of operation. Today, in a celebration of life (in the loosest sense), we will take a look at four of the most important releases from the label. These are not necessarily the best records to come from El-P’s underground giant, but those which had a special significance.

thecoldvein

Cannibal Ox – The Cold Vein

According to a barely comprehensible letter written by Vast Aire about his beef with El-P in 2009, Cannibal Ox were not officially signed to Definitive Jux when The Cold Vein was released (though the validity of this statement can definitely be brought into question); however, it was the album that established the label as a major player in independent hip-hop.

It pushed boundaries in terms of production and vocal deliveries. The Cold Vein sold more than the label had predicted (over 60,000 copies as of 2012) and ended up being widely regarded as an underground classic, making it the foundational record in the Definitive Jux discography.

The greatest shame is that Cannibal Ox would go on to never release another album on the label. The group spiraled into dysfunction between 2002 and 2003, and eventually dropped from Definitive Jux. Vordul Mega began struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues, and Vast Aire began lashing out at members of Definitive Jux for various reasons (many of which were proven to be false) until sometime in 2011.

The group finally self-released their sophomore album fifteen years after The Cold Vein, yet it ultimately fell short.

Labordays

Aesop Rock – Labor Days

The Cold Vein was the album that really started it all, but Aesop Rock’s Labor Days would be the release that proved El-P’s label would not be a one hit wonder. Boasting gritty alternative-New York style production by Aesop Rock and longtime collaborator Blockhead, the concept album about America’s working class would far exceed label expectations.

One single from the album, Daylight, would be such a hit that it spawned an extended play sharing the same name the following year. Labor Days was the album that kept momentum rolling for the label, and pushed them forward into a string of critically acclaimed albums from multiple artists through the early 2000s.

Perhaps as importantly, this was Aesop Rock’s full length debut on Definitive Jux. Even though his final album release on the label would come in 2007, Aesop was perhaps one of the most prominent members on the Definitive Jux roster. Where Cannibal Ox would slow to a stop following their debut, Aesop Rock continued to put out quality releases on the label that sold respectably.

Illsleepwhenyouredead

El-P – I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead

I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead‘s release was an important transitional moment for El-P’s sound, but also for Definitive Jux. Unfortunately it would mark the beginning of the end for the label. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead would ultimately spawn the final run of releases from big name artists in the New York collective. Aesop Rock, Rob Sonic, and Cage would all also contribute one final album a piece. Along with a few small scale albums and regional releases (often shared with other independent labels), these would be the last albums of Definitive Jux.

I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead was also co-founder and figurehead, El-P’s, final album on the label. Even though it didn’t set Definitive Jux up for success like The Cold Vein, propel the label forward like Labor Days, or mark the end of an era like King of Hearts, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead serves as an important part of the label’s time line.

Kingofhearts

Camu Tao – King of Hearts

Though Camu Tao’s King of Hearts was not up to the same standard of quality as I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, it is arguably the most important release in the Defintive Jux catalog. This would be the final release for the label, but more importantly the final release for Camu Tao. Having passed away after a battle with cancer, this album would be a sampler of unfinished snippets cleaned up by El-P following Camu’s death.

To put it politely, the album is incredibly rough; however, behind the roughness it seemed as if he was onto something with the sound. The amount of genre blending on the King of Hearts album is almost overwhelming. There are moments that sound electronic, hip-hop, and there even seems to be a significant amount of alternative rock influence.

As unfortunate as the circumstances were leading up to its release, King of Hearts serves as a fantastic bookend to the Definitive Jux era. Even in its unfinished state the album encompassed everything the label encouraged: it was innovate, off-kilter, and didn’t try to follow anyone’s lead.