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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Rajin Rambles: Personal Top 20 Rappers (Part 2: 10 to 1)

by Rajin

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Welcome to part two of my top 20 rappers list. Last week in part one, I covered slots 11 to 20. You can check it out here in case you missed it. I’m going to be covering slots 1 through 10 this week, if it wasn’t already obvious. Sorry in advance.


10. Scarface
Favorite album: The Fix
Favorite song: “It’s Not A Game”
Scarface has my favorite voice in hip hop. Aside from it being exquisitely deep, it conveys layers and layers of pain and frustration in a way not many others in hip hop do. The soul that Face puts behind his voice is almost overwhelming at times. Face’s music (both solo and as part of the Geto Boys) was quite different from what most rappers were doing at the time. While tons of rappers went around trying to make you believe that they were crazy because they killed people, Face was dealing with psychosis and bipolar disorder, successfully convincing the listener that he was indeed unwell. Not to mention, he is one of the most consistent rappers as far as his albums go. Album to album (as far as his actual LPs go, not the My Homies projects) he doesn’t have any that are really glaringly bad. His solo career spans over 25 years, so to be an artist with that sort of longevity where more often than not a listener already knows any album that comes out is going to be good is a hell of an achievement.

9. Sean Price
Favorite album: Mic Tyson
Favorite song: “Jail Shit” (featuring Rock)
I don’t really know what I can say about P that hasn’t been said in excess in the last 2 years. I got into him through Random Axe, as I was (and still am, of course) really into Black Milk. Immediately Sean stood out to me, which is already an impressive feat, given the fact that he was rapping next to Guilty Simpson. It took me until the summer months of 2015 immediately preceeding his death to actually get out of my rut and listen to his solo discography and the first Heltah Skeltah album.

Sean was a skilled rhymer but he wasn’t a “rappity rapper” and never once pretended to be. He relied on the content of what he was saying, and how he said it. Everything that Sean said sounded tough, especially as he aged and his voice got rougher. He had a vibrant sense of humor, but he always kept his lyrics grounded by being able to sound threatening when saying something hilarious. This skill really developed when he started his solo career. As Ruck he would often have standout verses but when he started rapping under his government name, it was like he became himself to the fullest, and it created something special. He saved Duck Down nearly single handedly, and once you listen to Monkey Barz there is no confusion as to how he did it.

8. Ice Cube
Favorite album: AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted
Favorite song: “Hello” (featuring MC Ren & Dr. Dre)
I really wanted to start this off with a very dated “Are We There Yet” joke but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Anyways, Cube is arguably the most essential “political” rapper. While what he rapped about wasn’t strictly about politics, he included a ton of social commentary in his music that brought to light the struggles of living in Compton. He spoke about street life in an incredibly descriptively. Not in a typical story-telling way, mind you. It was more in how he said what he was saying. His delivery was aggressive and he generally wrote from a point of view perspective, so his stories were more like his inner thoughts during his experiences rather than him just recounting what he’s been through. It was a revolutionary style, as (to my knowledge) most storytelling in hip hop was based on rappers speaking on past experiences rather than acting out events as though they were currently happening. Cube was also one of the first ultra-aggressive rappers that I can think of. He took the aggression displayed by acts like Public Enemy and elevated it to a whole new level, often shouting at the top of his lungs. He channeled passion and anger into his music like no one before him, being a clear influence on other passionate rappers such as 2Pac, Eminem, and Killer Mike.

7. Raekwon
Favorite album: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…
Favorite song: “Criminology” (featuring Ghostface Killah)
Raekwon arguably has the greatest solo debut album in all of hip hop history. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… is a beautifully done concept album. It established himself as one of the greatest storytellers to grace hip hop, which is something that has not changed in the entirety of his career. He is with a raspy delivery that makes him sound like a grizzled vet telling stories of his war days, and the ability to make anything sound dramatic via hyperbolic analogy and unheard-of slang. In addition, with Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II, he managed to do what no other rapper has been able to do by getting good post-Wu-Tang Forever RZA beats pulling off the “sequel to a classic” that so many try but ultimately come up short on.

While he has struggled with a few of his non-Cuban Linx albums, albums such as Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang and The Wild, have managed to be very enjoyable releases. The thing about Rae is that his skills have never shown any sign of declining. While some of his albums have been underwhelming, his rapping has never been the weak point of any project he’s been involved in. To this day he is perhaps the only person who can say some of the ridiculous stuff he says and have it sound carelessly, luxuriously cool.

6. Rakim
Favorite album: Don’t Sweat The Technique (with Eric B.)
Favorite song: “When I B On The Mic”
There is not a single rapper in this day and age who doesn’t have Rakim in his or her DNA. His influence on hip hop very often taken for granted these days. I don’t think most in my generation even give it a second though. However, if anybody cares about hip hop in the slightest, they need to always keep in mind: Rakim completely changed the writing style in hip hop. Before Rakim, rap music was NOT the writing-driven genre that it is now. He broke past the simplistic rhythms and rhymes, and brought the concept of the multi-syllabic rhyme, complex vocabulary, and laid-back delivery (used to put the main focus on listening to words rather than vibing to the mood) to the table.
There’s really not much else for me to say. Aside from the originators, Rakim is hands-down the most important figure in hip hop for his essentially ubiquitous influence on the genre.

5. Black Thought
Favorite album: How I Got Over (by The Roots)
Favorite song: “When The People Cheer”
Black Thought is one of maybe 3 rappers I can think of who have gotten consistently better with each passing year of their career without exception. There’s really not much more that I can say past that, either. He started out as a good emcee, but nothing really special, and matured like scotch in a barrel for the next decade and a half until he became someone whose verses were jaw-dropping. His delivery got more powerful as his voice changed with age, his flow got more impressive, his pen got sharper…he took his time and became something special. He had room to grow and he took full advantage of it, then burst past it. And this is a smooth curve upwards. There has been no discrepancies whatsoever. He’s become the rapper where it’s almost annoying how you already know he’s going to steal the show on a song with someone else and it won’t even be a contest. It’s awesome.

4. Pharoahe Monch
Favorite album: Desire
Favorite song: “Agent Orange”
As half of Organized Konfusion, Pharoahe Monch was vastly ahead of his time. He was using flows that I don’t think anybody else at the time had even conceived. To this day, they sound fresh, and some of them actually still sound ahead of our time now. He broke his flow up, fell into non-traditional pockets, rhymed like a maniac, and told very creative stories alongside Prince Po, such as speaking from the point of view about a fetus that is about to be aborted on “Invetro” and of course, speaking as a bullet on “Stray Bullet” (the beginning of the trilogy that would also include “When The Gun Draws” and “Damage”, both solo Pharoahe songs). As a solo artist he unfortunately suffered from Rawkus’ complete inability to function as a label with even C-grade management, with uncleared samples in “Simon Says” halting the production of Internal Affairs (making it a very expensive album to buy these days, one that will probably be my most treasured CD when I can afford to buy it). He has since recovered, however, and has released several great projects since then. He continues his own personal innovation, both conceptually and musically. To my recollection he’s looking to start a band. If it ends up happening, I’m very interested to see where he goes next.

3. Redman
Favorite album: Dare Iz A Darkside
Favorite song: “Noorotic”
Redman is potentially the most charismatic emcee that I have ever heard. Since his appearance on the Hit Squad song “Headbanger,” Red has had an infectious delivery, off-kilter flow, and ridiculously funny lyrical style that immediately made him stand out. His flow, along with that of fellow Hit Squad members Das EFX, seemed to signal the end of the stereotypical simple ‘80s flow and rigid delivery, as he played with different patterns and sounded much looser, yet more dynamic. He threw one-liners out like they were nothing, and spent no time on letting them sit before moving on to the next one to keep the listener engaged and entertained the entire time one of his songs was being played. Being that he was a student of EPMD, he has always had a funky sound to his music. Whut? Thee Album is quite possibly the funkiest east coast album ever made; it sounded almost like the east’s response to the growing popularity of g-funk in the west, done with a rougher edge that tends to come with the east sound.

Red’s charisma has allowed him to do what lots of other boom bap-heavy rappers from the early ‘90s hasn’t been able to, and he has made his sound still feel fresh, even while doing very little to change his overall vibe; Due to his utterly buoyant personality, he can make beats that could be classified as dated sound current, and these days he’s begun to feel like that stoner uncle who relentlessly cracks jokes every time you see him..

2. Ghostface Killah
Favorite album: Supreme Clientele
Favorite song: “Mighty Healthy”
Album for album, Ghostface Killah is the most consistent rapper of all time. Out of 12 albums, he’s released only one that I didn’t feel a majority of tracks on, that being Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry.

Since the beginning of his career, Ghost has had a way with words that nobody else from Wu-Tang Clan has, besides maybe Raekwon. The way Ghost writes, it’s almost like he can’t help himself but tell stories and paint pictures. It’s almost like his default, which is something I don’t think I can say for any other rapper. He’s absurdly descriptive, and the dynamic nature of his delivery just adds to it. His delivery is just so powerful; it’s part of what separated him from the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan. It’s a lot more soulful than that of any of the other members, and it allows him to express vulnerability and passion just as easily as it does anger and toughness like the rest of the group. This ability serves to further engage the listener in the stories that he tells by making it more relatable and playing our sympathies, as well as exhibit a huge amount of diversity in his music.
The way his artistry has matured is very commendable too. He has matured far better than how most other rappers do, because he’s allowed his style to grow more thoughtful the same way a person should as they age. His albums since Twelve Reasons To Die have all displayed an evolution into a more cinematic style, done as though the producers aren’t just producing albums, but rather scoring movies, and he’s reciting scripts rather than lyrics. While they may not match his classics Ironman, Supreme Clientele, and Fishscale, it is the perfect direction for him to go in.

1. Eminem
Favorite album: The Marshall Mathers LP
Favorite song: “The Way I Am”
Surprise.
Everyone knows Em. There’s no need to go in depth. In his prime he was the sharpest, wittiest rapper I have ever heard. I don’t think another rapper has ever had a run like he did from 1999-2002. Since returning from a mid-to-late ‘00s slump due to opiate abuse, he managed to once again make good albums like Recovery, Hell: The Sequel with Royce, and The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (which does not deserve its title, no matter how much I love the music). There is absolutely no telling where he’s going next, which is both exciting and terrifying.


And that’s that. You probably could have guessed most of those, based off what I’ve written in the past, but now my top 20 list is official…at least for the next couple of days before it changes, like it did even during the process of writing these pieces.

Understanding the Necessity and Shortcomings of Music Streaming

by Dustin

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Though streaming hasn’t been a dominant form of music distribution for very long, the idea took root over fifteen years ago with Napster and MusicNET. These services were met with criticism, rejection, and (in the case of Napster) legal issues. Flash forward to today, the service options are different but many of the issues remain the same. However, in the modern era of music, it appears to be that streaming is becoming a necessity.

To understand the need for streaming, one can simply examine the consequences of out right rejecting these services. To speculate on how severe these consequences could be, a simply case study from another industry can be used: Sears.

Sears resisted adapting their catalogue system for far too long. Though the demand for online sales was ever increasing from many loyal consumers, Sears remained set in their ways. This would prove to be a critical failure as the company lost a huge consumer base; moreover, a later attempt to move into the online world would prove futile with the rise of Amazon. Sears had also not exactly been a darling financially, and this failure to adapt proved to be nearly fatal for the company. Over one hundred and twenty Sears stores closed in the year of 2011 alone, and they’ve never quite recovered from the lost business.

Of course this isn’t a perfect comparison for the music industry and streaming. Yet, it illustrates how devastating it can be to ignore the demand for change. Digital sales occupied this space for years, but now the consumers are leaning towards streaming. The music industry as a whole cannot got out of business like a retail chain; however, it can see artists and labels forced into a position where profit is simply not possible if consumer demand isn’t facilitated.

Fortunately, the industry has shown a willingness to adapt before. Whether it be physical media changes, or moving into an online space, music distribution has been fluid. Streaming could also prove to be attractive in its own right.

Streaming offers many advantages for both artists and labels. A 2015 study by Aguiar and Waldfogel (for the European Commission) showed that an increase in streaming correlates to a noticeable drop in music piracy. There is also appeal in how simple it is to get music onto streaming services. For small scale artists, being able to manage their own music on Spotify or Apple Music is often times a simpler process than landing a distribution deal. It has also created a new job space, with online distributors cropping up in order to help musicians get their product to these services.

From the standpoint of the consumer, streaming is a powerhouse. Rather than spending ten dollars for every new release, huge libraries of new and old music are available on demand at a single monthly fee. Audiophiles may take issue with the lack of control over sound quality and song tagging, but for the casual listener streaming services simply makes sense. These services are often incredibly portable, making it far easier to bring your music from desktop to mobile device. As a whole, it is easy to see why streaming is immensely popular with your average listener.

One may wonder why there is still such a resistance to streaming within the music industry, considering these positives. The answer to that is relatively simple: streaming is a necessary, but highly flawed, service.

I gave up and became a Spotify-er,
Paying myself a fraction of a penny playing “Qualifiers”.
(Open Mike Eagle – Dark Comedy Late Show)

Even though streaming has reduced piracy rates, it has also negatively impacted digital download sales (such as those provided by iTunes and Bandcamp). This ultimately reduces the positive impact it has on the music industry; moreover, this is a genuine issue due to the minuscule payout received by artists and labels per stream. Until the problem of royalties can be sorted, music streaming is going to be a somewhat problematic service.

There are of course other issues, such as fragmenting subscribers with service-specific exclusives. Perhaps the most prevalent cases of this was Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo fiasco. The album experienced abnormally high piracy rates due to its chaotic and exclusive release through the Tidal streaming service. Exclusives are certainly an interesting way to attempt to attract new subscribers, unfortunately it also seems harmful to the long term viability of streaming.

Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, and Google Play give music an accessibility that the world has never seen before. It stands to reason that there will be kinks to work out along the way. Though it’s been close to fifteen years since the idea of streaming started gaining traction, we still exist in the early years of services attempting to do things legally. One can see the clear benefits and necessity of streaming services, but it appears that it will still be a while longer before they are agreeable for everyone.

The Media That Refuses to Die: Cassette

by Dustin

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“What is that?” my buddy asks as I pull another parcel from the mailbox, “don’t tell me you’re still collecting music”.

You see, my friend doesn’t quite understand the point of collecting physical media when it comes to music. He sees CDs and vinyl as a waste of money when I’ve already got a Spotify subscription. The argument that I want better sound quality usually shuts him up, since streaming can be questionable at times in that regard.

Unfortunately that argument will not work with this shipment.

My friend remains interested as I rip apart the yellow envelope from Darling Recordings. I explained to him that the album is by a really cool experimental group called FLANCH. He seems interested in the sound and implies that he would like to listen to it once I finish my painfully slow unwrap job; however, his interest turns to confusion as I reveal the contents of the envelope.

He looks at me and his face screws up into an indescribable expression. In a moment of baffled realization he asks the question, “is that a fucking cassette?”

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Though this may sound ridiculous to some, cassette has seen a huge resurgence in the past couple years via the independent scene. The companies which produce cassette tapes are reportedly having their best years since the 1960s. For example, the National Audio Company reportedly produced over ten million cassettes in 2014 alone. For something once considered defunct this is a huge comeback, and it is almost rooted entirely in the independent music scene.

But why? To help answer that question we touched base with Nick Faidley. Nick is the founder of independent label Darling Recordings, an outfit which has released multiple cassettes (including FLANCH, mentioned earlier in this article). He offered up the following insight as to why cassettes have seen such a heavy revival:

Darling Recordings has turned to tapes for the many of the same reasons as other independent labels and musicians: cassettes are low cost, low hassle, and easy for bands to use on the merch table. For us it’s really that simple. Tapes are affordable at low quantities, unlike vinyl (incredibly expensive) and CDs (large minimum orders), and they can be completely DIY.

Darling runs its cassette manufacturing with a wonderful company out of Ohio called A to Z Audio.

As Nick stated, cost is a huge factor. Unlike major outfits, most independent labels only do limited releases for physical editions of records. These are generally in the 20-100 copies range. The price per unit for limited runs is cheaper on cassette than any other physical media; moreover, a price per unit quote (on a 100 album order) from a Canadian duplication company shows that the difference is extreme:

CD with Jewel Case and Insert: $4.90/each
Vinyl Record with Colour Cover: $9.00/each
Cassette with Clear Case and J-Card Insert: $1.85/each

Cassette is the clear cut choice based on cost alone, and for small independent labels every dollar counts. Perhaps physical media is no longer a necessity with the rise of digital distribution, but fans will always be looking to get their hands on merch. Cassettes are a cost effective way to provide this to fans (whether it be online, in a record store, or at a show). In addition to it being good for the label, cassette releases are generally cheaper for the consumer as well. It’s very much a win-win for those interested.

Though more subjective, there’s also a collectible feel to cassettes that seems to offer up a lot of appeal. There’s certainly a degree of nostalgia involved to a particular generation, but to others they just seem “cool”. They’re just so much different when compared to CDs and vinyl. Cassettes have a particular minimalistic and rugged appearance that seems to draw a certain crowd in. Even the listening experience, though maybe not the best in terms of sound quality, is incredibly unique. The tape hiss, the sound of the cassette deck mechanism, the sudden jarring click when a side runs out…

It’s something that can’t really be compared to anything other music media, for better or worse.

Interestingly, this wave of cassette revival has become big enough that some major labels have started to jump on the bandwagon. A recent example of this is Shady Records re-issuing Eminem’s major imprint debut, The Slim Shady LP, on a translucent purple cassette. To no ones surprise, the re-issue was incredibly popular. It doesn’t seem like this will be a regular trend such as vinyl releases, but it definitely speaks to the size of cassettes resurgence.

For all intents and purposes cassette should be dead, but it’s not. They’ve found their way back into the music scene by carving a niche which no other media can really occupy. What cassette lacks in sound quality it more than makes up for in affordability, making them the ultimate budget merchandise. It’s a revival that maybe no one expected, but it’s working out beautifully for artists around the globe.

So, the next time you see a cassette just remember: your uncle who owns a Mustang from the 1980s with a tape-deck isn’t the only person looking to buy cassettes anymore.

Apu Rambles: Hip-Hop, my Replacement Girlfriend

by Apu

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Schoolwork, internet connectivity issues that prolong the time it takes to do said schoolwork, a keyboard meltdown, and other things I can use as weak excuses for my inactivity… none of which could keep me from procrastinating and listening to hip hop. Hip hop has been essentially the only part of my personality that I think is appealing in any way at all. However, believe it or not, there was once a time when I wasn’t into the genre, and hardly knew anything about it at all. Can you believe it?! Well, unluckily for you, this half-assed intro leading into a very long piece about me and hip hop is almost done. It’s story time!

Before I really got into hip hop music, I had heard a few songs, but for the most part it was more of what my parents wanted to listen to. So it was classic rock when my dad was driving and pop when my mom was driving. The only hip hop song that I really properly remember is “Gold Digger” by Kanye. I had heard it when it was on the radio once, so it must have been in mid-to-late-2005. None else really stick out in my head, but I do know I had heard some. Those that I did hear, I didn’t really think anything of. They were alright, but I didn’t like them any more than the songs that my dad would play (my mom’s taste in music is garbage). I didn’t really connect with the genre until the summer of 2006.
A friend of mine in the neighborhood who obviously later became a massive fuck-up showed me the song “When I’m Gone” by Eminem. I remember when I heard it, I thought to myself “I’ve never heard a song like this before, what the fuck is this?” It was like a movie in my head, which is something that I had never really experienced when listening to a song at that point in my life. I had never really been so drawn to the lyrics of a song before then. Of course, now, I don’t like the song very much, but back then it was something totally new.

All my life, I’ve been a loser who lives under a rock, so I didn’t know who Eminem was back then. Over the course of the next week or two (or more, who actually remembers details like that?), I was on YouTube looking for more of Em’s music. I think I had found songs like “Without Me”, “Mockingbird”, and “Lose Yourself”. I do also remember hearing “You Don’t Know”, but according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, that came out in November of 2006, so I guess my memory is hazy on the timeline regarding that. Also, fun fact, I didn’t know he was white until after almost 2 months of listening to loose tracks, after seeing one of his music videos.

Anyways, I was pretty enraptured by the guy’s music. No artist had ever really made music that stuck with me the way his did. Later that summer, I went on vacation to see some family. When I was visiting my mom’s side of the family, I was playing Super Mario Bros. with my uncle and I started telling him about how I liked Eminem. Sometime during that week I was there, he gave me his copy of The Eminem Show, which was the only Em album he felt comfortable showing me at that age, although he still did it with a “don’t tell your mom.” I stuck it in his CD player and started listening to it. I enjoyed the holy hell out of that CD. I must have listened to it 3 times straight while my parents, grandparents, and aunts thought I was playing video games with my uncle and brother.

When listening to it, I noticed that there were other people on the songs. Using the booklet with the lyrics, I matched the voices to the names (I don’t recall the back cover having the features listed so I didn’t know that the songs would have other people on them). I liked them, but the ones who really stood out to me were D-12. I think the only reason I was able to do what many other Eminem fans can’t and actually recognize each member is because I spent so much time staring at the lyrics in the booklet. At first, I didn’t really understand why it said “featuring D-12” but then had the verses preceded with the members’ names…I guess I didn’t put together the fact that they’re a group. Anyways, I told my uncle “wow these D-12 guys are awesome, do they have music out?” Of course, he had the Devil’s Night CD. That one was one that he really wasn’t sure he wanted to let me have. I’m sure a decade later, he regrets it. Too bad.

That CD flipped everything that I thought I knew about the world on its head, then face fucked it.

That is the CD that shaped nearly everything about my attitude in the years to come, and totally warped my sense of humor.

It was that CD.

When I listened to Devil’s Night, it was the first time I had ever heard anything that even approached something that vulgar. I was a kid who was an idealist and thought everything in the world was great. Listening to that album shattered that. I was entranced by how this group of 6 guys was just spewing venom at everything they didn’t like, and at some stuff that they did like. Some people lose their innocence when a loved one dies, some lose it when they accidentally walk in on their parents having sex…I think I lost mine when I listened to this CD. With Bizarre being a member, I don’t think I could have avoided it.

So after that I listened to the rest of Em’s discography, I listened to the other D-12 album, then started looking into Shady Records. I really, really enjoyed Obie Trice once I started listening to him. Cheers is still to this day one of my favorite albums and probably the 2nd best non-Em album to be released by Shady, in my opinion (the first being Devil’s Night). I started looking into Proof’s discography too, and listened to Searching For Jerry Garcia. After hearing a couple of verses by Royce da 5’9” on Em’s music, I started looking into his music. For about a year, I was listening mainly to that little circle of 8 Detroit artists.

Obviously, when you listen to early Shady Records albums, you’re bound to hear more and more of Dr. Dre. That led me to checking out his albums. From there, I started listening to more west coast hip hop artists. I don’t really remember who I was listening to though, because I don’t really listen to many of them anymore, but I do remember that I listened to some Snoop Dogg music. That’s where I really started enjoying the G-funk style present on Doggystyle, which I actually quite recently gained a new appreciation for as being possibly the only style of hip hop from the 90s that still sounds like it could have been produced today. I hold the entirely non-unique and pretty basic, pumpkin spice latte/Ugg boot level opinion that Doggystyle is the best-produced hip hop album of all time. Dre and Daz are geniuses for that.

Of course when you listen to the west coast, you’re bound to find 2Pac’s music. I had heard and read about 2Pac, but had never really listened to. I think he was the first artist since I listened to Em who had given me the same sort of feeling as Em did. There’s nothing that I can really say about 2Pac that hasn’t been said a million times before, but he did really make music that painted incredibly vivid scenarios, and his delivery would fall on you and cave in your chest. I know that I mainly listened to All Eyez On Me and the Makaveli album, because I liked the production on those more than I did on his pre-Death Row music, probably because it was more like the production I was used to hearing. My uncle later gave me his copy of All Eyez On Me, probably sometime like 2010 when I had already been listening to the album for a while. The 7 Day Theory is actually the first CD I bought for myself…in other words, spent my parents’ money on.

It wasn’t long after that when I sort of slowed down with hip hop. I had started to hear more and more of the crunk/snap music that was dominating the game in the mid-2000s. With social media and the internet not being as popular as it is today, it was a little harder to find acts that didn’t take up all the radio play, so I can understand why the whole “hip hop is dead” thing ended up happening, when it never really died if you take a look back at some artists that were out but not being pushed the way a Lil Jon or whoever else was. I certainly felt like that. I sort of stopped looking for new artists to listen to for a good year. I thought I had tapped into everything that hip hop really had to offer. If only I could beat the living shit out of my younger self.

I forget how, but I discovered Redman, the Wu-Tang Clan, and Busta Rhymes all sometime in mid-2009. I think it was a combination of seeing Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2 and Busta’s Back On My B.S. on the iTunes store, and finally looking up who Em was talking about when he mentioned “Reggie” on “TIl I Collapse.” I saw the cover of Dare Iz A Darkside and figured it looked wacky enough to listen to (fuck you, young Apu…even though that’s still a personal top 5 album).

That album is what got me into the east coast sound. It totally changed everything that I was looking for in the music that I liked. I think the fact that it was dark, which was sort of the sound I was into at the time as a rebellion to the ignorantly happy crunk era, is what made that album click instantly with me. It was almost like Devil’s Night and The Marshall Mathers LP in the sense that it had a lot of humor on it but at the same time it had pretty dark music. It managed being funky as fuck, funny, and witty, yet dark, hazy, and gritty (BARZ!), which to this day is something that really impresses me, because I don’t think there is anyone else who can marry those two sounds the way Red did on that album.

Hearing those guys from the east got me more interested in digging into east coast hip hop. I found guys like Pharoahe Monch, Nas, Biggie, and DMX. There was something about the east sound that I started to really connect with. I think it was the rougher sound, which again, was in such stark contrast to the crunk shit turning trap (which I don’t dislike by any means at all, certainly not the way I do crunk). It was different from the polished sound of the west, where even when the music gets aggressive or dark it does so with a sort of sense of style that the east generally forgoes. I told Dustin recently that it’s almost like the musical styles match the climates; the west is warmer and has more beaches and shit, and the people are wearing summer clothes year round so the music has that sort of style, whereas the east gets a shit-ton colder so people are running around in the streets of New York wearing jeans, hoodies, jackets, and Timberland boots, which is reflected in the rugged sound. That was a massive tangent that didn’t need to be made at all, but yeah.

In 2010 I started going through a horrorcore phase. I discovered Tech N9ne through the Seepage EP, which is some of his darkest material to date. From there, I discovered Brotha Lynch Hung, and I rediscovered King Gordy. Now, until I heard Gordy’s verse on “Horns”, I had thought he was a blues singer from Detroit. The only time I had heard him was on hooks for Proof and D-12, on songs like “No. T. Lose” off Searching For Jerry Garcia, and “I Am Gone” and “Mrs. Pitts” off Return of The Dozen Vol. 1. It wasn’t a too far-off conclusion to come to, as he draws quite a bit of inspiration from blues artist Howlin’ Wolf. How fucking wrong I was. I’m not really into horrorcore much anymore, but I still enjoy Gordy and Lynch a lot. Gordy is to this day one of the most unique hip hop artists I’ve ever heard.

Getting into King Gordy is what got me back into Detroit hip hop. I started listening to his group, Fat Killahz, and then guys like Elzhi and Black Milk (who later ended up getting me into Sean Price, through Random Axe). As time would go on I would become a fan of Danny Brown’s as well. I also tried listening to more southern artists because at one point I felt like I was starting to neglect them. I became a big fan of Scarface.

My taste in music stayed relatively unchanged for the next 3 or 4 years, and that leads into about now. I would start listening to other acts, like The Roots, but I didn’t really focus on expanding. But this is also around the time I started talking to Dustin, and he was constantly expanding his tastes (read: constantly becoming more and more of a hipster). But he managed to get me to start listening to Run The Jewels about a year and a half later than everyone else did. Around the same time, I also started to get familiar with Prof before becoming a massive fan of his, and because of the Rhymesayers connection and a push from Dustin, I’ve started getting into Aesop Rock. I’m still looking for other artists to listen to as well.

I’ve left out a lot of the artists that I listen to, primarily because I’m a scatterbrained fuck, but that is basically the main gist of it. Hip hop has basically shaped me into who I am now. I don’t think there’s much that I have a passion about the way I do hip hop. The more time goes on, the more I that passion grows. For the longest it was about how I connected to the music. Then I started to take into account lyricism. Lately I’ve been getting very into the production side. Not in practice, since I’m nowhere near creative enough to do that, but just listening to things as closely as I can to hear how things are put together. I think that’s why recently I’ve gained such an affinity for Just Blaze, aside from the fact that he makes killer beats. The way he pieces some of his beats together amazes me sometimes. I’ve always liked him, but the more I try to dissect in my head what he does, the most I find what he does to be so impressive.

But yeah. I’m basically pussywhipped for hip hop. I don’t see myself losing the passion I have for it any time soon. Fuck it, I’m about to go listen to some right now.

The end. Thanks for wasting your time reading this.

Canadian Hip-Hop History: The 1990s

by Dustin

Canada1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These formative years laid an important foundation, one that would be built upon in the 2000s by the budding alternative rap scene.

Part two (the 2000s) coming soon.