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: Jonwayne – Rap Album Two

by Dustin

rapalbumtwo

8.5/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 15 albums of 2016

by Dustin

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Ah, 2016 is nearing a close, which means we get to do some reflection. Like every other music blog on the internet, this means we’ve decided to put together a top albums list. It helps us ignore the fact that we’ve completely run out of article ideas for the time being, and hopefully helps distract you from the festering pile of manure that has been 2016. This list is also not limited to hip-hop, which I’m sure is confusing. Now, grab yourself a bowl of popcorn and dig into the list that’s almost certain to make you feel some degree of outrage.

Also, thank you to everyone who has supported us this year. As much as we tend to be a cynical bunch at times, it truly means a lot. You could even say that we love you… In the platonic sense, of course.

15. The Veils – Total Depravity
Total Depravity was a very interesting alternative rock release for many reasons, among those being the groups collaboration throughout with independent hip-hop mainstay El-P. At the very least this would have been an incredibly solid alt-rock album, but the odd touches of hip-hop and electronic influence made it something really unique. It feels a bit inconsistent at times, but Finn Andrews’ and company brought a performance more than worth the purchase.

14. Mr. Lif – Don’t Look Down
It’s always special to see one of the old Definitive Jux crew doing something great years after the label stopped operating; moreover, it was really awesome to see Mr. Lif return to the rap scene after nearly seven years to delivery an incredibly solid album. Don’t Look Down was thoughtful, well written, and felt like a modern update to the underground sound Definitive Jux spent so many years dominating.

13. DIIV – Is The Is Are
Is The Is Are proved to be quite the step up from the alternative rock group DIIV. Though it certainly has moments that felt like they fell a little short (mostly the singles), and perhaps could have used some trimming, Is The Is Are was a wonderful album. The dreamy, reverbed out, sound was equally addictive and catchy. Don’t be surprised if you feel like you’re melting while listening, because it sounds like melting. Does that make sense? No? Okay… Moving on.

12. BADBADNOTGOOD – IV
The fourth BADBADNOTGOOD release may be a little more commercial than their previous efforts, but it also has some of their most engaging and accessible material. It should be noted, however, that the group managed to stay grounded in their roots on IV. The sound evolution is notable, but they didn’t lose themselves. The features on the album all did a really wonderful job, as well, with artists such as Mick Jenkins and Sam Herring providing vocal relief from pure instrumentation.

11. Open Mike Eagle & Paul White – Hella Personal Film Festival
Admittedly, our review on this album didn’t paint it as brightly as it should have. Hella Personal Film Festival turned out to the the type of album that took some time to fully sink in. Perhaps it was Mike’s calmer demeanor, or maybe it was the slightly different production provided by Paul White. Either way, Hella Personal Film Festival was a stunningly relatable album. Mike Eagle resumed his role as rap’s most down-to-earth everyman while gliding with ease over the off-kilter production. Hella Personal Film Festival lacked some of the catchy standouts like some of Mike’s other material, but as a whole it may be his most solid release to date.

10. Koi Child – Koi Child
This Australian hip-hop and jazz band brought one of the most engaging listens of the year with their self-titled debut. Recorded on a remote island, Koi Child’s use of live instrumentation and energetic vocals created an incredible atmosphere. Though the album may not be as socially rooted, it seemed to take a similar approach to music as a group like The Roots. Oh, and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker executive produced it, so there’s also that.

9. Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid
Aesop is notorious for hiding his true meaning deep within extended wordplay and a massive vocabulary, but The Impossible Kid saw him take a step back to allow us into the more personal aspects of his life. This album proved to be one of his most accessible, emotional, and at times humorous releases in his discography. It almost seemed to have given him new breath as an rapper. The production was also very good, particularly the rock inspired drum work.

8. Russian Circles – Guidance
Russian Circles have always suffered a bit from inconsistency with their albums, but Guidance felt like them at their very best. This album was ruthless, hard hitting, and incredibly dense. Any shortcomings from the band’s previous efforts seem to have been corrected, and what’s left is a beautiful post-metal album with ample replay value. Prepare to have your mind melted by something new every time you revisit Guidance.

7. clipping. – Splendor & Misery
Coming in at the sixth spot on this list is clipping. with their “space slave opera” album, Splendor & Misery. The experimental rap trio certainly put out their best and most consistent work with this effort. The story on the album was concise, and supplemented flawlessly with their harsh, noisy, and space inspired instrumentals.

6. Ka – Honor Killed the Samurai
Ka is very much an underrated gem within hip-hop with his incredibly consistent discography. Honing his distinct chamber rap style, he pushed himself even further with this year’s Honor Killed the Samurai. This album was the dose of penmanship many have been craving, and the stripped back instrumentals allowed Ka’s vocal performance to be the star of the show.

5. FLANCH – FLANCH
FLANCH was one of those records that came out sounding like nothing before it. It’s a genre breaker in many ways, playing with hip-hop, indie, electronic, noise, and various other genres within its relatively humble running time. The religious and internet-era theme through the tape echoed painfully relatable. FLANCH was a haunting release, and one well worth of being in the top five of the year. For something so impossible to describe it is truly a beautiful work of art.

4. David Bowie – Blackstar
Given the context of this albums release, it seems reasonable to expect that it will be near the top of most album lists for 2016. Unfortunately, what many will fail to talk about is the fact that the music of Blackstar is absolutely gorgeous in its own right. David Bowie didn’t shy away from showing experimental-noise influences on this record, and it paid off wonderfully. Stripping away that context of his death this would still be one of the top albums of the year, and certainly one of Bowie’s best in years. On a blog with less hip-hop focus, this album would probably be closer to the one spot on a year end list. It was that good.

3. A Tribe Called Quest – Thank You for Your Service… We Got it From Here
This is another release where as much can be said about the context as there is about the music itself; however, that shouldn’t take away from the fact that A Tribe Called Quest managed to seamlessly update golden era style into a modern hip-hop classic. There’s not a track that felt out of place on Thank You for Your Service, and the music is paired with an equally impressive message at times. Given that Tribe hadn’t released an album in 18 years, it was absolutely incredible to see them smoothly slide back into hip-hop. Rest in Peace, Phife Dawg.

2. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3
Fortunately due to absolute dumb luck (or possibly laziness), the surprise Christmas release of the much anticipated Run the Jewels 3 didn’t mess up this top albums list. Isn’t that fantastic? It sure is. Anyway, Killer Mike and El-P’s consistency was really given an opportunity to shine on Run the Jewels 3 and they did not disappoint. The third installment from the duo brought 50 minutes of punchy, in your face, bass-heavy, cheeky, and insightful hip-hop. The overall sound is much more similar to El-P’s solo work than the previous Run the Jewels’ albums, but it worked out excellently to craft an album which feels slightly different yet familiar.

1. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
Honestly, if anyone was going to put out a truly revolutionary sounding hip-hop album it was going to be Danny Brown, and he did. Atrocity Exhibition (borrowing its title from a Joy Division song) is absolutely phenomenal. This album was spacey, unique, and absolutely insane. Atrocity Exhibition felt like a bad drug trip in all the right ways. Once it ends, you feel as if you need to get some fresh air; however, don’t be surprised if you find yourself revisiting this album over and over. Atrocity Exhibition was incredibly disorienting, and catching everything at once felt near impossible. This is a hip-hop album that sounded like nothing else before it, and it truly earned the title of best album in 2016.

Album Review: clipping. – Splendor & Misery

by Dustin

sm

8.5/10

It definitely seems as if we’ve written about clipping. a lot, but they’re one of the most active and unique rap groups out current. Who can blame us? Anyway…

To say that Daveed Diggs is popular right now would be an understatement. Fortunately, for fans of the Los Angeles based experimental rap trio clipping., he’s not abandoned his work in the world of weird. With an EP (Wriggle) already under their belt for the year, clipping. is back again with a full length followup to 2014’s CLPPNG. Released under Sub Pop Records and popular experimental outfit Deathbomb Arc, Splendor & Misery looks to keep clipping.’s hot-streak of releases at full steam.

With Splendor & Misery, clipping. took a step in a different direction from previous releases. The album follows the story of the sole survivor of an uprising, his life on an interstellar transport ship, and his relationship with the on-board computer. The concept is unique, and provided Digg’s the opportunity to flex his storytelling ability at every turn. He flawlessly maneuvers over the wild production, proving time and time again that he is one of the more versatile emcees in hip-hop. Tracks like “Baby Don’t Sleep” are beautifully unnerving, and it big part of this is Daveed’s vocal control and delivery. All in all, a wonderful vocal performance throughout the entirety of Splendor & Misery.

No home, you’ve been there,
Clearly off safety,
No destination,
No time for waiting,
Saviors are fiction,
Memories fading,
like ghosts, ghosts, go.
(Baby Don’t Sleep)

The production is basically what is to be expected from a clipping. album. It’s abrasive, loud, and fuzzy. The main difference on Splendor & Misery is that the instrumentals tend to be more spaced out than a lot of their previous work. Given the concept of the album, this is completely understandable and sets a well defined mood behind Deveed’s vocals. Atmosphere is the main strength of the production on this album. Though it might not necessarily carry that touch of traditional hip-hop the group is known for, the instrumentation is well execute. Hudson and Snipes rarely disappoint.

Though the album is a fantastic piece of art-rap, Splendor & Misery does have one minor flaw. There was a single moment which did not feel as though it fit the overall sound of the record. “Story 5” . Coming off a long run of incredibly cohesive work, the acapella felt very out of place. Unlike the previous “story” tracks on clipping. releases, it was not a standout track; regardless, It is still a pleasant listen and quite interesting, but in the grander picture of Splendor & Misery it was a jarring shift in sound.

Listeners who go into Splendor & Misery expecting the heavy hitting blend of conventional rap and noise may be in for a bit of a shock. This album is definitely a departure from the norm for clipping. as a group. Splendor & Misery should be approached as a conceptual art album, and not put in the same category as their previous works. Fortunately, for those who find themselves missing the sounds clipping. played with on previous releases the EP from earlier this year is jam packed with heavy, easier to digest songs.

This ain’t healthy to be held to blame,
Once you help me, now you abandon me,
What you’re tellin’ me by not tellin’ me?,
Anything, anything,
I’d give anything if you’d say my name,
Don’t you play with me, it’s an emergency.
(Break the Glass)

Don’t discredit Splendor & Misery for that reason, however. This album seems to be the moment that clipping. really discovered who they are as artists. From a conceptual standpoint this is the groups strongest effort. It was an absolute treat to see them tapping into some hidden potential. They took a risk with a release that is unconventional even for clipping., and it paid off with a solid final product.

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

by Dustin

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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: Ka – Honor Killed the Samurai

by Dustin

HKTS

8.75/10

It seems as if Ka has been on a roll since his debut solo album release in 2008. The gritty Brownsville emcee has totaled three solo albums (prior to Honor Killed the Samurai), two extended plays, and a collaborative album under the name Dr. Yen Lo. All have been met with positive critical reviews, and have garnered him an impressive underground fan base. As mentioned, he’s recently released Honor Killed the Samurai. This is his first full length solo album since 2013’s The Night’s Gambit, but he’s kept fans eagerly anticipating it with collaborative efforts and a handful of singles.

It’s finally here however, and it definitely lives up to the standard Ka has established throughout his discography.

When approaching any of Ka’s work, it should be expected that you will have to rewind and replay tracks multiple times to catch all the little details. This is true for Honor Killed the Samurai. With the focus being primarily on story telling lyrics, it isn’t the type of album that one can digest quickly. There is a lot of meat to chew on, and honestly this makes it quite wonderful to revisit. Ka’s presence on the album is most similar to that of a spoken word poet.

I strained to obtain so I could give more,
Most dangerous when there was nothing to live for.
(Conflicted)

Additionally, the production on Honor Killed the Samurai provides a splendid backdrop. The instrumentation feels relatively minimal; however, it’s quickly evident that it was the perfect choice for the overall feel of the album. There’s a degree of consistency to the production that creates a wonderfully cohesive environment behind Ka’s vocals. Though the production is minimalistic, it is a beautiful simplicity. All the tracks sound smooth, there is not an abrasive moment in the duration of Honor Killed the Samurai.

At the end of the day, Ka is the definition of a rapper’s rapper. Those obsessed with storytelling and complex (yet coherent) rhyme schemes will fall in love with this album. He’s immensely talented at painting a vivid scene, and he oozes technical writing ability. That being said, if you’re looking for an absent minded listen (which there is absolutely nothing wrong with), this is not the album for you. The focus is so narrowed on vocals that the listener has to be prepared to pay attention. It’s a rewarding listen, but not an easy one.

So I stood on mine, during the hoodest time,
Was a nightmare, felt like life here was as good as dying,
We was born in the thorns, few arose,
Once a town’s noose, now in soundproofs pursuing golds.
(Mourn at Night)

In a moment of stunning unprofessionalism, it seems fitting to close this with a statement aimed at the New York Post. If you cannot separate the music of a highly regarded story-teller from their personal lives, that is your issue. Do not attempt to write a smear piece on the artist. Simply because Ka writes about things street relate (perhaps things he’s seen, or grown up around), does not make him any less of a firefighter. He’s doing a job most are not brave enough to do, and should be celebrated as such. Not shamed for producing art that many love.

To the fans who voiced their displeasure, kudos. The author at the New York Post showed so little journalistic integrity, and it was beautiful to witness fans standing up for an artist over an injustice. Hopefully those who stood up for Ka also go out and support this project. Honor Killed the Samurai is very much worth the purchase.

Why it Was Good: A History of Violence, by Kuniva

by Apu

HOV

On December 16, 2014, Kuniva released his official debut studio project, A History of Violence. It followed a long stream of mixtapes (Retribution, the Midwest Marauders series, and the Lost Gold mixtape). Unlike the music that was on the mixtapes, Kuniva used all original production (primarily handled by Block Symfany, a production team composed of Rio Da Ghost and T.Boyd out of Michigan), and made actual fleshed-out songs, rather than just long verses and freestyles. Overall, it’s a very solid solo offering. It set the stage for him to grow and dig deeper in his later material.

The best part of this project to me is how Kuniva put it together. It sort of sounds like he sequenced the album very deliberately. The first 4 tracks seem like they’re from the perspective of a younger, more rowdy Kuniva. Those tracks tend to celebrate the street life. It opens up with the posse cut “Michiganish”, featuring Aftermath artist Jon Connor, Mass Appeal’s Boldy James, and Detroit legend Guilty Simpson. It starts things off fairly simply, being a competitive cypher of sorts. The following few songs, “Born Like This”, “Where I’m From”, and “Baileys In Bangkok,” all have a similar sort of vibe. They’re cocky and rowdy. They sound a little ironic and tongue in cheek, almost as though Kuniva was trying to rap the way a younger kid would rap. The content and the way it’s done makes me think he was talking about the street life, from the perspective of a kid living it, rather than someone reflecting on it.

Then comes “Derty Headz”, which is a very powerful song dedicated to fans of his and D-12. It has an anthemic hook and verses that drop all sorts of history about his career. He talks about Proof recruiting him for the group, the beef they’ve had, and the adversity they’ve faced from within since Proof passed. This song is the major turning point in almost every way. Here, flashes of reflection and maturity start to show up. From track 6 onwards, it seems to shift to his perspective now as a man nearly 40 years old after having seen massive success with his group, mournfully reflecting on the hard times in life but looking ahead with a drive to keep moving now that he’s out. “Light Work” and “Where The Hoes @?”, both offer fiery production and strong verses delivered with the hunger and confidence of a man who has seen his fair share of hardship. The title track, which is quite possibly the most personal and poetic song Kuniva has ever released, has him speaking on his past up to the point when Proof was murdered in chilling, almost uncomfortably rich detail, his voice oozing pain over him reflecting on it, and the album ends on “Shoutout”, which sounds like where he’s at now, looking forward into the future with hope after everything he’s been through.

The music on this project is good. There’s no denying that Kuniva is a strong rapper and has been doing nothing but improving since D-12 World. His delivery has become a lot more convincing and his writing has gotten sharper. The production is great too. Block Symfany (and Enrichment, on the title track) were able to provide Kuniva with a backdrop that deviated from the typical D-12 sound. It gave Kuniva the chance to step out of that style and develop his own identity, which is something that he hasn’t had the chance to really do much in the past outside of his Retribution mixtape. I think the first half of the album is a little shaky and unfocused at points, but every song from “Derty Headz” onwards is great. The title track might be one of my favorites of the entire year of 2014, period.

However, what really makes the album good is how it lives up to its name of being a “history”. Kuniva put the album together to actually make it almost like a song-by-song history of his life, from rapping competitively at the Hip-Hop Shop and living in the streets, to when D-12 were at their peak, and ending it with an adult perspective on life. It’s really special, because oftentimes artists don’t do that kind of thing when putting their projects together. You generally hear about Kendrick and the like putting their albums together in a manner like that, but honestly, Kuniva managed to pull off an album concept as well as anybody else. Even if it wasn’t fully intentional, he still clearly had an idea of progressing the sound and content of the project in a way that made sense, as opposed to putting the songs together in an arbitrary order and releasing it onto iTunes. That, to me, is what really makes it good, and not just another hip hop album.