In February of 2009 El-P would take to the internet to announce the permanent hiatus of Definitive Jux. A label which he co-founded after a falling out with Rawkus Records, where he previously was signed as a member of Company Flow. Definitive Jux would quickly establish itself as a powerhouse in the independent hip-hop world through many critically acclaimed releases at the start of the millennium.
Definitive Jux had an extensive discography over eleven years of operation. Today, in a celebration of life (in the loosest sense), we will take a look at four of the most important releases from the label. These are not necessarily the best records to come from El-P’s underground giant, but those which had a special significance.
Cannibal Ox – The Cold Vein
According to a barely comprehensible letter written by Vast Aire about his beef with El-P in 2009, Cannibal Ox were not officially signed to Definitive Jux when The Cold Vein was released (though the validity of this statement can definitely be brought into question); however, it was the album that established the label as a major player in independent hip-hop.
It pushed boundaries in terms of production and vocal deliveries. The Cold Vein sold more than the label had predicted (over 60,000 copies as of 2012) and ended up being widely regarded as an underground classic, making it the foundational record in the Definitive Jux discography.
The greatest shame is that Cannibal Ox would go on to never release another album on the label. The group spiraled into dysfunction between 2002 and 2003, and eventually dropped from Definitive Jux. Vordul Mega began struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues, and Vast Aire began lashing out at members of Definitive Jux for various reasons (many of which were proven to be false) until sometime in 2011.
The group finally self-released their sophomore album fifteen years after The Cold Vein, yet it ultimately fell short.
Aesop Rock – Labor Days
The Cold Vein was the album that really started it all, but Aesop Rock’s Labor Days would be the release that proved El-P’s label would not be a one hit wonder. Boasting gritty alternative-New York style production by Aesop Rock and longtime collaborator Blockhead, the concept album about America’s working class would far exceed label expectations.
One single from the album, Daylight, would be such a hit that it spawned an extended play sharing the same name the following year. Labor Days was the album that kept momentum rolling for the label, and pushed them forward into a string of critically acclaimed albums from multiple artists through the early 2000s.
Perhaps as importantly, this was Aesop Rock’s full length debut on Definitive Jux. Even though his final album release on the label would come in 2007, Aesop was perhaps one of the most prominent members on the Definitive Jux roster. Where Cannibal Ox would slow to a stop following their debut, Aesop Rock continued to put out quality releases on the label that sold respectably.
El-P – I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead
I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead‘s release was an important transitional moment for El-P’s sound, but also for Definitive Jux. Unfortunately it would mark the beginning of the end for the label. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead would ultimately spawn the final run of releases from big name artists in the New York collective. Aesop Rock, Rob Sonic, and Cage would all also contribute one final album a piece. Along with a few small scale albums and regional releases (often shared with other independent labels), these would be the last albums of Definitive Jux.
I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead was also co-founder and figurehead, El-P’s, final album on the label. Even though it didn’t set Definitive Jux up for success like The Cold Vein, propel the label forward like Labor Days, or mark the end of an era like King of Hearts, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead serves as an important part of the label’s time line.
Camu Tao – King of Hearts
Though Camu Tao’s King of Hearts was not up to the same standard of quality as I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, it is arguably the most important release in the Defintive Jux catalog. This would be the final release for the label, but more importantly the final release for Camu Tao. Having passed away after a battle with cancer, this album would be a sampler of unfinished snippets cleaned up by El-P following Camu’s death.
To put it politely, the album is incredibly rough; however, behind the roughness it seemed as if he was onto something with the sound. The amount of genre blending on the King of Hearts album is almost overwhelming. There are moments that sound electronic, hip-hop, and there even seems to be a significant amount of alternative rock influence.
As unfortunate as the circumstances were leading up to its release, King of Hearts serves as a fantastic bookend to the Definitive Jux era. Even in its unfinished state the album encompassed everything the label encouraged: it was innovate, off-kilter, and didn’t try to follow anyone’s lead.