There is hip-hop that is trite and easy to listen to, and then there is hip-hop that matters. The first is simple to identify: Just turn on the radio and wait for the next P Diddy remix to air. The second type, however, is often hard to find, relegated to the bottom of rap's desultory effluent. The music that comes from the Boston-moved-to-Brooklyn-based Definitive Jux label drops firmly into the latter camp, but it is not always so easy to see why. Formed from a motley crew of MCs under the leadership of El-P (formerly of Company Flow), the barely-known names of Aesop Rock, Cannibal Ox, Mr. Lif, and RJD2 have over the last few years come to be praised for innovation, subversion, and, quite simply, keeping it real.
So is it the music that sets Def Jux apart? Certainly, El-P's production stands on its own as noteworthy. Juxtaposed deftly with ingenious street rhymes, it is often difficult for people to realize that what they are hearing in the background is IDM electronica (a view supported by El-P's inclusion on Constant Elevation, a compilation released by Astralwerks - the label which produces such seminal groups as Air and Basement Jaxx). The recent communion between electronica and rap, most fully realized by the Anti-Populist Consortium, has been embraced and even progressed under the watch of El-P - just as fellow producer RJD2 develops the links between ambient, funk, rock and hip-hop - and it goes a long way in making the label stand out in a flood of independent releases.
But it is lyrical intelligence that finally differentiates the music from the froth that seems to emanate from so many nouveau riche ex-ghetto denizens. With Def Jux, one simply appreciates the absence of bling. And for good reason: Up until quite recently, Jux MCs were, almost without exception, working-class undie rappers who had street cred but no loot. That may seem anathema to the current climate of commercial rap, but as one critic noted, the kind of hip-hop one hears on BEAT 98.5 is comparable to the hair bands of the '80s: overproduced and forgettable flatulence. Not so with someone like Aesop Rock, who by virtue of being not-rich and unafraid of syncopation can get away with the following refrain (and somehow make it sound like a rhyme):
We, the American working population,
hate the fact that eight hours a day is wasted
on chasing the dream of someone that isn't us
and we may not hate our jobs but we hate jobs in general that don't have to do with fighting our own causes.
We, the American working population,
hate the 9-to-5 day in/day out,
but we've found that we're supporting ourselves by being paid to perfect the pasttimes that we have harbored based solely on the fact that it makes us smile if it sounds dope.
Or this, by Mr. Lif:
We all are being murdered by a similar process,
whether you work at the candy store or slave at the office.
The purpose of our life is just to serve the economy,
they disinform our minds to paint a picture of harmony.
But if you're listening you know that shit's out of tune;
'cause the function of our life is just to work and consume.
Fuck reaching out to help the next, there ain't any room,
just close your eyes and block your ears and march to your doom
Socialist? Probably. Eye-opening? Definitely. Add to that the politics of environmentalism, challenges to the War on Terror, atheism, and a general distrust of top-down economics, and you've got a pretty good platform from which to launch a revolution. Obviously, the music is not all like that, and occasionally Jukies pay lip service to the pantheon of popular hip-hop refrains ("and wave them like you just don't care!"), though more often than not it is with a knowing wink. Other hip-hop traditions are more recurrent in their work, such as the story, often stretched out over a handful of songs, of the obstacles that must be overcome in an increasingly complex world. Aesop Rock's song "Lucy" comes to mind, but then fully a third of Mr. Lif's recent album I Phantom follows the trials and tribulations of a young man through his slave wage-earning days to marriage, fatherhood, divorce, financial success, remarriage, and on through to the suicide of his third child in college. Sort of a "Hundred Years of Solitude" in rhymed couplets.
|Mr. Lif of Def Jux|
One hasn't found that kind of dedication to a theme since the days of KRS-One or Slick Rick. Even supposedly "hardcore" acts have fallen into the rote delivery of shallow platitudes, as evidenced by Wu Tang's devolution into pure hubris. Many of their rhymes are now self-referential to the point of incompetence, and most of their recent albums are so filled with nonsensical chatter as to actually be painful to listen to - at least in the context of their old glory. With the arrival of independent talent such as that found on Def Jux, I'm quite happy to pronounce the day of the kung-fu grip ended. All 36 chambers have been entered, stripped, and filled with IKEA furniture for the masses.
It is doubtful that you will ever find VORDUL MEGILAH and VAST AIRE the MCs behind the great Cannibal Ox in a deodorant commercial (unlike Redman and Method Man). The two share a Brooklyn apartment, with El-P's production studio in the basement. For now, that's fine for the label; but the future, which jukkies are always so eager to portray in terms of either humanity's subjugation to technology or a nuclear wasteland is broader than they make it sound. By taking it slow, they will not easily forget from whence they came. And that is where they excel, where they give authenticity to their work.
As Aesop Rock at one point righteously spits: "Motherfucker, my word is born like Siamese triplets with doctor/lawyer/rocket scientist promise." True dat.
REVENGE OF THE ROBOTS TOUR
WITH EL-P, MR. LIF, RJD2, CAGE, & COPYWRITE
$16.50 advance, $18.50 day-of-show
La Zona Rosa
612 W. 4th Street, Austin