By Natalya Jones
By County Grind
By Liz Tracy
By Chris Joseph
By Liz Tracy
By Matt Preira
By Jesse Scheckner
By Michael E. Miller
But there was trouble ahead. The attention lavished on the label was so intense that it inspired a backlash, followed by a string of releases that many felt weren't up to Def Jux standards.
"I know how people look at us that the first couple of years, we just had this incredible release schedule," El-P says. "And, yeah, we took some risks and put some records out that didn't sound like what people expected. They were records that were risky, by artists that were unproven."
But don't believe Def Jux's glory years have passed. The release schedule for 2006 which includes highly anticipated new albums from Aesop Rock, Cannibal Ox, and El-P is extremely promising. And though it went unnoticed by the larger hip-hop community, the Def Jux renaissance began last month with the release of Cage's Hell's Winter.
A veteran MC for more than a decade, Cage spent much of his career as the hip-hop equivalent of a shock jock, intermingling adolescent sexual fantasies with sensationalistic snapshots from a sordid personal backstory that includes child abuse, mental illness, and drug addiction. His approach was immediately jolting. But by last year, Cage's work had largely dipped into self-parody.
"I hated what I was doing, but it took that for me to reach a bottom," he admits. "I was searching for a change in lifestyle. I was looking for some kind of clarity."
El-P witnessed Cage's nadir during a February 2004 recording session for Prince Paul and Dan the Automator's Handsome Boy Modeling School project. After overdosing the night before on a half-ounce of psychedelic mushrooms, Cage fled the hospital his arms still adorned with cigarette burns and feeding tubes and took a train to the recording studio. El-P was concerned. "El-P took one look at me and was like, 'Jesus, what the fuck is wrong with you? Snap out of it,'" Cage remembers. "I woke up the next morning in a different skin." He had arrived at a moment of clarity that profoundly changed the style of his music.
"I jokingly told El-P that I wanted to make an album with no misogyny, no braggadocio, no self-indulgent bullshit, or any of that simian luxury," he says. "I half-seriously said, 'Let's make a record about me trying to change my life and the psychology about who I am and how I've become this way.' And El said, 'Yes, that's it. '"
The resulting album is the finest Def Jux release of 2005. Songs like "Too Heavy for Cherubs" and "Peeranoia" realistically address Cage's drug addictions without glamorizing the lifestyle. The DJ Shadow-produced "Grand Ol' Party Crash" is an indictment of George Bush's presidency that features Dead Kennedy Jello Biafra doing his best Dubya impression. And the album reaches its high point with "Stripes," in which Cage recounts his harrowing childhood and a drug-addled, military-man father.
"The album was cathartic to make," Cage says. "My previous work would be sprinkled with anecdotes from my past, but I oftentimes glorified things that didn't need to be glorified. This time around, I did it very carefully. I didn't want sympathy; I didn't want to play the victim. It was difficult. But once I tried to be honest in my work, I realized that dishonesty had always been a big issue for me."
"Cage went through a pretty intense transition," El-P says. "He didn't change because he did the record, but one unlocks the other, and it was pretty crazy to watch. I'm proud of him. He risked alienating people who were really only looking to him for that one shtick. That's the kind of artist that I want to work with." It's also the kind of artist that El-P is rebuilding the Def Jux underground empire on, one album at a time.