Declaration of Independence | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

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Declaration of Independence

Picture the following gang of hip-hop misfits: two Harlemites — one an imposing 300 pounds with a Zeus-like voice, the other cherub-faced and sporting an incongruous nasal twang — who interweave sci-fi imagery into their hyperrealist ghetto tales; a dreadlocked freestyle champ with a socialist agenda and a knack for conceptually mesmerizing rhymes; a slinky former art school student with a tightly wound flow and a steady stream of fractured, dadaist poetry; and an underground hip-hop legend known for his controlling nature and dense, dynamic productions.

Not your average hip-hop crew. But this group of brilliant miscreants forms the nucleus of Definitive Jux, this decade's most artistically vital and commercially viable independent hip-hop label. The music it released in 2001 and 2002 — Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein, El-P's Fantastic Damage, Mr. Lif's I Phantom, RJD2's Dead Ringer, and Aesop Rock's Labor Days — changed the way people looked at underground hip-hop. Def Jux broadened the genre's aesthetic and thematic boundaries without divorcing itself from hip-hop's original intent of compelling beats and rhymes.

As with any transformation, the Brooklyn-based label's music was divisive, turning away so-called purists just as it recruited those who had never owned a hip-hop record. Its confrontational origins go back to one of the first and — initially, at least — finest indie hip-hop labels, Rawkus Records. Founded in 1995 by Brian Brater and Jarret Myer, Rawkus quickly corralled much of the scene's top talent, including Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Pharaoh Monch. Despite being underwritten by Rupert Murdoch — a fact then not widely known — the label epitomized the scene's left-leaning politics and DIY spirit. During this time, a young MC from Brooklyn by the name of El-P hooked up with fellow rhyme slinger Bigg Jus and producer Mr. Len to create Company Flow.

"There was just a lot of energy in that scene," El-P says. "It was before hip-hop was clearly defined, and it was before the media had caught up with it. There weren't any subgenres of rap music — apart from maybe gangsta rap — and there was no distinction between being street and being creative. The ideas that were floating around were just really raw and visceral."

In 1997, Rawkus released Co Flow's debut, Funcrusher Plus, moving a surprisingly respectable 100,000 albums that year. Other defining releases, including the heralded Black Star collaboration between Def and Kweli, solidified the label's prominence. But when Company Flow moved in a more abrasive, less commercial direction with 1999's Little Johnny from the Hospital, Rawkus decided not to promote the album. Within another year, the label had fallen from favor with the hip-hop cognoscenti as it churned out disappointingly predictable, cameo-laden compilations rather than the groundbreaking work it was founded upon.

During this period, El-P met Harlem MCs Vast Aire and Vordul Megilah, collectively known as Cannibal Ox. El-P remembers them as being "young, hungry cats," and he decided to produce their debut himself. Feeding off his optimism, the members of Can Ox threw themselves into the album. The duo even went as far as moving into El's Brooklyn loft for the duration of the recording.

Meanwhile, El was recruiting other artists with his vision of Def Jux recapturing the indie spirit that had slipped away from Rawkus. Mr. Lif — an MC known for his stage prowess and politically charged raps — came down from Boston; producer RJD2 migrated from Ohio; and Aesop Rock swooped in from Manhattan. El's pad soon became the "go-to crib," as Aesop calls it. He'd sleep on the couch, Lif would stay there when he came down from Boston, and RJD2 could be found in the closet/studio in the corner of the loft.

In those tight confines, the crew grew close. "I remember a lot of times Vast, Vordul, and I would be packed into that tiny little studio," Aesop says. "We're all big guys, and there was barely any room to even move. It was so small that it would've never accomplished anything in that studio if we weren't friends. To me, that defined how grassroots we were."

Def Jux's first release was in 2001 with Cannibal Ox's brilliant The Cold Vein. In many ways, the album was a fuller realization of a lot of the ideas behind Company Flow's Funcrusher Plus. El-P's production is jagged and claustrophobic — synth lines spread across beds of distorted breakbeats and swabs of music concrete — while Vast and Vordul borrow the bleakest page from the Wu Tang Clan's playbook, mixing post-apocalyptic, sci-fi dread with modern urban despair. "Cannibal Ox fucked up a lot of people's heads," El-P comments. "It's the sort of record that confuses people, but in all the right ways." With the release of The Cold Vein, Def Jux had the underground's ear.

The crew didn't disappoint. Later that year, Aesop Rock released Labor Days — an album that balanced sensitive, blue-collar narratives with verbose, meta-examinations of hip-hop and art. And 2002 saw the release of RJD2's widely lauded debut, Dead Ringer; Mr. Lif's epic concept album, I Phantom; and El-P's own solo debut, Fantastic Damage.

By 2003, Def Jux had supplemented Rawkus as independent hip-hop's most important label. In a stunning, forward-pushing run, the label had released two years' worth of hard-hitting hip-hop, featuring some of the most technically flawless production, instantly recognizable vocals, and groundbreaking lyrical content the genre had ever seen.

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.