When ex-Company Flow emcee El-P started independent hiphop label Definitive Jux in 2000, it was a quiet addition to the record store rap racks. "[With Def Jux], I was trying to create a mechanism where I didn't have to deal with people in the record industry," explains El of the imprint's founding. "I was having to make a big lifestyle decision between making music and making money making music, and I had the idea that it was possible to be a label that could function based on the idea of what an artist wants. And I think the end result is that Def Jux feels genuine. I mean, it sounds weird but everybody on this label is really in love with each other."
Love, it seems, pays off. In the four years since its birth, Def Jux has carried out its mission--making independent hiphop a critically lauded genre and proving that the underground offers economically viable options for the next generation of emcees. Along the way, the label has also done its part to shatter notions that underground hiphop is full of esoteric, knit-cap-wearing word nerds by presenting a stable of emcees who can hold their own in a philosophy debate but rock a party as well as Nas or Jay-Z. From the psychedelic Afro-futurism of Cannibal Ox to the brainy ballistics of Aesop Rock to the resolutely East Coast grit of El-P's robot beats and wreck-shop rhymes, the Def Jux name now acts as a stamp of approval for record buyers.
El-P doesn't so much sign new artists as add friends to his clique, and he's careful to pick mic rockers that aren't afraid to be individuals. "What I always loved about underground hiphop was that there was always a new character to get to know and a new way to say something," he states. "Hiphop is so diverse and that's not represented in [the mainstream] where everyone is competing to have one of two personalities. Either you're the super gangster/super pimp or you're this exceptionally conscious person, and I just don't think real people are like that."
To that end--and to keep the label from having a static profile--El carefully curates each Def Jux tour to give the audience a taste of different flavors. On the Seattle date of the Def Jux Presents III Tour--which coincides with the release of a similarly named compilation--veteran Mr. Lif will be helming what El-P calls a "demented ship." Lif, whose sleek and didactic rhymes and sharp boom-bap beats have prompted comparisons to KRS-One and Guru, will perform on his own and as one-third of new supergroup the Perceptionists, with gangsta-meets-grownup emcee/producer Akrobatik and DJ Fakts One.
Hot off his recent Murs 3:16 album, a backpack banger produced with the help of Jay-Z collaborator 9th Wonder, Living Legends crew member Murs will also throw down his trademark rhymes, which mix non-bling reality rap with a demented sense of humor. He'll blend talk about skateboarding and selling weed one minute into gangland shoot-ups the next.
And who could forget the loose cannons of this squadron, the duo known as S.A. Smash? Smashy Trashy, released last June, raised quite a few complaints from Def Jux fans for its resolutely unconscious lyrics, crunk beats, and below-the-belt humor. Which is maybe why when I get producer/emcee Camu Tao on the phone, he keeps claiming the group is "invisible." Not for long. With beats inspired by "the craziness and the do-whatever-the-hell-you-want feeling of rock," antics like stage diving, and sheer heroism (saving Aesop Rock from a knife-wielding attacker in Vermont), the Smash boys might soon be major highlights of the roster.
"With the Def Jux compilation and the concept, I'm doing what I've always been doing, which is trying to introduce new people to the fans," explains El. "Sometimes you have to hide [new artists] in between the people who are better known. But that's necessary for this music. If you always send out the tried-and-true people who you know fans will be hyped to hear, then it gets redundant. One of the things I always loved about going to hiphop shows is how you would always bump into some cat you didn't know and he would just fuck up your mind."