The headquarters of Def Jux Records is a modest beige duplex in Brooklyn. Label owner El-P lives upstairs, and Vordul Megilah and Vast Aire, the two rappers in Cannibal Ox, sleep on a couple of futons downstairs. One of the rooms serves as a recording studio. "We live there, and we have a cat," Aire says. "It's a bachelor crib."
It's also where Mr. Lif, Aesop Rock, and Cannibal Ox, currently some of the best independent hip-hop acts on the circuit, have recorded. Considering the kind of press these guys have been getting (the label was the subject of a recent cover story in Wire, a trendy British music magazine), the duplex makes for pretty humble surroundings.
"Hey, you see, it's just regular," Aire says. "I'm just in a magazine. Whatever. I still drink my beer. I still watch my game. My bed is still the same. Nothin' is too different in my life. I'm sure it won't be. I don't think I'll ever be on some Michael Jackson status. I don't even want that. That's disgustin'."
While Aire might never reach the multiplatinum status of the King of Pop, he's not exactly unknown. Ever since Cannibal Ox's full-length debut, The Cold Vein, was released three months ago, the group's been in high demand. It recently performed two dates in Japan and has toured the East and West Coasts. Unlike many acts, who put out several releases before getting any kind of recognition, Cannibal Ox was a known commodity before Cold Vein hit the shelves. Bootleg copies of an advance of the record sold well enough to show up on the College Music Journal's charts, and anticipation for it was so high, many magazines ran Cannibal Ox features well before the album came out.
At least part of the credit goes to El-P, whose Def Jux Records has become the underground hip-hop label of the moment. To understand its success, you have to go back to Company Flow, the hip-hop act El-P fronted along with rapper Bigg Jus and DJ Mr. Len. The group formed in Queens in 1992 and released its first single in 1993. Its self-released 1996 EP "Funcrusher" was so popular, it got picked up by Rawkus, which reissued it a year later as Funcrusher Plus. Company Flow's raw production values were as groundbreaking as anything by the Wu-Tang Clan or Outkast, acts that recorded for major labels. But Company Flow had street credibility, up until it played its last show a couple of months ago in New York.
"Funcrusher Plus opened me up to this shit called underground music," says Eyedea, a rapper from Minnesota who's on tour with Cannibal Ox, Mr. Lif, and Aesop Rock but records for Rhymesayers, not Def Jux. "I don't know exactly what it was, but something in the promotion got it to the right people, who said, 'You gotta hear this. It sounds shitty, but it's just dope and reminds you of punk rock.' When I heard it, I was hanging out with these guys who were listening to Company Flow, Latyrx, and Cage. I was like 'Wow, I'm not hip. I watch Rap City.'"
After Funcrusher Plus, El-P formed Def Jux out of a desire to produce instead of rap. One of the first singles to come out on the label was Mr. Lif's "Enters the Colossus." As a "guinea pig," Lif didn't have the benefit of the label's reputation, which had yet to be established. Still, when he met El-P at a Company Flow show in Boston, Lif knew he wanted to collaborate.
"[Def Jux] is a label people can rally behind," he says. "I can't wait to tap into the energy that's surrounding the label right now. Everyone at the label truly loves and respects hip-hop. It feels good to be around people like that. They're all skilled artists, and the competition level keeps you sharp."
More than Cannibal Ox or Mr. Lif, Aesop Rock stands poised to benefit from his association with Def Jux. Rock, an art student who lives on Manhattan's Lower East Side, was working 40 hours a week in the shipping department of an art gallery when he recorded Labor Days, which comes out later this month. His employment background helps make the album unique. Unlike most hip-hop, which documents one of two extremes -- life in the projects or life as a high-stakes player -- Rock writes about the working stiff. He isn't just a champion of the underground, either. He says it's a misconception to think most underground rappers detest anyone who rhymes about fast cars and hot women.
"I listen to mainstream stuff. I listen to the Beatles," says Rock, whose flow is as smooth as Eminem's. "Granted, I can't identify with being rich, but that doesn't mean I don't feel the music. Jay-Z is a big example. I think he's completely dope. He doesn't just write about having money. Those happen to be the singles, but he didn't compromise anything. He's still doing exactly what he wants to do; same with Radiohead."
What separates the artists on Def Jux from rap artists on major labels is their tendency to write with poetic sensibilities and manufacture beats that are gritty rather than polished. Like the Native Tongues rappers and the San Francisco Bay Area scene that spawned Del the Funky Homosapien and DJ Shadow, Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock, and Mr. Lif have connected with an audience that includes college kids and hip-hop heads. And they've done so by making music that "stands for something," as Mr. Lif puts it.
"A lot of cats just want to stand for ill lyrics," he says. "That shit can only carry you so far. You have to be speakin' to people on levels that they can relate to and try to take 'em somewhere, man, and speak with some sincerity, man. I feel that about the artists I'm surrounded by, and I'm definitely proud of it."
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