In the late 1990s, RAWKUS Records grabbed the title as one of the biggest, if not THE biggest, forces in the “underground” hip-hop movement. Co-founders/label heads, Brian Brater and Jarret Myer rounded up and signed local New York artists to form a solid roster of irrefutable talent. The label was formed in 1996, but the first couple of real releases began in 1997 with the Company Flow classic Funcrusher Plus and Soundbombing, the first of several compilations by the label. Soundbombing, itself, featured even more EL-P related material with the inclusion of one Company Flow track and 2 others which were also produced by the Rapper/Producer. This, like future Soundbombing and Lyricist Lounge compilations, helped to bring attention for other label talent and assisted in creating hype and anticipation for their individual solo efforts. Jaime “EL-P” Meline played a key role and was an undeniable factor in the success and development of RAWKUS, in general; something that he never felt that he was adequately compensated for. Although Funcrusher Plus is considered a classic by connoisseurs, neither EL-Producto or Company Flow would ever become household names at the level of RAWKUS artists like Mos Def and Talib Kweli.
In 1999, RAWKUS entered into a distribution deal with Priority records. Arguably the most vocal opponent of his former label, EL-P told the label to go fuck themselves and struck out to form his own label, later that year. Eventually, many would follow suit, as RAWKUS would slowly, and then much more quickly, fold under itself. Whether you subscribe to the claims of shady dealings and that RAWKUS intentionally swindled their artists out of deserved compensation, believe that they tried to sign too many too fast with poor promotion, or that they were just misguided businessmen, the label, which sold their entire catalog to Interscope/Geffen in 2004, has become little more than a memory.
From his departure until now, EL-P has successfully run the NYC-based Definitive Jux, the label that would help to define “undergound” Hip-Hop for the following decade. While RAWKUS definitely released some great albums and did some great things for the genre in it’s heyday, it’s important to remember that its success relied heavily on the artists, which remained successful beyond the ruins of their former contractors. As much as I respect a good deal of the output and as much as people refer to RAWKUS as an “underground” / “indie” label, they were actually financed by Rupert Murdoch‘s son, James and News Corp. (the world’s second-largest media conglomerate, behind The Walt Disney Company), which officially purchased the label in 1998. Being an artist himself, Meline took a very different approach with DEF JUX and the development of its artists’ careers. The first release for the new label was the critically acclaimed, Cold Vein by Cannibal OX. The album made an immediate impact on the hip hop world, solidifying EL-P as a master producer and DEF JUX as a label to be taken seriously. For the follow-up, EL-Producto used his new found freedom to make the solo album that he wanted the way that he wanted. Even after his previous work with Co-Flo and various guest appearances, many still refused to give the innovator the credit that he deserved. Cold Vein eliminated any questions about his production skills, but it wasn’t until Fantastic Damage was released that everybody else was forced to stop questioning Meline‘s abilities as a lyricist. From then on, DEF JUX continued to flourish by releasing groundbreaking albums like Dead Ringer (RJD2) and nourishing the careers of artists like Aesop Rock. In recent years, the label has even tempted established artists like Del Tha Funkee Homosapien and Dizzee Razcal to release full-lengths with them. Now, after a highly successful decade as an artist/producer/label-owner, EL-P has announced his intention to put Definitive Jux on hiatus…. more or less.
Earlier today, the DEF JUX founder posted a message to fans on the labels official website. The post, titled “Hooptys and Hovercrafts” primarily addresses EL-P‘s desire to step down as the creative director, so that he can focus more on his role as an artist.
“I’m stepping away from my duties as artistic director for the label to concentrate on what I love most: being a producer and an artist full time.“
The letter further expresses a desire to adapt forward through the current and ever changing state of the music industry. This shouldn’t surprise those who have followed EL-P‘s career closely over the years because, regardless of his highly publicized past with RAWKUS, DEF JUX has always been a label of the future and of constant awareness/reassessment. In a Jan. 2007 interview with AV Club, Meline was even quoted as asking, “Who the fuck knows if Def Jux is going to be around in five years? Who knows if any independent record label is going to be around?” It’s clear that, even then, EL-P was sensitive to the frailty and rapid changes in the industry. This latest announcement doesn’t seem so much like a departure from music as it does a series of adjustments that are intended to help the label and its artists remain viable in a melting and reforming culture. After the release of the late Camu Tao‘s final album, King of Hearts, and a few more projects that are currently in production, DEF JUX, as it exists in its present state, will be no more.
“This means change for JUX. Of course we’ll still have our website, we will still sell our catalog, merch and more as well as bring you news and updates on all our projects and artists. We will be releasing “KING OF HEARTS”, a DEF JUX remix compilation, a 10 year anniversary retrospective and some other goodies. But then as a traditional record label DEF JUX will effectively be put on hiatus. We are not closing, but we are changing.”
“In 2000 starting a traditional record label made a lot of sense. But now, in 2010, less so and I find myself yearning for something else to put my energy into. I also see newer, smarter, more interesting things on the horizon for the way art and commerce intersect, and as an artist and an entrepreneur, I’m eager to see them unfold. The evolution of this industry is, in my opinion, exciting, inevitable and it would be nice to see the DEFINITIVE JUX brand be a part of it. In other words, maybe we can turn this hoopty in to a hovercraft.“
With RJD2 having moved on to his own label and EL-P‘s solo work being my favorite releases from the DEFJUX camp anyway, I welcome any changes that will allow Meline to devote more direct attention to his studio efforts. From Funcrusher Plus to the release of I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, 10 years later, Producto has returned time and time again to confirm his position as one of the greatest producers/beat makers of the last 15 years. What’s more impressive is that he’s managed to accomplish this task through his constant yearning for re-invention and risk-taking. His only major consistency has been change. A dissolution of DEF JUX will, undoubtedly, seem like a mistake to many of it’s fans, but try to remember that this decision is coming from a man who’s ventured into starting his own label, making a jazz album, and even collaborations with Cat Power and Trent Reznor, all with successful results. I have to believe that he knows exactly what he’s doing. At this point, it’s hard to feel any other way.