erasing clouds

Definitive Jux Presents III

reviewed by dave heaton

As extreme as the diehard Definitive Jux fans seem to get sometimes, that sort of unquestioning love makes sense when you really consider how consistently great the label’s releases are. In just a few years they’ve built quite a reputation as creators of hip-hop that’s innovative yet grounded in real life, that pushes forward but is completely in touch with the music’s roots. Albums like Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein, label head El-p’s Fantastic Damage and Aesop Rock’s Labor Days and Bazooka Tooth are chaotic, paranoid works of modern street poetry that are rightly considered classics already, while acts like Mr. Life, C-Rayz Walz, and Murs are on a soulful, back-to-basics trip and Rjd2 is consistently taking the realm of instrumental hip-hop to new places.

If 2003 was a bit more quiet of a year for the label, 2004 looks to be a busy one. Definitive Jux Presents III throws down the gauntlet, setting the agenda for the year by offering exclusive tracks both from the label’s established names and from a surprisingly talented batch of newcomers. Truth be told, the label’s strength lies in albums not in single tracks – the agenda and importance of any of their best albums only shines through when the only work is taken in at once. So as a compilation album, Presents III feels a bit disjointed at times and isn’t as immediately overpowering as just about any single Def Jux record. Still, it’s filled with that creative spark that informs the best music, and (along with Kanye West’s College Dropout and what I’ve heard of the upcoming Madvillian LP) is one more strong sign that this is going to be a good year for hip-hop.

Aesop Rock, Murs, C-Rayz Walz, El-p, Rjd2, and Mr Lif (paired with Akrobatik and Fakts One as The Perceptionists) all come through with tracks as solid as what they’ve won us over with in the past. El-P twice pairs with fellow MCs to great effect…”WMR,” with Camu Tao, slides from drug-induced humor to pointed attacks on celebrities and politicians (a key line goes, “most of the greatest revolutionaries of our day and age are labeled terrorits”), while “Oxycontin Pt 2,” featuring Cage, is a story of jealousy and addiction that’s both hard-edged and sensitive. And Rjd2’s “Clean Living” is a funky piece of melancholy (along the lines of his excellent “Rain” and his Soul Position track “No Excuse for Lovin’”) that needs to go on every jukebox in the country, right now.

Along with the favorites come tracks from a handful of new or relatively new artists: Carnage, Rob Sonic, Hangar 18, Despot, S.A. Smash, and 4th Pyramid. While all of these are excellent, the two Hangar 18 stand out for me as particularly stellar, as does the remix of Aesop Rock’s “No Jumper Cables” done up right by Hangar 18’s DJ Pawl, who looks to be the next hot producer based on these tracks. He funks up and streamlines the Aesop Rock song in a way that shows Aesop’s rhyming skills off to nonbelievers who were put off by the original’s claustrophobic production. Hangar 18’s “Take No Chances” is a spellbinding mix of MC gymnastics and heartstrings-touching atmosphere that forms half of the comp’s ending 1-2 punch (with the Rjd2 track); the two tracks together should be enough to convince anyone that Definitive Jux stands on the edge of modern music.

(Note: In case you weren’t convinced by last year’s fantastic documentary/video/music package The Revenge of the Robots that Definitive Jux is out to please their fans at all costs, this compilation comes with a DVD of 6 videos, for tracks by El-P, Mr Lif, C-Rayz Walz, and Aesop Rock. It’s so good it’ll remind you of the days when MTV actually played videos, the times when hip-hop video shows weren’t a parade of jewels.)


Issue 21, March 2004

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