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March 22, 2002

++ Indie Hip-Hop Part 1

++ "I feel good! ...about hip hop...," exclaims J-Live on his new album, All of the Above (Coup d'Etat), and damned if he doesn't have a point. In the last couple of months, more exciting hip-hop releases have landed on my desk than any other genre, and the bulk of it is indie gear. Yeah, yeah, we've heard for a couple of years now how the majors had trumped the indies when it came to original hip-hop, and yes, records from N*E*R*D, Missy Elliot, OutKast and even Wu Tang made a pretty strong case for that argument. But things are gearing up in the underground, and they're sparking and spinning off in so many directions you might think that an MPC shorted out in a fireworks stand.

First props undoubtedly go out to Definitive Jux. El Producto, formerly of Company Flow — possibly the most abrasive group in the history of the genre — had a great run last year with his label, thanks to especially strong releases from Cannibal Ox and Aesop Rock, both of which ranked among 2001's best records in any genre. The intensity with which El-P has torn into the new year, then, is almost frightening. Definitive Jux Presents II showcases the Def Jux class of 2002 with (dis)joints from quasi-supergroup The Weathermen (El-P, Masai Bey, Camu Tao, Copy Write. and Cannibal Ox's Vast Aire), Sonic Sum's Rob Sonic, Mr. Lif, Aesop Rock, and of course El Producto himself. El-P handles productions on just under half the cuts here, but the whole album's smudged with his fingerprints — staggering kickdrums and backhanded snare smacks, basslines that sound like they were pulled out of a clogged drain, and a murky haze of echo smogging up everything. For all the variance in lyrical styles, they're all typically Def Jux: aggro, spit-slicked and totally uncompromising. Atoms Family flow like flies in midair, climbing and swooping and turning on invisible dimes, while the inimitably named Y@k Ballz — atop a heavy-metal-and-harpsichords backing — throw down syllables like debris tossed into the middle of the street, an impromptu roadblock stacked high with cinderblocks and burning tires. The lone instrumental track here is RJD2's "I Like Your Def Jux Baby Tee," piling together crisp, spacious breaks, English folk flutes, rock guitars, string flourishes, chiming piano, and more. But no matter how thickly stacked, his track stays light and porous. Columbus, Ohio's RJD2 has already put out the heartbreaking "Here's What's Left" on the UK's Altered Vibes label, and it's quickly becoming clear that he could give DJ Shadow a serious run for his money as master of the sampler. RJD2 has the same knack at splicing together not just breaks and single-note samples, but long, melodic sequences that dovetail perfectly with each other. Note the name, because you will be hearing more from him.

Coinciding with Definitive Jux Presents II is a slew of singles taken from the album, each one with a flip side well worth having. While "Same As It Never Was" from The Weathermen featuring Mr. Lif and Murs is a typically dark, angular El-P joint — synths grind, breaks drag like chains and vocals are hot with spittle — the flip, "Sneak Preview," ups the funk with elevator-drop bass and drunken snare-punching. It's uncharacteristically upbeat, and the lyrics are pure crowd-pleasers as well: "This one night on tour/ I ran into this cat who kinda made me unsure/ He got up in my head with some words so pure/ and a voice that reminded me of Troy McClure." Camu Tao's "Hold the Floor," produced by Przm, is even dirtier than El-P's work, all frayed wires and smoking sockets — so risky you ought to sign a waiver before putting it on the decks. Camu Tao's own production on the flip is much lighter: indeed, sampled off a polka, it sounds like a rock-steady accompaniment to a state fair carousel. I don't even know what's happening behind Masai Bey's "Paper Mache." Wave after wave of acoustic weaponry comes crashing through: wavering electric guitar, rec room breaks, and some clipped chanting that could be coming from a John Carpenter film — or from tribal chants, it's unclear. The flip gets even more gothic with spooky haunted church organ and dissonant analog tones that can't stop shivering. One of the scariest things to be committed to vinyl since Tricky's earliest work, and evil in a way even he could never be. Buy this single for the B-side.

But the real jewel in Def Jux's recent crop of 12-inches is a white label bearing no info whatsoever (though word is that it's another of RJD2's rough-edged gems). It's a mashup of gritty, gritty funk; at first you think it's something someone's recorded in a garage, but it becomes apparent that it's one DJ mixing soul in a way you've never heard before. The breaks cascade, the piano is the texture of balled aluminum foil, and the bass drum is bottomless. Then without warning, halfway through, the horns fall away, the drums vanish, and the sweetest reggae rhythm takes over, before the chorus finally reappears: "Let the good times roll." You said it. I can only imagine what this would do to the right floor at the right hour (and I pray that I'm lucky enough to be there for it).

++ The other news from the Def Jux front is the release, at long last, of the instrumental version of Cannibal Ox's mind-blowing Cold Vein album. Cannibal Ox — the duo of Vast Aire and Vordul — earned massive respect last year for their low-slung lyricism and brutal street poetry. But Oxstrumentals is just as essential, if only for the way it foregrounds El-P's equally astonishing production. I'm really not sure how to describe it — it's one of those rare records that makes all verbiage seem totally irrelevant. I can enumerate the elements — sick robot keyboards, fuzzballed bass lines, clanging guitars, baseball organs, creepshow pianos, and drums that seem to occupy some kind of halfway point between programming and the human touch, as though they were slowly learning to dig themselves out of their sequencing, AI-style. Maybe that's the metaphor I'm looking for: El-P's tracks for Oxtrumentals sound like a kind of rickety cyborg patched together out of sonic nuts and bolts and half-soldered circuit boards. With every four bars, you can hear the synapses forming, the neural network bringing itself online, the first independent thoughts exploding in a puff of ozone and blackened WD-40. It's simultaneously beautiful and terrifying, a glimpse into the sampler sublime: some true Frankenstein-type ish.

++ And that's not even the half of it — El-P's debut solo album, Fantastic Damage, is making the rounds on promo, and it's a corker as well — but that's for another day. Next week, the rundown on more brilliant indie hip-hop, including Five Deez, Fat Jon the Ample Soul Physician as Maurice Galactica, Florida's Algorithm, Beta Bodega offshoot Botanica del Jibaro, and more.


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