There was a point in the early 2000's where, if you were a good hip hop fan, you were completely obsessed with Def Jux records. In 2001, both Cannibal Ox's Cold Vein and Aesop Rock's Labor Days invaded the rap section of every record store in the country and sent hip hop heads and critics into hysterics with their pulsating production and post-apocalyptic poetry. Then, of course, El-P debuted his masterpiece Fantastic Damage the next year, embarrassing any remaining doubters and solidifying his label's spot in hip hop history.
Five years and a Def Jam lawsuit later, Definitive Jux lives on and continues to grow, as evidenced by the showcase at the Music Hall of Williamsburg this past Friday. And the label still has its fans. Despite CMJ being in full swing and literally hundreds of other acts appearing at the same time all over New York, a good sized crowd of hip hop kids and hipsters made it out to see the new crop of up-and-coming artists from the label…and yes, El-P, too.
The night started with a short but effective set from the label's lone hardcore band, Activator. They quickly won over the crowd, thanks in great part to their noticeably polished performance.
Cool Calm Pete followed Activator's set by spitting in the hip hop messiah's face, performing one of his songs by reading the lyrics off his notepad.
Despot, a Queens MC, was the only artist of the night to perform with no hype man. The empty stage encouraged a personal show and a surprisingly focused audience. Yak Ballz and Hangar 18, respectively, were the showcase's professionals, adequately manipulating the audience to their own performative ends and keeping the energy of their sets consistent throughout.
At this point the showcase portion of the show was over and the headliner took the stage. Backed by a bass player, a DJ and his hype man, El-P jumped into his set with “Smithereens” from his most recent album I'll Sleep When You're Dead. Keeping his mic on the stand, he jumped, slammed his fists in the air and communicated with the crowd for the entire performance. He took an early break to bring out Del The Funky Homosapien, who recently signed with Definitive Jux and is scheduled to release his new album 11th Hour later this year. Del did his thing to a surprised crowd and left after only one song. El-P took over again and performed “Deep Space 9mm”, his only Fantastic Damage track of the night. After a terrific rendition of “Up All Night”, El-P fell to the floor and stayed there, not moving, while the DJ went through a varied set of Radiohead, A Tribe Called Quest and Blackalicious. Meanwhile, the audience showed their douche-bagery by chunking everything from silly string to drinks onto El-P's lifeless body. He might have fought every rapper impulse in his body, but he stayed on the floor, choosing to keep the show going as planned.
After the DJ set, El-P jumped to his feet and continued with songs like, “Everything Must Go”, “The Overly Dramatic Truth” and finally, “Flyentology”. After an admittedly false exit, El-Producto returned with Bigg Jus to give the crowd a not-so-surprising Company Flow reunion concert. They both held the show down so well that it was hard to believe it had been seven years since they had last been on stage together. At one point, a portion of the crowd broke out into an awkward but well-intended mosh pit. It was clear that the audience had been anticipating the reunion about as much as the rappers themselves. After about a 30-minute set, they performed their fan favorite “8 Steps to Perfection” and left the crowd satiated.
After watching El-P's portion of the show you can't help but think about the golden era of Def Jux, when they were hitting album after album out of the park and simultaneously progressing the art form. We got irreplaceable artists with real star quality in Aesop Rock and Vast Aire. Last night, El-P showed the entire venue that he still has the desire to lead rap in a new direction.
Looking back at the performers at the showcase, it seems possible that the future franchise player for the label didn't hit the stage that night. None of them were bad, but every one of their songs were safe, as far as the underground goes, and their performances were standard, uninspired rap show fare. It's sad when the most established artist on the bill is also the hungriest. While it's clear El-P continues to sign artists that reflect his values and obsessions, it is yet to be seen whether or not these artists can hold a candle to their legendary forebears.
— Nick Graham