El-P doesn't have a car but he might get one ... eventually. "I wouldn't mind dipping out of the city on my own. Especially since it's wartime," says Jamie Meline (aka rapper El-P) in a monotone. The 27-year-old rapper and owner of the Definitive Jux label is talking to the Indy via telephone from his Brooklyn home. Besides nursing a hangover, he seems bored talking about himself, probably because lately he's been doing it all the time. Earlier this month, MTV News proclaimed El-P an "artist to watch," and his current tour, featuring labelmates Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif, RjD2 and more, is a hot ticket. But for the hip-hop artist, it hasn't been any overnight success story.
El-P made his first record when he was 18, released under the name Company Flow. "We were the first cats to really, really come out on some damn near intellectual ish, just really break down and criticize a lot of music ish," he says. "That was cool at the time, and for us it was just a natural extension of battle raps. But we'll go even further and really kinda critique. That's the essence of my style, that's where it comes from."
El-P insists that nothing's really changed since his basement battle days. "The only difference is now I'm a grown man, and I've gone through things and experienced things that are more important to me now--in terms of writing and in terms of music--than just trying to prove myself as an MC," he says. Basically, those "basements" just got bigger as the young rapper grew up, but not without encountering a few pitfalls along the way.
There were exploitative contracts, "like 'Chapter 33: Your Immortal Soul,'" El-P quips, recounting his first deal. And then there was the label [Rawkus Records] that left him feeling "disgusted with their lack of vision." But situations like these are a thing of the past now that El-P owns his own label. It's like he designed the company with other artists in mind, having experienced the bad side of the biz himself.
"I see it [Def Jux] as a mechanism to facilitate the dreams of musicians," he says. "And it's that way because I am a musician."
Here's the rundown to date on El-P's recording life. When he was young and "eager to get on," he signed a "ridiculous" contract that left our man in little jam. He then sought out legal help and even interned for an entertainment lawyer. He got out of the deal and soon was spreading out his jams. Then came his unforgettable team-up with Mr. Len and Bigg Jus. El-P's first group, Company Flow featuring Bigg Jus, sold over 30,000 copies of wax on their self-owned and operated label, Official Records, during 1995 and '96.
Soon after, an emerging young record company, Rawkus Records, signed the Company Flow trio. But after recording Soundbombing and Company Flow's instrumental album, Little Johnny From the Hospital, El-P saw what the future of the label held and ejected himself from Rawkus.
"I don't think they knew what they were doing at all," he says, looking back on the experience. "I don't think that they had any heart or ideology behind what they were trying to do. I felt duped by them, because when we hooked up with them originally, we [Company Flow] were on a little bit of a mission, as arrogant as it may have been. We wanted to change the industry; we wanted to change the relationship between art and commerce. They [Rawkus] co-opted it and created it as an aesthetic."
Since then, Rawkus has had some major problems. El-P, always looking toward the future, realized that to put music out that lived up to his ideals he was going to have to create a "hot" label, which led to the birth of his Definitive Jux imprint.
El-P has had his label for a couple of years now. While Definitive Jux has always been the company's legal name, somewhere along the way it became shortened to Def Jux, a nickname that stuck. That is, until a much larger label with a similar sounding name "lost their sense of humor," he says. Whether it was a ballsy move or just accidental, you can't deny the obvious similarities between bigtime player Def Jam and Def Jux, especially during the two labels' beginning stages. Both put out some "different" stuff, despite what was going on in the rest of the music world. And if Def Jux does anywhere near as well as Def Jam has, little kids everywhere will be wearing Juxie brand jeans. But since El-P's first name isn't Sean (as in Jigga or Diddy), he's still playing it cautious for now.
"Who knows in this industry?" he says. "If we're around in five years then I think we'll probably be a strong label--I think we'll be [like] the hip-hop equivalent of a Thrill Jockey [a niche-market oriented independent label]."
In another eight years, maybe Def Jux and El-P will be celebrating their 10-year anniversary, just like the important and influential alt-rock label Thrill Jockey recently did. If you like post-rock instrumental groups like The Sea and Cake, you're gonna love RjD2's single "The Proxy." And if you also dig D.C. keyboard trio Trans-Am and Chicago's Tortoise, then you'll love the rest of RjD2's album Dead Ringer, one of the best releases of 2002, no matter what comes later. Most importantly, if you're interested in getting a different image in your head than the images most modern rappers have been giving you (like murder and thuggin'), then the East Village's own Aesop Rock and Boston's Mr. Lif are here for you.
Mr. Lif's full-length debut, I Phantom, is most likely gonna garner the same critical acclaim as Aesop Rock's latest EP, Daylight. Rapper Lif first debuted on Brick Records, one of the most underrated underground hip-hop labels around. Since then, he's been making numerous banging singles. As the most overlooked underground rapper right now, Mr. Lif is an artist to watch.
These Def Jux acts--El-P, Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif and RjD2--are changing hip-hop both lyrically and sound-wise, and it isn't even as if they had planned to. They're just making music and expressing themselves. And isn't that what real art is all about? Yep. Any hip-head and/or music lover can tell you that.