I can still remember picking up the second compilation in this series in a Parisian Virgin Megastore. Aesop Rock's popularity was just peaking, Ja Rule was all over the charts, and cats in the know were making noise about this newly signed producer chap on the strength of an under-the-radar mixtape. A few years on and RJ's has died down from thermonuclear to bubbling as we eagerly await his sophomore "rock" album, Ja Rule has been consigned to whatever purgatory awaits squinting dwarves, Aesop's producing for someone else, and Kanye West is "the first backpacker with a Benz" and singles at No.1 in the pop charts. Whither Def Jux in 2004?
Well, not the top of the Billboard, but no big changes there. In fact, despite what graf artist Phase 2's little intro has to say about the label being a (promotional) agent of change in a pool of hip-pop that badly requires one, its output seems to have changed very little: the attitude is anti-bling and pretty grim, the mic a device on which spleen is to be vented as skillfully (read: complexly) as possible, the lyrics frequently abstract and the beats variations on the theme of El-P's -- menacingly funky sewer sci-fi. Def Jux is still punk by another name, and thank god for that.
El-P himself is in fine fettle here, terrorizing the VMAs with Camu Tao before blowing up the building on WMR ("WeatherMen Radio"). Moby gets caught lap-dancing for P.Diddy, shrooms get popped and Giuliani gets shot. Now that's entertainment. Sadly, that's also the closest to new Weathermen material we get on this record, so Copywrite isn't around to savage anyone, but El-P also turns in a great bit of T.D.J.-style storytelling on "Oxycontin Part 2" (assisted by freshly-signed Cage) and remixes one of two tracks by newcomers Hangar 18. Atoms Family members Windnbreeze and Alaska, for it is they, excel at high-velocity multi-syllabics and actually provide some hooks, too, but their presence here along with fellow ex-Atoms DJ paWL and Despot prompts me to enquire: has their old crew collapsed? There's no sign of Cryptic One behind the boards or on the mic. Say it ain't so!
In their place, we have 4th Pyramid, whose "Aquatic" is a sonic ode to the delights of bong smoking but is unlistenable to anyone not stoned past the gills; Carnage, who fails to live up to his blink-and-you'll-be-eviscerated cameos on the recent Eyedea & Abilties album; and producer Arcsin, whom I'd never previously heard of. Pity, as he laces C-Rayz Walz with a serenely chilling backdrop to flow over on "Jello", a finely crafted cautionary tale against the misogyny so prevalent in hip-hop ("She played the role / But her supporting cast / Was every man that lied to her / Just to get in that ass"). Arcsin also provides claustrophobic violence for Despot, who unleashes horribly acute, poetic, and graphic misery on "Homesickness". Forget emo rap, this is music to bash your brains out to.
Aesop Rock prefers to externalize his hurt in the form of more viciously satirical cluster bombs on "All in All"; all very Bazooka Tooth-stylee, so whether veteran Ace Rizzle fans like myself love it or hate it, he's not going back. The loping basslines and deep soundscapes he produces here are dope if unspectacular, Murs riding them well and dropping a fiercely amusing tirade against "actor" MCs threatening gangsta violence on "You're Dead to Me". Elsewhere, fellow straight-talker Mr. Lif double-teams with Akrobatik all over a loose and funky Fakts One beat; the trio now calling themselves the Perceptionists have got enough bounce and battle skills for days. Here's to a Boston-repping LP, guys.
After exhorting MCs to "count these bars" on the last Def Jux compilation, Rob Sonic rides another monster of a metallic bassline arrogantly on "Dylsexia", my favourite beat of the CD. Wish he'd put out more stuff. And of course, there's "Clean Living" to wind things up, biding us over 'til RJ's Since We Last Spoke is released. Handclaps, a light-as-breath soul sample and some gentle guitar licks glide together into a lovely melancholy bath for the ears. And Def Jux? Still pumping out quality defiance for the bored. Amen to that.