Various Artists: The Revenge of the Robots [DVD]

Various Artists
WEA Corp.

“As long as it’s rooted on some boom-bap shit, as long as it’s rooted in the hardcore drums and that energy and feeling of the classic rap idea, then I can go anywhere.”
— El-P to an interviewer

One of the most successful and critically favored independent hip-hop labels of today, Definitive Jux has put out a solid batch of albums that are too edgy for MTV or radio yet among some circles are already considered classics. Chief among them are El-P’s Fantastic Damage, Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein, Aesop Rock’s Labor Days, Rjd2’s Deadringer, and Mr. Lif’s I, Phantom. It isn’t uncommon for some of these albums to be described as “avant garde” or “groundbreaking”, but it’s clear from the tour documentary The Revenge of the Robots that label-head El-P and his artists think of themselves as a gang of friends making music they love, following in the steps of their favorite hip-hop artists of the past.

In a segment where El-P is being interviewed by a journalist, when asked if he thinks of his music as punk rock, he replies that it’s punk rock like Boogie Down Productions was punk rock, like Public Enemy was punk, like Run DMC was punk. The artists on Def Jux manage to be fresh and innovative merely by doing what feels right to them, by being as uncompromising about hip-hop as PE and BDP were and by trying to stay out of the money and fashion games played by the mega-corporations that run the music industry. As a DVD/CD package (with one DVD and one CD), The Revenge of the Robots stands as a portrait of a label and its musicians that feels as complete as you could expect any such document to be. It showcases the music and the people behind it, in ways both serious and humorous.

The film that gives the set its title is an hour-long documentary, directed by Jason Goldwach and Amaechi Uziogwe, about the Revenge of the Robots tour in Fall of 2002, showcasing Def Jux artists and some of their friends. The tour was headlined by El-P, Mr Lif, and Rjd2, and the three are therefore at the center of the film. Yet the other musicians on the tour are also often around: Fakts One, Cage, and Copywrite. On one level, the film is an informal portrait of life on a tour bus. From images like Rjd2 filling out his taxes against the side of the bus or shaving by looking at his reflection in the microwave to longer scenes of the musicians playing video games, joking about life on the road (for example, laughing about having to shake hands with fans whose hands are sweaty), giving each other a hard time (El-P continually kids RJ about how he’s always being compared to DJ Shadow: “How are you gonna keep up with Shadow?”), and just hanging out, drinking and smoking. The film is first and foremost entertaining: filled with humor, interesting anecdotes from the road (El-P recounting an incident where he smacked a heckler mid-song, for instance), and snippets of concert footage. There’s glimpses throughout of the dark undertone beneath much of Def Jux’s music — the apocalypse, gun violence, etc. — yet the film mainly highlights the joys and the tedium of touring, while portraying these musicians as everyday people who like to have a good time and hang out with each other.

The DVD offers a complementary portrait of Def Jux via a half-hour Lola de Musica documentary about the label, put together by Dutch filmmakers. As a work of film, this is the more serious of the two, in terms of production values, aesthetic quality, and tone. The bulk of the film shows Definitive Jux musicians — here chiefly El-P, Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock, and C Rayz Walz — hanging out in El-P’s apartment, which is also the Definitive Jux office. The film begins with El-P taking viewers into his home. “This is where I hide from the apocalypse, basically,” he says, only half-joking, as echoed through the film’s partial focus on the setting of post-9/11 New York City.

El-P’s home/office is filled with his friends/labelmates day in and day out. He mentions at one point that it’s been a few months since there was even a minute when he was there alone. There’s always someone there working on a song, playing video games, or just sitting around. In this film, Vast Aire of Cannibal Ox and Jestone of Atoms Family are working on a song, taking breaks for Vast to show off his book of drawings and rhymes to the filmmakers, talk about music and life with them, and freestyle with Aesop Rock and C Rayz Walz. Images of the wall along Ground Zero and conversations about how tough and confusing the world is today help give the impression that these musicians are hiding out, that creating music is a response to the ugliness of the world around them. A touching moment comes when El-P and Aesop Rock talk about Aesop’s battle with depression, hinting that music is a reaction to inner struggles as much as those going on in the world outside. “My goal was to produce something that had elements of beauty and at the same time elements of sorrow,” El-P says about the music he created for Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein album. The Lola De Musica documentary is a riveting look at the way Def Jux’s music comes from confusion, hardship, and pain as much as the joy of making music, and helps illuminate the complex feelings going into the songs.

The Revenge of the Robots DVD includes other footage that is both a gift for fans and a solid introduction to the label’s music for newcomers. There’s 5 music videos: the dark animated video for El-P’s “Stepfather Factory,” El-P’s eerie “Deep Space 9mm” video, Mr. Lif’s more jovial, stylishly animated video for “The Return of the B-Boy, Pt II”, the goofy house-party video for “Risky Business” by Murs featuring Shock G/Humpty Hump, and Rjd2’s “The Horror”, which has a spooky/cheesy sci-fi-horror movie vibe that’s given a serious edge via a quick image of the Twin Towers burning in the background. There’s also footage of 5 songs performed live (two by El-P, two by Mr Lif, one by Rjd2), and a short “making of the video” about Murs’ “Risky Business” video. Along with the DVD is a CD that includes 4 audio tracks. Three are live performances by El-P, Rjd2 and Mr Lif. The fourth is the most attractive, Rjd2’s 15-minute “DJX Mega Mix” ,where he takes a handful of Definitive Jux tracks, including songs by Mr. Lif, El-P and Murs, and mixes them up with the same classic-soul-meets-the-future technique that he used for his great Deadringer album and his other releases.

In case you didn’t learn from all of those films, videos and songs that these musicians live and breathe hip-hop, the CD includes as an “enhanced” feature a computer game created by Mr. Lif. Devolution is a trivia game filled with not only hip-hop factoids but trivia from other areas; its inclusion is logical considering how video-game-obsessed all of the musicians seem to be from the documentaries. While a lot of fun, it’s obviously the least essential feature of the set. At the same time, it’s one more indication, as if you needed it, of where the Definitive Jux artists are coming from. These are hip-hop fans to the core, who are trying to build something that will get today’s fans as excited about music as they got when they first heard hip-hop. As a visual and audio hip-hop extravaganza, The Revenge of the Robots is not only about Definitive Jux, it’s one more step forward in their battle to take over hip-hop, to win it back from the fakes and the sell-outs.