Two problems of music criticism: One, relying too heavily on press releases. Two, rushing to classify music so it begets easy description as a member of a prescribed genre. That said, here’s the sentence, right here in Def Jux’s press release for its third label sampler: “This album sets the tone for the label’s sound and direction over the next few years.” With the exception of obvious exceptions (Aesop Rock, for one), a lot of the material on Definitive Jux Presents 3 is either sludgy, heavy-metal-style hip-hop or has a “fun” early-’90s aesthetic, the two directions that seem to encapsulate Def Jux’s contemporary sound.
The label’s reputation has sustained itself largely because of its propensity for “difficult” hip-hop, dense with rapid-fire rapping and jarring electro-soundscapes — the sound of continuous apocalypse. Judging from most of the music on DJXP3, the typical Def Jux sound of a few years ago has been smoothed over into something a little more accessible, a little friendlier.
Newcomer Hangar 18, with two songs on the sampler, is the perfect example. El-P produces Hangar 18’s “Beatslope,” using characteristically gospel-inflected samples and a surprisingly straightforward beat while the two H18 emcees rap fast (generally about nothing much), exuding a generally fun and likeable aura. Completely inoffensive, completely unchallenging. Same goes for the Perceptionists, Mr. Lif’s new group, set to release an album this summer. Over a generically bouncy beat, the duo sounds more fratty than nasty. Karniege (misspelled “Carnage” throughout the liner notes) and Despot represent the heavy-metal side of the new Def Jux spectrum, a side that’s closer in spirit to the label’s aesthetic circa 2001, but lacking El-P’s dense production, which elevated earlier albums into something like postmodern urban spiritualism.
Rob Sonic represents the electro-heavy direction that feels especially relevant right now as the retro-electro trend in contemporary indie rock persists. “Dyslexia” is arguably the most infectious track on the sampler. The synthed-out laptop composition is straight OMD-style, but instead of ripping off wholesale, Sonic (who produces his own tracks) updates it with beats and rhymes (about media coverage of the war in Iraq, for a while) for the 21st century. El-P’s collaborations, with Camu Tao and with Cage, are both mediocre and hopefully non-representative of his next solo album. DJ paWL’s remix of Aesop Rock’s “No Jumper Cables” steals the show. The mix is cleaner and tighter than the original on Bazooka Tooth, better emphasizing the super-dense, slang-ridden abstract lyrics.
Also included with the CD version is a DVD of two C-Rayz Walz videos, two by El-P, and one each by Mr. Lif and Aesop Rock. Check out Aesop’s “No Jumper Cables” and El-P’s “Deep Space 9mm” and “Stepfather Factory” especially.
Def Jux will always have to work in its own long shadow because its early material. Its first two samplers felt so fresh and were met with cries of revolution. Even in releasing an album with mostly above-average cuts, save a couple duds, anything released by this label feels a little disappointing when it’s not jarringly good.