If the demise of Def Jux yields any dividends, it’ll likely stem from El-P’s new found ability to shed the burden of trying to sell records to people who don’t buy records. The new music biz model is predicated upon licensing and TV, commercial, and film placement and with Mel Gibson on a semi-permanent sabbatical with options, the hope of a fourth Mad Max seems slim. There are only so many homes you can find for dissonant soul-crushing rap, and Mayer Hawthorne is a lot more likely to get that Mazda money than Vordul Mega.
During its last few years extant, Def Jux attempted to diversify towards the Stones Throw paradigm of releasing product from groups like electro-funk fusionists Chin Chin, who were apparently only liked by myself, Sach, and Jamie Meline. Nor was this any cynical bid to boost profit margins. One of the reasons why rap has improved over the last few years is that rappers are increasingly drawing from influences external to hip-hop. Of course, this was standard prior to 1996–those soul and jazz samples didn’t emerge spontaneously. But from the mid-90s until several years ago when the iPod, the Internet, and a Daft Punk sample obliterated musical insularity, hip-hop tended to produce rappers who thought collaborating with Linkin Park demonstrated their eclecticism (or Empire of the Sun, depending on which year).
It’s no longer uncommon for crews like Odd Future to name-drop Ariel Pink or to see Danny Brown espouse his love of Love and The White Stripes. Even Freddie Gibbs worked with Pollyn. Sure, you get your fair share of Chiddy Bangs lifting lame MGMT loops or Kidz in the Hall shamelessly shoplifting Grizzly Bear, but more often, it’s allowed hip-hop to escape stultification and incorporate new sounds and ideas. After all, Sugar Hill wasn’t borrowing from Thelonius, they were stealing from contemporaries like Le Chic. Unsurprisingly, El-P was ahead of the tangent curve, with 2007’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead sampling Cat Power, Nine Inch Nails, and TV on the Radio. Yet rather than loop-jack, El disembodied their voices and drew them into his vortex of Vangelis on DMT synths and drums harder than pavement (no Gold Soundz).
So it’s little surprise to hear the full version of “Contagious,” a collabo with Chin Chin’s Wilder Zoby, a vocoder-heavy slow jam that sounds like its trying to re-make “Computer Love” for Internet omnivores. It’s not about to replace Roger Troutman, but it’s a reminder of how far El’s come since Co Flow. Which is a good thing–there’s only so long you can be the angry maladjusted funcrusher. Between making vocoder ballads, dubstep remixes of Bieber and a forthcoming project with Nick Thornburn of Islands, El-P no longer seems beholden to any ideologies or past images. The abdication of Def Jux has seemingly absolved him of the psychic dead weight of 10,000 surly backpackers.
And for those who fear he’s gone soft, there’s “Sit Down Man,” the title track from Das Racist’s half-good half-headache record, an effort that need a post of its own to deconstruct (hopefully soon). Plus, a forthcoming collaboration with Yelawolf, which probably won’t soundtrack any sedan commercials anytime soon, but hope springs eternal.–Weiss