The genius of Definitive Jux can be traced to an idea stolen from Ghostface’s song “The Grain,” off 2000’s Supreme Clientele. Overtop a beloved breakbeat, Ghost and RZA forbid rappers from going against the grain of classic hip-hop tenets—while making a thoroughly surreal, topsy turvy masterpiece that went against the grain of classic hip-hop tenets. Each landmark indie-rap release from Def Jux was rooted in a similarly simple but rebellious idea: What if the most awe-inspiring rap gods of the ‘80s and ‘90s never conformed to industry demands and kept swimming farther away?
Before Run the Jewels, El-P’s beats paid homage to Marley Marl, Ced-Gee, Paul C, and the Bomb Squad, the most revered knob turners in ’80s rap; he just eschewed James Brown samples for prog guitars and John Carpenter synths. Aesop Rock followed his Long Island mentors De La Soul, the original distorters of vocab, by replacing daisies with art-house darts laced in code that never relented. RJD2 imagined early DJ Shadow albums not shaded strictly gray. Mr. Lif lifted the cool monotone delivery of Guru with the fiery political fury of Public Enemy. C Rayz Walz was the only son of Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Cappadonna. Murs and 9th Wonder made a one MC/one producer album in the golden-age vein of Gangstarr and Pete Rock & CL Smooth. Hangar 18 was Souls of Mischief in a drunken cypher outside Fat Beats.
Oddly, Def Jux were loathed by the purist rappers and conservative hip-hop consumers who gobbled up all the classic aesthetics that the Jukies were reimagining in the era of iPods, 9/11, and the booming market of internet rap. But no other collective of rappers and producers soundtracked the dread and fear of the early 2000s, all the while staying true to their roots of graffiti, b-boy-friendly beats, and telling the government and other MCs alike to kiss their ass.
But 10 years since the one-two punch of El-P’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead and Aesop Rock’s None Shall Pass, and seven years after the label shut its doors with Camu Tao’s posthumous 2010 album King of Hearts, you can still see the influence of the acclaimed New York based indie-rap label that was sued by Def Jam before they even dropped their first full length release. On 2014’s So It Goes, RATKING emerged as the logical extension of Cannibal Ox, young dwellers of a post-apocalyptic New York where gentrification did more damage than Giuliani. Milo, Elucid and billy woods have continued the ethos of Jux for Bandcamp kids who missed the original dynastic run. Danny Brown wrote Aesop Rock lyrics by hand while in jail. Camu Tao begat his fellow hometown off-kilter crooner Kid Cudi. Party Fun Action Committee wrote the blueprint for The Lonely Island. RJD2 soundtracked Mad Men and dozens of commercials. Adult Swim head honcho Jason Demarco’s love for the label led to the union of El-P and Killer Mike. And Cage helped us all see how truly insane Shia LeBouf could be.
Since Def Jux shut down at the dawn of the streaming age, much of its back catalog isn’t available on Spotify—however, a handful of its key releases have surfaced thanks to reissues. We’ve collected the best tracks from those albums in the playlist above, and mixed them with a selection of cuts from the contemporary hip-hop artists they’ve inspired. And for a deeper dive into the Def Jux discography, check this YouTube playlist: