The other day I revisited some memories of a 2007 trip I made to New York, which brought to mind a stop I made on that same visit to the office of the now-defunct Definitive Jux record label. For the life of me I can’t remember his name, but a connection I had at the time who worked at World’s Fair invited me to their office, which happened to share space with Def Jux. When we met up I joined him at the office before we ended up going on a brief tour of a few record stores around town. I don’t recall much of the conversation besides his sky-high praise for El-P’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, which would be released a few months after our meeting. In my year-end recap I figured that to be one of my favorite albums of the year alongside another Def Jux release: Aesop Rock’s None Shall Pass.
World’s Fair must have been doing publicity (or something) for Def Jux because a few months later I received a promo copy of that album in the mail. The CD was the first of its kind I ever received to not only have my name printed directly on the disc, but also digitally inserted into the songs (to discourage the album from leaking before its scheduled release date). I loved my None Shall Pass CD—not merely because the album was and is amazing, but also because of how the lead track, “Keep Off The Grass,” boomed with its strong introduction before fading out while a stranger’s voice confirmed “This album belongs to Chris… DeLine…” He (who I later found out was an intern at World’s Fair) even pronounced my name correctly! My ego would light up every time I listened to that disc over the following years.
Ego-trip aside, those two albums served as tipping points for me with regard to my appreciation for the musicians who created them. I continued to be glued to news of El-P and Aes in the coming years and was saddened when news came in 2010 that Def Jux was essentially done for (the label went on “hiatus” as its co-founder and owner, El-P, announced he’d be walking away from future operations). It wouldn’t be until 2012 that both MC/producers would return with their follow up albums. While musically and thematically dissimilar, El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure and Aesop’s Skelethon only further cemented each artist as one of my favorites within the genre.
I’ve seen El-P live twice as part of separate Run the Jewels stops at Marathon Music Works in Nashville, and had a third show in sights when M. and I bought our tickets to see the duo open for Rage Against the Machine in Detroit this summer. (Hopefully that show still goes on at some point in time.) I’ve seen Aesop Rock, on the other hand, perform live three times: The first in 2007 at Minneapolis’ First Avenue, again the next year at the Soundset festival in the Metrodome parking lot, and a third time in 2012 at Marathon Music Works. When thinking about what their music has come to mean to me, much of my appreciation basically just comes down to style and wordplay. There’s a certain poetic style to each author’s lyrics, but both consistently aim to rhyme over beats that hit incredibly hard at times. What’s not to love about that? There is also an element, however, that winds through the narrative I’ve built within my mind about how both have grown over the years not only as artists working through their music, but as men working through their art.
I had the good fortune to participate in a 2007 email Q&A with Aesop (in support of the fantastic 45-minute All Day release he did for a series of mixes commissioned by Nike) and in looking back on it, one specific passage sticks out to me. In discussing None Shall Pass, Aes writes,
“Much of the album’s overall concept has to do with growing. Hitting a point in your life in which the people around you, your peers, view you as an adult, and you become way more responsible for your actions than you were as a child. You hit a point where ‘acting’ dumb is no longer viewed as funny, you hit all these areas in which your contemporaries will look at you and judge you. The song is about being responsible for your actions, and recognizing that a day will come when your neighbor will decide whether or not you are an asshole.”
In a recent interview with Pitchfork, El-P tracked what he was going through about a decade back when he ended up putting Def Jux to bed,
“2009 was the year that I spent having lost everything. Everything that I was working on and all the relationships I put my energy into creatively had just come to a Hindenburgian fucking explosion. I was broke. I had to downgrade everything. I was eating once a day. I was really humbled and terrified and I didn’t have anything going on for a minute. I was trying to pick up the pieces and figure out what my life was going to be.
In 2010, a couple things happened. First, Fat Possum came in and offered me a deal for a solo album, which would ultimately become Cancer 4 Cure. And that saved my ass. I actually had a little bit of money in my pocket again, and I was starting to be like, ‘OK, I’m going to focus on me.’ Then, all of a sudden, my friend Jay is like, ‘Hey, I want you to meet up with Killer Mike.’ I’m like, ‘Don’t get your hopes up.’ In that same year, I met my now wife. Both people met me when I didn’t really have shit, and that changed everything for me.
As El-P was going through those dark days, Aes was going through a divorce with his wife. Each situation is distinct and unique, yet each found someone struggling to work their way through pain. What’s also interesting to me about each of these guys, and maybe what helps endear me to both, is how they continue to move forward with a spirit of playfulness and creative exploration despite pasts that have drifted dark. To me, the common ground between the aforementioned interview excerpts is found in the recognition that growth comes as a result of a decision to change, and that such a decision is not one done in a silo, but as part of humanity’s larger picture of intricate and interconnected moving parts. None of us know what essential change is going to look like in our lives, merely that avoiding that change when we’re faced with it is going to send us in the wrong direction.