An Underground Documented: Indie Rap 2003 Revisited Via DVDs
The 2003 Indie Rap scene saw Def Jux, Eastern Conference Records and Rhymesayers all thriving. A 10-year retrospective on their DVDs offers early insights into Murs, Brother Ali, El-P & others.
Just when you were finally getting comfortable with it being 2013, comes the revelation that the Indie-Rap scene of 2003 is now a full decade old. For something that was all over the Internet at the time, this era of underground Hip Hop goes seldom revisited, which is odd particularly when seeing all the DIY Hip Hop successes of the past three years. Along with the labels’ most-known flagship artists like Atmosphere and El-P who are still active, longtime underground favorites from MF DOOM and Del the Funky Homosapien (2008’s Eleventh Hour was released via Definitive Jux) to Murs (2003’s End Of The Beginning also dropped via Def Jux), Freeway (Rhymesayers distributed 2010’s The Stimulus Package), Tame One and Dizzee Rascal (2008’s Maths + English was domestically released via Def Jux) have all dropped releases on these labels at different points. Fortunately for us, this scene’s era was captured not only in the music itself, but in the unique trend of full-length DVD releases put out by each label. With this year marking their tenth anniversaries, we decided to take a look back at the home video releases from Rhymesayers Entertainment, Definitive Jux and Eastern Conference Records to see what they told us about their time, and where they went.
Revenge Of The Robots
Label: Definitive Jux
Comparable To: An actual tour/label documentary.
Artists Featured: El-P, Mr. Lif, RJD2
What We See:
Of the three DVDs, Revenge Of The Robots excels as an actual documentary. Directed by Jason Goldwatch (who had done music videos for Linkin Park and would go on to work with Jay-Z, The Roots and Nas as well as direct documentaries for Dilated Peoples, Young Buck and Kid Cudi), the editing and pacing is exceptional. We get enough excerpts of the tour-mates early on to establish the characters we’re watching, allowing the events that unfold to truly feel like a story. There’s the fun of first hitting the road, the pitfalls of when things go wrong, and the ultimate satisfaction of making it back home. Along with being a surprisingly honest look at the various struggles of the oft-romanticized “touring artist” lifestyle, the documentary also capture the essence of the Definitive Jux mission statement and what made the label such a notably revolutionary imprint at the time.
Revenge Of The Robots also captures the climate of the independent Hip Hop hustle as a whole on the cusp of an interesting transitional time. While we get shots of in-store signings (back when there were, you know, music stores) we also see quick images of early iPods and MP3 technologies. That particular nexus illustrates (if only retroactively) how Def Jux were somewhat bridging that gap between a Rap underground that could survive off of just selling singles every few months, and well-structured labels that put out regular releases and only seemed to get bigger when entering the Digital Age.
Where It Went:
It’s challenging to pinpoint any one particular moment that saw Definitive Jux dissolve. In 2007, they had what seemed to be the label’s banner year with El-P being a mainstay of critical praise and Aesop Rock bringing the label its biggest MTV exposure and chart success. But as flagship artists began to leave the label (and, in some cases such as when the C-Rayz Walz and Cannibal Ox’s Vast Aire severed ties with the label, taking to Indie-Rap publications and MySpace to air their grievances), the label’s output and presence dwindled. About six months after the release of a poorly-received Cage album, El announced the ending of Definitive Jux as we knew it. While the label’s major players have all found new homes and spent 2012 having the most successful years of their careers, most notably El-P and Aesop Rock topping critics’ lists with their albums Cancer 4 Cure and Skelethon respectively, the unified energy surrounding a united Def Jux movement in Revenge Of The Robots feels missed in today’s Hip Hop underground.
Eastern Conference All Stars DVD
Label: Eastern Conference Records
Comparable To: An EPK to promote the label.
Artists Featured: Smut Peddlers (The High & Mighty and Cage), J-Zone, Kool G Rap
What We See:
I’m not sure what I expected here, but Eastern Conference All Stars DVD is a fairly barebones disc that more closely resembles an electronic press kit than an actual release with the fans in mind. While it does feature every music video released by the label, including young Mos Def, Skillz (courtesy of “B-Boy Document ‘99”) and Copywrite all making appearances, their position on the disc is that of the main feature, as opposed to supplemental extras as most music videos typically were in this type of release. There are also two brief promotional documentaries on the making of the Smut Peddlers album which, again, seem geared toward the uninitiated to let them know the Smut Peddlers have an album out. A good third of the DVD is dedicated to hanging out with Lester “Beetlejuice” Green from “The Howard Stern Show,” so if you were curious about the making of the skits from the album Porn Again, this is the DVD for you.
The extras are the most interesting inclusions, namely Smut Peddlers’ public access appearances promoting the album on Al Goldstein’s iconic “Midnight Blue” show and an un-Googlable New York show called “HipHopNoDX” covering the label’s showcase at Manhattan’s S.O.B.’s. At a pre-YouTube time when there wasn’t much means of promoting one’s underground Hip Hop with a visual component, these two glimpses into the public access music world of yesteryear show an unobstructed view of how local video promotion used to work. But as for how these additions are laid out, the only thing more bizarre than the chapter selections that remain at the bottom of the screen during the features is how dramatically different Cage looks/acts as opposed to the slimmed-down, sensitive type he became a mere three years later. Finally, I had completely forgotten how much Eastern Conference was obsessed with showing vomiting in their visual aesthetic. It’s something that, as Mr. Eon points out, is a metaphor for “spitting rhymes.”
Where It Went:
Several artists featured not named The High & Mighty (who own the label) have since gone on record describing how poorly the Eastern Conference was run and how they’re still owed money. A two-year partnership with Rawkus that ended less than amicably likely factored into this. The label’s legacy of artist dissatisfaction adds an unfortunate asterisk to the Eastern Conference’s star-studded and critically acclaimed roster at the time. Easter Conference’s output continually declined in the mid-2000s until stopping altogether. While Mr. Eon’s yet to re-emerge behind the mic, DJ Mighty Mi recently resurfaced in the music game via the Dubstep world and surprisingly reuniting with Cage.
SadClownBadDub4: The Godlovesugly Release Parties
Label: Rhymesayers Entertainment
Comparable To: A well-edited home movie.
Artists Featured: Atmosphere, Mr. Dibbs, Brother Ali, Eyedea, Crescent Moon
What We See:
The main feature opens with a warning to not try to watch the program in its entirety. Challenge accepted. Instead of being edited like a pointed story as Revenge Of The Robots was, SadClownBadDub4: The Godlovesugly Release Parties is a chronological collection of the best in-concert and on-the-road moments of Atmosphere’s 2002 tour promoting the God Loves Ugly album, with some music videos composed of footage from this time interspersed. What’s really cool about watching SadClownBadDub4: The Godlovesugly Release Parties today is how much of it is a time capsule of what underground Rap was like coast-to-coast. There are significant cameos from all the local openers in the different regions, really capturing a who’s who of 2002’s Indie Rap America. There’s also an intermission halfway through inviting viewers to go outside.
Watching it today, what really jumps out is the surprising amount of screen-time devoted to the crowds and the different fans that would come out to these shows. Being that phones and cameras with video capabilities were either non-existent (or limited at best) and countless decade-old messageboard postings have vanished from the Internet, SadClownBadDub4: The Godlovesugly Release Parties really captures who was listening to Indie-Rap at the time and where. Of the three documentaries, this one probably captures the listener’s experience the best. There’s also much more actual music performances than the other releases, highlighting the groups’ different routines and popular songs, as well as showing early glimpses at the underground’s future stars.
Where It Went:
Rhymesayers remains one of the last remaining indie labels of its era, still putting out music from the artists seen here, as well as from Definitive Jux and a few other former contemporaries. But, while Rhymersayers is still active, the saddest aspect of the documentary is seeing how many major music stores and venues seen here are all long gone. Also, as bittersweet as it is to see a young incredibly talented Eyedea, it’s fun to see a young Murs and Brother Ali as they were just beginning to become national superstars. Perhaps it’s this element of primarily working with artists the label considers friends first and foremost and giving such direct interaction and shine to their fans that explains why Rhymesayers is one of the few indie Hip Hop labels still around. While SadClownBadDub4: The Godlovesugly Release Parties is not a blueprint, it’s a great example of how to make listeners feel like part of a movement.
Ten Years Later: The Indie-Rap Afterglow
Hip Hop’s relationship to technology has somewhat always had elements of resistance that came to define the following generation. From the pioneers in the ‘70s being reluctant to even attempt recording the Hip Hop experience to vinyl, to rappers at the dawn of the new millennium openly dissing “the Internet,” those next progressive steps were usually seen in the first to embrace those next platforms. While corner-store DVD-Rs of battles and homemade video compilations were also on the rise at this time, these Indie-Rap labels saw the chance to market their artists in a whole new direct way to their fans. With YouTube still two years away, for many this was the only way to see their underground heroes in full-motion video. Today, with physical media falling by the wayside, a big reason why Rhymesayers is still around is not only how they’ve been able to change with the times through embracing digital distribution, but have kept up quality control and a visually strong catalog to keep their product in demand. The same can be seen in labels like Strange Music and Stones Throw who’ve tried to cater directly to their listeners with the type of media they would want to not only own, but display. But even with people buying less albums today than a decade ago, the labels that remain afloat have been able to make their live events into must-see affairs, the fruits that grew from the video evidence of the seeds planted in these DVDs. While this current era will likely be captured in a phone-recorded YouTube stream, it’s nice to have a physical documentation of an era when everything wasn’t potentially immortalized on the Internet.
Chaz Kangas is a freelance journalist covering music, film and pop culture's highbrow and low-brow. He's contributed to the New York Times, Village Voice, LA Weekly, Citypages and Complex among others. Originally from Minneapolis, MN but currently residing in Harlem, NY, he's also guest-lectured at Sarah Lawrence College and Fairfield University and is currently co-authoring R.A. the Rugged Man's autobiography. You can follow him on twitter @ChazRaps