As everyone jumps on the Run The Jewels bandwagon, it's important to know that El-P (the white one to the more casual listener) has been killing it for years. Beyond his own prolific career as a rapper/producer, his early 2000s indie record label, Definitive Jux, put out some of the best hip-hop of that decade. Here's a crash course.
  1. Aesop Rock "Labor Days"
    Somewhat of an underground masterpiece, this New York MC never really recaptured the magic of this release (first on Def Jux, third total), but you can only marvel at his wordplay and brilliant storytelling on this, a vivid picture of the common working man in a genre so commonly associated with the opposite. Mostly produced by Blockhead and Aesop himself, and released a week after 9/11, it's hard not to quote his lines even 15 years later. It doesn't get any smarter.
  2. Cannibal Ox "The Cold Vein"
    This debut album, produced entirely by El-P, is commonly considered one of the best East Coast underground albums of all-time. Members Vast Aire and Vordul Mega still sound ahead of their time on this, their only REAL album ever released (I don't count the thing they put out this year). I remember Elvis Costello listed it as his favorite album of 2001. It's so different and its THAT good. Jump on this no matter what year it is.
  3. RJD2 "Deadringer"
    Columbus, Ohio's pride & joy, producer RJD2, may have gotten less attention than DJ Shadow when it came to early 2000's instrumentalist DJs, but his work carries just as much weight, if not more. His debut album, which still finds itself used in commercials, is stacked with strong tracks like "The Horror, "Final Frontier (featuring Blueprint)" and "June (featuring Copywrite)," which is a rare look into one rapper's sadness after his dad dies. Get into this one, you're never too late.
  4. El-P "Fantastic Damage"
    Had you been following El-P since his days with the seminal Rawkus group Company Flow, you'd know he was quite the hip-hop prodigy. His solo efforts continued a streak of remarkable work and Fantastic Damage was no different. Darker and more lo-fi minimalist than his earlier work, you can see the blueprint for RTJ slowly creeping up, getting more and more inspiration from the streets of NY. His ode to piece of shit men who dated his mother, "Stepfather Factory," still haunts me today.
  5. S.A. Smash "Smashy Trashy"
    More Columbus, Ohio greatness came from this group consisting of Metro and Camu Tao. Featuring other Def Jux all-stars like Cage, Vast Aire & Aesop Rock, the album was more party and trite than the weighty lyrics and messages of their label mates, but it still had an important place on the roster, especially the song "Illy." The faulted album is usually forgotten when looking back on the Def Jux catalogue, but it's worth a listen nonetheless.
  6. Camu Tao "King of Hearts"
    One of the reasons "Smashy Trashy" is so remarkable, is Camu Tao. The rapper would pass away from a brain tumor only a few years later, but the growth in his talent and music in that time is unparalleled. After his death, Def Jux put out Camu's only solo album, an unfinished mix between hip-hop & avant-garde electro pop, that fits better in 2015 than ever before. A little bit of Future, a little Oingo Bongo, his passing feels even more premature when listening to this off-the-wall explosion.
  7. "Def Jux Presents 2"
    This compilation, released to showcase the whole roster, is a great jumping in point for a new listener. Camu's best song, "Hold The Floor" is included, as is a great posse cut from the supergroup Weatherman and tracks from everyone mentioned above. Hip-hop used to be great and progressive, Def Jux is a fossil from those days and something you need to learn about.