The Definitive Take

Some of us remember when rap music sounded and looked dangerous, when even grade-school kids could hear those old Rick Rubin beats and Busy Bee rhymes and say, "What the hell is this?" The dinosaurs who roamed that earth were former gang bangers and hoods from the nastiest, funkiest, most fearsome housing projects in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, and they were as defiant and incendiary as you'd expect--cold rockin' a party, something like a phenomenon.

The rappers and executives behind Definitive Jux remember those younger days, too. Like most memories, though, the independent label's recollections are warped and subjective. Founded by former Company Flow emcee, the eccentric El-P, Def Jux has prided itself on a hyperactive hip-hop purism, almost absurdly so, willfully standing in opposition to mainstream bling. The label, as a result, has become the backpacker boy's best friend, serving up hard, minimal beats, dense lyrics rife with sci-fi and literature references and consistent, dizzying emphasis on persona, as if rappers should be movie monsters. Thanks to such well-regarded albums as Aesop Rock's Float (2000), the duo Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein (2001) and El-P's own Fantastic Damage (2002), Def Jux, run from a Greenwich Village apartment, has become a pipeline to the bubbling hip-hop underground.

The label is aware of that power, too, which is why releasing a record on Def Jux these days is kind of like being a Democratic presidential candidate with Union backing. In the past 18 months, Def Jux has put out records by lefty Oakland politico Mr. Lif, veteran L.A. rapper Murs and, most recently, Bronx freestyle wunderkind C-Rayz Walz. None of these performers is a rookie; they were all known in their communities long before El-P came armed with props and a contract. But now they have the Def Jux stamp, which gives them a nationwide pass onto college-campus stereos and into taste-making record stores like New York's Other Music--not to mention a much nicer tour bus.

The brash C-Rayz Walz, for one, can live with that.

"It was just a matter of time before I played with the best," says C-Rayz (born Carbinyo Reyes) from his cell phone as an ongoing Def Jux tour rolls toward Atlanta.

The decision to join the label's roster, he says, was an easy one once El-P approached him after a show. "Everybody here is an individual," he says. "Each person is unique. It's not easy to digest. Most of the great albums on the Def Jux label, I didn't even like them at the beginning."

C-Rayz likens the labelmates to comic-book troupe the X-Men. When a crowd congregates to watch them, he says, it should be a nonstop display of lyrical and rhyming superpowers.

"They're definitely looking for characters," he says of the discerning Def Jux audience, who come as much for the brand name as for the individuals. "They're definitely looking at us to be better than normal."

And if the Def Jux roster is the X-Men, then C-Rayz says he's Wolverine. 'Cause, you know, he rips shit every time.

At least Ravipops, C-Rayz Walz's full-length debut, gives the rapper legitimate fuel for his boasts. The album is as bold and lyrically diverse as any hip-hop album released in the past two years. The guy actually calls himself "Gandhi with a bulletproof vest" on the single "Essence." Ravipops evokes the often-nonsensical wordplay of old Wu-Tang Clan records and takes C-Rayz from family and violence to, on the startling "Dead Buffalos," the slaughter of Native Americans and pacificism.

"I didn't really try to make anything like a puzzle," he says. "I tried to make something that mirrored my reality at the time...Each song represents a different chamber. There's an internal chamber, an economic chamber, one for my physical mission. I gave you my substance.

"It's who I am in every essence of my being," C-Rayz continues a few moments later, explaining his album title. "It's the jump-off. Poppin' is a nickname for baller. Ravi's the name of my son, and Ravi means 'rising sun.' So Ravipops is my rising sun at the end of the day. My rising sun is gonna pop off."

That's a mouthful, but it is a kind of talk that will appease the gathered underground masses, who make up one of the strangest fanbases in popular music--white and black, scruffy and preppy, stoned and straight-edge, skateboarders and record collectors, activist and apathetic, granola and white bread. The elements that seem to connect them all is a shared passion for hip-hop and a distaste for anything safe or simple. For anything that's not in-your-face.

"All of those things are really just forms of rebellion," C-Rayz says. "I know. I've rebelled from having a real citizen's job."

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Christopher O'connor