Every great indie label hits a point where the past looks better than the future. Analyze the history of any one—Factory, SST, Def Jam, Rawkus, whatever—and it’s clear: Things rarely end on a high note. Sure, sometimes indies rise again (think Sub Pop), but in most cases the problem is a diffusion of talent—a scene dries up, the flagship acts become long in the tooth. Less often, a corporate buyout gets botched, the leadership loses interest, or people just make stupid decisions.
It’s a bit early to assume the worst about Definitive Jux, but the New York hiphop label seems to be in, if not a downward spiral, at least a holding pattern. This year’s major Def Jux releases—Aesop Rock’s Bazooka Tooth, Murs’ 3:16: The 9th Edition, Hangar 18’s The Multi-Platinum Debut Album, and RJD2’s Since We Last Spoke—have all been solid in their own ways, but none have packed the same level of apocalyptic mystique as the label’s name-building classics. Rob Sonic’s new Telicatessen, despite its wide-eyed enthusiasm, continues the trend.
The Bronx-based rapper/producer adheres to the basic tenets of the Def Jux sound, concocting throbbing midtempo beats that wouldn’t sound out of place on a disc by label impresario El-P. On top, he delivers disjointed verbiage that is both singularly expressive and sometimes impossible to follow. The undertones feel political: “Biofeedback/Red alert/Cosmonaut/Pyro recap/Weakening body rock/Evening copy Post/Featuring yours truly/Legs runnin’ on triple-A horseshoes,” he raps on “Shoplift,” evoking, perhaps, a certain modern American city beset by media-fueled paranoia. When Sonic slows things down, the words are easier to hear but no less abstract: “Slush/You’re a stone gas/First in your clone class/Pull out my knife/Carving ‘I was not here’/During an air raid/So it’s under the desk,” he calmly intones on “Former Future,” relocating the bad vibes to some unspecified Tomorrowland.
But the bottom-heavy grooves, stocked with space funk, fuzz synth, and behind-the-beat percussion, bring concrete pleasures even when the words can’t. Though Sonic’s production successes aren’t flashy, they’re effective enough: The rhythm on “Death Vendor” sounds like a B-boy track played in reverse, the clickety-clack of “New Car Smell” induces the same dark-back-road jitters as Tom Waits’ Bone Machine, and the title song balances intergalactic lyrical aspirations with—what else?—a thick stoner haze. That last number, though not exactly the cleverest of the disc’s eclectic productions, is probably its most typical: If anything, Telicatessen might be the most laid-back-sounding Def Jux album to date, even if the MO is fairly exacting.
Of course, that’s not necessarily the way to continue in the tradition of Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein or Mr. Lif’s I Phantom, the Def Jux discs that made it safe for indie rappers to approach an album with literary-level ambition. Sonic’s method puts everything at eyeball level, making much of Telicatessen feel like a distracted, glance-by-glance account of one man’s life in an urban purgatory. An overarching truth is in there, though it takes some effort to extract it. Granted, that’s pretty much been the Def Jux way since the beginning, but Telicatessen’s slightly slapdash feel makes it seem like a B-plus at best. Not bad, certainly—but coming from a label that sorely needs another genius effort, it’s not all that great, either.
Los Angeles’ Plug Research label has the luxury of offering its first hiphop record with neither hype nor tradition behind it. Of course, Headset’s new Spacesettings, produced by label founder Allen Avanessian and roster (and Dntel) member Jimmy Tamborello, might be less a hiphop LP than an electronica album that attracted a bunch of fringe rappers. If the disc still sounds cohesive, chalk it up to vision and execution.
Spacesettings isn’t geared to win the affections of orthodox heads, but as an exercise in combining minimalist beats with the human voice, it’s basically a cool little argument in support of the stripped-down aesthetic that guys such as Timbaland and the Neptunes have brought to pop radio. Avanessian and Tamborello’s beats offer deep spaces and well-timed pauses, and the emptiness actually becomes inviting after a while. The disc’s lyricists slide easily into the voids, mostly adding sonic counterpoint but sometimes supplying personality.
Shadow Huntaz member nonGENETIC sets the tone for the project with “Then Again” and “Back Before,” two head-nodders that tackle stock hiphop topics (the rapper’s primacy, the system’s flaws) yet seem fresher than they rightfully should. Headset’s metallic clanks and locked-down rhythms are just that effective: On a set of, duh, headphones, the pops and tones seem to be constantly heading in different directions.
The irrepressible Beans gives the album’s best performance on “Jaw Modulation,” offering some typically indie lyrics during the verses (“Three-minute lifespan/Impotent light post/Shit wrecked in a parody of locomotion,” for example) but providing a thematic touchstone in the chorus. “Jaw modulation/Hang up your microphone and grow old gracefully, MC,” he raps plainly, with none of the freakazoid baritone of his 2003 solo debut, Tomorrow Right Now. He sounds utterly at home inside the track’s warped bass line, crackling vinyl, and computer-honed percussion.
Tamborello has shown a talent for this sort of thing before, of course, by contributing some hook-laden electro-pop beats to the Postal Service’s Give Up. But nothing on Spacesettings comes from that same rhythmic wellspring. When Subtitle threatens to speed up the proceedings during “Breath Contrails,” for example, Headset’s producers subdue his hyperactive verbiage by chopping up the lyrics, adding effects, and dropping in a few atonal noises. As appealing as the resulting soundscape is, it ain’t pop by a long shot.
As might be expected, Spacesettings has its share of instrumentals, too. With no MCs to contain, those tracks creep much closer to Plug Research’s usual output. “Outward Sound” and “Previously Smooth Sophistication” take jazz riffs and turn them into fleeting, shuffling rhythm studies with just enough low-impact glitch effects to provide some edginess. It’d be tough to rhyme over either of those, but the clicky, robotic “Dunno” sounds perfect for a rapper—perhaps Avanessian and Tamborello wanted to leave one groove untainted, just for the sake of juxtaposition.
It’s that kind of thoughtful decision-making that makes Spacesetting more than the sum of its parts. It’s not merely a mash-up of some L.A. techno geeks and some cerebral West Coast rappers—it’s an attempt to cut each scene’s substance into pieces that work together seamlessly. Is it a classic or a paradigm-shifter? Hardly. But it does plenty with an idea that might just lead to one.CP