Evan Serpick names the albums that are about more than staid artists amassing the bling-bling
DJ Krush

Why the hottest hip-hop is on indie labels

”Industry rule number 4,080/Record label people are shady.” –A Tribe Called Quest, 1991

Long before Puffy instructed us on the importance of Benjamins, hip- hop was all about other things. In the 1970’s, while punk rock was stirring downtown, another creative explosion was booming uptown: On the streets of the south Bronx, rappers and DJs invented new conceptions of music on their own terms. With turntables, microphones, intelligence, talent, and dedication, they changed the face of music.

These days most hip-hop heads nod to the bland beats and empty rhymes produced by an unholy alliance of coasting artists amassing bling-bling and the mega-corporations that bankroll them. For the most part, real innovation and love of the game has long since been drained from corporate rapitalism.

But hip-hop is still bubbling. In 2001’s often stale and repetitive music climate, independent rappers and DJs produced some of the most exciting, innovative, groundbreaking music on earth. Learn to smile and nod with vigor again, while listening to some of the year’s most exciting indie discs:

Indie label Def Jux has probably the most consistently mind-blowing collection of new sounds in hip-hop. Just to further help us discern the good guys from the bad guys, pioneering-outlet-turned-bloated coporate-player Def Jam threatened to sue Def Jux this year for using a name similar to theirs. To avoid litigation, the label now goes by Definitive Jux.

Definitve Jux dropped 2001’s best hip-hop album: Aesop Rock’s ”Labor Days,” which covers a raw bed of gothic, urban grime with some of the most jaw-dropping genius rhymes ever to hit wax. Using a vibrant palette of metaphors, allusions, and vocal effects, Aesop Rock paints chunky but delicate masterpieces. One standout track ”No Regrets” finds the rapper telling his story of artistic fulfillment through the three-act tale of a reclusive urban sketcher.

El-P, of ground-breaking indie crew Company Flow, produced another standout Def Jux release in Cannibal Ox’s ”The Cold Vein.” Ox crossed over to the hipster set with a dank, cinematic opus filled with grim visions of urban doom and other-worldly chaos. The label also dropped a new album from Company Flow DJ Mr. Len. On ”Pity the Fool,” Len puts most mainstream producers to shame, bringing together an artful array of concepts and sounds like ”Force Fed,” a nail-biting nine-minute epic about an abused woman’s violent revenge, and ”Bring It To Me,” an unflinching and uber-authentic foray into speed metal.

Another indie wonder on the decks is Japanese turntablist DJ Krush, who this year released ”Zen” on Red Ink. Krush lays moody, textured beds of sound for ecclectic artists like African vocal ensemble Zap Mama and El-P (indie hip-hop is a small world — much like early punk rock). Because of its inclusive, multi-ethnic vibe, indie hop-hop explores expansive new worlds entirely ignored by mainstream rap.

The list of winners goes on and on: Anti-Pop Consortium’s ”The Ends Against the Middle,” (Warped) melds angular electronica with left-field poetry. ”The Funky Precedent, Vol. 2” explores L.A.’s thriving underground scene. Techno Animal’s ”Brotherhood of the Bomb” (featuring Anti-Pop Consortium), on Matador, matches dark, heavy ambient beats with dark, heavy paranoids lyrics for the thriller of a year. Matador also released The Arsonists’ ”Date of Birth” this year, which amply reminds hip-hop heads of the trio’s limber lyricism, particularly when raising the flag of indie hip-hop. They get the last words:

”I’m about two seconds from putting my foot in a record exec’s ass/I’m about platinum plaques for underground acts.” –The Arsonists, 2001