I’ve been pretty behind the curve on this, which should indicate how little I pay attention to U.S. underground hip hop as typically defined. But apparently Def Jux decided to close down new releases effective a few weeks ago. The L.A. Times has a thorough retrospective rundown of the label’s most exciting and important releases, many of which I was completely obsessed with during college, in particular Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein and El-P’s Fantastic Damage. I recently did the writeup of The Cold Vein for Tinymixtape’s Best-of-the-Decade list, where it sits nobly at #17, up with Boy in Da Corner and Madvillainy in the territory that redefined rap and made possible things like (to cite only my most recent obsession) Die Antwoord
As sad as it is in some ways, I think the closure is a good call - It’s clear the label’s influence has waned mightily in the past five or so years, and it's better to go out with deserved recognition than to limp into half-remembered obscurity. That same waning of significance is true of “the underground” as a whole. You can look now at figures like Atmosphere and Aesop Rock, and they’re basically institutions delivering quality, predictable product to a stable audience. Not that that's the worst thing in the world, but there's not much newness entering the world via that door anymore. The only really exciting guy in the realm is MF Doom. And let’s not even talk about Anticon, who have made a rather graceless transition from some really edgy, weird hip hop to a much more indie-rock centric outlook that I can’t say I’m too down with. In the end, things come and go in culture, and something as amazing and singular as Def Jux simply could not stay meaningful forever.