Central Florida’s own Sean Shakespeare may be relatively new on the underground hip hop scene, but he spits like a seasoned veteran. One-third of the group Table For Three, Sean has been earning local props for his intense, in-the-pocket flow—and was even featured in Orlando Weekly as one of “14 local artists who are reshaping the Orlando music scene.” Teaming up with producer Swamburger and his Second Subject collective, the MC and producer have developed a fresh sound—vaguely reminiscent of the early aughts-era Def Jux and Rhymesayers aesthetics that first introduced the lyricist to the underground, yet unique to the unofficial duo and perhaps a little more rooted. On February 22nd, they are releasing Sean’s first solo studio project—a celebration of his ancestry and the evolution of Black music in America, appropriately titled Bloodline. UGHH got up with the emerging lyricist to discuss the project and his charitable endeavors, as well as discovering underground hip hop (the genre) through a video game and our company’s unbeknownst role in inspiring him to start rhyming.

How’d you get your name? Why do you think it suits you?

I was born with the last name Shakespeare. Don’t know why my parents named me Sean, though. Sean’s an Irish name and I like whiskey, so I guess the stars aligned on that one.

I can’t front, when I saw the cover for Bloodline, I was expecting something much bleaker and maybe more angsty—but was surprised by how upbeat and energetic it is, despite touching on a variety of serious social issues. Was that a conscientious decision, or more indicative of who you naturally are as a person?

Yeah, I’d say it drops a clue on who I am as a person. I’m an observer and a calm dude. Bloodline is an observation of self and society. I’m always challenging the way I think. I flipped the map [on the album cover] as a play on perspective. There is no true up or down. As people, some of us tend to defend what we’re used to or comfortable with before applying any objective reasoning, you know? The list of things that applies to is almost infinite. I just wanted to shine a light on that a bit.

Tell me about the title, Bloodline. What does it mean to you, and how would you describe the underlying theme of this project?

I named the album Bloodline as a statement for my cultural identity and lineage. Slaves had their identity taken from them, which started the process of a people rebuilding an identity of their own. Slaves sang early versions of gospel hymns as we know them, which greatly influenced blues, soul and even jazz musicians. Disco came along with influences from those prior genres, which was the main ingredient for break beats in hip hop. Eventually, I come into existence looking back at it all like, “Damn, I’ve got a pretty dope bloodline.” This album celebrates that.

Let’s talk about “Ghost.” You pack a lot into that track. What inspired it?

I’ve always thought of myself as a ghost in the flesh, wandering around, doing what I do. Other than that, I’m just a series of choices. I make the choice to get as good as I can at my craft. There’s no finish line. The lyrics in the song are just reminders of that.

The production on the album is really dynamic and compliments your rapid-fire style and complex rhyme schemes nicely. Can you elaborate on your process with Swamburger? How’d you guys link, and how would you describe the sound you two have developed together?

I met Swam at Austin’s Coffee in Orlando a few years ago during an open mic they do every Monday. He took interest in Table For Three—a hip hop trio I’m part of with Jamar X and TKO—and started putting us on some of his shows. Some time after, he and I started working on music together. The process is dope. Usually, I’ll just go over to his studio and he’s already going ape shit on the MPC. We’ll talk concepts, and I’ll write as he’s building the beats. Swam’s got a seasoned ear for layering samples, choosing drums and creating patterns, which gives me room to stretch all the way out creatively. The sound is hip hop, point blank—fresh and gritty.

The album also features veteran underground MC Blueprint. How’d that come about?

I’ve been bumping Blueprint albums since high school and met him at a show he did in Miami like eight or nine years back. Since then, I’ve opened for him a couple times on shows Swam put together—once with Table For Three, then again with my own set. After I wrote the first verse and hook for the song “Be,” I just heard Blueprint’s voice and style being perfect for it. Swam agreed and hit him up. Swam laid a fire verse down too, and that was that. Definitely one of my favorite tracks to date.

What was your introduction to underground hip hop? What [else] were you bumpin’ back in high school?

Story time: it’s funny ’cause I got into underground hip hop as a fan through playing Tony Hawk on PS1 when I was a git. That’s where I first heard artists like Aesop Rock, Loot Pack, Busdriver, Murs, Eyedea & Abilities, Atmosphere and Del the Funky Homosapien. I was only like 10 years old at the time, so I didn’t understand how much more of their stuff there was out there. In middle school, my older brother gave me a CD that had a lot of Aesop Rock and Atmosphere on it. The more underground artists I learned about, the less I listened to the radio. Doing this interview is wild, ’cause in high school UGHH.com was everything to me. The music I actually wanted was always there. Not only that, but I wouldn’t have started rapping when I did, if not for UGHH.com. One day, I got an instrumental CD with my order. I listened to it in my car on the way back from skateboarding in Miami and started freestyling with my friend Matt Ramsey over it. After that we would freestyle pretty much every day. I was hooked.

Dope! Who would you like to work with in the future? Who are you checkin’ for, these days?

There’s a lot of artists I’d be interested in working with. P.O.S is definitely up there. We have a good bit in common, based on what he writes. I just did a short tour with Carnage the Executioner and we talked about working together soon. I’m stoked on that. Doing a track with Aesop Rock would be tight. Killer Mike and El-P would be tight. Sage Francis is definitely on that list too, as well as Brother Ali, Murs, Earl Sweatshirt, Homeboy Sandman, DJ Shadow, 9th Wonder, Madlib, Dope Knife, Toki Wright, Joey Bada$$, Anderson .Paak, Aftermarket and Alexandra from Solillaquists of Sound, to name some. [Those] are the same artists I listen to pretty regularly.

What do you like best about the Orlando hip hop scene?

There’s a dope community vibe here. It’s small, but not too small. I like that I can go anywhere any given night and run into someone from the hip hop scene.

From your experience, do you think it’s easier or harder to get exposure coming from a place like Orlando, as opposed to bigger cities like New York and L.A.—where a lot of the scene is centralized, but there’re also many more artists trying to break through?

I’ll put it like this: a buzz or trend that starts in N.Y. or L.A. has a better chance of translating to Orlando than the other way around, for now. The city’s growing pretty fast, so I’d say that influence on the industry will grow with it.

What are you working on now, and what are your plans for the future?

I’m working on the next album, as well as a new Table for Three album. Aside from that, I’m putting together a foundation that will buy instruments for high school kids that can’t afford to buy the instrument they learn in band. Ten percent of my album sales get tucked away for that, right now.

“Beneath The Surface” is UGHH’s column designed to unearth the underground’s deepest and brightest gems—exposing and celebrating some of the best emerging MCs, producers and DJs on the scene.

The indie hip-hop boom of the early aughts was an era teeming with all the right elements for a creative renaissance: previously unheralded voices/contributors to the culture, classic records, and an unprecedented connection between fans and artists thanks to the emerging presence of the Internet.

But even the digital archives are susceptible to people and movements falling through the cracks, and we’re far enough removed today to look back at some of the faces plastered on the sides of our musical milk cartons and wonder, “What the hell happened?” There are few artists that better fit this particular scenario than Chicago’s very own Diverse.  

A lyricist with densely packed, often-abstract bars—and an impeccably hypnotic cadence—Diverse (born Kenny Jenkins) was putting it down for the Windy City in an era that predated Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, and the other rap superstars that have since repped for the Chi. His first commercially available release, 2001’s Move EP (Chocolate Industries), showcased the type of emceeing that typifies the era from which it came, sporting a fairly-prominent Talib Kweli influence and dusty, jazz-inspired production bolstered by live instrumentation (including the Roots’ original bassist Joshua Abrams on the title track).

Move’s success led Diverse to pursue music full-time. In 2002, he became a bigger blip on the national radar (particularly in New York) with his Mos Def-featuring single “Wylin Out” from the Chocolate Industries compilation Urban Renewal Project (which also featured the likes of Aesop Rock, El-P, Souls of Mischief, and Mr. Lif). The song (produced by Prefuse 73) got the remix treatment from RJD2, but also more prominently showcased the fact that Diverse could hold his own with the rapper now known as Yasiin Bey—which was quite a feat in 2002, considering this was a guy whose previous album was Black on Both Sides.

The stage was set for the next level up, and Diverse’s 2003 follow-up full-length One A.M. is what separated him from the would-be emcees. It’s also what warrants closer inspection of his career, and provokes some head-scratching when addressing his relative MIA status since (more on that later). Clocking in at a trim 41 minutes, the record is an almost too-good-to-be-true alignment of some of the best talent in underground hip-hop at the time.

RJD2 provided production for five of the album’s songs—including the break-neck funk of “Explosive” featuring Quannum Bay Area rapper Lyrics Born, the haunting stomp of “Big Game” (with Cannibal Ox’s Vast Aire), and “Under the Hammer,” which found the Chicago rapper paired with the deadpan delivery of Jean Grae. Add in tracks produced by Prefuse 73, Madlib, and even Tortoise’s Jeff Parker, and the One A.M. album quite frankly feels like stumbling upon a box of vintage rookie cards from some of hip-hop’s future greats.

Although the slew of impressive names both behind the boards and on the mic definitely made for a star-studded lineup, it’s worth noting that Diverse himself never got overshadowed at his own gathering. An obvious student of the game, Diverse was able to hold it down on his own, professing his love for the craft of rhyming on “Just Biz” and effortlessly integrating melody to his sharp flow on the relaxed head-nodder “Leaving.”

Meanwhile, opening tracks like “Certified” and “Uprock” didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel when it comes to what has now become the somewhat-hackneyed “underground rapper rapping about rapping” formula, but it’s again important to consider the context of the recordings. If you subscribe to the idea that rappers utilize their voices like a jazz musician approaches his instrument, Diverse had clearly clocked many hours in his woodshedding efforts. Multi-syllabic rhyme patterns, an angular flow that contorted and transformed throughout 16-bar passages, tonal control that prevented against the type of monotony that was often a deal breaker for so many of his peers – this guy was the complete package. Though he may have lacked the punchlines and over-the-top personality necessary to become a breakout superstar, his proficiency as a rapper (and clear ability to make the right choices when it came to songs/beats) makes the fact that this is the last album that he has officially put out even more puzzling.

After touring to promote One A.M. (including a spot on the 2006 Storm Tour with Aceyalone, Ugly Duckling, the Processions, and MayDay!) and gaining some notoriety via song placements on the soundtrack to Capcom’s “Final Fight Streetwise” game for Xbox and PlayStation, there was talk of a second album entitled Round About. But beyond a pair of unofficial mixtapes featuring random unreleased songs and collaborations, the sophomore LP never came to be. A 2008 7-inch single, “Escape Earth (The Moon),” pairs a beautiful Clair de Lune sample with a dirty breakbeat and features Diverse weaving together a vivid narrative with an appropriately spacey theme. He hasn’t officially released anything since.

The idea that somebody in his shoes could just disappear is unfortunate but not exactly shocking, either. Fans and participants alike are no doubt aware of the type of grind that having (and maintaining) a career as an independent artist requires. Even the most talented and creative minds can sometimes get sucked up in the trappings of the real world, motivated by factors either financial, personal, or both.

And the fact that the Chocolate Industries label would subsequently go through a series of internal conflicts between its label managers as well as the typical financial woes many indie operations faced in the age of rampant illegal file-sharing in the mid-to-late ‘00s certainly must have played a part in the abrupt silence in Diverse’s story (after putting out records by the likes of Lady Sovereign, Vast Aire, Ghislain Poirier, and the Cool Kids, the label has been dormant since 2012). But all of that is largely speculative, as there is no clear narrative as to exactly what happened.

Also frustrating is the fact that, by the modern standards of the Internet, it would appear that Diverse never existed. The man has no public social media accounts (active or otherwise), making the search for his current whereabouts and musical output limited at best – though there have been some breadcrumbs. He popped up on Black Milk and Bishop Lamont’s 2008 collaborative project Caltroit, and also made an appearance on the guest-heavy Stones Throw producers Quakers compilation album.

In 2014, Diverse teamed with Chris Hunt (drummer for Atlanta-based experimental electronic band Cloudeater) to form Holoking, an outfit that showcased Jenkins’ trademark abstract style against a backdrop equally as amorphous and musically ambitious. The duo released two songs (“Superhuman” and “Wise Fools”) that actually make a strong argument for more ’00s rappers to reinvent themselves in a more adventurous band setting. A 10-song EP was said to be in the works—but it would seem that it has yet to see the light of day. Holoking’s Internet/social media presence has been similarly abandoned, with no real updates or activity in the last few years.

Based on his track record, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not we’ll be getting more music from Diverse in the future. One can hardly fault anybody from wanting to keep the rigmarole of the music industry at an arm’s length, so if his exile is self-imposed, so be it. Nor does it feel appropriate to eulogize the career of an artist who may very well still be active or on the brink of popping his head above ground to share new music with the world once again. But as we move further away from a reality of stumbling upon tattered old vinyl in the back of used record stores as a means of discovery, it’s important to shed light on the unsung heroes and forgotten (or perhaps completely overlooked) gems of yesterday. For many fans of underground hip-hop, the music of Diverse may come as a throwback to a now-bygone era of hip-hop; or as an undiscovered and pleasantly welcome surprise.

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Some music is so original, creative, and straight-up good that it never gets tired or played out. Actually, timeless is such an appropriate one-word account of the Juggaknots’ catalogue that, despite only dropping two studio albums literally a decade apart, the all-sibling trio has managed to maintain their status as underground legends—still invoking excitement in the most dedicated hip-hop heads, even over ten years after their last release.

Juggaknots

In fact, their discontinued debut became such a sought-after cult classic that original vinyl pressings of the album supposedly sold for upwards of $100, before its eventual re-release. Unfortunately, while definitely celebrated within certain circles, the Juggs never achieved the widespread notoriety they deserved—remaining somewhat of a well-hidden secret, albeit a personal favorite for many.

Early in their career, however, the Bronx-bred group seemed destined for a different path—penning a major label deal with East West/Elektra Records circa 1994 and joining the ranks of signees like Das EFX and Missy Elliott. At the time, the Juggs consisted of brothers Breeze Brewin’ and Buddy Slim. Queen Herawin, their sister, “kind of fought her way in” later, as Breeze joked on Rap Is Outta Control with DJ Eclipse last year.

Incidentally, Slim had earned himself a reputation for producing R&B tracks, allegedly working with acts like Horace Brown and Missy’s seminal group Sista, which helped the Juggs secure their contract. Regardless, the siblings’ stint on the label was brief, and they lost their deal without even dropping a single. Toward the end of their tenure, the group was called into a meeting where various East West artists were instructed to share what they’d been working on. “You heard like a Missy joint, and this joint and that joint. 8-Off [Agallah] had ‘Ghetto Girl,’” Breeze recalled. “We played ‘Jivetalk’…and it was like somebody died.”

Although East West may not have shared their vision, someone else did—Bobbito Garcia, who hosted the fabled Stretch and Bobbito radio show on WKCR in the ’90s and owned an influential, mostly-vinyl label called Fondle ’Em Records (a “division of Tickle ’Em Label Group” and “subsidiary of Squeeze ’Em Entertainment,” as was proudly printed on their early 12” records). Bobbito built his brand working with artists who’d been dropped by majors, and would eventually help launch the indie careers of emcees like MF Doom (another Elektra castaway) and Cage (who was previously signed to Columbia). Following their first release, a project by Kool Keith and Godfather Don as the Cenobites, the ragtag label put out the Juggaknots’ 1996 debut—a roughly mixed nine-track masterpiece of material that East West hadn’t known what to do with.

While Slim definitely held his own trading “Troubleman” verses with Breeze, it’s a shame he didn’t rap more on the project—as his gruff baritone voice and in-the-pocket delivery perfectly juxtaposed his brother’s higher-pitched timbre and frenetic, multisyllabic rhyme schemes. That being said, the Brewin established himself as an exceptional lyricist and songwriter throughout the LP. With advanced wordplay, strong punchlines, original concepts and a distinguishing flow, it’s not hard to understand why in-the-know fans consider him one of the best lyricists to ever touch a mic. Most impressive on that album, however, was his knack for imaginative storytelling. “Breeze should write movie scripts, with his intuition and wit,” Bobbito affirmed in the liner notes of the indie’s 2001 closure compilation, Farewell Fondle ’Em.

According to the label on the original pressing of the Juggaknots’ first LP, the album was technically self-titled. It has also been referred to as Clear Blue Skies, however, after one of the project’s most revered cuts. The de facto title track featured Breeze rapping as both a white father and his son, arguing about the latter’s interracial relationship.

The harrowing song “Loosifa,” another poignant hip-hop mini-drama, told the tale of Smokey—a reformed stick-up kid who got a job in a maternity ward and lost his shit after being forced to discard a stillborn crack baby. He then decided to dole out some street justice and take down a local crack house, sacrificing himself in the process and leaving his pregnant wife a widow.

Breeze’s personal favorite, however, was a thriller titled “I’m Gonna Kill You”—on which the rapper accounted a torrid love affair and ensuing death threat, resulting in a paranoid episode with an unexpected plot twist.

Although its original run was limited, the Juggaknots’ LP grew so popular that the group decided to put it back out as Re:Release in the early 2000s, along with eleven new tracks. On CD format, the album was more accessible than its predecessor and flew off the shelves of indie record stores like Fat Beats (where, incidentally, Breeze worked for some time). It has since been reissued twice more, most recently as a blue vinyl double LP with three new mixes earlier this year. The 500-copy limited edition may be worth investing in, even to owners of the original, just for the nod-inspiring “Supaman Original Tape Mix” of “Watch Your Head.”

In between reissues of their classic debut, the Juggs have managed to stay considerably relevant—although only releasing music sparsely, mostly in the form of singles and guest appearances. They formed a short-lived supergroup called the Indelible MC’s with J-Treds and Company Flow (El-P of Run the Jewels, rapper Bigg Jus and DJ Mr. Len), dropping two singles in ’97 and ’98, respectively—one of which (“The Fire In Which You Burn”) was featured on Co Flow’s influential Funcrusher Plus LP, as well as Rawkus Records’ famed Soundbombing mixtape, and the other (“Weight”) on the first Lyricist Lounge compilation.

Breeze has typically been at the forefront of the effort to uphold their legacy, appearing on projects by J-Zone, Marco Polo, Tame One of the Artifacts, Cannibal Ox, Homeboy Sandman, Aesop Rock and as one of the Weathermen (alongside Camu Tao, El-P and more). Most memorable, however, was Breeze’s work with legendary producer Prince Paul—starring as Tariq on his sophomore album A Prince Among Thieves, the bar-setting hip-hopera, in 1999.

Breeze got the part after sending Paul an early Juggaknots demo while still signed to East West, hoping to enlist his services on their would-be label release. Much to the Brewin’s surprise, years later, it was Paul who would recruit him—supposedly seeking him out and finally getting in touch through Eclipse at Fat Beats, who hired Breeze to work at the iconic store.

Although the concept album featured guest spots by legends like Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Sadat X, Kool Keith and De La Soul, Breeze was selected to be the classic LP’s protagonist—and the honor was not lost on the grateful MC, who killed the role. Unfortunately, though well-received, the Tommy Boy gem failed to propel his career in any significant way, however, and he didn’t end up dropping another proper studio album until seven years later, with his brother and sister.

Following a few dope singles, as well as a 2004 conceptual compilation mixtape called The Love Deluxe Movement, the Juggaknots finally put out their second LP in 2006. Use Your Confusion was noticeably different than their first, in that everything about the project seemed more polished, marketed and deliberate—from celebrity features (Slick Rick and Sadat X) to expertly-executed thematic concepts (like a whole song about smiling). Even its advertised “hologram cover art” was a far cry from the Juggs original Fondle ’Em white label.

Herawin also really came into her own as a lyricist, on the project—skillfully going bar for bar with her brothers. Eventually, she even beat Breeze to a solo release, dropping her own album, Metamorphosis, in 2015.

Of course, the Brewin has remained active over the years, himself—sporadically dropping singles and videos. He even penned a response to Kendrick Lamar’s infamous “Control” verse a couple of years ago, triggered by Kenny’s line “the juggernaut’s all in your jugular” (most likely intentionally taking it out of context), as well as the Compton MC’s claim to be the king of New York. Unlike some of his peers’ attempts, Breeze’s diss was more the good-natured imparting of elderly wisdom from an underground veteran to a relative newcomer than it was a straight up schooling.

In fact, as a whole, the Juggaknots have aged gracefully—never seeming out-of-touch, despite prolonged hiatuses, perhaps indicative of their shared vocation as actual school teachers. Their last project, however, was another collector-oriented vinyl release, a 2015 compilation of pre East West demos called Baby Pictures (c. 1989-1993).

They really haven’t put a body of new music out together since 2006, considering, making them a year overdue on their one album per decade average. It’s all gravy, though, because their existing catalogue is ageless enough to hold the group’s legacy down for a lifetime.

Follow El Scribes on Twitter: @elscribes.

Speak your piece in the comments below or over at the UGHH Forums.

Some artists are more celebrated in death than they ever were in life. It’s an unfortunate phenomenon, true for posthumously-crowned hip-hop royalty like J Dilla and Big L—who, despite impeccable talent and significant influence on their peers, were rarely regarded as hip-hop elite outside of in-the-know creative circles until after their passing.

MC, producer, vocalist and cancer victim Camu Tao, on the other hand, has never been shown the appreciation he deserves; neither before, nor following the loss of his year-and-a-half long battle with the deadly disease, which took his life only a month before his 31st birthday in 2008.

Like Dilla, Mu was equally talented as both a lyricist and beatsmith. Similar to L, he refused to be boxed-in by convention—toying with Horrorcore one moment and attempting party music the next, yet always in his own unique way. Too ahead of his time to be fully recognized in it (yet too unacknowledged at his death for it to properly uphold his legacy), Mu has remained in relative obscurity: a largely unrecognized subject of tribute verses by former collaborators and an all-too-often overlooked footnote in the indie hip-hop history books.

He was, however, an integral part of a few influential projects that came out of New York City’s flourishing underground scene in the late ’90s and early ’00s, usually alongside various members of The Weathermen supergroup: a Suicide Squad-esque assembly of hip-hop antiheroes mostly affiliated with the popular Eastern Conference and Definitive Jux indie labels that, at different points, included El-P of Run The Jewels, Tame One of The Artifacts, Breeze Brewin of The Juggaknots, Vast Aire of Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock and Cage, among others.

Named after a revolutionary anti-imperialist student organization that declared war on the U.S. government in the ’70s, The Weathermen never got a chance to stage their musical coup or release their promised studio album, The New Left. Instead, they only dropped their mixtape The Conspiracy in 2003 and then unofficially disbanded, allegedly due to internal arguments that arose within the clique after Mu’s untimely death.

Before The Weathermen’s formation, however, Mu cut his teeth with another prominent underground crew from his Columbus, Ohio hometown, the MHz. Comprised of fellow Weathermen Copywrite, Tage Proto and Jakki Da Motamouth, as well as sample-chopping maestro RJD2, MHz earned a rep on the indie rap circuit with a couple of 12” singles released in the late ’90s on Fondle ’Em Records—Bobbito Garcia’s mostly vinyl label, best known for reintroducing KMD’s Zev Love X to the world as MF Doom.

On those early records, as well as the group’s 2001 compilation album Table Scraps, Mu’s rhyme style was noticeably more abstract and animated than in later work. For example, on “Magnetics,” (his 1999 solo offering off their second Fondle ’Em single) Mu spat intricately-rhymed “metaphysical metaphor[s],” vocal timbre wildly fluctuating.

Two years later, he dropped the lesser-known 12” “Hear Me Talkin to You,” utilizing an equally original, oddly-syncopated rhyme scheme, albeit significantly less wordy and much easier to follow. On “Open Hands,” the single’s second cut, he also sang the hook; a hint at the direction of his future music.

In 2002, Mu released his first studio LP, Nighthawks, a hastily conceived concept album in collaboration with Cage, loosely based on a 1981 Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams cop thriller of the same name. On it, the two emcees rhymed as a pair of crooked detectives engaging in all sorts of corruption and debauchery. The album fared about as well as the film, receiving generally favorable reviews, but failing to make an overwhelming impact.

Earlier that year, however, Mu had released his first single on Def Jux, “Hold The Floor,” which ended up being one of his most sought-after cuts. Before 50 Cent had popularized half-sung rap hooks on hardcore hip-hop tracks about a year-or-so later, Mu belted out an infectious melodic chorus with a simple message: “Y’all don’t really want it.”

“Hold The Floor” stood out from the rest of Definitive Jux Presents II (the compilation on which it was featured), in that the song—although still distinctive to Mu—was more catchy, rooted, and universally digestible than the majority of the project’s otherwise spacey material. Most notably, it was also much harder.

Founded by former Company Flow frontman El-P at the turn of the century, in its formative years, Def Jux was defined by his “dusty but digital” sound and launched with the group’s mantra “independent as fuck” at heart—pushing the kinds of artists who definitively juxtaposed the perceived superficiality of mainstream rap’s shiny suit era, but without strictly adhering to the sample-driven boom bap aesthetic typical of other underground movements at the time.

Def Jux carved out its own niche, as a result, stressing musical and conceptual deviance—priding itself on being different. Its well-marketed brand of offbeat hip-hop became increasingly popular among angsty stoners and Brooklyn hipster prototypes, somewhat alienating the label from the culture that birthed it, and eventually a couple of its original signees, as well. As it progressed, Def Jux quickly earned a reputation for being out of touch with hip-hop at large.

Even early in the alternative indie’s conception, however, it was clear that Mu didn’t quite fit the Def Jux mold. His first full-length record for the label was another collaboration, this time with partner-in-rhyme and fellow Columbus native Metro, unlike anything the indie had ever promoted.

Or ever would again.

In 2003, S.A. Smash released Smashy Trashy, their ode to smoking, fucking, fighting, stealing, and getting blackout drunk—glamorizing all things gutter over thumping, head-knockin’ beats. With songs like “Love To F*ck,” “A.A.,” and “Slide On ’Em,” not to be taken too seriously and almost seeming satirical at times, the album was unfortunately lost on many critics and Def Jux groupies, despite featuring some of Mu’s most dynamic production (and simply being plain old fun as hell to listen to).

In a scene where being different was the norm, and broody intellectualism reigned supreme, appealing to less-lofty tastes was the ultimate act of rebellion. Def Jux’s increasingly homogeneous, predominantly white fan base was not unnoticed by the group either, and was even acknowledged on the song “Weird” in its hook: “And I know it seems weird to you, we the only n***as in the room.”

“[Mu] was always bucking back against what anyone ever thought of him,” El-P explained to Columbus Alive earlier this year. “If you thought he was at the vanguard of the so-called backpack-rap style, he’d buck back and say, ‘I’m going to do this [S.A. Smash album] called Smashy Trashy,’ and it was party music…It was almost like he never wanted anyone to be able to tell him who he was.”

Following a series of captivatingly ridiculous Blair Cosby mixtapes, self-distributed over the next couple of years, Mu’s aversion to being pigeonholed became abundantly apparent on his genre-transcending LP, King of Hearts—which fused hip-hop with elements of post-punk, new wave, electroclash, and even uptempo electronic pop music. Tragically, Mu would not live to see his solo studio album’s debut, or even complete it, for that matter. Still, El-P decided to put the unrefined gem out in 2010 (two years after his passing), as Def Jux’s final release before shuttering, along with a similarly experimental free collaborative EP (Forever Frozen in Television Time) that the two had been working on as a duo called Central Services.

Strikingly, most of the album (as well as the EP) was sung, as opposed to rapped—which really shouldn’t have been all that much of a surprise, in retrospect, as Mu had flirted with singing throughout his career. It should be noted that, given the project’s unfinished nature, several of its tracks only featured choruses; so how many rap verses were actually intended for the final product is really a matter of speculation. A testament to El-P’s theory, in the moments where he did spit, Mu showed considerable range as a lyricist, commenting on America’s post-9/11 political climate with “Ind of the Worl,” then skillfully weaving in and out of intricate flows on “Major Team.”

Much of the project’s material handled some appropriately dark themes, most apparently death. Recorded with one foot in the grave, Mu’s piercing melodic shrieks were as haunting and mysterious as they were beautiful, especially considering the album’s posthumous release. In contrast, however, it had an overall upbeat, energetic undertone, and Mu’s message of non-conformity rang throughout.

King of Hearts offered a heartbreaking glimpse of what could’ve been for the multi-talented artist, who died when only beginning to tap into his own limitless potential. Happy Birthday to Camu Tao, on what would have been his 40th birthday.

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