Def Jukies Rile Middle East Audience

Underground rapper and aspiring Harvard student Murs works the crowd on Saturday night with a little help from his Def Jux friends

Emily K. Vasiliauskas

Def Jux rapper Murs and friends pump up the crowd during their upbeat performance last Saturday night at the Middle East.

Within seconds of beginning our interview by phone, Def Jux rapper Murs has interrupted my questions to ask where I’m from (I have an accent). When I tell him, he says he’s surprised I even listen to hip-hop. “Hip-hop’s not that important—it’s just entertainment.” I tell him Tupac’s face is one of the more common images on T-shirts and walls in Africa (where I’m from) and he seems to accept that as part explanation. However, Murs has bigger fish to fry. “I want to come to Harvard—I think I could write a great application essay. And I could lend some credibility to your rap shows.” He’s impressed that Harvard has rap shows at all, actually.

Formerly of the Living Legends crew, currently on the cutting edge Def Jux label and aspiring Harvard student, Murs is finally starting to break it big after many years on the West Coast underground. Def Jux has become the hip-hop label to watch thanks to the careful management of rapper and CEO El-P, the Jay-Z of the underground. Jukies always appear on each other’s albums, and the tours become traveling carnivals of talent dominated by the Jukies themselves, but with a healthy accumulation of friends and guests to round things out. In fact, the Def Jux label is on track to become that most mythical of all labels, the community of artists, like Verve, like Motown like Elephant 6.

Murs says of the Def Jukies that, even if their not all best friends, “We all get along. There’s a common respect.” How much does El-P’s choice of who to sign have on the label community? “El would never bring anyone in who we didn’t respect, who isn’t a good human being. There’s no hardened criminal assholes here. Everyone is at least somewhat intelligent.”

The latest Def Jux tour made its final stop at the Middle East in Central Square last Saturday, playing to an energetic, almost entirely white crowd. It was the triumphal return of Boston’s own The Perceptionists, featuring Mr Lif, Akrobatik and DJ Fakts One, who tore through unreleased political tracks (“Where are the weapons of mass destruction?” goes the chorus of one surprisingly catchy track) as well as an extended praise poem to the New England Patriots. Shock G, founding member of Digital Underground provided a bridge between the acts, guesting with The Perceptionists and playing his own cover of Tupac’s “I Get Around” as well as backing up Murs throughout his set. Shock emerged from behind his decks and keyboards to play himself and alter ego Humpty Hump on “Risky Business” from Murs’ Def Jux debut, The End of the Beginning.

If commercial rap often has the best beats, underground rap tends to rule the roost when it comes to performance, and Murs proves the point. A long, pointed beard offsets his Denzel good looks. When he raps, his energy is channeled through blazing eyes while one hand reaches towards the audience, fingers outstretched to draw them in. His beard remains surprisingly still behind the fist clenched around his mic. In between songs, he executes flying leaps, coming dangerously close to connecting with the Middle East’s low ceiling. At one point, during a small dance routine, he even does the splits and comes up grinning at fellow Living Legend Scarub, who accompanies Murs set. Sacrub remains unimpressed. In accordance with the Def Jux community spirit, Scarub gets to strut his own stuff several times, particularly after Murs does a string of “Girl raps” including a song dedicated to “All the girls who ever gave me head.”

Murs is something of an anomaly in the Def Jux world. His labelmates run the gamut from the dense, free-associating backpack rap of Aesop Rock, through the political screeds of Mr Lif and the new Perceptionists, to El-P’s own industrial dystopic rap. Murs does not fit any of these descriptions. He has been called the most mainstream Def Jux artist, a suggestion supported by the fact that his last album, Murs 3:16 The 9th Edition was produced entirely by 9th Wonder, who had his big break producing “Threat” on Jay Z’s Black Album.

Murs points out that few hip-hop albums have a single producer the whole way through. “Like when Rick Rubin produces the Red Hot Chili Peppers, then it’s a Rick Rubin album. I like that. Lyrically, I’m all over the place as well, so the production helps unify the album.” Murs’ Def Jux debut was a who’s who of underground producers, featuring El-P, Ant, RJD2 and Blockhead on songs that veered from battle raps to narratives and back. “I wanted to show everything I could do,” says Murs.

In contrast, Murs 3:16 9th’s production is scrupulously clean cut and consistent, of a piece with the mainstream soul-sampling work of Kanye West. The album’s ten tracks are surprisingly short and direct as well—one gets the impression that a lot was cut to trim the album to its best elements. The subject material is straightforward hip-hop turf: hustling, guns and women, all delivered with Murs slight twist. “H.U.S.T.L.E.” describes the challenge of making his way in the rap game; he pays an ambivalent tribute to gansta culture on “Walk Like A Man” and protests his honestly dirty intentions on “Bad Man.” In the Def Jux crowd, Murs rhymes are distinguished by the very ordinariness of their subject matter.

Yet Murs is “proud to bear the title” of underground (rumor has it that his name stands for “Makin’ Underground Raw Shit”). He sees underground music as defined by its subject matter, encompassing ordinary, everyday events, and by the performer. “We don’t look like typical rappers. An underground rapper is one who is himself, not playing himself.”

At the show, Murs and Scarub keep heads nodding and arms pumping, despite some noisy fans of Mr Lif. Towards the end of his set he looks both tired and elated. “I officially messed up my back doing all those jumps,” he announces to the audience with a broad, dazzling grin. “35 shows in 40 days.” The audience of young white men is rowdy and cheering as he leaves the stage to Shock G. Murs is a little hazy when asked about his future. There is talk of a 3MG (3 Mystic Gypsies, one of Murs original West Coast crews) album in the summer. But Murs, like Andre 3000 or Jay Z, says he is, “Moving on. I’m retiring from hip-hop. I’m ready for school. You think I’m kidding about that application, but I’m not.” I’m sending him the application this week.

—Staff writer Andrew R. Iliff can be reached at iliff@fas.harvard.edu.