To craft their new label compilation tape ‘UNDISPUTED’ (celebrating their 35th birthday), Def Jam flew out a roster of 17 of their best and brightest rising artists to Los Angeles for a ‘rap camp.’ Suffice to say, the results of this work flow are dazzling. We spent time with the label and their artists for a firsthand account of how it all came together.
“I heard the slime in here!” Fetty Luciano hollers, bursting into a previously quiet Def Jam office and imbuing it with the energy of a packed VIP section. “We gon’ ball or what?”
TJ Porter smiles at Luciano using his catch phrase and the pair exchange daps. Luciano is from Brooklyn and Porter from Harlem, and while they’re two of New York’s most exciting young MCs, their friendship was solidified on the other side of the country. Porter and Luciano are part of the 17 new signees Def Jam brought to Los Angeles three times over the past year to record and get to know one another. The success of those sessions led to an estimated 210 songs, and 15 of the strongest were selected for UNDISPUTED, a group record that eschews many of the typical flaws of rap compilations.
The idea to relocate the roster to LA came after A&Rs Pedro “Dro” Genao and Rico Beats took Luciano to the West Coast. They had hit a wall recording in New York, but the change of scenery enabled them to complete most of Luciano’s debut mixtape, Story to Tell, in a week.
“On the flight back home from that, Rico and I were like, ‘Yo, how do we stay in L.A.? There’s an energy there. How do we go back?’” Genao recalled. “I think it was just one slick day we were walking around the building and I popped into Paul’s office and said, ‘Paul, we’ve got a great idea. We want to bring all our acts to L.A. and do this camp.’”
Initially, the plan was just to have the artists focus on their own material, but Def Jam Head of A&R Steven Victor was so enamored with the music that came out of the camp that he thought a compilation release was warranted. UNDISPUTED is lean and varied; instead of squeezing four or five artists into a single track, each has the stage to themselves, and no song contains more than two vocalists.
The new crop of Def Jam signees hail from the deep south (S3nsi Molly and Lil Brook are from Dallas), the frosty north (Singer-rapper PVRX is from Toronto’s Rexdale neighborhood), and everywhere in between. The geographic diversity yields unexpected, successful results, like TJ Porter floating over a bouncy northern California beat with SOB X RBE’s Lul G on “Bay 2 NY,” or the snarling “Loose Lips,” where Lul G oozes menace alongside Boston’s Striiipes and Georgia’s Bernard Jabs.
“Lul G had recorded it the night before, and then Striiipes went in the session the next day and laid his verse down, and I walked in,” Jabs said of the song’s impromptu creation. “That’s how I met Striiipes, and I did my verse that day as well.”
In addition to their disparate points of origin, the artists also vary in notoriety. YK Osiris, Sneakk, and Lul G have all tasted national success, while Nimic Revenue and Landstrip Chip are just now earning broader recognition for their infectious, melodic tunes. Differences like these could have driven a wedge between the artists, but the Def Jam team was able to create a unified experience by having them swap studios every three hours, keeping them on their toes and making sure they were interacting.
“The thing that I wanted everybody to understand was that we’re all equals. We’re all one. You’re all going to get a chance to record in the big room with Rico, but you’ve also got to get ready to do the E-room and move with the same energy that you had in the big room in the small room,” said Genao.
That helped create a sense of urgency, ensuring that artists were collaborating and using their time purposefully, not getting complacent holed up in a single studio all day. “You want to be in that studio, you want to record, so when your time is up it isn’t like, ‘Damn, I shouldn’t have been lacking,’” says Luciano, who estimates he completed two or three songs in each shift. “I didn’t come to L.A. to play.”
The structured setting was an adjustment for S3nsi Molly, who is used to a more laid-back environment when she’s recording back home in Texas. But she says she ultimately warmed to it, and her track “Big Boss” with Lil Brook is a bruising highlight on the album. PVRX even likened the environment to the cyphers that helped him cut his teeth as a rapper.
The few hours I spent at the West Hollywood studio the label rented out felt a little like a trip to a hip-hop X-Mansion, filled with talented youth eager to plum the depths of their skills and show off their hard work. This was the second session they had done, and there was an easy camaraderie in the way that they discussed everything from music to video games to a particularly brutal Washington Wizards-Orlando Magic matchup playing silently on one of the studio TVs, but also palpable excitement as they show one another unfinished music, promising to exchange verses and hooks. “I want to be the person who can be able to jump on anybody’s song,” said Porter.
The buzz – along with some nearly opaque smoke clouds – spills out into the hallways, which are filled with artists, their teams, and label staff. Were it not for the preponderance of cell phones and active Instagram Live streams, this could almost be a scene from any moment in Def Jam’s 35 year history. Started in 1984, Def Jam’s reputation in hip-hop was cemented well before many of the UNDISPUTED artists were born. As such, while some of the MCs speak of the label in reverential tones, there are others who address it the way you would an entity that has been around for your entire existence, aware but not awestruck.
“I saw Def Jam as the label major artists were signed to, people like Justin Bieber, Kanye West, Rihanna, JAY-Z, Frank Ocean,” Jabs said. “Everybody under the stars. That’s what I wanted.” PVRX spoke about the label similarly, saying it’s long been a part of both his music and gaming life. “I always felt like Def Jam was legendary, a lot of greats came from there. [They had] the LL Cool Js and the DMXs,” he explained. “I used to play Def Jam Vendetta the video game, so Def Jam was definitely a part of my childhood. I’m always doing research on Def Jam.”
Between the Def Jam camps, Dreamville’s star-studded and well-documented Revenge of the Dreamers III sessions, and projects like Keep Cool’s Creator Camp, it seems like these kinds of gatherings are becoming increasingly common, a notable move in an era where artists could easily make a collaborative project together without ever setting foot in the same room. It preserves the spontaneous strokes of creativity that can come from long hours together.
The chemistry is apparent as the artists rehearse together for a February Hot 97-sponsored showcase at New York’s SOB’s. Dominic Lord, one of the veterans of the group, is fine tuning his four song set, working with the engineer so his smooth cadence on “No Pressure” isn’t lost beneath the pounding beat. “I remember going to school listening to Hot 97,” Lord says. “That shit means something to me.”
As he runs through the set one more time, the dimly lit rehearsal space really begins to feel like the iconic Manhattan venue. Lil Brook and S3nsi Molly, who follow Lord on the bill, are among the first to get up and dance.
The show features some predictable rookie hiccups – banter that’s a little rough around the edges, a bit of dead time while Porter fills the stage with his hometown friends (including NBA player Mo Bamba) but the flashes of potential are undeniable. Nimic Revenue gets the industry-heavy crowd to put their phones away during a blistering performance of her UNDISPUTED track “Therapy,” and Y.K. Osiris shows why his latest single “Worth It” has the potential to vault him into a new tier of fame.
The brunt of the music that didn’t wind up on UNDISPUTED will go towards the artists’ various solo projects, and many of them said they emerged on the other side of the rap camp experience more driven and committed to their work. The label is realistic, knowing that not all 17 artists are going to vault to the A-list, but they’re ready to throw the full weight and legacy of rap’s most storied label behind those that are ready to seize the opportunity.
“We want to start careers. We don’t want to start a moment; everybody has a moment, that’s cool,” says Genao. “They all signed deals, that’s a moment. Now it’s about a career… Everybody ain’t going to flourish, but those that do we’re going to make sure that they go as far as they’ve got to go.”