Where were you on Tuesday, March 23rd, 2004? If you were a music fan, chances are you were picking up Usher’s Confessions album, as it eventually went diamond and birthed “Yeah,”[updated] a song that seems to get as much airplay today as it did 10 years ago. Or, if your radar picked up underground movements, there’s a good chance you rejoiced in perhaps the greatest single release day in indie rap history.
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While Madvillain’s Madvillainy, Murs’ Murs 3:16: The 9th Edition and Eyedea and Abilites’ E&A have all since been critically heralded to the point where they’re often considered not just some of the finest moments of 2000s underground hip-hop, but for many the rites of passage entry points for new fans, it’s been somewhat overlooked that all three of these albums were released simultaneously. Yes, the three biggest independent rap labels each put out highly anticipated full-length releases on the very same day. Given how well each of these three records have aged, something should be said for March 23rd being something of an independent hip-hop holiday. Not only did we get three incredible and defining records, their release proved to be something of an event horizon for the underground and mainstream lines to begin the blurring that’s become almost entirely indistinguishable today.
On paper, it might seem odd that these three records were all seen as parts of the same movement. All were from independent labels based in entirely different parts in the country at a time when the perception of widespread mainstream hip-hop was still pretty nationally divisive. But this moment came after each of these three labels and their talent had paved the roads that became the modern independent hip-hop map.
Rhymesayers Entertainment, the Minneapolis label that had spent the past nine years grinding to the point where they finally had an album-by-album distribution agreement with Epitaph, were dropping the Eyedea and Abilities’ sophomore project with a worldwide tour.
Los Angeles’ Stones Throw was eight years into being the progressive hip-hop gateway for sample innovation and outside-the-box funk and jazz.
New York’s Definitive Jux was only four years old, but founder El-P was one of the pioneers of the original Rawkus movement, breaking ground with Company Flow that birthed a fanaticism that would follow his “independent as fuck” battle cry to the ends of the Earth.
The relationship between the artists themselves, as well as the word-of-mouth between their fanbases across the globe allowed for a network of shared information that made each release momentous. However, it being 2004, this also allowed the Kazaa and Limewire eras to bootleg these albums at lightning speed over a month before their actual release.
Those early leaks only seemed to increase the albums’ notoriety. Suddenly, Eyedea and Abilities were being featured on otherwise punk rock compilations, Murs was in the pages of mainstream music publications and Madvillain landed a write-up in The New Yorker of all places. While these are all still noteworthy accomplishments for independent artists today, a decade ago making these moves was mindblowing. For fans, the only thing more impressive was the music on the albums themselves.
The terminology “alternative hip-hop” has been thrown around for years to the point where it’s utterly meaningless, namely how could a multifaceted counterculture have something of a counter-counterculture? Yet, looking at the stark differences between these three releases and their mainstream counterparts, it’s clear that these particular scenes were serving up a viable option. At a time when the norm for major rap releases saw a full 80 minutes chalk full of multiple producers, each of these albums clock in at under 50 minutes and followed the one-producer one-rapper formula. As a result, they felt like well thought out and fully cohesive projects, and perhaps the strongest outings from the talents involved at that time, if not ever.
Of the three, Eyedea and Abilities had the least amount of material in circulation. After both made a tremendous name for themselves utterly dominating the battle rap and competitive turntablism circuits at the early part of the decade, their debut First Born was largely the exact opposite of what their fanbase had come to know them for. Highly conceptual and philosophical, it wasn’t the buffet of punchlines one would expect from the HBO Blaze Battle champion. Thankfully E&A was the perfect midpoint between Eyedea’s thought provoking analysis and his adrenaline drenched rapidfire wordplay coupled with Abilities’ absurdly complex production. Tracks like “Reintroducing”, for example, featured Abilities scratching Eyedea’s vocals mid-verse. Nothing has sounded like it before or since, two absolute masters at work. It’s as accessible as it is multifaceted.
Murs, on the other hand, was roughly half-a-dozen projects deep into his career. A product of the west coast hand-to-hand grind mentality, he’d put out projects in groups with Living Legends, 3MG and Slug, as well as several solo releases. Signing to Definitive Jux the previous year, Murs already had The End of the Beginning still warm on store shelves (as well as with a video in rotation on “BET Uncut”) when Murs 3:16: The 9th Edition was announced. Produced by an emerging 9th Wonder, the Little Brother producer who had recently began riding a new wave of notoriety from producing “Threat” from Jay-Z’s just-released The Black Album, the strength of the project established both as two of the most promising artists in their genre. At the time, Murs referred to the album as his strongest work and the best place to start with his catalog, a sentiment he still echoes to this day. A few months after its release, a remix of one of the record’s signature songs “Hustle” gave us Murs joined by the once-in-a-lifetime dream team of E-40, Chingo Bling and WWE superstar John Cena.
But the biggest of these albums was probably Madvillainy. While Madlib had already established himself as one of independent hip-hop’s “it”-producers through his earlier work on Stones Throw, including his Quasimoto projects, his partner in Madvillain, MF Doom, was by that point 15 years deep into his rap career after debuting as Zev Love X on 3rd Bass’ seminal 1989 MC Hammer dis “The Gas Face.” Reemerging after a mid-90s hiatus under a mask “to hide his scars,” he became MF Doom and developed a cult following thanks to well received otherworldly singles on the Fondle ‘Em label. The early 2000s saw him putting out projects with the prolific diligence of Kool Keith a decade prior or Lil B today, but the release of Madvillainy felt as if it would be his finest hour.
While a vastly different bootleg with alternate song titles and samples, as well as a significantly different flow from Doom on some of the tracks, had been in circulation, the final product hit store shelves and almost immediately joined the ranks of Captain Beefheart and Ween as the bizarre virtuosos who made acolytes out of every listener who enjoyed it. As perhaps sampling’s only nexus of Steve Reich’s experimental sound pieces and Street Fighter II video game sounds, it’s a twisted but undeniably funky work.
Ten years later, it’s interesting to note how these three releases have aged far better than the majority of their contemporaries, as well as how differently the artists in question continued through the decade. While label Definitive Jux folded in 2010, Murs continued his steady stream of releases, including three more albums with 9th Wonder. He most recently made headlines for signing with fellow indie-rap juggernaut Tech N9ne’s Strange Music label and releasing a Rap Trivia App for mobile devices.
Eyedea left hip-hop all together in favor of experimental rock endeavors a year after E&A‘s release, and didn’t reunite with DJ Abilities until 2007 when the two put out 2009’s By The Throat. Eyedea passed away in October 2010 of an accidental overdose.
While Madlib continued to release beat tapes and the occasional collaborative project with different MCs on Stones Throw, Doom’s output did an entire 180, going from a new project seemingly every season to only releasing material every four years, which has made their announced but oft-delayed Madvillain follow-up reach Detox levels of anxious anticipation.
But for one glorious day in March, 2004, the idealism and ingenuity surrounding the underground hip-hop scene climaxed into three albums that would go on to influence listeners and inspire the aspiring artists who listened.