Def-i is a local emcee and producer who has made a name for himself around town in the last few years (a friend will later recite lines from one of his songs after excitedly asking me what he was like). I just know him as the nice guy I met while doing a story on the Rezonate Art crew last year.
His new album, Shields for Raining Arrows is having its release party Friday night, Jan. 22, at Sister (407 Central NW). He puts a copy in my hands and tells me I'll be the first civilian to hear it. I ask about it, expecting the usual "Me, Me, Me," that most rappers start crowing if you show even the slightest interest in their music, but Def-i would rather spend his time talking about his friends and their contributions. He starts listing names of producers and guest appearances that drift off in the smoke, describing Shields like it was a group project and trying to downplay the obvious labor he's put into it.
This isn't one of those factory farm records, shoved into a compressor and shipped in two weeks with an Old English font stamped on the cover and coughing heard between tracks. Some of the songs on here have been in development for some time.
"The record took a sabbatical on its own," he laughs. "I took a little break from music for about two years." Def-i's definition of "break" must be different from mine. He was still traveling and doing shows the whole time and collaborating on two other albums before returning to work on Shields, one with Precept (Lightworks) and another with Soy the Organic Hispanic and Äkword Actwrite of Soul Soup (Three Piece Soup).
More fish-eyed with each passing second, I ask stupid questions like, "What can you tell a young buck looking to figure out this ABQ rap game?" Def-i thoughtfully considers this before saying, "It feels like everybody's finally getting together, which is what Albuquerque needs if we're going to make a mark. It seems like people ... used to ... [not] attend each others' shows as much. Maybe wouldn't go to a show if it was put up by certain promoters. But it feels different now. It's good to get over that shit."
Def-i impresses me as one of those rare people you meet who have that nameless empathetic charm. I really enjoy hanging out and smoking with him, which makes me worry about the album. I've met a lot of really cool people who will give you their dog turd "demo," and it's always so hard to lie and tell them how great it is.
To be honest, I've been actively avoiding the local rap scene since I moved here three years ago. A buddy of mine made the mistake of saying to me, “It's not all 'shoot this' and 'hump that' and 'bling bling bling,' like all the other rap music out there. It has a positive message.” This wound up my old punk rock training that still pokes its head up from time to time. “Positive message" makes me think of Christian rock bands and grade school anti-smoking rallies. It's really only hip hop artists who have to deal with the P-word.
But Shields ends up being just as charming as its author. Moving from the urgent grooves of the opening track, "Salivate" to the playfully experimental "Distorted," the album covers a wide range of sonic flavors. Scratches show up throughout the piece, provided by guests DJ Reflekshin, DJ Flo Fader, DJ Element and DJ Ohm, making me realize just how much I've missed those old school solos (though I would have told you different a week ago). "Bounce," featuring Sleep of Oldominion—a track that sounds like it would fit perfectly in the imaginary Bella Lugosi Break Beat Hour—is quickly my favorite, with its amazing cheap organs and head-bobbing slink.
Thank the Lord that my buddy was proven to be so wrong. Though it's tough to find any talk of ho-pimpin' or sirrup-sippin', describing this album as "positive" would mean ignoring the emotional nuance apparent throughout. "Sincere" would be better. I dig sincerity.