Def Jam has signed rapper Keith Murray to a long-term deal as a solo artist. The announcement follows Murray's exoneration last month on assault charges stemming from a 1995 incident at a Connecticut

Def Jam has signed rapper Keith Murray to a long-term deal as a solo artist. The announcement follows Murray's exoneration last month on assault charges stemming from a 1995 incident at a Connecticut nightclub. Sentenced to a five-year term in 1997 (which was suspended after three years), he served 30 months before an eyewitness came forward to say Murray had been wrongfully convicted.

"I've always wanted to sign Keith," says Island Def Jam Music Group president Lyor Cohen. "He's one of the most clever lyricists around-an important artist."

The release date, title, and other details about Murray's first Def Jam project are still being determined. However, according to Murray, he plans to work with such producers as Dr. Dre, Rockwilder, and Erick Sermon (who, sources say, is signing with J Records), along with Sermon's EPMD partner Parrish Smith. In addition to enlisting producers he has signed to his new production company, Head Rush Entertainment, Murray hopes to collaborate with such guest artists as DMX, Nas, Scarface, and Juvenile.

"Def Jam is what I represent," Murray says. "And that's the raw essence of energy. One of my biggest fears is not being heard. Russell Simmons, Lyor Cohen, Kevin Liles [president of Def Jam/Def Soul], and all [of] the Def Jam staff understand my vision."

Murray and fellow rapper/Def Jam artist Redman were founding members of Def Squad, along with EPMD's Sermon. The trio scored a top 25 R&B hit in 1997 with the Priority album cut "Rapper's Delight." Prior to that, in 1994 Jive Records released Murray's debut hit single as a solo act, "The Most Beautifullest Thing in This World," produced with Sermon. A gold-certified album with the same title followed in 1995.

In addition to subsequent solo albums -- 1996's "Enigma" and 1998's "It's a Beautiful Thing" -- Murray has been featured on tracks by R. Kelly ("Home Alone") and Mary J. Blige ("Be Happy"). He also appears on Redman's newest album, "Malpractice," as well as FUBU Records/Universal's upcoming "The Goodlife" compilation.

"I'm looking to do songs with a broader musical scope, not just hip-hop," Murray says. "Something that sticks to my style but expands my reach. I'm still the fun-loving MC, the lyrical phraseologist. But I've become more mature and more honest in my writing. I proclaim my innocence to this day. But now I'm back and have a grip on my reality. I'll still be telling it like it is, but in a clever, not preachy, way."

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