El-P (originally known as El Producto, born Jaime Meline, March 2, 1975) is an American hip hop artist and entrepreneur from Brooklyn, New York City. Originally a member of Company Flow, El-P has been a major driving force in alternative hip hop for over a decade. He is the co-founder, owner and CEO of the Definitive Jux record label.
R.A.P. Music, the sixth album by from Atlanta firebrand Killer Mike, is a stunning anachronism. Produced to a crisp by the emphatically New York–centric El-P, it is boom and pound from front to back, easily hip-hop's greatest tribute to 1987 since "99 Problems." El-P is in strictly Raising Hell mode, all jarring scum-shards and asphalt-melting 808s; Mike is somewhere between Chuck D and Ice-T, full of righteous indignation that only can be bellowed in exasperation: "I don't trust the church or the government, Democrat, Republican / The Pope or a bishop or them other men." It's an impossible rap record that appeals directly to "golden era" purism (i.e., "back when rap was good" for people aged 35 and up), but is still noisy enough to shake off the cobwebs and scare the squares. They really should put it out on cassette.
Circa 1999, Def Jux [El-P's record label] forged a fiefdom from the ashes of vinyl champs Fondle 'Em and the soon-to-be-ruined promise of Rawkus. "Independent as f*ck" was the mantra, and for those wondering why MF Doom and the Roots couldn't get airplay, it may well have been a war cry.
Writers and musicians often fixate on certain landscapes at certain times. For Thoreau in the 1840s it was Walden Pond. For Madonna in the 1980s it was her body. For the rapper-producer El-P (birth name Jaime Meline) in the ’00s it’s post-9/11 New York.
An intense, stocky 32-year-old with gray-blue eyes and close-cropped reddish hair, El-P seems consumed with dark thoughts. Making things helps to distract him — like music or, at this moment, an elaborate lunch of tortellini with sausage and pesto.
Drones overhead and smartphones in hand, we drift through panoptic lives and push-button wars. It sometimes feels like most songwriters couldn’t give a crap, but not hip-hop visionary El-P: He’s still raging with feeling against the machine, delivering dystopian messages from within the increasingly dense machine music he painstakingly crafts. The Brooklyn rapper’s latest round of literate but inflammatory blasts comes on Cancer for Cure, out Tuesday on Fat Possum Records. The technocratic concerns addressed in the arresting new songs are our own, enraptured as we are by paranoia and programming.
Understandably, El-P’s music polarizes rap lovers into two factions: those who swear by his one-of-a-kind style and those who dismiss it as nonsensical noise pollution. I, obviously, fall into the former category. To be more precise, I subscribe to the notion that the Brooklyn-born El-P is one of hip-hop’s most overlooked production behemoths. Stumble into any random “best producers in the games” discussion amongst rap listeners and the chances of hearing his name muttered are slim to none. And don’t even get me started on “best producer-rappers in the game” debates. I’m no dummy, however; I get it. It takes a certain type of ear to mess with El-P’s sonics.
“I’ve got memories to lose, man,” he admits on “Works Every Time.” But this isn’t pity-seeking, it’s pure pragmatism. El-P lost his good friend and collaborator Camu Tao to lung cancer in 2008, and the sense that the loss has tainted everything in his life pervades [Cancer4Cure]. The album ends with El-P’s laser-focused assertion that the memory of his friend keeps him locked in, pushing through the muck. It’s cold comfort, and he knows it’s likely pointless, but it’ll work for now.
El-P is an auteur in peak form here [on Cancer4Cure], weaving dense, cerebral verses packed with internal rhymes through a machine-tooled version of classic New York boom-bap with a gnarly, post-industrial edge—part KRS-One, part Cabaret Voltaire. There’s always a muffled cacophony of nasty voices just on the outside of a sealed subway car, through the ceiling of his poorly constructed apartment, or at the other end of a deep chemical stupor.
El-P’s new album I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead drops today. I haven’t heard it, and truth be told, I’m not sure I’ll go too far out of my way to get my hands on a copy. There’s some artists that you want to listen to, and others you simply don’t—regardless of how much respect you have for them. El Producto has never had a sound that I can get into. I find many of his tracks too sonically dense, too cerebral, too abstract, too dark. His lyrics, on the other hand, fascinate me. The New York Times ran a big article on the rapper last weekend, positing that El-P is fixated on 9/11 and that his records are an attempt to process the horror, and the despair, and the apocalyptic mood of the times. Apparently the new album picks up where Fantastic Damage left off, with its strung-out, insomniac narrator representing both El-P himself and his traumatized hometown.
I think that we are headed toward the inevitable destruction of our society, period. Roman Empire-style. But what can you do? That is a lot of what my record is about. I am just trying to enjoy the same rights of passage that people before me did. I am trying to grow up, I am trying to fall in love, I am trying to build something for myself, I am trying to figure out how to exist—and I don’t want that to be interrupted. It’s not fair. Unfortunately, that selfish desire and the reality of what’s happening are conflicting. I don’t know what to do. I’ll be honest with you—I really don’t know what to do. [a quote from an interview with El-P]
[On El-P's album I'll Sleep When You're Dead,] the Mars Volta frontman sings on a track called "Tasmanian Pain Coaster," Marshall appears on "Poisonville Kids," and Reznor's tortured vocals are subtlely mixed into the dense soup of "Flyentology." El-P (Jaime Melone) tells us he wrote the song after a plane engine exploded during a recent flight home from Costa Rica. "Everyone was freaking out, people were praying, some people seemed ready to go," he tells us. "I found myself coming up with my own brand of religion called 'Flyentology.' "
Throughout the head trip of an album that is “Cancer 4 Cure,” surveillance drones buzz Brooklyn, handwritten notes are left on fallen soldiers and messages of serenity are pierced with choppy beats that morph into gunfire. Is this a current-events record or a snapshot of one’s paranoia? Ace producer and longtime champion of underground hip-hop El-P walks a fine line on “Cancer 4 Cure,” crafting aggression with militaristic precision.