Wide awake in the city that never sleeps, hip-hop visionary El-P endured restless nights and panic attacks to emerge with his first album in five years. By Andrew Parks
The ’70s moustache is the first thing to go, leaving behind nothing but a patch of peach fuzz. Which is a relief, really. A guy can only take so many child-molester jokes. Step two of rejoining society is a little harder to swallow. It comes a couple days after El-P’s first proper shave in months, as he takes one last pull off a cigarette before starting an intensive regimen of breathing exercises and detox dieting.
The latter is more specifically known as the Lemon Detox: six to nine daily glasses of lemon juice, cayenne pepper, ginger, water and maple/palm tree sap, as first concocted by naturopath Stanley Burroughs 60 years ago. El-P isn’t the only one drinking the particularly horrid-tasting homemade elixir. Everyone from Beyoncé Knowles to TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek has forced it down in hopes of a cleaner body and clearer mind.
Quitting smoking, sleeping long enough to actually dream of electric sheep, acting like a goddamn hippie: These are the sacrifices you must make when it’s been five long years since your last solo album (the critically adored Fantastic Damage, which pretty much changed underground hip hop) and a decade since your first stone-cold classic (Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus debut, which inadvertently led to the trend of “backpacker rap”). Alaska, a member of New York City party-rap trio Hangar 18, sums up the latter album’s impact: “I knew people who quit rhyming after Funcrusher Plus because they felt like everything that’d ever need to be said is on that record.”
Aside from rekindling his own commercial and critical success, El-P is also lighting a fire under the ass of his seven-year-old label, Definitive Jux. Once touted by the media as a next-big-thing imprint, the indie label had a mousey year in 2006 due to a shortage of big-name releases. This year promises the complete opposite, with Def Jux scheduled to deliver Aesop Rock’s None Shall Pass (featuring an unlikely guest appearance by the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle) and, of course, El-P’s long-awaited I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead.
“At 25, you can run around the world, smoke, drink, do drugs, get up the next day and be fine,” he says. “But at 30, that’s simply not the case. So I’ve cut most of those things from my life.”
That’s not to say such vices weren’t prevalent six months ago when El-P finally wrapped up the intensive, year-long mixing and recording sessions for I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. The album’s title slyly summarizes his attitude and often self-destructive approach to making music.
“El might as well make records in the hospital—or at least check himself into one once they’re done,” says Def Jux labelmate Mr. Lif. “He ends up needing a full physical and mental makeover afterward.”
“El’s just like me,” says Aesop Rock, currently in the midst of his own solo sessions. “He doesn’t get his mind back until at least a week after he’s turned in a record. Up until then, it’s a blur of being excited, then pissed off, of feeling like a genius one second and thinking you suck the next. Honestly, you don’t even know what you’ve made until it’s done.”
All of El-P’s current problems—the exhaustion, the egocentrism, the chain-smoking with shaky hands while staring at a ProTools screen for 10 hours straight—are George Orwell’s fault. At least that’s where the story of Jaime Meline (born in Manhattan in 1975 and the only child of Nan Dillon and Harry Meline, a jazz musician) ends and the tale of El-P begins.
“Reading 1984 tore my face off,” says El-P. “It just clicked with everything I was thinking at the time and made me fall in love with terror—really intelligent terror—because it was presented so eloquently. It’s influenced the way I think and the way I do music, like a future me beaming back a transmission of what I might want to know and leaving me cursed—or blessed—with seeing the world through gray-colored glasses.”
Creatively speaking, El-P was blessed from the beginning and started collecting equipment—including a four-track and a cheap drum machine—at age 13. But the fuck-all-y’all firecracker had been kicked out of two Brooklyn high schools by the time he turned 15.
“School didn’t work for me,” he says. “In my mind, I was self-taught, pursuing everything I enjoyed so savagely. Like all the stuff I was reading, which of course nurtured a fear of authority and questioning everything. Spaceships look cool, sure, but I’m into people like George Orwell or Philip K. Dick because of the exaggerated sociological metaphors.”
El-P was 17 years old when he met Bigg Jus. Seven years his senior, the rapper became El’s mentor and rhyming partner in Company Flow. The DJ component of the group materialized at El’s 18th birthday party, which Brooklyn native Mr. Len spun at. El and Mr. Len soon became inseparable. “We were peas in a pod,” says El-P. “Exactly my age with the same references and ideas about music that I had at the time. He was someone I could identify with.”
Looking back, El-P describes Company Flow as a “group of real friends that grew out of our own solo ideas” as opposed to three strong songwriters destined to work together. From 1993 to 2001, the trio released a string of classic underground singles (including “8 Steps To Perfection,” “Juvenile Technique” and “Blind”), the aforementioned Funcrusher Plus and an unlikely swan song: a pitch-black 1999 instrumental collection called Little Johnny From The Hospitul. The abrupt break-up of Company Flow two years later, on the eve of a massive European tour, stands as a testament to how necessary the split was for the three friends.
“I was young and very strong-willed, so I didn’t want to deal with anyone else,” says El-P. “You don’t learn to temper that with logic and social skills until you get older. Personalities clashed so hard, along with exhaustion and stress, so in terms of dying, it was a respectful death: leaving a group that still meant something to us. It also left the door open in the future. I hesitate to say that, but it’s true.”
He pauses and shares a rare glimpse of vulnerability: “I was incredibly scared once it was over because I had worked so hard to get Company Flow to where it was, right on the verge of breaking through.”
Little did El-P know that the breakthrough would turn out to be a personal one. He acknowledged the mistakes made by the once-revered Rawkus Records (Company Flow and its respective solo artists split from the label in 2000, four years before Rawkus’ Interscope/Geffen distribution deal went sour) and applied those lessons to the founding of Definitive Jux in 2001. Among Def Jux’s immediate successes in its first year were Aesop Rock’s Labor Days, Mr. Lif’s Enter The Colossus EP and Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein. A stark album that sounded like Blade Runner set to beats, The Cold Vein was widely regarded as one of El-P’s best production efforts and offered the first hint of the future-shocked sonics, dense delivery and sociopolitical metaphors of solo debut Fantastic Damage. Simply put, Fantastic Damage wasn’t the head-nodder Funcrusher Plus was, but a neck-snapper in the way Public Enemy’s Fear Of A Black Planet and It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back still are two decades later.
“Maybe I take music too seriously,” says El-P. “You know what, though? It’s either doing it this way—being passionate about all this—or feeling like I’m working a day job. I decided I wasn’t going to work one of those a long time ago. Plus, when it comes down to it, I’m greedy. I want every moment of this; I want to soak it in, be a part of everything and take the blame when it comes time for that. I’ve become addicted to it. It bears interesting fruit.”
With his bald head, pointy black-metal goatee and painful-looking facial piercing, Mr. Dibbs could pass as a serial killer in a police lineup. But in reality, he’s one of underground hip hop’s most respected turntablists and a recent convert to yoga, which he says has allowed him to “gain 50 pounds of muscle and be able to pick kids up by the neck with one hand.” Such newfound strength will come in handy this year when Dibbs becomes El-P’s touring DJ, an honor he earned after performing the scratches and cuts on I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead.
“Having him around was fun because it eliminated some of the seriousness,” says El-P, laughing as he recalls the sight of the imposing Dibbs rolling out a yoga mat. “Plus, it was nice having someone witness the fact that I was maybe going insane.”
A scatterbrained account of El-P’s deteriorating mind can be found on his blog, also titled I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. You can see how serious his deliberately antisocial moustache got and read the ramblings of a man on a repeatedly delayed, self-imposed deadline. One telling post from Sept. 6, 2006, has El-P repeating the phrase “Brooklyn, fear, drug addiction, transition, hope, sex and flying” at least 20 times. An October 16 post sums up the sessions perfectly: KILL ME NOW.
“I felt like an intruder, like the dude you invite to a party but don’t want sitting there,” says Dibbs, who witnessed El’s home-studio sessions. “It was like watching a mad scientist at work.”
“He’s a loose cannon in terms of his production,” says Mr. Lif. “It’s not just someone sending me a beat and it’s done. With El, I’m staying at his house and working until cats go to sleep. Everything is always open for debate.”
Most of this debate is internal and proceeds as follows: Record an average of 60 or 70 tracks—100 max—and then start stripping away the layers of a 50-pound onion. According to Dibbs, a song could go from sounding like El-P to Public Enemy to Lil’ Jon within seconds. The final result refuses to be heard passively.
“Even if you fucking hate me, I tried to make a record that sticks you in the ribs a bit, that waves a flag in the air and screams, ‘Wake up!’” says El-P. “You can’t just listen and pretend it’s not happening; you’re gonna have to punch something.”
The album’s guests include Cat Power, Trent Reznor, Tunde Adebimpe (TV On The Radio), the Mars Volta, Matt Sweeney (Chavez), James McNew (Yo La Tengo) and rappers Cage, Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif, Tame One, Hangar 18 and Rob Sonic—although you wouldn’t know half of them were involved simply by listening. El-P’s use of their vocals, music and tape-is-rolling experimentation is masked to the point where nothing is certain and you’re left questioning everything. Revealing who does what on I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead takes the fun out of listening to one of the most puzzling hip-hop records in years. Not even the liner notes pull back the curtain, and the back of the album sleeve doesn’t directly mention any guest contributors.
“I do have all those people on my album, but I aimed for it to be tasteful and classy,” says El-P. “I don’t want people to think I am profiting off their names. The hair on the back of my neck raises when I see one too many featuring-so-and-so things on the back of a record.”
“It’s not just about picking beats,” says Cage, who contributes to high-concept war narrative “Habeas Corpses.” “It’s a unified front of dudes putting their heads together and creating something.”
“When I work with him, I’m blinded by how fast sounds change,” says McNew, a former neighbor of El-P’s in Brooklyn. McNew explains that his own El-P fandom helped him rediscover the hip hop of his youth (Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions) and that he especially appreciates some of the more modern Definitive Jux stuff. “El’s records are dark, abrasive, funny and serious in a way that hasn’t been communicated before,” he says. “They changed things for me as a listener, so I was thrilled to give back to it in some way.”
Before he could do that, however, McNew traded numbers with El outside a Brooklyn movie theater after a screening of the Will Ferrell comedy Old School. Since then, the two have been to each other’s house parties and spent more than a few days laying down random tracks. Don’t ask McNew if he recognizes any of his original bass lines on the final mixes, though.
“I always thought of his music like those 3D Magic Eye posters,” says McNew. “You listen to it a thousand times until something pops out that you’ve never heard before. It just keeps giving and is a real long-term investment.”
“I fell in love with music while listening to it on the subway,” says El-P, who’s lived in New York City his whole life. “My thing is trying to artfully merge where I came from, which is that straight block-rocking drum sound, and all the demented shit I’ve gotten interested in over the years.”
Which is exactly how I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead was meant to be heard: severely stoned on a subway train racing through the yuppie and badland areas of Brooklyn, right into Manhattan and uptown to Central Park. Like a multi-tracked Flaming Lips composition after being obliterated by concrete-slab drum breaks and the noise pollution of a classic Bomb Squad production, El-P’s music takes on a totally different quality when heard through high-end headphones. At once paranoid and poppy, suffocating and oddly soothing, it makes you feel like everyone is looking at you.
Which is kind of a problem when there’s 10 minutes between you and the next subway stop and you’re caught in the cold stares of strangers at 1 a.m. on an otherwise empty car. So after seven draining minutes of “Tasmanian Pain Coaster,” you get off the subway at Union Square for a swig of fresh, cold-pressed air. It’s here where everything hits you at once, where Sleep’s spectacular one-two punch of “The Overly Dramatic Truth” and “Flyentology” strikes you in the head like the bitter lashings of winter’s first guest appearance. Smoke spews from an unknown source. Trent Reznor starts screaming “No!” El-P responds with free-flowing poetry about atheists in foxholes, intellect in the air, salvation and the vessel of someone’s awakening. Huh? No time to analyze. Heart racing. Someone in a suit looking at you like you’ve fucking lost it. (Apparently, singing to yourself at 2 a.m. in midtown Manhattan is considered crazy these days.) Although it’s frightening to some degree—as the THC wears off and you realize where the hell you are and how late it is—it’s also liberating.
“Now you’re starting to feel like how finishing this album felt,” says El-P. “Honestly, that’s what I’m talking about: going through hell. It’s that idea of diving into a black hole with a bungee chord tied around your ankle and coming back up with something beautiful. It’s great to have records that sound good. But times are crazy right now, so people need to make something that reflects something beyond a clean record. People need heroes right now, even if it’s just a record. I know I do.”