The sophomore album by hip-hop artist El-P portrays a world plagued by war and malevolent technology. Cities are burning under the noses of uncaring mayors. There are "rats tappin' glass in a government lab." It doesn't sound happy. Then again, these aren't happy times.
"C'mon mom, can I borrow the keys?" El asks at one point. "My generation is car-pooling with doom and disease."
Dystopian as it may be, I'll Sleep When You're Dead is an a-bomb of an album, set to flip the script of underground hip-hop in both beats and rhymes. It was worth the wait El-P's first solo effort, Fantastic Damage, came out in 2002. Dude, what took you so long?
El-P performs with Mr. Dibbs and the Mighty Quin on Monday, March 19, at Studio A, 60 NE 11th St, Miami. Sol.ILLaquists of Sound and Mayday! also perform. Doors open at 9 p.m., and those 18 and over are welcome. Tickets are $12 or $20 (for a package including a copy of the CD) in advance. Call 305-358-7625, or visit www.studioamiami.com.
"Obviously, I was doing a lot of other projects," says the 31-year-old Brooklyn native, a boyish redhead with a pterodactyl tattooed on one inner forearm. "I wouldn't say I got sidetracked, because I wanted to do it all. I take the time on my records as well. I probably work a little longer and harder on my own records than the average person. It's really that it was ready, so I put it out."
If underground hip-hop had a quintessential renaissance man, El-P (born Jaime Meline) would be it. Besides recording solo albums and appearing as a guest MC on other musicians' tracks, he's a prolific producer, making beats for and remixing other artists. (He released a completely instrumental album, Collecting the Kid in 2004, and even scored a film, Bomb the System, released in 2005).
Oh yeah, then there's the fact that he founded and owns one of the most influential independent hip-hop labels, Definitive Jux (formerly Def Jux, but changed in 2002 thanks to legal threats from major juggernaut Def Jam). It's the stable that has produced indie stars and critical darlings such as Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif, and Cage. He also started, along with fellow MCs Mr. Len and Bigg Jus, Company Flow, the seminal group whose 1997 debut, Funcrusher Plus, is now part of the underground canon.
Not that he misses making music as part of a defined group.
"At this point, fuck yeah I like making solo albums better," El-P says. "Company Flow was simultaneously incredible and incredibly difficult. You have to understand, we had been making music since '94. By the time that full-length album came out in '97 and we toured, it just ended up falling apart, personality-wise. At the time, it felt like a tragedy to me, but I'm much happier doing things the way I am now."
Translation: with El-P handling everything. Not only did he write all of the songs on I'll Sleep When You're Dead, he produced the disc as well, programming all of his own beats.
As early as his teenage years, El knew he was destined to make a life in hip-hop. "I would just fucking cut class and drink beer and act like a juvenile and freestyle," he recalls. "I played piano when I was a little kid for three years. I tried saxophone and trumpet too. My problem with all that shit was I couldn't really make Run-D.M.C. records with a saxophone. So I would make loops of someone else's break on my boom box, and rap on the little microphone attached to the boom box. Then I bought a four-track. I was totally self-taught there was no school for that shit, and if there were, I probably would have gotten kicked out."
Because of this early facility with both performing and producing, today he feels comfortable using either as a mode of expression. "I love production just as much as I love MCing," he says. "But at the same time, I like having something to say."
Rooted as it is in golden-age New York hip-hop, El-P's production style is flagrantly unorthodox. Rather than aiming for retro boom-bap, he often slows his breaks to a narcotic crawl, burying them in distorted reverb and lacing in eerie samples, both organic and computerized.
The sound of ISWYD is that of a paranoiac's fever dream, of robots and tanks grinding through a scarred landscape and breaking into bits. Then there's El-P: narrating the impending apocalypse in his unrelenting, wordy flow, middle fingers raised at the powers that be.
Kicked out of high school for disciplinary problems (he later got his G.E.D.), El is a voracious reader. He name-checks George Orwell, Philip K. Dick, and even Borges and Faulkner as lyrical influences.
"Philip K. Dick is kind of like pulp theology fiction," he says. "Where else do you get huge questions about the nature of existence, along with aliens and flying cars?" He cherishes Orwell for his ability to write about the misuse of power. "Those ideas appealed to the kid in me who always felt that way. Of course, when you're a teenager, you think it's your parents, or ösociety'; it's just unfocused."
Not that the songs are all unchecked rage against the machines. There are moments of fear, and sorrow for lost innocence. Even the armor-plated cyber-cop protagonist of "Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love)" finds romance, albeit with a female captive: "I'm the first to touch her without gloves on/She's the first to kiss me without crying." Yeah, he's not afraid to let a little emotion bleed through.
"A good artist is supposed to use all of his influences and pain and joy and suffering in his records," El-P says. "I think the problem is when an artist does the same thing over and over. If every song is incredibly heartfelt, and you have twelve incredibly heartfelt, tear-jerking moments, it's just not that powerful."
In the case of ISWYD, a good artist also knows when to collaborate. The disc not only features cameos by longtime friends (Aesop Rock, Tame One, Cage) but special guests Cat Power, the Mars Volta, and even Trent Reznor, the last two whom he had previously remixed.
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"It's me just kind of using them in certain parts," El says. "It's not like some rap-rock mash-up. I'm just a fan of all of them for different reasons, and I heard places on the record for them." Cat Power, for instance, appears as the wistful female crooning a hook, the others as sonic ingredients in an instrumental stew.
Monday's performance is one of four he has scheduled in a minitour before the album is released on March 20. (The other dates are in New York, San Francisco, and L.A.). The Miami stop makes sense after recent successful shows by Cage and Mr. Lif, and with a local hip-hop scene progressively growing in size.
"Miami's been showing us a lot of love in the last couple of years," he says. "I feel like a lot of groups just skip Miami and the fans get the shaft. It's a really hungry scene out there."