No Sleep for Brooklyn

Indie-rap fireplug El-P returns, as bombastically bleak as ever

"I really don't like looking at the back of a record and seeing the word featuring a million times," says Brooklyn rapper–producer–label overlord El-P. Incidentally, his new album, I'll Sleep When You're Dead, features cameos from members of the Mars Volta, TV on the Radio, and Yo La Tengo (!?), not to mention Chan Marshall (a/k/a Cat Power), Matt Sweeney, and Trent Reznor, all mingling with the standard crew of guest rappers (Cage, Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif, Slug, Murs), most of those already on the payroll at El-P's label, Definitive Jux. This ain't a scene, it's a goddamn arms race. Robert Altman films have less complicated credit rolls.

Whoa. Got distracted for a second there, sorry. "Let's face it," continues El-P, a/k/a El Producto, a/k/a Lazerface, a/k/a 32-year-old Fort Greene redhead Jaime Meline. "Most rappers have the worst possible taste in rock music, and most rockers have the worst possible taste in rap music. And a lot of times they decide that means they should get together and do a song. And then you get shit like, fuckin', whatever. Limp Bizkit.

Meline sits in a Mexican restaurant near his apartment, enjoying guacamole and margaritas as he delights in the notion that he has filled his fan base with terror. Specifically, we fear an ostentatious, Santana-esque debacle besotted with the famous pals he's accrued in the course of generating some of the most dense, apocalyptic, anxiety-ridden, deliberately nauseating underground hip-hop ever sired. If I say that Fantastic Damage, his discordant and suffocating 2002 solo debut, is one of the best records of the past 10 years—or that his Blade-Runner- meets-the-Bomb-Squad aesthetic, an acid bath with a wet-cement chaser, makes him the best producer in New York City—it'll probably get both of us shot. Suffice it to say that people care very deeply about this shit, and about whether he now squanders such goodwill-through-sublime-ill-will on a Rolodex-humping duets album.

This gentleman is very, very angry
photo: Timothy Saccenti
This gentleman is very, very angry

"I was sort of sitting there grinning," he says. "I just knew exactly what everyone was thinking. You know what? I would think the same thing." And what would that be, exactly? "That this is probably a really heavy-handed attempt at making some sort of pathetic crossover record, a clumsy collaborative thing that won't work."

Rest easy, kids—take Dead for a spin and marvel at how all Meline's famous friends are absolutely buried. They're swallowed whole by the decay, the rotting dementia. I have no idea where the Yo La Tengo guy or the TV on the Radio guy are. None. Brutally exhilarating opener "Tasmanian Pain Coaster" is five minutes in and all but over by the time the Mars Volta dudes show up for a minute or so of inconsequential falsetto wheedling. An hour or so later, Chan Marshall moans "Never again" repeatedly on charmingly titled album closer "Poisenville Kids No Wins/Reprise (This Must Be Our Time)," but the first few times you'll probably mistake her for a Portishead sample or something. And yes, Trent Reznor shows up for some constipated muttering on "Flyentology," but mostly he just screams "No!" as El-P invents a new religion.

Thank God. His heavily hyped guest stars are so bloodied and uglied up they could probably sue. "I'm a hip-hop producer," Meline explains. "I sample. And now I can just sample people. I get to bring them in and use them and twist them to my advantage. I just wanted to do it and not be a douchebag. But I didn't go out of my way to hide them. I could be accused of underusing—I did have someone tell me that they were shocked at how I squandered my resources. That's not what it was about. Whatever I hear I hear, period."

What he seems to hear is the atrophied heartbeat of a dying city. That's purple prose, and we'll get back to it later, but when it comes to despair and decay and deconstruction, this guy does not fuck around. Those unfamiliar with El-P's work should consult Funcrusher Plus, the primary document left by his mid-to-late-'90s underground rap trio Company Flow; it begins with "Bad Touch Example"—sampling a don't-let-anyone-touch-your-private-parts children's PSA—and grows only more crass and disturbing from there. That nightmarish tableau will soften you up for "Stepfather Factory," a truly horrifying monologue on his solo debut, Fantastic Damage, that introduces a new line of booze-addled, physically abusive robotic parents. The track fades out over a lonely accordion and a disembodied voice repeatedly intoning "Why are you making me hurt you? I love you," at the exact intersection of corny and bone-chilling.

The one comparable sci-fi short-story moment on Dead—"Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love)," with its "I found love on a prison ship" mantra and goofy tale of doomed automaton lovers—is waaaay too far on the corny end of the spectrum. And the record's wrenching emotional high point, "The Overly Dramatic Truth," turns out to be a disappointingly straightforward it's-not-you-it's-me breakup letter to a young lass or two—though El-P's official explanation, which involves his theory on how dating younger women is like being a magician, is honestly pretty funny. But the pathos on Dead is generally less amusing, and slathered in black hole-dense, eviscerating beats that twist and shatter and morph like pornographic, homicidal Go-Bots.

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