No Sleep for Brooklyn

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

Success—commercial, social, financial, whatever—has not dampened his sinister cynicism. There's a song here called "Drive" that's mostly just Meline bitching about traffic; whether he's issuing these profane oaths from Geos or Ferraris these days, his tracks serve as trash compactors that bash whatever point he's driving into tiny, violent little cubes, terrible to look upon and wondrous to behold.

I'll Sleep When You're Dead begins with Meline approaching a down trodden-looking friend on the subway and trying to find out what's eating him, and by extension eating everyone. (Actually, he asks "What's the dilly-deal?," but hey.) The answer takes about an hour to explain, and the diagnosis is neither pleasant nor pleasantly delivered. Grossly oversimplified, everyone is very, very angry. And so is Meline. Still. Company Flow dissolved in 2000, and though, as he puts it, "We tried to celebrate it, as opposed to it being some pathetic, dithering fart into nonexistence," the breakup generated a considerable amount of hostility anyway, particularly toward their label, Rawkus. Meline's self-made imprint, Definitive Jux (Def Jux at first, but now just unofficially, after a bit of a legal spat with Def Jam), blossomed soon thereafter, and the animosity between labels past and present peaked on what Meline has admitted is probably his most famous line to date, taken from Fantastic Damage: "Sign to Rawkus? I'd rather be mouth-fucked by Nazis unconscious." A bit of a motif he had going there for awhile—once feebly needled on a diss track from Sole, a rapper with the West Coast crew Anticon, El-P responded with "Linda Tripp," a gory seven-minute response that begins, "I oughta pierce this fuckin' phallus through your rookie-ass throat."

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

He might've outgrown such viscera since then, but not the underlying causes. "The moment that I'm not a kid is the moment I'm not angry," Meline says. "The moment I'm not confused. Then I'll realize that maybe I'm not a child anymore." On the other hand, "Anger and intelligence are often synonymous. I don't think [losing my anger] is possible."

This might explain why last week Meline found himself feuding with Rawkus again, this time in a bizarre only-in-2007-and-between-underground-rap-entities feud touched off by a picture of Meline hobnobbing with P. Diddy that Meline had posted on his blog. (Let's just skip the blow by blow, it's a little too ridiculous.) Hostility still abounds. At the very least Meline is more comfortable now with temporarily taking a more behind-the-scenes label mogul/producer/remixer role. Most of Def Jux's best records—particularly The Cold Vein, the deliriously frigid 2001 debut from Harlem duo Cannibal Ox—bear his production imprint, and in the yawning five-year lag between Damage and Dead he did some vanity-esque projects (a one-off jazz record, remixes for Nine Inch Nails and so forth). But mostly he's been focused on backing Def Jux rappers like Cage (a rap-as-therapy primal screamer with a ridiculously checkered past), Aesop Rock (a nasal, professorial whirlwind who raps like he's being paid by the syllable), and Mr. Lif (simultaneously more politically indignant and more cheekily laid-back than any of 'em).

Dead is the long-awaited resurgence of El-P the persona, the leading man—a curtain call a bit slow in coming but still well-timed. Def Jux could use another monster hit. Cannibal Ox has struggled mightily to record a Cold Vein follow-up. Another early label triumph was RJD2, a sample-heavy producer who emerged from Columbus, Ohio, in 2002 with the truly outstanding Ennio Morricone-goes-Motown epic Dead Ringer. Unfortunately, he chafed against the confining praise and DJ Shadow comparisons that followed and this year left Def Jux to put out a profoundly odd, almost singer-songwriter album, The Third Hand, that's left his biggest fans and critical champions bewildered.

"I gotta give RJ props for not givin' a flying fuck, though, right?" Meline says. "That's some real shit. That's the ilk of person I get down with. That's the type of artists that we are. We're OK with the idea of possibly fucking it all up. That's how I feel about the whole label, and that's how I feel about these records that I make. If I'm gonna fall on my fucking face, I'm gonna gloriously fall on my face. It's gonna be a bloody horrible trainwreck."

I'll Sleep When You're Dead doesn't deliver on that threat—it's a satisfying continuation of Damage's bloodlust, its search for deeper truth, however horrifying, in one guy's smothering pathos. "The best way to make a record that's about more than yourself is to make a record that's about only yourself," Meline he says. "We're not these unique little snowflakes that exist in our own world of pain."

Certainly not in New York City. The Atlantic Yards project's imminent havoc is a burning issue in Meline's neighborhood, but ask him how his hometown has changed in the last few years and he'll skip over any eminent domain squabbles and head right for September 11. "There was a hollowing out of New York, apart from the obvious physical destruction," he says. "The result of which seems to be a mass psychosis, a cloud, a dark cloud descended over the city. And it hasn't left . . . the fuckin' city needs therapy, and needed therapy for a long time. Something died, man. The machinery stopped fuckin' moving."

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