By Steve Weinstein
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You can hear their minds melding on R.A.P.'s most outspoken tracks. To wit: "Reagan," a complicated dance between rant and confessional where Mike recounts the evils of the War on Drugs, Reaganomics, and the Iran-Contra scandals—gangsta-rap catechisms—before pivoting into a startling self-recrimination and indictment of rap's glorification of gang culture and drug sales. The song concludes with the exceedingly blunt last line "I'm glad Reagan dead." When I ask Mike about this line, his eyebrows shoot north. "I threw a barbecue when Reagan died," he says. "Straight the fuck up—a Reagan's Dead Barbecue. Kept it negro as a motherfucker." El notes: "We took that from KRS-One when he did 'Aw Yeah': 'You know, I'm kinda glad Nixon died.' To me, that was the hardest shit anyone could say. Because, you know, so was I!"
This honesty braids through the record, and it is the undergirding of their obviously real friendship. "Mike is a real person; that's why I fuck with him," El says. "He's not a caricature. He's a man who has experienced a bunch of different shit. He's taking on a lot of responsibility right now. And people are listening to him because he's someone who's seen and done some shit. I mean, let's be honest. You don't want to take life advice from a priest. You want to take life advice from a fuckin' thief. You wanna tell me why stealing's wrong? I wanna hear it from somebody who's actually stolen some shit."
I ask both artists what they want to prove with R.A.P. Music. "That I'm the lyrically one of the top MCs on earth right now," Mike says. "Straight up. Eminem, Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Andre 3000, Big Boi, Cee Lo, Kanye—you put my album next to theirs, and that shit is getting seriously debated." El-P wants something similar. "I want to prove that I'm one of the top five best living producers. I want my goddamn recognition; I'm not even gonna front. I'm not running around tooting my own horn. But the fact of the matter is, shit, why the fuck not, man?"
R.A.P. Music isn't the end of the story for El-P. He is also re-emerging from semi-exile to release his first solo record since 2007, Cancer4Cure. In the interim, he had been more or less absent: In 2009, his legendary group Company Flow reissued Funcrusher Plus, but otherwise, he had receded from view. In a recent Pitchfork interview, he referred to Cancer4Cure as "fight music," but El's music has always been a little too internal for that; if there's a fight on Cancer, it's between a man and his own shadow. "When I say 'fight music,' I think it's a little more abstract," El says when I reach him on the phone weeks later. "I think I'm fighting for my sanity, fighting my own instincts, as much as I'm battling any outside force."
The alternate universe of the gorgeous, gloomy Cancer4Cure—one where El is the sole, often-unhappy inhabitant—might feel familiarly claustrophobic, but the recent story of El-P's career has been one of slowly letting in light. "I feel like I've been given yet another chance to do what I love to do, and maybe I don't deserve it," El says. "But this is a rebirth record for me."
Back in the bar, El seems comfortable, basking in the simple glow of his newfound friendship. He and Mike engage in a bit of mutual admiration. "You know how your mom tells you, 'Pick good friends'? 'Hang around people that know more than you,' 'find someone smart'?" Mike says. "El is genuinely that. He's someone I respect—I just really love the guy. He gives a damn about making me better." El, for his part, relates an anecdote that seems to summarize everything about their dynamic.
"The other day, I witnessed Mike scream on someone on the phone," he says. "I would say it was probably one of the most epic screaming-ons that I've witnessed in the last decade. It was to the point where he was almost dancing. Now, if it was anyone else, I would have told them to shut the fuck up, please go away. But I just sat there watching, and I couldn't help but grin ear-to-ear and laugh. Because everything this motherfucker was saying was true. I didn't even know the situation, but you could hear it. He didn't scream on this person because he enjoys hurting people or because he likes to play power games. He was screaming at someone because the truth needed to be told. That's who Mike is to me. I needed a friend like Mike right now in my life."
El-P performs at Santos Party House with Despot and other guests on May 21.