“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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
Meline, and Def Jux, and I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead are thus hunting big, ominous, carnivorous game. “I happen to be one of those cats who has the unfortunate reality of being incredibly tuned in to all that bullshit and weirdness,” he says. “I teeter on the edge of fuckin’ alcoholism and drug addiction and insanity and fuckin’ sexual addiction and all this shit. [Accepts margarita from cute waitress.] Thank you babe. Not only do I naturally do that, but unfortunately I think it’s actually what I should be doing.”
So enjoy the new El-P record. This is gonna hurt him more than it hurts you. Plenty of pain for everyone, though. Even the Mars Volta guys.
El-P plays the Bowery Ballroom March 22, boweryballroom.com