El-P has writer's block. It's not that the Brooklyn-born rapper -- whose real name is Jaime Meline -- is at a loss for words. Few in hip-hop can match the density of his rhymes. El-P's stage name -- shorthand for El Producto -- nods not only to the cigar brand but to his busy life on the mike.
He has spent his career redrawing hip-hop's boundaries, beginning with Company Flow, an arty, heavily abstract group whose 1997 album, Funcrusher Plus, defined hip-hop's heady late-nineties underground scene. His recent solo debut, Fantastic Damage, is a tour de force that includes everything from Philip K. Dick–like visions of the future to reminiscences of hip-hop's golden era in the late eighties, when he was a teenager "playing Nintendo in the Fulton Mall." It's all set to intricately layered soundscapes -- built of jazzy percussion, foghorn blasts, and brutal, purposefully atavistic beats -- that are every bit as complex as El-P's lyrical visions.
The project causing the mental blockage is a compilation CD of songs inspired by the classic anime film Akira. So, on this cool evening in early September, El-P is watching Akira for the seventh time in the ground-floor two-bedroom apartment in Red Hook he shares with Harlem hip-hop duo Cannibal Ox, decorated with posters of Josephine Baker and Blade Runner. "The idea to do this Akira thing sounded good at the time," El-P says, taking off his FANTASTIC DAMAGE baseball cap and running his hands through his slightly mohawked hair, "but of course I was broke then. Now that I've got some money in the bank account . . . " His voice trails off and he scratches his goatee. I suggest that the song could be about Akira in the abstract. "Oh, yeah, it'll be abstract, all right," he says with a laugh. "It's gonna be as vague as possible, believe me."
This is, of course, one of the defining characteristics of life independent from the major labels: a bank balance with all the volatility of the current bear market and jobs taken on for quick cash. El-P is the owner, A&R representative, and just about any other job title you can think of for Def Jux, a label he founded in 1998 with the motto "'cause motherf*****s are bored." "I'm the mind behind the label, the only A&R guy, the rubber stamp, everything," El-P says, kicking back in an easy chair. "I'm Def Jux's musical force."
Four years after its inception, Def Jux is a force to be reckoned with: Its roster includes RJD2, whose recent album, Dead Ringer, ranks with D.J. Shadow's more visionary work; rapper Aesop Rock, whose Labor Days is a kind of hip-hop answer to Bruce Springsteen's working-man rock; and, of course, El-P's mind-fucking Fantastic Damage. "I started Def Jux because I realized that almost everybody in the music business is completely clueless," El-P says. "It's not enough to say, 'I want to make money.' You've got to have vision. You've got to have strong musical ideas."
But unlike other independent-minded hip-hoppers -- who view mainstream rappers like Nas and Jay-Z as vapid and commercial -- El-P isn't interested in overthrowing hip-hop's gangsta elite. "It's not about us versus them," El-P maintains. "It's about who makes the better record." He even rejects the "independent" tag, which connotes left-of-center purists, for his own label. "Independent?" he asks angrily. "What the fuck does that mean? I put out Cannibal Ox on Def Jux. That's some straight-up street shit from Harlem." And he becomes infuriated at the suggestion that hip-hop might currently be drowning in it own vanity. "Hip-hop doesn't need to be saved from itself," he says. "The music has a built-in sense of survival."
Besides, it was a mainstream hip-hop song that rescued him from his long bout with the emotional aftermath of September 11. "I was just so fucked up about it for months," he says. "I thought New York was finished. I was like, 'I love this city. Where will I go?' " But when he heard Jay-Z and Cam'ron's "Welcome to New York City" early this year, his spirits were lifted. "Fuck The Rising," he says. "That's what this city is about, man. It's that feeling of energy, rebellion, not being held down no matter what."
His love for a Top 40 hip-hop anthem doesn't mean that his own sensibility isn't among the music's most adventurous. "It's funny, El has a much more abrasive approach to music than I do," says the Philadelphia-based D.J. RJD2. "We have the whole boss-artist relationship reversed."
"El is definitely the wild one," Mr. Lif, a Berkeley-based rapper, concurs with a laugh. "He's not just pushing the envelope; he's breaking the damn envelope." His business sense is just as refined, a rarity in the neophyte world of independent labels. "I'm seeing the records in Vibe and Entertainment Weekly," says Mr. Lif. "I never thought that would happen with an indie."
El-P has big-name admirers like Baz Luhrmann, and he was recently tapped to produce albums for former Rage Against the Machine front man Zack de la Rocha and avant-garde jazz pianist Matthew Shipp. "I was nervous when we went into the studio," says Shipp. "But he struck the proper balance between having a strong sense of his own music and being respectful of jazz music. The session was magic."