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.”
Though sonic geniuses like Afrika Bambaataa and Prince Paul were once the norm in hip-hop, El-P is one of the few rappers left with a vision beyond the street. This is no accident: His father is a jazz musician, and he grew up listening to rock, jazz, soul, and the blues (he’s even got finely honed critical skills; when asked about “neo-garage” bands like the Hives, he snorts derisively and says, “Oh, you mean that retro late-seventies shit?”). But it was hip-hop that caught El-P’s imagination when he was growing up in Brooklyn in the mid-eighties. “It was everywhere, coming out of cars, boom boxes, houses,” he says. “The excitement has never worn off for me.”
El-P would create rhymes with schoolmates at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn; anyone who dared doubt that a white kid could rap would incur his lyrical fury. “If a guy would say four things in four bars, I’d say eight things in four bars,” El-P remembers. “I was on this pigheaded mission to prove that I was the best, nastiest cat out there.”
In 1992, El-P and neighborhood friends Bigg Jus and Mr. Len formed Company Flow with a similarly in-your-face ethos they dubbed Soundbombing. In the hip-hop world, bombing is slang for graffiti writing. Company Flow’s music would be the sonic equivalent of graffiti: tongue-twisting, highly verbose rhymes backed by anarchic soundscapes that refused to heed the genre’s rules. Even more radically, they’d be independent from record labels large or small. “We sold our own records, and they sold well,” El-P remembers, “so our attitude was ‘We don’t need a record deal. If someone wants to do a deal with us, then they’re gonna do it on our terms.’ “
When Company Flow was approached by the then-fledgling independent Rawkus in 1996, the group presented the label with its take-it-or-leave-it offer, which included a clause that it wouldn’t sign a multi-album deal, a standard music-industry practice that keeps acts at labels for years. “They took it,” El-P says, still sounding amazed. “We signed with Rawkus because they were desperate enough to do things our way.” At the time, Rawkus was home to a mishmash of uninspired reggae, drum-and-bass, and rock acts. The Company Flow signing gave the label instant street cred, and the release of the trio’s debut, Funcrusher Plus, in 1997 ushered in a golden era of hip-hop at Rawkus that included now-classic albums by the likes of Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Shabaam Sahdeeq.
But Company Flow’s relationship with Rawkus was on the rocks by 1998, and after releasing an uninspired album of instrumental tracks in 1999, the group split from the label in 2000. While El-P refuses to talk about Rawkus now, he more bluntly stated his feelings on a cut from Fantastic Damage. “Signed to Rawkus?” he rhymed. “I’d rather be mouth-fucked by Nazis unconscious.” The experience has hardly left El-P embittered. “It’s about making the dopest music on the planet,” he says, “so that if I do decide to step to a major, I’ll have a lot of leverage.”