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Make Nasty Shit and Keep Moving: The Way of El-P

As his old solo work hits streaming, the rapper talks about what it means to be independent, how it feels to stumble into profound timeliness, and Run the Jewels’ new, more “aggressive” music

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

El-P has lived many lives in the last 25 years. He’s been an indie-rap iconoclast as the leader of the seminal group Company Flow, the torchbearers for New York underground rap in the late 1990s. He’s been a label head as cofounder of Definitive Jux, the mid-2000s home to the likes of Aesop Rock and RJD2. He’s been a virtuosic record producer, helming the boards for minor classics by Cannibal Ox and Killer Mike and remixing one of Lorde’s biggest hits. Today, he’s best known as one-half of Run the Jewels, the project with Killer Mike that, in seven years, has gone from Adult Swim collab to big type size on Coachella posters.

But despite being around for the last two-plus decades, key pieces of El-P’s past have been unavailable online (at least through legal channels), including his first two solo projects, 2002’s Fantastic Damage and 2007’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. The reason for these gaps in history aren’t your run-of-the-mill sample-clearance and label issues—El-P just never got around to putting them up after Def Jux folded in 2010.

“I let my catalog drift into nothingness because I was so focused on what the next step was that I literally didn’t care,” he says today.

In the past six months, El-P (born Jaime Meline) has been taking steps to fix that: I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead arrived on streaming services in December, Fantastic Damage followed suit this past Thursday, and both are slated for glossy vinyl reissues through Fat Possum Records later this year. Fantastic Damage in particular is the rare type of rap album that feels both of its era and perfect for the present. Originally released in May 2002, it’s a claustrophobic affair filled with tense instrumentals and dense lyrics—an aesthetic many sub-mainstream rappers at the time strived for but few achieved. The production is as immediate and pulverizing as the Bomb Squad’s Public Enemy work; the lyrics often feel like Supreme Clientele–era Ghostface working through a breakdown. Topically, the songs feel as relevant in the midst of the global pandemic as they did when they were recorded shortly before 9/11: “Dead Disnee” is a joyous anti-capitalist screed, while “Deep Space 9mm” plays like a b-boy anthem for a decaying society. “You’re behind the walls of new Rome,” he opens the song. “You wanna buy the farm but the land’s not yours to own.”

The reissues are just the beginning of a busy year for El-P: He recently scored Josh Trank’s Capone, and on June 5, he and Killer Mike will release Run the Jewels 4, their latest collaboration that he promises will feel like a “punch in the face.” El-P recently spoke with The Ringer about the projects, how his output has changed in recent years, and why his music has felt prescient even when that wasn’t his intention.

Fantastic Damage was originally released into a post-9/11 world, but in some ways, it feels like it has renewed relevance in May 2020, as this pandemic stretches on. How do you view the record today? And is it weird to have your music recontextualized for an era it wasn’t created for?

It’s interesting. I finished recording that record not long before 9/11, so the shit that you’re hearing on that record, believe it or not, is from a guy who, before 9/11 happened, was thinking the way that everyone started thinking when 9/11 happened. I was young. I hadn’t had the experience of dropping records and having them be related to things that, in my mind, they weren’t related to necessarily. I remember being a little annoyed, like I kept trying to clarify to people that this was not a 9/11 record.

I was annoyed and angry that people weren’t thinking this way until something fucking horrible happened to them. And I felt like, “Hey, look. We haven’t been living in a perfect world. You’ve just simply been jostled out of being able to enjoy a little bit of blissful ignorance.” I felt like I had to clarify: “Look, this art is coming from somebody who is just thinking like this all the time.” I wish it were as easy as me reacting to something like this, but the truth is that I had this sort of insanity, if you want to call it, only simply because it doesn’t feel sane to be looking around in relatively quiet times and thinking, “The world is ending.”

Those first two records of mine came out at a time when I felt like a veil had been violently pulled away from my face, and it wasn’t a joy for me. It just became the predominant way that my mind worked and saw things. And a lot of art came out of that. Because I was working through it—screaming through it, kind of.

Do you still feel that way, after two more solo records and three Run the Jewels projects?

That was the first experience I’d ever had with a record landing at a time when there had been some event that people naturally associated with it. Now that I have a little bit of perspective on it, I realize that that’s just a natural function of the way that we use art. The same way that when you’re heartbroken and you listen to a song on the radio that at certain points wouldn’t hit you at all, then all of a sudden every fucking lyric that you hear is ripping you apart. I just look at it like that: There’s this relationship that we have to art and to words and to energy that we use.

How much of your art is a reaction to current events? The third Run the Jewels record came out at the beginning of the Trump administration. How have the past four years affected what went into RTJ 4 versus the earlier albums?

There’s a difference in tone. A lot of the third record was written in the lead-up to that moment, and that year was incredibly emotional for people who are empathetic and who are paying attention. There was a lot of very publicized tragedy and murder, of innocent civilians by police. There was a lot of clear injustice that was really making its way into public consciousness, I think, for a lot of people for the first time. Every time you turned on the news, you were getting brutalized by tragedy. That cast a hue over the record. Mike calls it our blue record. It’s way moodier than other records I’ve done.

This one, you’ll hear the difference. We weren’t in that exact same place. This is a lot more aggressive, it’s a lot more—I don’t know how to say it, man. This is the reason why I’m not a music critic. But I’ll just say that you will hear it. It is a different record. It’s a punch in the face until it’s not, I’ll tell you that.

Speaking of punches in the face, the “Ooh La La” video feels like one, especially because it dropped in late April and involves being in a crowd in public. That’s, of course, basically impossible now with social distancing.

We filmed the “Ooh La La” video, and two weeks later you weren’t even allowed to have a crowd of people around, and we still aren’t. We were like, “Holy shit.” Like, what is wrong with us that we keep stumbling into things? Like, this video was not supposed to mean this much. We were supposed to be referencing a concept that had existed way before any of this bullshit. And all of a sudden what we’re dealing with is “Holy shit, is this going to make people uncomfortable?” Because now we’re all fucking terrified of being in a crowd. But again, at the end of the day what can you do? It’s like, “Hey, fuck it. We did this, this was not created with any knowledge of what was about to happen.” Yet because of the natural way that we think and our natural inclination towards art, we’re somehow stumbling into relevance on a level that we honestly didn’t even want. Ultimately, we were like, “Look, it’s joyous and it’s fun and it’s real and that’s it.”

How did Greg Nice end up as a featured artist on the song? It was a sample from his verse on “DWYCK”—was he listed as a performer because of a publishing thing or something else?

It was a sample, but at the same time he made the song. To me, it was a chance to expose a lot of people who might not know who Greg Nice is or Nice & Smooth are, because I think he’s a fucking hero. And he’s one of the best dudes in the world, so it was really just me trying to be respectful and honorable and be like, “Hey man this is featuring you, let’s make it official and come and do the video and when we perform it, come rock it with us.” He was 100 percent down and psyched, and it just felt right.

Why did it take 18 years for you to score another film after Bomb the System? And why get back into it with Capone?

You know, I didn’t even seek it out. It was always something that I imagined myself getting into eventually. I love the process, and it’s something that I hope to get the chance to do more of. But it wasn’t anything that I was randomly pursuing. It came to me because I had worked with Josh Trank on another film. I scored the end credits of the infamous Fantastic Four. I was sort of privy to what he went through after that movie didn’t work; he went through a really rough time. And the whole time, we just got to know each other, and then when he started to come out of that and he wrote this movie, and said to me, “Will you do this?” And I just liked his spirit about it. This is a guy who wanted to make something beautiful and he had been a little bit crushed. And I had a window, and I was like, “Shit man, yeah. I’ll do that shit, fuck it.” But I do really love doing it, and you know, the fantasy of being able to be someone’s Vangelis is always going to be there for me.

So, I’m going to date myself, but one of the first vinyl LPs I bought as teen was Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus. Now, we’re here 23 years after that record came out discussing the rerelease of your albums on streaming services. The mediums have completely changed over time. How has it affected how people interact with your music?

I come from an era when that didn’t exist. The medium that we grew up on and learned to love was the physical product, and there was a whole bunch of experiences and a whole bunch of culture that comes as a by-product of that existing that I love and is important to me. But at the same time, I don’t give a shit if I have to beam the fucking music into your eyeball with a laser. The truth is that it’s really just about making music and having people hear it. And so while I understand people being weirded out about how things have changed, I don’t hold too much to be sacred. I try to break it down to the truth of my relationship with the world, and that is that I want people to hear my music.

Back in the Company Flow days, the group’s motto was “Independent as fuck.” I’m curious what that meant to you then and what it means to you now.

Back then what it meant was we were sitting at our kitchen table with glue sticks, scissors, and drawings that we had made trying to put together the labels for our self-pressed 12 inches. And we were looking at each other with this giant mess of bullshit, and we were like, “Yeah, we are independent as fuck.” We laughed our asses off. And that’s where the phrase came from. At the time, there was a big divide. When you were an artist back then, getting onto a label was an impossible task you could barely even imagine. “How am I supposed to get from here to there?” And also beyond that, “I don’t actually even want to do the stuff that I’m hearing coming out on those labels.”

We were right smack-dab in the middle of a time when the commercialization of hip-hop was just blowing up. But the stuff that was really blowing up was not the stuff that the people who were lifelong fans of hip-hop music were really into. So we were looking at who we were and what we were about—realizing that there was some honor in being the little guy, some honor in being scrappy, some honor in saying, “Listen, I don’t give a fuck about all of that shit. This shit is the dopest shit you’re going to fucking hear, and it doesn’t matter if there’s a dollar behind it or not.”

But what about now, when you don’t have to glue your own labels?

We’ve seen a complete shift, right? Where the playing field has essentially been completely leveled; you can release a record on a major, and it really doesn’t fucking matter. What it was always about was control—control over what I want to do, control over what I want to say.

When you have an entire industry and a system that collapses, and you have a thousand different venues and a thousand different ways for people to put music out all of a sudden, all you have is that adherence to what you believe in. I’m at the point now where it’s not the same for me except for the fact that the principle’s still there. My criteria is that I still get to do what I want, when I want it, and how I want it. That was the principle, it’s just that back then, that was a complete fantasy. Unless you were doing it 100 percent on your own and nobody else was involved, you weren’t going to be getting any of those things. It’s a little bit different now.

You’ve been releasing music steadily for 25 years and only getting bigger along the way. Why do you think you were able to survive and prosper in the industry when so many of your indie rap peers have either fallen out of the business or not reached the same heights?

That I couldn’t tell you, man. I’m just grateful to be here. I’ve always put my nose to the grindstone and made it about the music. I’ve never stopped. I’ve never looked up from the page. And I never spent a second thinking about my past in terms of my past, I only spent time thinking about what the next thing is.

Now, do I know why that means I get to stick around a little bit and other people don’t? No. But fucking luck, people connecting with some of the ideas, a career’s worth of slowly poking through the consciousness and it finally kind of clicking. I don’t know. But I’m very grateful for it, I’ll tell you that much. Because this is all I do.

How do you look back at Def Jux years now?

Rarely, in my mind. But you know, we wanted to bring cool shit to people. It was an extension of what my philosophy was at the time, which was I don’t want to bring my music to the established scene, I want people to understand that this right here—this shit that has no funding and has no backing, this weird shit—is interesting. That this is actually something that we can sell to people if they were exposed to it. That was the mission of Def Jux: It wasn’t to change anybody, it was to say, “Let’s connect, work on stuff together, and create something that is not there and try to make it work and bring it to the public.”

At the same time, just on a personal level, I look at it as something that I would never do again. Not because I didn’t have a good experience with Def Jux, but because when I came out of the whole thing, I walked away from it being like, “I’m not happy, I’m not going to be happy unless I simplify. I don’t want to be in control, I don’t want to be in a power position, I want to make music.” I was putting records out every five years or so, and it wasn’t enough for me. I had a reckoning. I had lost it all, the whole thing collapsed right when everything started to affect the record labels. Our overhead versus our income destroyed us, and this thing I had identified with for a good decade had just disappeared. All of a sudden I was left naked on the floor, clutching my legs with nothing except the realization that I did have something I’d been ignoring. And what I had was this drive to make music.

That always struck me—that you went five years between Fantastic Damage and I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, and then another five years between that album and Cancer 4 Cure. And then you just went on a run starting in 2012 with the Killer Mike album and the Run the Jewels records.

Yeah, man, because when I finally came out of that existential and literal crisis, where I was eating fucking one egg sandwich a day for a year because I didn’t have any money, I came out with a fucking voracious appetite and hunger for proving myself and making some nasty shit. And I haven’t stopped yet. I’m still in it because I’m clinging onto it.

Neither you nor Mike has made a solo record since 2012. Is that on purpose? Do you ever think about making another solo record?

Well, what we did was make Run the Jewels records on purpose. We didn’t expect Run the Jewels to be what it was, we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into, but then we realized how much we loved it. And we realized how exciting it was and we realized what we could do with it. I’ve had solo records, I’ve been in a group, I’ve produced for other people. The same way that I’m not letting go of this feeling—this rush, this freedom of being all about the art—is the same way that we haven’t let go of Run the Jewels. It’s a fucking rollercoaster. We’re on this motherfucker and it’s so fun to see where it goes.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.