Just as El-P took a seat at the ground-level bar of Johnny Brenda’s, a cozy three-story tavern and music space in Philadelphia, Audio Two’s “Top Billin’” began to blare over the sound system, like a ghoulish salute to the Brooklyn native. What began as small talk upstairs, where the band Chin Chin prepared for sound check, turned into karaoke – two guys at a bar mimicking Milk Dee’s staccato shrill. The indie-rap icon explained that he was in town for a final tune-up before Pitchfork Music Festival. And he was genuinely happy to return. “[Philly] cats know their hip-hop,” he said over a drink. “They don’t fuck around.”
Back in 2008 El-P headlined a concert in the basement of First Unitarian Church, one of Philly’s iconic music venues. It was May and muggy. The room, a sweat locker with an obscene amount of wood paneling, was a tight squeeze, full of old heads in Timbs (the boots can be seen year-round in Philly), guyliner Goths, and everyone in between. The vibe was pretty ridiculous: artists and audience, each a picture of punky individualism, were unified through three hours of angry, jubilant music. “If you give people something that they can throw themselves into, they’ll be the livest crowd you’ve ever seen,” El-P asserted.
Busdriver, a Los Angeles-based emcee, opened the show, stretching imaginations with lucid dream beats and lyricism. East London’s grime ambassador Dizzee Rascal followed. Apparently impervious to heat (he wore a heavy jacket on the sweltering stage), the Brit displayed Goku-like energy as he unloaded a ton of gravelly rhymes upon his new American audience. When El-P finally got his time to shine, the vet read the scene perfectly. Moshing consumed the front rows as Chin Chin brought “Deep Space 9mm”’s stuttering, demented funk to life.
At the time Definitive Jux, El-P’s brainchild, claimed an international roster of artists – the imprint had just released Dizzee’s third album, Maths & English, in the U.S. – and Defjux.com was weeks away from relaunching. The website, which already had an impressive online store, received a visual overhaul and the latest web 2.0 fixings. All signs pointed towards a record label adapting to meet consumers’ new media demands.
But things do indeed fall apart. While El-P might display super heroics in front of the crowd (“I feel like fuckin’ Superman on stage”), like many a music maker, he’s not immune to the hazards of the grind. In February he stepped down as creative director of Definitive Jux. “To me, it really feels like the right thing for everyone involved,” he said, adding that he always intended to be a working artist, a hard thing to swing while running a company. “No matter how hard it may seem to some degree, it would be worse if I was to just continue to do this and not have my heart in it and also not be able to do what I want to do for the people that are involved.”
Founded in 1999, Definitive Jux gained credibility after releasing a string of records that altered the landscape of the underground scene: Aesop Rock’s Float, Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein, and El-P’s solo album Fantastic Damage. The label filled the void left by Rawkus, which carried the indie hip-hop torch through the mid-90s. (Rawkus still exists today but only as a shadow of its former self.) In addition to the aforementioned artists, Definitive Jux put out music by Murs, RJD2, C-Rayz Wallz, and a host of other hip-hop diehards.
Although El-P hinted in his original announcement that the brand might evolve and live on in some manner, Definitive Jux will cease producing physical products following the August 17 release of King of Hearts, the late Camu Tao’s swansong. “It’s not the same anymore. It used to be about getting on a record label. I personally don’t necessarily believe in record labels anymore, so it’s really hard for me to run one,” he said. “If you were to give me $1 million now, I wouldn’t start a record label – not because I don’t love music, but because I don’t think that would be the way to do it. To me it’s exciting that we’re all being forced to change.”
As stressful as winding down operations has been, El-P isn’t dejected. “I just think it’s a symbiotic relationship [between artists and consumers] and no one has figured out how to transition from the way it used to be to the way it will be,” he explained. He’s back at square one in some respects, trying to master the elements – something he’s managed to do in his music.
The industry is shaky, but one thing remains certain: El-P’s knack for sonic alchemy. Take for example “T.O.J.,” the unexpectedly epic slow-jam-of-sorts from 2002’s Fantastic Damage. The generally brash rapper puts in a poignant lyrical performance. (“That was some scarily honest shit.”) But as with many El-P productions, much of the track’s genius is rooted in the NYC-native’s ability to art-direct industrial clangor. The song is like that moment in a sci-fi flick – Blade Runner perhaps – where the line between man and machine is totally obscured. Out of the nerve-wracking noise of city commutes and windowless factories, he forges a sound both raw and human. Layering abrasive bleats and blasts, mechanized brawn and industry, he builds something wholly affecting, soulful.
Earlier this summer the Internet was abuzz with El-P’s largely anthropological venture into pop: his unauthorized remix of Justin Beiber’s hit single “Baby.” What began as a joke on Twitter – “ok i now have like 20 bieber accapellas [sic]. thinking about putting my career on hold and just doing an album,” read one status update – turned into something else.
“That’s a fucked-up song,” El-P exclaimed. “[Beiber] is talking about getting fucked over by this girl – and there’s another dude involved.” Yet the music track and video (nearing 291 million hits on YouTube) are flashy and upbeat, an emotionally tone-deaf mess. Once El-P picked the a cappella, he figured: “Let me make this soundscape for what I think he’s really saying.” The result is pretty stunning. The production wiz manages to humanize the tune and loosen the tween heartthrob’s bubblegum straightjacket (without toxic chemicals and heavy duty grill scraper). “The fucked up thing is that by the time I was done with the remix, I actually really liked the song,” he chuckled. “I was like, you know, this kid can kind of sing.”
As for a follow-up to 2007’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, “I have a good amount of songs [underway],” El-P said. “I’m pretty sure it’s going to be out mid-2011, if the giant methane bubble under the sea doesn’t burst and scorch our eternal souls.” But here’s the rub: people who used to call El-P paranoid for his rapid-fire cultural critiques are sharing their conspiracy theories with him now. “It’s a little bit harder for me to write,” he cracked. “Now that the rest of the world is freaking out, now that everybody is tapped into the blatant thievery and false pretense and general malfeasance of the power structure on the planet, I’m getting disinterested…. Honestly, it’s kind of depressing. I went from self-righteous indignation, to rage, to amusement, to just, I think, like, border-line suicidal depression. Now I’m just, like, mildly numb.”
To tide fans over, there’s El-P’s Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixxx3 (iTunes | Amazon), just released by Gold Dust and in stores now. A strictly instrumental affair, the album is like a Halloween grab bag assembled by an Iron Chef: rich, spooky, and full of unexpectedly tasty combinations of ingredients.
- Purnell Cropper
Check out El-P’s remix of Justin Beiber’s “Baby” below: