El-P submerges the cameos a rap by Slug from Atmosphere here, a vocal hook by Matt Sweeney there into the maelstrom along with the X-Clan samples. With few exceptions, they're barely noticed. El-P retains center stage.
"It's been five years since he's put out a record, so there's people coming out of the woodwork to get behind him," Amaechi Uzoigwe, El-P's longtime manager and business partner, says. He describes a postrelease schedule that includes appearances on late-night TV talk shows and international tours. "I think this record is what El-P has done every five years, going back to Funcrusher on Rawkus with Company Flow," Uzoigwe says. "He redefines what indie hip-hop is and can be every time he drops a record."
Throughout his career, El-P has consistently pushed the boundaries of hip-hop. As the leader of the trio Company Flow, in 1997 he issued the totemic Funcrusher Plus, a disc that eventually sold more than 100,000 copies with no radio or video support. (Vibe magazine recently called it "the defining document of '90s hip-hop dissent.") Shortly before the group disbanded, El-P cofounded Definitive Jux with Uzoigwe. The label grew into an outpost for idiosyncratic visions from Aesop Rock, RJD2, and Mr. Lif. I'll Sleep When You're Dead continues that tradition as El-P reconfirms his status as a serious artist worthy of the same consideration as Nine Inch Nails and Cat Power. It's his first since 2002, but he argues, "It seems like a long time, but for me it didn't seem that long." Remixes for others (TV on the Radio, Hot Hot Heat, and Beck), beats for his Definitive Jux roster (Mr. Lif and Cage), exotic collaborations (High Water with jazz pianist Matthew Shipp's Blue Series Continuum), and a soundtrack assignment (Bomb the System) helped the years pass by.
"Those things were me getting into the role of different characters. None of it was really me," El-P says. "The outside production that I do is about me trying to step into the role of furthering someone else's vision and working within those confines. I seek those things out. I wanna know how to do it. I want to get better at it. I seek these experiences out because I know I'm going to go back and make my record, and hopefully there'll be something I can pull from those experiences to enhance what I do for myself."
If all goes to plan, I'll Sleep When You're Dead will anchor a busy year for Definitive Jux. New albums from Aesop Rock, Cage, Camu Tao and Rob Sonic and a 10th-anniversary reissue of Funcrusher Plus are in the offing. The label has been relatively quiet in recent years, only releasing one album (Mr. Lif's Mo' Mega), in 2006. In 2007, Definitive Jux hopes to reclaim its past and map out its future.
"We spent last year getting everything together internally so that we can go into these next couple of years as strong as possible," El-P says. He bristles at the notion that Definitive Jux is on the verge of a comeback. The label's inactivity, he explains, was due to operational issues from launching a digital download store (the Pharmacy) to simply waiting for artists to finish their albums. "We're very lucky, especially given a time where record labels are dropping like flies. It's hard to maintain a business, and it's hard to keep going. Somehow we've managed to be healthy and line up great projects. I'm very excited, to be honest."
In some ways, El-P has it easy. As a New York artist who came of age during the Wu-Tang era, the 32-year-old is a critic's darling who isn't as scrutinized and second-guessed as many of his peers, a group that ranges from the aforementioned Atmosphere and Busdriver to People under the Stairs and Sage Francis.