In May 2002, El Producto issued the acidic collage Fantastic Damage on his label, Definitive Jux. Winning universal acclaim for its compendium of broken-home tales, hard-won insights, and teenage misadventures, the recording crystallized a moment when rap musicians could reject the corporate-approved pay formulas proliferating on MTV without losing a receptive and knowledgeable audience.
Five years later that promise has seemingly passed. Rhymesayers, once famous for selling hundreds of thousands of CDs without major-label support, is now distributed by Warner Bros. LA rap scion Busdriver likes to wear a T-shirt that reads, "Sorry, underground hip-hop happened ten years ago." The controversial Anticon collective, once renowned for its vision of rapping as avant-garde art, has turned its attention to experimental rock.
Meanwhile, critics have long since withdrawn their support. "Independent pop not just hip-hop has in many ways become a version of graduate school, a safe zone where artists can eke out a living, take their time doing specialized work," New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote in 2004. "In most cases, this is the last thing a popular musician should be doing." Unlike the participants of past movements think early '80s hardcore or mid-'90s indie rock neither indie rap artists nor the popist critics who hate them can imagine an alternative, noncommercial universe that is profitable as well as artistically successful.
Some things haven't changed, however. El-P, the man whose Definitive Jux imprint represents the best in underground hip-hop, remains a restlessly intelligent and caustically opinionated maverick. I'll Sleep When You're Dead, his just-released follow-up to 2002's Fantastic Damage, is one of the year's most remarkable albums, hip-hop or otherwise. I'll Sleep When You're Dead is hallucinatory and strange, but it ain't a coke rap epic. It's the equivalent of a distorted lens refracting El-P's mind, bent during wartime, and he stays afloat through torrential word pours and samples collated into Sheetrock. "Why should I be sober when God is so clearly dusted out of his mind / With cherubs puffing a bundle tryna remember why he even tried / Down here it's 30 percent every year to fund the world's end / But I'm broke on Atlantic Ave. tryna to cop the bootleg instead," he raps on "Smithereens (Stop Cryin)." Despite the knotty slanguage, however, his lyrics are conceptually grounded, even when he musses with the details.
"I think the record has a political tinge to it, but it wasn't me trying to feed you my crappy, base understanding of geopolitics," El-P says via phone from Planet New York. "I think the record is a snapshot of a mind state during a time that is highly politicized and strange.... I don't think anyone needs to hear my perspective on why war is bad or what's happening in the world. I just think that I'm very influenced by the tone of the times, and it comes through."
Deliberately twisted, I'll Sleep When You're Dead isn't, as El-P puts it, "constructs for the radio." Some of the tracks, such as "Everything Must Go" and "No Kings," are simple yet evocative b-boy rants with fresh rhymes. Others are stories. "Habeas Corpses" details a prison guard and firing-squad technician in a futuristic American prison camp "This is incredibly nerdy," El-P says who falls in love with one of the prisoners destined to be executed. He questions his feelings for her, but in the end he shoots her.
Eye-catching names such as Cat Power, Trent Reznor, members of the Mars Volta, and Daryl Palumbo from Head Automatica riddle I'll Sleep When You're Dead 's liner notes. 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. But if mainstream audiences and critics continue to write off indie rap as a province for silly idealists and college nerds, then I'll Sleep When You're Dead indicates that the genre survives in spite of their disdain. At the very least, it sets an impressively high standard for a much-maligned and beleaguered art form.
"I think the genre is a little bit stagnant, musically and creatively. And I think we've seen the result of that, whether it's show attendance, record sales, and just general complaints from the music community," Uzoigwe says. "I think [I'll Sleep When You're Dead] is a much-needed addition to the indie hip-hop canon." *
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