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I saw El-P perform live for the first time in 2013. The stage, situated under the I-65 overpass at Louisville, Kentucky’s Forecastle festival, sat a stone’s throw from both the Ohio River and a decoratively beached yacht, so it felt preternaturally appropriate when El stood next to his partner in rhyme, Killer Mike, and rattled off the first sidewinder verse in “Sea Legs,” my favorite track on the then-new Run The Jewels album. So new, in fact, that most of his audience didn’t know the words to the songs. Most members of the crowd — primarily white twenty-somethings wearing neon sunglasses and backpacks equipped with water bladders — were almost certainly too young to remember the beginning of El-P’s career. But they ate him up anyway.

The past two years have been very kind to Brooklyn born b-boy Jaime Meline, a.k.a. El Producto, b.k.a. El-P. Run The Jewels (as well as his and Killer Mike’s 2012 solo albums) has made El a producer and emcee whose work is talked about, while not too long ago the conversation focused on his personal business.

Four years ago El placed his label, Definitive Jux, on indefinite hiatus. He hadn’t produced a song in a year. Personally, I didn’t expect a third solo album out of him, and I don’t think anyone expected the roaring odd-couple success that Run The Jewels has been.

People do get second chances.

Of course, if anyone has earned a shot at redemption, it’s El, who has twice played an important role in popularizing america’s hip-hop underground. His first appearance on record — as part of Company Flow in 1997 — helped put Brooklyn’s Rawkus Records on the map. El kickstarted the label that kickstarted Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Pharoahe Monch. Afterward, as artistic director at Def Jux, El curated a who’s-who of noteworthy emcees including Cannibal Ox, Mr. Lif and Aesop Rock. Independent hip-hop would not look as it does now without El.

In retrospect, El’s independent spirit seems couched in aspects of his personality. This is a man whose album sampled William Burroughs, the original mad independent of New York City. Paranoia remains the defining theme of his lyrics. El’s verses often double as suspicious tirades against the government, big business, the record industry, and any other authoritative force he can think of. He might be incapable of working within the traditional confines of the music industry.

Nor does El operate in the traditional confines of what a producer-emcee does or does not do. He listed the equipment used to create Fantastic Damage in the album’s liner notes, for example; although the gesture could be read more as a middle finger than a how-to guide. For the earlier part of his career, El produced some of hip hop’s most inventive beats with not much more than a rudimentary sampler. He cobbled together beats out of prog rock, experimental and new age music, Phillip Glass compositions and found sounds, creating music with no prominent hip-hop forebears save for maybe the Bomb Squad. When hip-hop sounded smooth and danceable, El sounded like a demolition team — there would be no Death Grips or Yeezus without his pioneering. As Killer Mike raps on “Banana Clipper”: “Producer gave me a beat, said it’s the beat of the year/ I said ’El-P didn’t do it, so get the fuck outta here.’”

After close to two decades working on the fringes of popular hip-hop, El-P’s production style and lyrical themes are more relevant than ever, and he’s producing some of the best material of his long and twisting career. Which is exactly why it’s time to assess his projects. For such a prolific artist, El hasn’t produced that many full-length records. Included are every full-length record that El produced in entirety, and every record in which he seemed to have an authoritative part, with the exception of his instrumental track collections — in other words, Cannibal Ox in, High Water out.

Start the Countdown here.

Comments (24)
  1. You say that as if there’s a worst El-P album.

    • exactly^

      High water?
      Collecting the kid?

      No lets choose weathermen jibberish instead.

      • Sorry, Weathermen was included erroneously and it’s out now. As Joseph stated in his intro, “Included are every full-length record that El produced in entirety, and every record in which he seemed to have an authoritative part, with the exception of his instrumental track collections.” We just felt it wouldn’t be fair to rank the instrumental stuff alongside the rap stuff.

  2. “This is church, front pew, amen, full clip/ what my people need, and the opposite of bullshit.”

    Damn near positive it’s “pulpit” instead of “full clip”

    Not to be that guy, but “R.A.P. Music” (the song and album) means a lot to me.

  3. I’d put c4c at 1 for sure with run the jewels 2nd and I’ll sleep when I’m dead at 3rd. Not too familiar with the rest of these.

  4. My 1-7 is almost exactly opposite the 1-7 here. The Cold Vein is pretty much my favorite rap album ever and Cancer 4 Cure is easily my favorite El-P solo effort. I go 3 Company Flow, 4 RAP Music, and then probably 5 Fantastic Damage, 6 Run the Jewels and 7 I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead from there, damn.

    • I’m with you. I’d put I’ll Sleep… near if not at the bottom. That said, I agree there is not a weak album in this bunch but I go back to I’ll Sleep less than any of these others. My top 3 would be 1. Cold Vein, 2. Fantastic Damage, and 3. Run the Jewels but then I did listen to A Christmas Fucking Miracle about 4 times this morning.

    • You know, you could re-order those seven albums in almost any order and I could live with it. The man has an ear for quality, and really understands how to sculpt an album. As for The Cold Vein, I really put it so low because it seemed like ‘the least El-P album’ of the bunch. Mordul and Vast just overpower his personality on it.

    • Yeah, I’ve had similar thoughts reading this list.
      To me, The Cold Vein is the unquestionnable #1. After that, I don’t know, but C4C is probably my favorite of his solo efforts, and I like both funcrusher and rap music more than i’ll sleep and fantastic damage

  5. The Cold Vein is actually the best hip hop album ever.

  6. LOVE I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. Very much agree with that placement.

  7. El’s never made a bad album, but I’ll Sleep When Your Dead is surely his magnum opus. Spot on.

  8. Funcrusher Plus is great and this list is bad and you should feel bad. Me circa 2008 is shaking his fist at you right now. He is shaking it HARD.

  9. pretty weird order to my eyes, but each to their own. for mine, fantastic damage is utterly incomparable and is among my all-time favourite albums. i also didn’t get the fuss over R.A.P. music but i understand i’m on my own there. i’d go:

    7. R.A.P. music
    6. funcrusher plus
    5. run the jewels
    4. cancer 4 cure
    3. i’ll sleep when you’re dead
    2. the cold vein
    1. fantastic damage

    … but run the jewels was fucking superb and among my favourite 2013 releases, even all the way back at #5.

  10. 7. R.A.P. Music
    6. Funcrusher Plus
    5. Run the Jewels
    4. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead
    3. Cancer 4 Cure
    2. The Cold Vein
    1. Fantastic Damage

  11. Yeah, “Fantastic Damage” and Aes’ “Bazooka Tooth” were two albums of the 00s that were so far ahead of their time that they haven’t been caught up to yet.

    I really do love ISWYD, too, but it was definitely an album with a greater production budget and stronger rolodex. And it wouldn’t have been without “Fantastic Damage”.

  12. Run the jewels is the best to me

  13. 7. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead
    6. Funcrusher Plus
    5. The Cold Vein
    4. Cancer 4 Cure
    3. R.A.P. Music
    2. Run the Jewels
    1. Fantastic Damage

    I couldn’t get into ISWYD, to me it felt like a collection of great singles, but as an entire piece it was just OK. Fantastic Damage is and always will be the greatest album of all time.

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