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.