Number six in our top ten albums of the year, El-P talks to us about his stunning return to hip-hop, Cancer4Cure
Speaking from his Brooklyn home, Company Flow and Def Jux founder El-P, real name Jamie Meline, is pleased to hear that his dark, intense return to the hip-hop fray, Cancer4Cure [which you can read the man's own track-by-track guide to here], has made The Skinny's top ten albums of the year. “Oh wow, cool,” says Meline. “What number did I get?” Advised that the order of the top ten is a closely-guarded secret until publication, The Skinny advises him that Cancer4Cure is bound to be placed near the top. “Well it fucking better be,” he responds.
Cancer4Cure was El-P's first lyrical offering since 2007's I'll Sleep When You're Dead, not counting the odd guest spot on tracks by the likes of fellow New Yorkers Das Racist, and a slew of production credits for other hip-hop artists. Expectations ran high in the run-up to the release, and El-P did not disappoint. The science-fiction gangsterism of The Full Retard; the breeze-block beats and overlapping lyrical blizzards of Request denied; the street-level 'true stories' of Tougher, Colder Killer and For My Upstairs Neighbour – Cancer4Cure was a highpoint in a career full of innovation, invention, and the ruthless transgression of hip-hop norms.
Developing his analogue synth-led productions into a brutal, excoriating torrent of retro-futuristic electronica, and refining his lyrical concerns to address BDSM (Sign Here), surveillance culture (Drones Over BKLYN), and his relationship with his piano-player father (Request Denied), El-P also managed to expand his fanbase, appearing on Conan O'Brien's talk show to play live with Zola Jesus, and touring the world with a changing retinue of collaborators, including Killer Mike and Mr Muthafuckin' eXquire (both of whom he has helped to gain status in the hip-hop scene by furnishing them with instrumentals) and former Def Jux signing Despot.
“I feel really grateful for the response, honestly,” says Meline, reflecting on a year full of professional triumphs. “Ultimately I'm just excited to keep doing new music. You can't ask for anything more than for people to like what you do.” He laughs sardonically. “That's what we're doing here. Anyone who tells you that they don't want that is definitely lying. I feel pretty fucking grateful to be able to have people hear, y'know?"
Meline is reluctant to address the suggestion that Cancer4Cure resonated with people so much because it was a dark album for dark times: “Maybe I explore some of the darker aspects of life, or perception of life. Those are the things I'm tuned into artistically. Those are the the things that I'm drawn to try to work out using music, and this voice in my head. Those are the things that I explore, I just think that they're interesting. They are useful to me, as an artist. If I didn't have that outlet, I'd be running through the streets naked with a gun or something. So, luckily, I'm not doing that, and I think that the world is a safer place, for me and for all of us, because I get to make these tracks.” Meline laughs again, but there is a very real sense that he is only half joking.
“I think that people can recognise truth, even if it's not their truth directly,” he continues. “I think they can tell the difference between a piece of genuine music and something that's not... quite... about that. Sometimes people are in a place where they want that, need that.” Truth is a major lyrical concern on Cancer4Cure: on The Jig is Up, Meline questions the motives and identity of an un-named prisoner, possibly a loved one, who has been revealed to be an enemy agent or a spy. Meline demands answers of his victim-slash-persecutor: “Tell me who sent you here, what agency? … Who signs when you submit receipts? … Why don't you just admit the truth?” It's a song that speaks to the paranoia of our times, the fear of covert surveillance and the fluid quality of identity in the digital age.
Nonetheless, Meline is reluctant to speculate about the reasons for the popularity of Cancer4Cure: “For me the reaction of the world is a secondary result. The first result is making the record I want to make, and saying what I want to say; feeling like I pushed myself to be true, y'know? I don't know if it's really up to me to pontificate about why people react how they react.”
Cancer4Cure was perhaps the most synth-heavy album of El-P's career, evoking the spirit of pioneers like John Carpenter, Giorgio Moroder and Goblin. “I'm always gonna explore new sounds, but I'm also always gonna have my influences,” says Meline. “Even when I was sampling, I was sampling synth-heavy shit. So I've always been a gear-head, I've always been a synth-lover. There's something really amazing about being able to use the gear that my heroes used, and now I'm in a place where I can actually own some of those things. I really highly doubt that I'm gonna move away from synth stuff, because I'm a keyboard player. I was raised a piano player. It's my instrument, if I even come close to having an instrument – which I really don't, I can't read music any more. The thing I'm adept at is playing keys. That's always gonna be a part of what I do.”
Meline is enthusiastic about the current crop of hip-hop artists. “Shit, man, look – a couple of years ago, everyone was almost agreeing that hip-hop had run its course,” he says. “Everyone was shaking each other's hands and nodding at the idea that the truth was that hip-hop was dead. For someone like me, that never resonated as being true. It never even came close to being true. But it's nice to know that it's been so clearly disproved. The thing about hip-hop music is that it desperately needs new voices, all the time. The essence of hip-hop is style, and advancement of style. Sometimes we don't do the music much justice by continually trying to replicate a successful formula – that's what happens, sometimes for a long time. But then you get a generation of kids who just don't give a fuck whether or not they sound like anyone else.”
In 2012, some of the most exciting hip-hop was made by new voices, alongside ground-breaking work by a few veterans like Meline. This has just strengthened his belief in the culture: “No matter what people are saying and no matter what the critical taste is at the time, it's really ludicrous to count out hip-hop culture and hip-hop music as a cutting-edge force,” he argues. “That's what's been happening, that's what's been going on in the last year. All of a sudden, everyone's pretty fucking happy again, because there are all these amazing new voices, and everyone's just flipping the fuck out. I'm proud, and I'm excited about it, man. This year has been one of the best years that I can remember for new hip-hop music in a long time.”
It's been a great year for Meline's collaborators too, from Killer Mike to Despot to Mr Muthafuckin' eXquire. How does he feel about the way the year has panned out for them? “They're all doing great,” he reports. “Killer Mike had an amazing year, which he deserved. So did eXquire – he's definitely headed in a new direction, and I think it's gonna be really great to watch what happens. With Despot, he's someone I've believed in for many, many years. I signed him to Def Jux years ago, but the little bastard didn't give me a record. He's a very good friend of mine, and he's just one of the most talented dudes that I've ever known, in terms of his style. He had a great year as well – I think for Despot, this was like a set-up year. I think next year's gonna be a big success for him. Everybody that I worked with on this record, I'm not working with for any other reason apart from the fact I enjoy what they do, they're friends of mine, and I vibe with them. I don't have the drive to just randomly collaborate with people on my records. It only really happens for me if it makes sense – if there's a song I think will be enhanced by a collaboration. I try to keep it as non-cynical as I can when I collaborate with people. I'm a slave to what the result needs to be. I'm a slave to the record needing to exist. I just kind of feel like I'm there to make it happen.”
At El-P's recent Glasgow gig, Despot was troubled by perhaps the most ill-informed heckler in Scotland, who spent the whole of the support slot demanding that “Jeff Jux” come to the stage immediately. Meline recalls the incident without spite: “I remember him! He wasn't that bad. He was a bit drunk. When I go on the road, I love watching my friends deal with hecklers. That's just one of the most enjoyable things... call it professional cruelty, but if you can't deal with a heckler, then you're not ready for the stage!” He laughs again. “I think Despot did quite well – he did his job and the heckler did his job. Look, it's all good man, it's all love. If you get into this, you're in front of people, and you have to prove yourself. Some motherfuckers are gonna be assholes to you! At the end of the day, it's about whether you can come out of that with a sense of humour, and handle yourself in a cool way, by embarrassing the other person as much as you can.”
2012 was a banner year for El-P. Can we expect another five-year wait before his next full-length lyrical outing? “I really don't know what my next move is,” Meline confesses. “I've just now come off of tour for the first time in three or four months, and now I'm kind of sitting here figuring out what I want to do. I have a couple of ideas, nothing solid yet. I just know that there will definitely be new music out early next year.” Good news for fans of cutting-edge hip-hop, who will continue to pump El-P tracks, like they do in the future.