“I can pontificate about myself. For hours…”
El-P is sat beside the Grand Union Canal in Camden; in a couple of hours he will send a packed Dingwalls into ripples of rapturous hands-aloft ecstasy, delivering a set so powerful that even stay-away rap haters would, had they taken the chance, become instant converts to the man’s cause. He wears a jacket on one of the sunniest days of the year so far, sipping Stella from a bottle as a pair of dogs – their owners conspicuous by their absence – run riot around the array of tables outside our bar of choice. DiS is initially amused by our interviewee’s decision to coat-up, but ten minutes later, as the sun ducks behind a nearby hotel, we’re deadly envious of his quilted attire.
And he’s no liar: he can talk. And talk. And then talk some more. Makes sense, really: have you heard his records?
El-P’s solo debut of 2002, Fantastic Damage, drew critical acclaim from many quarters, but five years have passed between solo LPs – although El-P filled the interim period well, working with jazz pianist Matthew Shipp on High Water and releasing an instrumental take on Fantastic Damage, artists such as Sage Francis built up a sizeable head of steam without competition from the protagonist of this particular piece. But with I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, the New York-based rapper, producer and entrepreneur born Jaime Meline in 1975 has produced a worthy successor to his breakthrough. The former Company Flow man has re-established his presence on a scene so subject to shifts in fashion by absolutely not adhering to any, and I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is another brilliant disc on the man’s own Definitive Jux label.
“I’m pleased with how the record’s been received,” says El-P. “You always hope that people will like it, but always assume that people will hate it. It’s encouraging – it seems like people are actually listening to the music, and responding to it. I mean, the level of industry we operate within is clearly not juggernaut-sized – we’re not able to buy our way into anything. So it’s cool to have people respond to it.”
And respond they have, excellently: Metacritic.com shows that the record has an average rating of 8/10, or 80 per cent; Stylus awarded it a maximum score, while Playlouder.com weighed in with a 9/10; Pitchfork, Observer Music Monthly, DiS, Uncut and The New York Times all saw fit to rate it a firmly impressive 8/10. In short, believe the on-paper (and the ‘net) hype: I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is a phenomenally powerful hip-hop long-player.
But El-P doesn’t keep track of the many positives flowing his way: “I try not to read reviews, much, because it becomes this self-flagellating experience: as soon as you become accustomed to one idea, you set yourself up for a fall. That being said, I did read a few reviews where it did seem that people had actually listened to the music, which is good because I tried to make a record that people could listen to.”
And are you intrigued with how writers are interpreting your lyrics?
“Intrigued? No. Very often people are wide of the mark interpretation wise. I know the type of music I’m making, and I know that if I am doing my job correctly someone will walk away with an impression or an idea, somewhere near the ballpark of what I was trying to convey. That being said I’m writing in a poetic way – it is poetry to me.”
El-P’s delivery is, indeed, fairly poetic; it doesn’t conform to your 50 Cent-like monotone rhyme schemes, simple turns of phrase and transparent analogies. Heavily influenced by science fiction, El-P’s raps are multi-faceted and furiously delivered; aggressive and engrossing, they suck the listener in and force them to listen over and over until all words become clear. Even then meanings are often lost in a fog of misguided assumptions and ill-fitting pigeonholes.
“If I was to get caught up in the gut impression, in the immediate interpretations people have of the lyrics, I would get frustrated. But I really only have myself to blame for that. I mean, there are songs like ‘Flyentology’, which I really just wrote about being afraid of flying. That song, very specifically, was about my relationship to God and how I’m an atheist, but when I get on a plane and the chips are down and I’m falling, all of a sudden I’m an orthodox christian, or whatever the fuck. I was not raised with dogma, but that’s what the song was about. A lot of people, though, have said it’s me lambasting religion – I do think I carry certain connotations because of the way I think and my career in general, and sometimes people make assumptions and they apply it to songs.”
But the song does come across as a joust between science and religion.
“The song is a joust, but it’s a personal one. It’s funny to find the intellectual, in the face of danger, becoming like a baby again. All of your witticism and intelligence and sardonic outlook on the relationship between these ideas and man go out of the window, and all you want to do is be held and protected, by some omniscient force, because all of your rationale has gone.”
Just why are you so afraid of flying? It makes physical sense, after all...
“Most of my reasoning ended when I got on a plane and the engine exploded, so that… that was a couple of years ago, and that’s when I wrote the song. I am quite afraid of flying, and with my tour schedule that is a concern. When I run out of my magic pills, I’ll lose my shit. It’s not cool. So logic, and that sort of self-hypnotising meditation, is not really that applicable in my life right now.”
El-P’s unafraid of heavy touring – he’s done it before, and knows that live appearances are essential in spreading the word of I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. After ten years in the saddle, he’s now happier than he’s ever been with his live form.
“I think, right now, I’m better than I’ve ever been, live. It’s at a different level – my relationship with the show, and the way that I understand it, has changed. This is the first time I’ve had material that has allowed for a passionate performance as opposed to just rapping. It’s hard to explain. It’s really just about what I’m trying to say and what it allows me to do and feel on stage, and it’s getting closer to being the kind of record that I want to perform. Back in the day performing was something I would love doing, but only because… I wasn’t in love with performing as I am now, basically.
“I’m doing more touring now than I ever have, but I’ve done the month-long UK and Europe tour before. Am I comfortable with it? Y’know, I’m kind of champing at the bit right now. I’ve not done any really hardcore touring for maybe three or four years, so I feel like I’ve got the best show I’ve ever had right now. For me it was a little difficult for a while, because it’s maddening – you’re in Germany for a week and you’re losing your mind, and Germany is a good place to lose your mind! I’ve tempered my drinking a bit in my elder years, but I’ve always had a wild side – I’m the son of alcoholics and drug addicts, and people with general leanings towards self-destruction. They’ve all crawled out of it, and I have too, but I do have a wild streak. As you get older you learn to tour a little differently, whereas in the past it was like, ‘I’m on vacation, right, so every single night I’m getting shit-faced out of my brain’. That’s a really good idea…”
He plays with the bottle between thumb and fingers – the past, it seems, could come running rampantly back at any moment should El-P let it. But this is a man with a different outlook to the man of 2002; this is a man who’s focused absolutely on the future, and on the best way to get there. Retrogressive steps just aren’t considered.
“I have a clear intent that I really want to keep growing, and going. I recorded way too much material for this record, and I have songs that I’m still working on – I wrote enough in five years for me to think that I can get another album out in a year, another full length. I would like to do that.”
Although five years separate Fantastic Damage from I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, their maker was far from inert, far from creatively static.
“This is what I’ve wanted to do all of my life, and this is now what I do. There are other factions in my life that have been born out of this, that take up my time and that I also enjoy, but this is what I’m about – doing these records. After a while it was maddening, and I was like, ‘fuck’. It was other projects and responsibilities that led to the five-year gap, but then again there are no commitments that haven’t been my choices.
“The fact of the matter is, though, that I drift – I toured for a year, and then I did a jazz album, a film score, an instrumental album, I produced an album for Mr Liff, I did some rock remixes, and I ran a record label. Then all of a sudden I looked around and was like, ‘oh fuck’. I got the call again. I’m the type of person who’s not going to say anything unless they have something to say, and then I’m going to take my sweet time over it. In a vacuum that’d only take a year, tops, but when you start three years after your last record… It’s pretty much been a two-year process. It seems like everyone is just pumping albums out these days.”
I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead took time to translate to a live record – El-P and band rehearsed for a month before taking the material on the road. Songs were plucked for inclusion and then torn from setlists; everything was trial and error, based on audience reactions and personal impressions.
“I do look at audience reaction, absolutely. I think everyone does that. But I do black out – I leave the stage and, a lot of the time, I’ve no idea what’s happened. Locking on to the audience is good for certain moments, but there are times when you have to just enter into your own mind, and go there and be in the song. That’s what is fun, and what feels good to me. I used to have this vibe that I was lecturing people – it made me feel preachy and uncomfortable, and that’s not an aspect that I’m trying to reinforce, especially as I get older. My material has changed, too – as I get older, the less know-it-all I am in the music. It’s like the know-nothing now, and that’s much more comfortable to me.”
And is your work ever influenced by the music being released by similar artists, by those making strides in your genre of choice?
“I think you’re in danger if you’re making fad-based music, because if you’re trying to catch a magic time slot where your niche sound is going to pop off then you’re fucked. I don’t think my records are like that – I’m detrimentally and blissfully unaware of what’s going on. I’m constantly listening to music, but at the same time I do exist in a sort of vacuum – I’m very serious about my relationship with my music, and about what I’m trying to say, ad my art and where it’s going. I’m following my lineage, and I haven’t derailed to follow another lineage that has popped up that is unnatural for me. That’s just the way it is – I’ve been on a path, a trajectory, in terms of the way I think and create, and I try to stay true to that and give it the most eloquent translation possible. I may fall flat on my face doing that, but it’s the only way I know how to do.”
And the five-year gap: surely you missed some deadlines?
“I did set myself deadlines, but I broke a few as well! I had to, because we (Definitive Jux) are a real business, so we need to know when the record is coming out. I pushed it as much as I could, because ultimately if I’m not satisfied I’m not going to put the fucking record out. I always look at it like every record is potentially the last record I’m going to release, and at the end of the day I’ll always chose my own sense of self-completion over a deadline. I did back myself into a corner though, I’m not going to lie.”
See, El-P really isn’t a liar. As the PR asks DiS to wrap up, there’s just time enough to ask when the rapper’s back in the UK.
“We’re coming back here in June, to do some TV shows, and I’ll do more dates then. I do like touring here, I actually do! It’s difficult to come out here, for a lot of people, and I’m lucky that I’ve been coming out enough to now be cordially invited back! It’s nice to be wanted… although it really isn’t easy for independent artists to come out here. To me, though, it has always been important, and I have been coming out here since 1997. It feels like a part of the scene to me, and it’s fun for me, too.”