El-P, “Clarity” [Feature From the June 2012 Issue]
WORDS THOMAS GOLIANOPOULOS
El-P lives in a walk-up in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in a building that resembles a converted factory. The hallways are cramped, and the stairs creak like in a haunted house. The apartment itself is a nice space—rustic, industrial chic. There’s a space heater in the living room. The shower and toilets are in separate rooms. The living room is filled with vinyl and an eclectic assortment of books—Ayn Rand, Harper Lee, David Foster Wallace, Dr. Seuss. There’s a home studio, too.
“This is my dark and gloomy room,” he says, entering the, yes, dark and gloomy room. He composed the majority of the production on his new album, Cancer 4 Cure, here. A poster for the 1982 movie Blade Runner hangs on the wall. He looks at it and jokes, “I’m nothing if not predictable.” Over the years, El-P has repeatedly professed his love for the bleak science-fiction masterpiece. The director’s cut that is—not the original theatrical release of the movie. “That one sucks,” he says. “It has the happy ending.”
It’s not surprising that Jaime “El-P” Meline, 37, prefers the version that ends on a downer. As a member of the mid-1990s rap trio Company Flow, he railed against the happy-go-lucky mainstream, rapping, “I’m sick of your corny beats and your crowd-involved hooks ’cause I’m a thinker,” on their breakthrough record, “8 Steps to Perfection.” If that wasn’t direct enough, the group named their first EP Funcrusher. Company Flow disbanded after a few years, but El-P’s solo career didn’t veer off the dark path: His first two solo albums, Fantastic Damage (2002) and I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (2007), were cynical, dense explo- rations of post-9/11 New York, George W. Bush’s America and, in general, the evil that men do.
He’s endured a particularly rough patch in recent years. His good friend, the rapper Tero “Camu Tao” Smith, died of lung cancer in 2008; he dissolved his label Definitive Jux in 2010; and he spent the past few years recording his new solo album, which, he says, was a grueling, emotional process. But, for once, El-P is looking at the bright side at things.
“I feel lucky,” he says. “I could just as easily not matter at all right now. I could easily be played the fuck out right now. I could easily be making music that just isn’t connecting anymore. I feel lucky that I’m getting yet another chance. People are paying attention. It’s not something I take lightly.”
A tumultuous Brooklyn upbringing helped shape his disposition. His father, jazz pianist Harry “Keys” Meline, left the family when El-P was seven. A stepfather briefly entered the picture, but he was an abusive alcoholic—El-P recounted the terror on the 1997 song “Last Good Sleep.” He was an angry kid, expelled from school twice before dropping out for good when he was 16 and deciding to pursue a career in music. Luckily, his mother was supportive and paid his way at audio engineering school. Within the next few years, he soon met DJ Mr. Len and the rapper Big Juss and they formed Company Flow.
After five years at the forefront of the New York independent scene, spats with their label, Rawkus Records, and solo aspirations brought about a split in 2001. El-P went on to form the label Definitive Jux—which housed artists such as Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock and Cage—work with diverse acts such as Trent Reznor, TV on the Radio, Mars Volta and Beck, and release two solo albums, which were sonically and thematically different from Company Flow. The music had the same attitude but was a bit more personal, a bit more confessional, and it really took a toll on him. “I go to dark places on these records, and it’s not necessarily fun or easy to tap into that,” he says. “It’s like walking through flames.”
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