Originally published in the Stool Pigeon
There’s a short story by Raymond Carver about this baker who makes threatening phone calls to a young couple. The couple had previously employed him to make their son a birthday cake, but then never picked it up. One night, the mother snaps and tells the baker that her son was run over by a lorry on the day before his birthday. The baker apologises and they all sit around metaphorically eating bread. The end.
The moral of this story? Don’t play football in the middle of the road. Beyond that, it’s a warning against judging people’s actions at face value – something that comes back to me when I cut work two hours early for a phone interview with El-P, only to then have him grumpily insist that ‘there’s no way this is going to happen tonight’ and effectively hang up on me.
Ordinarily I’d have thrown in the towel right then, but there’s something about this guy that demands a second try. It’s partly his reputation – his back catalogue of recordings as one third of Company Flow; his ability to remix everyone from Beans to Beck to The Nine Inch Nails; and his role as co-founder of Definitive Jux records, a bastion of truly alternative hip hop in a world full of shit.
Mostly, however, it’s his latest album, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, on which El-P worked as both producer as rapper. Violently poetic, painfully funny and visceral beyond belief, it’s one of the most exciting and unusual hip hop records in years – although at times it veers so wildly off the map that you find yourself wondering if it’s hip hop at all.
“Look at it this way,” says El-P when I finally get him back on the phone, two days and half a dozen answerphone messages later. “People are buying less and less hip hop; it’s becoming less and less appealing to kids. You can only feed people the same bullshit for so long. Sure, hip hop is referential – it’s the pulling together and reassembling of a new sound out of a million fragments of other things – but it’s also expansive, constantly progressing and evolving. What scares me is that people are creating nothing more than references to the exact same song they made last week.”
I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is like no hip hop record you heard last week – or the week, month or year before that. Instead of tales of ghetto cocksmanship we get Habeus Corpus, a futuristic parable of doomed romance between two slave workers that’s more Philip K Dick than Pharrell; instead of brag raps about riding private jets we’re offered Flyentology, an account of the real-life religious desperation experienced by a previously atheistic El-P when a plane he was on suddenly started falling from the sky.
“I want to make music that moves people. These records are my dialogue with the rest of the world and a document of my own personal struggles, but on a deeper level they’re also studies of human experience and the idea of struggle in general. We’re not unique little snowflakes: we’re all interconnected, we’re all living with the same dark days as our backdrop. People ask me why I’m so angry, and I feel like saying: ‘Why, aren’t you alive too?’ This isn’t some fantasy land that I’m creating here.”
At the same time, it’s hard not to be struck by the hallucinogenic edge to El-P’s renderings; the prophetic quality to his nightmarish landscapes. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is a New York record through and through, but it’s not a New York that you’ll recognise from the art party mumblings of The Velvet Underground or the urban fables of the Wu Tang Clan; El’s own colourless vision of things to come makes even John Carpenter’s Big Apple look crunchy and delicious by comparison.
“People sometimes use the word ‘apocalyptic’ to describe my music, and it used to piss me off. But now I feel like saying: ‘When was the last time you stood on your roof and watched two giant buildings get hit by planes and collapse, or saw a giant asbestos cloud hovering over your city? Is that not apocalyptic enough for you?’ At the end of the day, this record is the story of one person walking through the world with a mix of clashing emotions: wanting to have hope, wanting to live – feeling like that’s his inherent right – but also having a cloud of fatalism hanging over everything. And it’s not just New York: if you pull out further you find that it’s hanging over the rest of America; pull out even further and it’s hanging over the rest of the world.”
Stirring words, but El-P insists that his isn’t a call to arms. Not for him the firebrand political activism of label-mate Mr Lif, or the on-air Bush bashing of Kanye West; El-P may come out guns blazing, but they’re not aimed at Capitol Hill.
“I’m not a politician, I’m a writer and musician. Direct statement isn’t my business: I’d rather use imagery. I’m more interested in the nature of human experience – things that affect us all, but which ordinary people don’t have time to sit pontificating about because they’re too busy with the day-to-day business of living. And who am I to shirk that responsibility? When the time comes and the masks come off – civil war or revolution or whatever the fuck is coming – if you’re an artist and you’ve been doing anything other than putting yourself whole-heartedly into your work, then you’re a fucking waste of space as far as I’m concerned. You should be first against the wall. Every song, every album, every rhyme has to be the most honest, the most passionate I’ve ever made.”
It hardly sounds like a recipe for a slow or sedative life, and El-P admits that while cathartic, the process of recording an album on which he is both poet and producer does lead to a certain amount of psychological unravelling.
“I won’t lie to you, I go completely insane. I’m one of those people who’s subject to self-destructive tendencies at the best of times; when I’m recording that’s it, the phone goes off and I’m there for months on end curled up naked in a corner of the studio sharpening sticks. But I think it’s okay to go a little crazy for the right reasons. I learned a long time ago that there’s a difference between understanding hell and being in hell: immerse yourself in it by all means, but keep one foot in the real world at all times, just in case you need to get home suddenly.”
That’s El-P: heart on his sleeve, head in the clouds, one foot in the fires of hell. He’s out there suffering while the majority of us are sitting on our hands. So if he ever hangs up on you, remember the baker story and give the guy a break – god knows he’s not likely to give himself one anytime soon.