a long talk

El-P Has Made Peace With His Past

The rapper and producer on bringing his Def Jux solo classics to streaming for the first time.

Photo: Daniel Medhurst
Photo: Daniel Medhurst

El-P, our resident rap doomsayer, warned us that everything was going to shit long before it got there. As a solo artist, a producer, a member of the rap groups Company Flow and now Run the Jewels, and the former head of the venerable hip-hop label Def Jux, El-P, born Jaime Meline, built a sturdy catalogue of paranoid boom-bap bangers that continue to feel prescient years after the fact. 2002’s Fantastic Damage, dedicated to “kids worried about the apocalypse,” is a document of war, murder, and urban decay written before 9/11 but released into a world profoundly changed by it. “Deep Space 9mm” worries that America will go out like ancient Rome, and “Dead Disnee” ponders seeking refuge in Disney World as American cities burn, several years before the Mouse descended on Times Square. 2007’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is leaner and more well rounded, though no less grim. At a time when Brooklyn-based indie music was a Day-Glo dance-punk party, I’ll Sleep spoke to a generation “carpooling with doom and disease” alongside a gifted cast of prog, goth, metal, and indie legends well before artists on that spectrum started to pop up in the credits of big rap and pop albums. Both albums are visions of tech and commercialism run amok, sci-fi acid nightmares rendered all the more chilling listening in from the New York of 2020.

In 2010, El put Def Jux on what would become an indefinite hiatus. A decade ravaged by leaks and music piracy, coupled with the industry’s early resistance to digital audio options, burned holes in the pockets of many independent music outlets. Great labels shuttered. Great albums slipped out of print. For years, FanDam and I’ll Sleep languished in the vast expanse of quality music that’s not so easy to find, while the pulse of the music industry and the career of the artist changed. Run the Jewels turned out to be a powerful second act for both El-P and his partner in rhyme, Dungeon Family legend Killer Mike.

Three albums in, the unlikely duo is making some of the best music of either rapper’s career. Run the Jewels 4 is set to drop on June 5, with a guest list that includes 2 Chainz, Mavis Staples, and Pharrell Williams. Later this month, El will release his score for director Josh Trank’s Al Capone biopic Fonzo. (In 2015, he scored the closing credits of Trank’s Fantastic Four.) In the interim, El-P has finally released his first two solo albums on all available digital streaming platforms: I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead hit in December, and Fantastic Damage is out digitally as of May 14, just in time for its 18th anniversary. I spoke to El-P over the phone at the end of winter about revisiting his musical past, as someone who has made a career out of looking toward the future. He’s affable and talkative, funny with a dark streak, just like his records.

I remember running into you in the city a number of years ago, and you didn’t seem entirely enamored of the streaming music economy back then. A lot of artists had that reaction about streaming as a viable future of the music business. What made you apprehensive?
Well, have you bumped into an artist that’s enamored of streaming? [Laughs.] If so, I’d love to talk to them. What am I missing? At the end of the day, the whole thing is a little bit of a fucking sham — the way that the streaming industry popped up and the way that they treat artists, the metrics that they use. Anybody who’s been around and who’s been in this business, who didn’t just pop up now while it was all established, has a few questions and should have a few questions about the whole thing because it’s kind of bullshit, the way that people get paid and the way that it gets calculated.

But, that being said, this is the way that people are gonna consume music, so we’re gonna be involved in it. I don’t want my music to not be available to people. I always thought it was kind of silly to rail against the inevitable cultural shift that happens with technology and the way that we consume art. It doesn’t make any sense to be angry about it or to fight it, except for the fact that I could say genuinely, “Hey, everybody knows, it’s not a secret that this shit doesn’t fucking pay out the same way that actual physical sales paid out.” That’s just a fact, so, whatever.

It seemed like a way to close the gap between people stealing and people buying things. Streaming brought the public back to the idea of legal music fandom. I think that’s what the endgame value is gonna be.
Well, you’re talking to someone who literally gives his records away for free. We sell our records, but every time we put a record out, we give it away for free. So, I’m definitely not gonna be a person standing around complaining about shit. I’m just someone who, if you were to ask me, I’ll tell you the truth. Yeah, there are issues, but, so what? There are issues with everything. Run the Jewels decided that we were gonna give our music away for free because we didn’t want a wall between us and people hearing it. We weren’t on a label. We didn’t have major backing. We didn’t have money. We wanted to win the hearts and minds of people, and we calculated that it really didn’t fucking matter to some degree. We saw that, for us, it was actually an advantage for people to be able to hear our stuff and not have to decide whether or not it was worth the [financial] risk. It’s just one way of figuring out how to get into people’s heads. But I don’t think that that’s a golden path or repeatable in every situation.

What’s shocking and really amazing to discover in response to that was that our best intuition and most romantic suspicions of how people would respond to that if they liked it was proven true, which was that people appreciate it. And then, they come back and they support you. Technology has created new lines of communication and new lines of expectation between artists and people who support the artists. So I really don’t have any resentment about the playing field. The truth is simply that there was a transition where everyone was trying to figure out, “How do I make a living if the rules have changed this drastically?” That was a tough period for a lot of artists. Just intellectually, philosophically. I realize very clearly that if you don’t have a record on Spotify, to a lot of kids, you don’t have a record.

Streaming-service availability is like the shelves at record stores back in the day. If you’re not represented there, you almost don’t exist.
Absolutely, and that’s because of people’s habits. People will be like, “Hey, this is great, but can you put it on Spotify so I can listen to it?” Or, “This is great. Can you put it on Apple?” The way that they get music is simplified. I understand that, so I want you to hear my music, period. This is music that came in right under the cusp of this whole thing popping off, because my career shifted in different ways and because the label I owned that put the record out was not functional. I was always sort of looking ahead, and I never really liked looking back and caring much about my own shit. It’s been a thing for me when I listen to my own music and, to some degree, even just the handling of my own catalogue.

Well, humor me with that for a second. It’s the early 2000s. Brooklyn is getting hype in the press as an artist’s mecca. There’s a lot of upbeat music coming out, a lot of big day parties. You, on the other hand, deliver us Fantastic Damage. What kind of a state of mind makes that music?
I don’t know, man. Being born and raised in New York, I somehow got another perspective where I didn’t see everything around me going crazy. That happened to be what I was tuned into. It’s funny, because when I did that record, it was pre-9/11.

I’ve always thought of it as post-9/11.
Exactly, exactly, but [I made it] in 2001. On Fantastic Damage, I’m literally saying, “When the city burns down, I’m gonna go to Disney World.” There’s so much on there that seems as though it’s reactive to the current reality. It literally was written a year before that. All I can tell you is, during that time in my life, I felt very tuned in to the chaos lurking underneath the grime. I’m a guy who wrote a song called “Patriotism” that was on Iraq during the Clinton era, when everyone thought everything was great. I really wish that I had a different sort of wiring. I’ve never gotten the chance to be like, “You know what? Shit is pretty cool.” It sucks, because I’ve never been able to just hold hands with everyone and join in on the delusion. But this is my perspective, I suppose, and this is where these solo albums jump off. Fantastic Damage was just a straight scream-at-the-top-of-your-lungs-at-a-crowd type of experience.

But I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead was this album about the struggle between wanting to join the delusion and not being able to outrun this hint of truth, this hint of reality that was sort of whispering in the back of your ear. It was much more about how we get up every day and put our clothes on and march out there without losing our fucking minds. For people like me, who were privileged to not literally be born into a clear authoritarian sort of state, who were sensitive enough and empathetic enough, [we were] tuned in enough to feel injustice and evil lurking, to see it, to be confused by it, to have it be clashing against what had been told to me was my natural right to be happy. “Hey, it’s time to live your life, kid. Get up. Put a smile on. Make something of yourself.” I’m trying to get to the fucking train without crying because I don’t know how to process the death of a friend, or I don’t know how to deal with the fact that I’m letting myself fall down this sort of empty stairway of drug abuse and just general depression. New York is just this noise, and you’re just erecting these illusions around yourself that sometimes don’t last longer than hours. It’s just jumping from illusion to illusion, just to protect yourself.

Do a lot of people ask you for beats? Or is it understood that you’re focusing on the group?
I collaborate with people when I have time and when it lines up, but the truth of the matter is that — I was just talking about this the other day. I was like, “You know, despite the fact that I know how to make records, I don’t think that I’m a producer. I think that I’m an artist.” I’ve taken a glance into the production game, and it’s pretty fucking grimy. Until I don’t have something to say, until I don’t have this desire to be at the helm and create full records, I don’t know if I can get into that. And yet, there are so many people whom I’d love to work with who have reached out, and so many amazing opportunities to do that. I’m sure that it’s possible that at some point I’ll really sink myself into that, but for me, I’m really mostly interested in making albums. Right now, obviously, I have Run the Jewels to pour all that energy into. So, that’s what it is for now.

What can we expect from RTJ4?
It’s just a completely relentless, savage fucking punch in the face. Absolutely nonstop fucking rawness. It’s absolutely the noisiest, rawest record that we’ve done. That’s what came out of us. It just felt right, and it just was like, “You know what? Fuck everything.” Beyond that, I’ll let everyone else tell me what they think. I’m really excited about it. I love it. I love the energy. Personally, I think it may be our best piece of work yet.

[Killer Mike and I have] known each other now for a long time, and we just locked in on some shit. We knew that we felt like Run the Jewels 3 was sort of a blue record. We pick colors to represent [our albums]. We thought Run the Jewels 3 had an underlying sadness to it, and I think that’s something, despite all the fun records on there, that Mike and I really felt in different ways. It came out in that record, and I’m proud of that. But this record is not that. I think that people are gonna hear a difference. It’s still using all of our influences and it’s really the distillation of everything that is fucking fun for us about rap. At the same time, it’s an angry record; it’s kind of brutal.

Do you ever miss running a label?
Oh, hell no. Are you kidding me? That’s like asking, “Hey, do you ever miss feeling suicidal? Do you ever miss being on the brink of self-destruction because you can’t deal with stress?” No, I do not miss running a record label. I do not regret running a record label, but I do not miss it. The second that I stopped running a record label, I was able to do music again and be a little bit more prolific. That’s when things changed. My life simplified, and the relationships that I had were really stripped down. Things got pure. The relationships and friendships that I have now are not based in anything that could be conceived as business, except for the direct group of people that I work with, and that’s all family. It’s just a hell of a lot cleaner and easier. I also didn’t realize how badly I needed to just be an artist. As much as my intentions were good — to see if I could use what I understood and my ear to further music and further my friends’ careers — the stuff that I sort of walked into that with was really hard. It really actually took a toll on me at the end of the day, not just on me as a person, but on me as an artist.

I woke up one day and realized that I was feeding the label because the label existed. And when it started, the label existed because we had music. I had to create a label, in my mind, to put music out because I had a bunch of really cool records. Eventually, it just got to the point where it was like, “We’ve got a staff. What do you mean we have to pay bills no matter what? I don’t have a record right now.” That type of vibe, that bullshit is really not what I was in it for. So it sucks that it fell apart, but hey, we were one of the victims of that shift in the music industry. There was that really uncomfortable spot where everybody’s revenue was dipping, and we had blown up pretty quickly. We got big, at least in our world, and we had a lot of overhead. It was the same story that a lot of labels go through. But, at that time, in the shift between people not buying as much physical and the digital stuff not yet being on point and making up for it revenue-wise, everybody was panicking. Everybody was like, “Fuck, how are we gonna keep the lights on?” That just wasn’t really what I was into it for. I didn’t grow up wishing that I could be a fucking record-label guy.

I feel that. But … would you revive Def Jux for a Despot album?
[Laughs.] Nah.

What is El-P’s favorite solo El-P joint?
I think it’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. That record meant a lot to me, and I was clear in my intention. Fantastic Damage is like fucking 1,000 minutes long. I love that record for what it is, but it was me just throwing everything I had at everybody. But I really listen to that record and it connects to me still. There are moments on that record that I’m as proud of as anything I’ve ever done. I don’t listen to Fantastic Damage as much because it’s just in the rear view for me. It’s just so far back at this point that it’s not close enough to where I wanna be as an artist, but I do appreciate it. I respect it, and I know that at the time, it meant something to people. It meant something to me.

It was kind of tough for me to finally confront the fact that these records weren’t out there and that maybe they should be, you know? If it were left up to me, I might’ve just let them all disappear into the ether, but I sort of came around. I understand that I should probably do this just for the sake of the historical record and making it available. But people should understand that that was hard for me, ‘cause I literally never look back. I’m like, What’s the fucking next record? I don’t care what I did before. So, it’s not a normal personality trait for me to celebrate what I did in the past.

I’m glad you changed your mind. I worry that the classics that aren’t on the streaming services will slip out of the collective consciousness. What happens to kids now that there’s no easy access to De La Soul? Does that get forgotten? Does a generation grow up without it? I’m happy to see these albums getting back out into the world. 
I feel the same way. The process of what we’re doing is making sure it’s all clean, all samples cleared, everything good. De La Soul is just a great example. It’s like, fuck, man. There’s a whole bigger debate about art versus commerce in publishing that gets really complicated, but the end result is that it’s not that easy to just put shit in your back catalogue out, especially if you’re a hip-hop producer that came out in the ’90s. The way that we looked at music, the way that we did it, we never thought anyone was gonna listen to what we were doing anyway. I had to get over my personality and be like, “Okay, fine. Let’s put it out.” I also had to get over the business of it. So, it’s complicated. But I have the same concerns. I hope the music that we know and the classics we grew up listening to aren’t gonna somehow get lost between the rafters and the walls. But, unfortunately, I think that just may be the case. There are classic hip-hop records that are just nowhere to be found. Sometimes it’s crazy, where you’re just like, “How is it possible that this record isn’t on iTunes?” Shit, I don’t know.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

El-P Has Made Peace With His Past