Thank God For Drugs And Drums: El-P Revisits His Solo Debut
In May 2002, El-P delivered his first solo album, Fantastic Damage, to a world toppling over the edge. Pre-millennium tension had given way to new-millennium dread, and the brash New York rapper and producer was here to assure listeners that all their worst fears were legit. The onslaught begins on the opening track, as a distorted vocal sample from 1970s schmaltzster Peter Skellern transforms from an earnest pledge of love into a warning:
So onto the empty streets we go
And it might be my last chance with you
So I might as well get it over with
The things I have to say won't wait until another day
Born Jaime Meline, El-P had made a name for himself as part of Company Flow, a group of verbose misanthropes known for bombing tracks as though they were vandalized subway trains covered in end-to-end burners. The trio's 1996 album Funcrusher Plus made it the flagship act of Rawkus Records, one of the key sources of independent hip-hop in the mid-'90s when labels like Bad Boy and So So Def were embracing the most populist possibilities of the genre. Near the end of that decade, El-P and his manager Amaechi Uzoigwe founded their own label, Definitive Jux, and began planning to release Company Flow's second LP themselves. But before they could, the group broke up — and the dark energy of the scrapped album tentatively titled The Pain Cave was instead channeled into El-P's solo breakout.
Fantastic Damagesubmits that the foretold dystopia is already here, calling out "merchants of blood" and "the eerie malevolence of commerce" as parts of daily life. But it also looks inward, cataloging personal moments that shaped its creator's grim outlook. "Squeegee Man Shooting" recalls his childhood in New York's Ed Koch era, when he'd studied the cadences of Kool Moe Dee and been chased by teens for wearing bootleg Jordans, and traces a connection with his musician father: "Dad played jazz when he drank, it's no accident / Hands on the piano and make my foot tap to it / Different path, same love, Dad, thanks for passing it." Recalling Company Flow's "Last Good Sleep," a confessional about the physically abusive alcoholic his mother married after his parents' divorce, "Stepfather Factory" goes a level deeper, envisioning his trauma as an institutionalized product sold to an entire generation of families.
As an accident of timing, Fantastic Damagecame to be widely cited as a post-Sept. 11 record, one that captured the paranoia of living in New York as the United States entered years of war, terror threat assessments and creeping authoritarianism. In the video for "Deep Space 9mm," El-P traverses the city as every bystander, from trash collectors to an old lady in an elevator, takes aim at him with glowing red guns. Listeners could relate, even if the artist had been feeling that way long before the planes hit the Twin Towers. His weariness is baked into his delivery as he raps, "Thank God for the drums and drugs," sounding like a bitter, shell-shocked veteran finding ways to barely hold it together.
Along with El-P's 2007 follow-up, I'll Sleep When You're Dead, Def Jux spent the next decade releasing music from kindred cynics like Aesop Rock and Cannibal Ox before shuttering in 2010. Cancer 4 Cure, as of now his final solo project, came in 2012 on the Southern indie Fat Possum Records. But the bigger development that year was his partnership with Atlanta rapper Killer Mike — first as the producer for Mike's bruising album R.A.P. Music, and eventually as his co-MC in the duo Run the Jewels. Bonded by a love for early Ice Cube and a high tolerance for marijuana, the two found broad success together, despite both being deep into their 30s when they met. They are a favorite of music supervisors (catch their songs in the teaser trailer for Black Panther and the closing moments of Ozark's recent season finale), with the clout to be outspoken when they please (in 2018, El-P revealed in a since-deleted tweet that they'd turned down a lucrative Super Bowl placement, calling the NFL "a private, racist and for-profit company masquerading as a non profit"). RTJ's fourth album is due on June 5, and the duo was set to open Rage Against the Machine's comeback arena tour this year, before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the concert industry for the foreseeable future.
As Run the Jewels' fan base grew, streaming became the dominant mode of listening — but most of El-P's solo catalog remained unavailable through outlets like Spotify and Apple Music, leaving his new followers unable to hear his defining work. So in December 2019, Fat Possum announced that it would be reissuing his music to streaming services. I'll Sleep When You're Dead arrived in February, and this week brings the re-release of Fantastic Damage, 18 years after its debut. With most of New York still on a stay-at-home order, El-P has spent the rollout holed up at his place upstate, where he makes most of his music. "Me and my wife just absconded from the city as quickly as we could, ran the f*** away to somewhere where social distancing was a way of life," he says. Reached by phone, the 45-year-old spoke with NPR about rejecting claims that his music is "futuristic," why playing your old songs on tour is like living with your kids during a pandemic, and the "lava stream of chaos" that inspired Fantastic Damage.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Eric Ducker: Your first solo albums have been unavailable for so long that many of your new fans haven't heard of them or even known that they existed. Why wasn'tFantastic Damagealready on streaming sites and what did it take to get it up there now?
El-P: It hasn't been up on streaming because I'm a terrible keeper of my own history. It's a facet of my personality: I'm obsessed with whatever the next thing is. Once Def Jux folded, the only thing I walked away with were the masters to my records. I spent the last however-many years getting on my feet again and running and gunning with Run the Jewels. By the time I looked up, I was like,"Oh s***, no one even hasthese records now. There's a whole generation of people that are into the music that I'm doing that don't know these records." I really have got to credit [owner] Matthew Johnson at Fat Possum, because he is the one who stepped to me passionately about it, saying we had to put these out again. I liked the idea of someone who cared being a keeper of those things. If left up to my own devices, I probably never would have handled it.
There are other hip-hop artists,most famously De La Soul, whose music isn't streaming because of sample clearance issues. Did that have anything to do withFantastic Damage's absence?
Well, you gotta go through those steps. For some people that's an insurmountable task, and for others it's not that big a deal. We're going through the whole catalog and making sure it's on point, doing the best we can to remember what the f*** I sampled. But certain [rap albums not being on streaming sites] does bum me out. I hold De La Soul's catalog in way more reverence than I hold my own.
How does it feel listening back to your old work after so long?
It takes me a while to listen to my stuff, even my own new stuff, without hearing issues, so going into it I was a little afraid. But it's interesting to confront your artistic past. All of a sudden you can feel some of the joy, and your mind starts to tap into something — in terms of the way I thought about words, the way I thought about music. "Oh right, this is the foundation. This is one of the building blocks for the way that I think about s*** now." I have so much distance between myself and that guy that I was even kind of impressed a couple of times — like, "Hey, good job, kid."
It's very important when you're listening to something like this that you relax, so you can transport yourself to where you were at the time and be forgiving. You're always fighting the fact that you don't think the same way and you're not doing the same art as you used to, so you have to kind of get out of that. You have to wipe the slate clean and try and listen to it completely objectively. It was fun. I don't do it that often. Honestly, every five or six years I might sit down and listen to my record again, just because I'm stoned and it came up in my deep iTunes files.
Were there financial motivations for doing these reissues, too?
Of course. They gave me a great advance for this s***, what can I say? But that was not why I wanted to put this stuff out. Whatever I make off of this back catalog, that's not my main source of income. It really was just about the fact that it was this specter hanging over my head.
There's something that's always been in me that's hesitant to even look back at all. When you come from a broken home and you have a weird childhood, you tend to only look forward. There's some strength in that, but there's also some side effects. One of those side effects is that you don't practice taking the mental space to take care of your past.
The reality is that many touring musicians have to spend their lives performing songs that they made in their 20s. You've been able to change projects over the course of your career a few times, and at this point you've been doing Run the Jewels for about seven years — and haven't been performing your solo material at all. Do you think you'll eventually get to a point where you revisit theFantastic Damagesongs live?
That was always the bane of my existence. When I was in Company Flow, I had to perform songs off the Company Flow record. Then when I did my solo record, I still had to perform those old songs. I finally could let go of those songs when I had songs on the solo records that were getting a response. Every time you get to let one go, you're grateful: "Great, because I was starting to hate that f****** song." It's like hating one of your children because you've been trapped in the house with them during a pandemic. I mean, s***, we don't even really play jams off of the first Run the Jewels record anymore.
I haven't been doing any El-P songs, but the thought has occurred. Look, I didn't want to do Company Flow stuff anymore: In 2011, we were broken up and I was having success with my solo career, and I never wanted to look back and rehash old thoughts and memories. Then all of a sudden, we were asked to perform by Portishead. We couldn't say no, and we ended up going on like a 10-city sort of reunion tour. There was real joy in that. I think that there are enough people that might be psyched about me doing a couple [solo] shows. But the truth of the matter is I probably won't do that many.
At the time of this album's release, a word that was often used to describe its sound was "futuristic." Listening now, I'm really taken by its interest in the past, specifically 1980s New York rap sonics. With Run the Jewels you've been very upfront about that era's importance to you. Do you think that influence was overlooked earlier in your career?
I definitely always felt a tad bit misunderstood. But then again, that comes with the territory. When you're younger you get incensed because you want everyone to recognize what you think is brilliant about your music. Your ego is flaming and you get pissed off if people don't get the reference. At the time I was like, "What do you mean, 'futuristic'? I just wrote a song about Brooklyn." But after a while you start to realize, "Let's be honest, I am a little weird. I am making s*** that doesn't sound like other s*** out there." That was my strength. I thought I was making EPMD records, but I'm weird, so it comes out like this.
I come from that era. That's the world where my musical tastes were formed, and I drag that with me everywhere I go — not because I'm making old music, but because those are my purest influences. There's nothing political about it. There's nothing intellectual about it. It's just that that is still the foundation of my music, the foundation of my personality.
Many people tried to understandFantastic Damagein the context of post-9/11 paranoia, but the album was actually made before the attacks happened. How did you feel about your personal work being tied to global events?
There was a part of me that resented the fact that people seem to disqualify ideas until they experience them. [Fantastic Damage] wasn't a post-9/11 record, it was a pre-9/11 record. When you listen to any record I've done, it's not meant to be predictive. It's meant to tap into something that I think lurks underneath it all, all the time. That has been affecting me as a person, and therefore as an artist, forever — a belief that beneath the veil there is a f****** lava stream of chaos. When you're tuned into that, you can't tune yourself away, even if you might want to. I wouldn't wish the way that I think about the world on anybody. This record came out and people imprinted it upon their psyche as something that related to their experience at the time. It just so happened that I had been cursed to see our society as this fiery boulder rolling down a hill already.
I'm now much more forgiving about that. I started to look at it as a compliment that people contextualized my music to things that were affecting themnow, and not the things that were affecting me. I started to realize if you're tapping into something that's true, there's a lot of instances of it being true, and it will be true again. Now I'm just sort of thrilled if I can deliver something eloquently enough for it to not feel super-specific only to me.
Something similar happened withRun the Jewels 2, which came out in 2014 and wound up feeling very associated with Ferguson.
Dude, Run the Jewels has been stumbling through cosmic coincidence since it started. It terrifies me sometimes how much our music ends up feeling like it's about the moment. On the tour for Run the Jewels 2, we ended up in St. Louis on the night of the [Michael Brown] verdict. Run the Jewels 3, we had a tour that was going through D.C., and a water main breaks on the street and the club gets flooded. That show then gets rescheduled for [Donald Trump's] inauguration day.
I mean, we f****** shot [the new video for] "Ooh LA LA" two and a half weeks before anyone knew that there were lockdowns coming and that this f****** pandemic was going to be what it is. We shot a video that was a giant crowd of people. And we were like, "Holy s***, how do we look at this video now? How are people going to feel about this?"
For better or worse, you're about to release an album that's going to be tied to people's feelings and memories around the COVID-19 pandemic. Do you embrace that, or do you try to separate yourself from it?
I don't know, man. Certainly there's not a whole lot of virus talk on the album, but you're right to some degree: This is a moment, and we're now part of it, and, f*** it, man, we're here. We're alive. We're opening our mouths and we're asking to be heard right now. I'm incredibly grateful to even be a part of the conversation. It doesn't matter when it was written, when it was made: The truth is that you put energy out there and you present yourself to the world. You don't have any control as to what that world is.
Fantastic Damagemay not have been written as a 9/11 album, but it does document a moment: It came at the end of a wave of independent rap in New York that started in the mid-1990s. Some key releases from that era still aren't available on streaming. Do you think that there is a risk that that scene will be culturally lost to time?
I don't know how long you can hold onto a moment in time, but I do think that these things can get rediscovered. As a producer and someone who's obsessively collected and sought out stuff that I didn't know about, that's literally been the predominant way that I've listened to music. Do I think that there's s*** that gets lost and its relevance gets buried, sometimes forever? Absolutely. But there are people out there who care about it, who can curate at least some of the memory of this stuff, and contextualize of the importance of it.
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