El-P: Attempts at Optimism

Music Features El-P
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“Rest in peace, MCA. Rest in peace, Maurice Sendak.”

Halfway through his Letterman debut last week, El-P tipped his hat to two influential creative figures that recently passed away. Backed by six musicians, the influential Brooklyn-based rapper/producer attacked his late-night rendition of “Stay Down” with a focused intensity and aggression. These elements have remained Jaime Meline’s calling cards throughout his two decades as a solo artist and member of Company Flow.

As David Letterman thanked him in the closing moments of the show, Meline goofed off behind the host, making faces and embracing his spotlight to the fullest. Things seem to be going well for El-P these days. He recently tweeted that it was a New Yorker’s dream to make that TV appearance. He’s also collaborated with Atlanta rap stalwart Killer Mike on his new release R.A.P. Music. Most importantly, he’s releasing Cancer for Cure, his first proper record in five years.

El-P has built a career exploring the bleaker sides of humanity, adeptly waxing poetic about everything from dystopian societies to conspiracy theories. Along the way, he’s exuded more than his fair share of polarizing opinions. Some might call them cynical; he’d say they’re honest. But for someone whose music is routinely referred to as dark and pessimistic, he wouldn’t necessarily view himself in that light.

“A lot of times people interpret what I do as being pessimistic, and the fact of the matter is that I don’t feel that way,” Meline explains. “I think in a lot of ways these records and the characters that I put forward in these records is me acknowledging, you know, the pessimism, but the act of trying to fight for it, trying to figure it out and trying to, and I think that in itself is a very, you know, optimistic act.”

On Cancer for Cure, the rapper/producer turned inward to make sense of the world around him. Rather than seeing his outside surroundings as the default issue at hand, he’s taken stock of himself in hopes of gaining personal clarity.

“In a lot of ways I’m writing a story based on my mind and based on my life,” he says. “I’m writing a story of a man who’s flailing about and trying to make sense of shit.”

While finishing this album revitalized El-P as an artist, the making of this record was anything but a walk in the park. Dealing with the death of a close friend, the indefinite hiatus of Def Jux and his admitted destructive behavior, Meline struggled with coming to grips about his own life circumstances.

“I feel like it was like waking up the next day after a huge bender, and that’s what the record kind of felt like to me,” El-P reflects. “You know, waking up like naked in your apartment with fucking drugs and alcohol strewn across the coffee table and cigarettes put out in a bowl and waking up alone and early and just realizing just looking around and just being like, you know what, fuck this shit.”

This awakening started with “$ Vic/FTL (Me and You),” the first track that El-P wrote for Cancer for Cure, following the death of fellow Def Jux rapper and comrade Camu Tao, who passed away in May 2008 after a two-year battle with lung cancer.

“It was the first song I had written after my friend passed away and I was in a low place for a while,” he remembers. “I dedicate the record to him on ‘$4 Vic’ so it’s not something that I was trying to hide, I just think that there’s a tasteful way, I didn’t want to make a record about Camu, you know, I didn’t want to make my ‘I’ll Be Missing You’ cause I just think that there’s something’s that you just can’t really explain and don’t even owe to anybody to explain or to try.”

El-P also nods to his departed friend within the album’s first single, “The Full Retard,” sampling the line, “So you can pump this shit… like they do in the future” from Tao’s posthumously released track “When You’re Going Down.” In experiencing his close friend’s death, El-P examined his own personal behavior.

“I don’t know what the end of the story is,” he mentions, “but I’m at a point in my life where I do know, that I, I’ve lived long enough to know that I’ve engaged in insanity and in self-destruction and I’ve let things, I’ve engaged with darkness and it’s not, there’s not much of a future in it.”

During the period between Cancer for Cure and his masterful 2007 effort I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, El-P also laid his label to rest, placing it on hiatus for the foreseeable future. The label—where El-P released his previous efforts along with albums from Aesop Rock, Del the Funky Homosapien, Dizzee Rascal and RJD2—shut down in 2010, with Camu Tao’s King of Hearts released as its final stand.

Meline, who requested that he be referred to as a “former musical professional,” has taken the label’s demise in stride. While it never drove his own artistic vision for his personal work, heading his own label constantly reminded him about his love for making music on a daily basis.

“I don’t feel like it informs me as a musician, I feel like it reaffirms me as a musician,” he states. “At the end of the day when the dust settles and everything had changed, I was still there, my heart was still there, my music, what I wanted to do, was still there and that’s really what even facilitated me changing, you know.”

As El-P moved forward, releasing Cancer for Cure with Fat Possum, he remained entirely consumed with making a great record in and of itself—regardless of its exact interpretation. In refusing to concern himself with expectations, El-P has managed to craft one of the year’s finest hip-hop records by simply focusing on the things he does best.

This time around, he’s rounded up an impressive cast of contributors, including Danny Brown, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire and Killer Mike. The first two brilliantly juxtapose El-P’s talents on “Oh Hail No,” while the Mike offers a verse on “Tougher Colder Killer.”

“I consider [eXquire] a friend and he was around at the time and it just sort of felt right,” El-P comments on his record’s collaborations. “Danny’s the same thing, Danny was probably one of the first people I approached to do an appearance on the record, because I just love his style and he’s a good dude and like he’s been super cool to me and I just thought it would be nice.”

While El-P has helped filled the void by forging these new partnerships, Meline understands his fortunes given all the hardships he’s faced. For someone who’s all too often rapped about the glass half-empty, he couldn’t be more thrilled to attempt some form of optimism.

”I’m just psyched that you know here I am,” he exclaims, “it takes me so long to do these records and the fact of the matter is that any given time me taking five years to make a record could completely make me irrelevant, especially with how quickly hip-hop moves.”