Jamie “El Producto” Meline sounds like a complicated dude on record: from Company Flow’s underground classic Funcrusher Plus to his aesthetically confrontational 2002 solo debut Fantastic Damage, he’s cultivated a tendency to defy traditional rap meter, straightforward narrative and punchline-heavy battle rhyming in favor of a singular style that resembles hip-hop beat poetry in fast-forward. And as a producer, he’s just as distinctively unusual: imagine the RZA, Black Sabbath and Gary Numan locked inside Dr. Strangelove’s War Room.
Though it can be daunting at first, his persona rewards careful attention and repeated listening — especially on his newest album, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, which maintains his blunt-force velocity but registers more clearly on a personal level. While the roster of guests on the new album might be a bit surprising — they range from Trent Reznor to Chan Marshall — the real revelation is how immediate his lyrics are this time around. A phone interview with El-P revealed a bit of his philosophy behind making the record, including how he managed to avoid the pitfalls of all-star collaborations, the proper context for political rap and how his production’s evolved in the five-year interim between solo records.
El-P: Well, I think with Fantastic Damage I was still mostly rooted in the style of writing that I developed with Company Flow, which was kind of a never-ending rant. It was mostly finding meaning in something as you went along. With this record I make every word count a little bit more. I try to hone it a little, slim it down, and execute ideas in a little bit more of a tight way.
eMusic: The album also seems like — not necessarily a concept record, but it seems like [it's about] being a New Yorker and a Brooklynite at this particular moment, both as an MC and a resident.
El-P: It is, to a degree, because that’s the backdrop for my stories, that’s the backdrop for my life. That being said, it’s simply the scene, it’s not the meaning — there are some things to it that are intrinsically about this city, and people from the city will feel that in the record, but what I’m tackling in terms of writing, I like to think it’s a little bit bigger than that.
eMusic: There are some lyrical moments on this record — not just thematically, but the way words are strung together — some of it reminds me of Nas and Ghostface, and others remind me of Allen Ginsberg and Thomas Pynchon. Do you think there’s a certain point where that particular sort of literary aspect might mesh with the idea of moving the crowd?
El-P: Yeah, I mean, sure, why not? You just named four people that I hugely respect. But whatever I’m doing is like the bastard child of all my influences. There’s things that I never do, like I never hold back. Being rooted in city culture and being versed in the street as it evolved around me, and also being a fiend for the written word, I don’t think these things clash. And if anything, I just love combining all of my influences, and I think the balance between the two is what strikes people. At its best, those are the moments of beauty, when people can strike a balance between language that is real and of the time, in language that people can relate to, and at the same time combining that with the ideas and the structure and the vocabulary that they might not have been exposed to.
I’ve got both, I grew up around both, and I think that’s probably made for a bit of a unique style, something that to some degree has set me apart. I don’t think there’s anyone who can listen to the record and decide exactly who I am, except for what I tell them. And I just try to tell them as much as I possibly can in the best way possible.
eMusic: There’s another thing that seems to be a bit underrated or overlooked in your music, and that’s a sense of humor. It’s a bit morbid and kind of twisted sometimes, but it’s still there.
El-P: It’s definitely there, and it plays a huge part in what I write. My humor’s particularly dry, and it’s a little bit twisted. The way I see the world… I find humor in a lot of strange places. I definitely don’t go for the slapstick approach, but yeah, there’s a definite sort of sardonic snark to a lot of it and I can’t help but be sort of fatalistically amused by life. Not in a condescending way, but in a way that… I do have a little bit of a dark streak to everything I do, so therefore I think a lot of the moments that are meant with a humorous slant and aren’t meant to be taken too literally aren’t always picked up on.
eMusic: Back in ’99, Company Flow’s “Patriotism” mentioned several issues — particularly torture and surveillance — that wound up becoming major criticisms of the Bush administration three or four years later, especially after the onset of the Iraq war. Now that more people in popular culture and the media are addressing the specific issues that you mentioned, you’ve dropped an album that focuses a bit more lyrically on the politics of day-to-day living and personal interactions.
El-P: Yeah, the thing is, I was talking about something during the Clinton era, that people were saying “you’re absolutely crazy, you’re paranoid” — but these ideas existed way before I was even born. To me it’s just more fertile ground, the most interesting and the most real place for me in the way that I think about the world and what I’m interested in expressing is about the personal perspective in the political climate.
“Patriotism” was a very sort of direct rant, a political rant. I think a lot of people make the mistake of thinking that I’m one of these sort of heavy-handed political rappers standing on a soapbox giving you my bullshit geopolitical perspective. I don’t think anyone really needs to hear about what’s happening in the world from a musician if it’s really obvious. When I wrote that song it was because I felt that it wasn’t really obvious, it was this subtle darkness underneath the spectrum of what we would see on a daily basis.
Now that all that shit is out there in the open and anyone can basically see it for themselves, I’m much more interested in examining what the psychological state of things, much more interested in telling stories. I think of my record as political, but it’s really just political because it’s a personal story told from these times. And these times are political, to say the least. If you can translate it openly and you’re aware of these things and you can express it in your writing you don’t have to go all out of your way to make some sort of big huge obvious statement.
I don’t think anyone needs to hear from me for my opinion of George Bush. Everybody has their own opinion about George Bush and we certainly don’t need another rapper or musician wasting too much time trying to condescend to you, trying to give you what he thinks he knows. What I can do is take an accurate snapshot of one person’s psychological state, and hopefully that will be more relatable and people can look back on this record and at least get a sense, from one perspective, of what was going on here.
eMusic: How have the years between Fantastic Damage and I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, which have largely been spent doing remixes and beats for other artists, affected the way you put together your solo records?
El-P: I’ve done a lot of homework. I haven’t been stagnant, these experiences and these things that I’ve been doing with other people have all lent themselves to my record, in the sense that throwing me into different situations, trying out different ideas, being a problem solver or trying to figure out approaches to structure, it’s a lot different than doing a remix.
Doing a remix for Nine Inch Nails, it’s a challenge. It makes me look at pushing the boundaries of what I normally do. I can rethink these things because I have to make it work for that. And the jazz record [High Water Mark], the movie score [Bomb the System], I’m a fiend for these experiences as a musician, I’m champing at the bit [for] the chance to get my hands on a challenge and get involved in things that scare the shit out of me because those are the things that are ultimately like my training.
I love doing it, but in the back of my mind all of it is just exercise, essentially, for the marathon that is my record. And hopefully I bring those experiences and all those ideas back. I think it’s important for people who love music and want to be involved in it to constantly seek it out, and to seek out different ways to get involved. And at the same time, to me it’s a discipline to be able to involve yourself in different things and have it not be like… me doing a song for another person can’t be the direction I’m taking as a producer or as an artist. It has to be something somewhat parallel to what I’m doing; I have to be able to do work for other people that isn’t about me and doesn’t directly affect what I do.
So I just take these influences and these experiences and just apply them to my process. There’s definitely things that I’ve learned, but it’s out of just trial and error, me shitting around with a bunch of chemicals and trying to mix them to see what explodes. You get some insight into this shit, but in you’re not going to do that, in my opinion, just sitting around and doing the exact same thing every inch of the way that you’ve been doing for years.
eMusic: This record features a few contributions from musicians who aren’t typically associated with hip-hop like Cat Power, Yo La Tengo‘s James McNew and members of the Mars Volta. But they were integrated pretty seamlessly into the record — it sounds like an El-P record and not just El-P Does a Record With His Indie Rock Friends.
El-P: Right, which is what the horror would have been, the worst possible outcome of those collaborations. Now I could argue that all of your favorite hip-hop records are sampled from records by artists you don’t associate with hip-hop music. Our art form is collage work, and the influence of a combination of things… we’re piecing together the scraps and discarded remnants of things that were only thoughts of people for a moment. We’re making bigger statements of them and turning them inside-out.
That’s the same way I look at collaborating with people; I’m not looking to make a collaboration for collaboration’s sake, it only makes sense to me if it works for the record and makes sense for the song. I’ve extended my idea of sampling a little bit to some of the other people I respect and got a chance to be cool with and work with, and to me it’s an honor to have those people on, but it would’ve been the wrong move to make it the point of the record. And the way I can honor somebody’s involvement is to have it worked in the true way I would make a song, weaving them in and having it be seamless is important to me.
Whenever you’re doing these kinds of collaborations there are connotations, people look at it on paper and they’re like, “OK, I see what El’s trying to do.” And a lot of the times they’re right; a lot of the time these collaborations that’re well-intentioned wind up sounding like a fuckin ‘mess because it’s like, “OK, I’m collaborating with someone who’s outside my normal world, so I’m gonna completely change what I do and I’m gonna completely flip it and make a big deal out of it.” And for me I think the song has to be there, whether it’s in your head, recorded or not.
That’s how I approached it; I heard moments where I thought it would be cool to include it. I had no idea ahead of time that they would be down or that they would be involved; I just knew that I respected them and that if I had the chance I’d work with them in different ways over the past however many years. When I heard those spots, I reached out and everyone was really cool about it. I was really lucky, and I’m glad to have their involvement.
eMusic: How has it been balancing the work on this record and the day-to-day operations of Definitive Jux?
El-P: Not as hard as you might think — I don’t have an office job, I stay home in a studio. And I’ve got really amazing people that work for me and work with me, and they cover a lot of the day-to-day bullshit that I’m just not really cut out for. I’m not that dude. I’m the vision behind the label, I’m the spark behind the label, and I’m the guts of the label, but if I ever get to the point where I’m waking up and I’m going off to a job, I’ll shoot myself in the head.
Not that there’s anything wrong with it, I totally respect it, but it’s certainly not why I got in the biz. I wasn’t cutting class in high school, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes with my friends and dreaming about owning a corporation. I was born to be a rapper, and that’s why this label was formed, so I’m lucky to have good people around me who understand that I have to have that separation when I need it. I spend a lot of time working to make other peoples ‘careers pop off and that’s a passion of mine, that’s something that I love.