New York is a city steeped in hip-hop. From the beat-juggling birthing pains of the block parties that pushed two turntables and a microphone into the public eye, through the ghetto cartoons of 50 Cent’s recent mumblings, the Big Apple has been soundtracked by the boom-bap of kick and snare for some 30 years. Unlike West Coast rap, the East specialises in abrasive subversion: like the Bomb Squad and Wu Tang before him, El-P takes on hip-hop’s increasingly smoothed-out templates with sonic sandpaper, scratching strange shapes into its commercial veneer.
The MC and producer made his name as a member of the ever-leftfield Company Flow and rose to prominence as a producer of hip-hop concrete for his own Definitive Jux label. As his dense, stylised production for indie-hop heroes such as Cannibal Ox and Mike Ladd suggests, he cuts an intellectual and impassioned figure, an unusual combination in a genre whose mainstream is made up of laid-back thugs and syrupy R&B balladeers. His second solo album, ‘I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead’, is more like a gothic novel than the hood-rat Danielle Steel romances served up by his contemporaries.
“I want to make music which has a slow draw before the payoff,” he says. “It makes it harder to dispose of: I want the record to last for the listener. It’s not a one-off visceral hit. The music has scope and gravity to it. It moves and surprises.”
The detailed beats of ‘I’ll Sleep…’ makes it an uneasy listen: it’s not an album to throw on the stereo for a spin of the singles before you hit the pub for a night of talking shit. The blend of heavy beats, electro glitches, soulful strings and samples is frankly unsettling. “I try to combine the influence of different factors in the production to get a different perspective. It’s all about the well-combined moment,” El muses. “It’s cathartic. These are the things I’m trying to do. ”
The Brooklyn resident has strong ideas on how long-players should be made. “An album should exist as a whole. It’s a beautiful and honourable thing to make.” When Clash puts it to him that most rappers short-change the listener by tying three club-friendly singles together with track after track of incoherent filler and calling it an album, he sighs and shakes his head. “It’s a huge problem. It’s why people are disinterested in hip-hop.” Dancefloor anthems do have a place, though: “Bangers aren’t in opposition to the album, but every song should count. They should intensify and challenge, make the listener change. I want albums to mean something.”
Luckily, El-P puts his money where his mouth is on this front. There’s a strange cohesion to his raps and production on ‘I’ll Sleep…’, despite the topics touched on and the musical detours taken. “There’s a definite story arc to the album, but not in a literal sense,” he says. “It’s got moments of tranquillity: harsh moments count and tranquil or soulful moments count. I’m concerned about making albums that smash up and down.”
In this respect the new album is reminiscent of Nas’ ‘Illmatic’. The tone of the record might change from track to track, but there’s an element of artistic vision behind it. It gives you the impression of viewing photographs of the same object taken from a variety of angles: you can’t take the whole thing in from any one snapshot, but the thing you’re looking at is undoubtedly there in its entirety. You’re just left to draw your own conclusions as to what you’re seeing. It’s this feeling of uncertainty that El-P seems to be alluding to when he talks about making the listener develop a relationship with his record. ‘I’ll Sleep…’ doesn’t pony up its meaning in easy bites; you get out what you put in.
I’m concerned about making albums that smash up and down.
The other strong similarity between these albums is a sense of place. Like all of New York’s finest, the city itself is writ large in ‘I’ll Sleep…’s claustrophobic songs. With lines like, “You know, you look really pretty without handcuffs on”, even love is put in the context of incarceration and oppression. The New York put across by El-P is close to the ghostly shadows of the Wu’s ‘36 Chambers’: disconcerting and frightening.
“The city’s influence permeates me, and underscores the music,” according to the producer. “It’s just where I’m from; I’m inspired by life.” Not that every song is about an NYC specific: “You can be abstract if you’re eloquent about what you’re portraying.” El-P’s relationship with the city is also suitably complex. “It’s not affection or disdain: the reach extends beyond that. It’s just the paradigm I live in. I was born and raised in New York: The energy and frenetic stress affect the way I talk.”
With a “confrontational” live show to enjoy when El-P tours Europe later this year, we’ve got a lot more to look forward to from him before he disappears back behind the boards to craft some more spooky beats for his stable of Def Jux artists. He promises to bring the same ethos to whatever he’s working on next: “We’re raw with our shit. The drums are here to bang.”