It becomes apparent when listening to El-P that this is one producer, MC, and (former) label head who doesn't care about hip-hop conventions. Over two solo albums, several mixtapes, and the tracks he has produced for Cannibal Ox, Cage, and Del the Funky Homosapien, El-P has deviated far from the rules of commercial rap. Instead of caressing eardrums, he batters them, employing a mélange of sound effects, writhing synths, digital drum hits, and paranoid but intelligent lyrics. As unlikely as it sounds, this formula has been extremely successful.
El-P's sometimes-grating beats and complex rhymes were the foundation of the recently shuttered label Def Jux, a hip-hop powerhouse that was "independent as fuck," as he used to proclaim. That all ended last winter, when he announced his resignation as artistic director and the label ceased to function. El-P's explanation for the move was vague, but a posting on the Def Jux website spoke of his desire to immerse himself in making beats and performing again. He also talked about the changing nature of the music industry and the ways in which labels must adapt. (As he put it, "Maybe we can turn this hoopty into a hovercraft.")
El-P is busy rehearsing for several summer shows, including the Pitchfork Festival, and promoting Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixxx3, a recently released mixtape of instrumentals and remixes for the Gold Dust label. "Doing this with Gold Dust because they stepped to me and I figured sure, why not, sounds fun," he explains via e-mail when asked why he's working with a new label. You might think he'd self-release an album, especially a mixtape, after leaving Def Jux, but his current views on the role of labels seem to be rather forgiving. "They can [play an important role], but less and less," he says. "More artists these days are simply hiring publicity and putting stuff out themselves. I think labels matter, but are not the absolute needed tool they once were."
The new Megamixxx is a jumble of prog-rock, West Coast funk, gritty New York–inspired boom-bap, and one excellent instrumental remix of the Kidz in the Hall's "Driving Down the Block." El-P retains the original's signature samples of the Masta Ace classic "Born to Roll" while adding discordant air-raid sirens and an Edgar Winter–worthy synth warble. "When [the Kidz] dropped the song, I asked them to give me a crack at it, and it kind of blew up once we put it out there," El-P explains.
As good as this mixtape is, it won't be enough for fans looking for a real follow-up to 2007's I'll Sleep When You're Dead, especially because there is a nary an El-P rhyme to be found there. He is a talented lyricist, having proved himself as a core member of Company Flow, an important part of the late-'90s indie hip-hop takeover. Along with that group's album, Funcrusher Plus, the Rawkus label also put out records by Mos Def and Talib Kweli before it began dabbling with the majors in the early 2000s and descended into irrelevancy. El-P seems to have soured on that experience — on his 2002 song "Deep Space 9mm," he exclaims, "Signed to Rawkus? I'd rather be mouth-fucked by Nazis unconscious." He also claims that none of the beats on the latest mixtape will appear on what he calls the "proper follow-up" to I'll Sleep. "The next album sounds very different than these," he says.
Despite its apparent demise, Def Jux has at least one possible gem set for release: the late Camu Tao's King of Hearts, a project spearheaded by El-P. "It's very important to me," he says about working on the final offering from his friend and fellow purveyor of hip-hop weirdness. "I just tried to honor what he wanted to do, based on the demos he had put together."
This is probably the only time you'll ever hear El-P talk about taking orders, but in context, it makes sense. He isn't about to leave the blown-out musical wasteland of rampant cyberdomination, abusive stepfathers, and drunks with guns just yet. After all, if you're looking for hip-hop with braggadocio, trumped-up beefs, and tales of extravagant lifestyles, it isn't hard to find. So let's hope El-P stays pessimistic, misanthropic, and dissonant. His paranoia is our pleasure.