El-P - Biography
New York-based producer and rapper El-P has made an entire career out of challenging hip-hop’s aesthetics. While much hip-hop has derived its sound from contorting vintage soul samples, El-P sought to create an entirely new base sound. As the founder of the label Definitive Jux, the Brooklyn-born producer/rapper has also laid the groundwork for an entire army of like-minded alternative hip-hop artists and helped bring the genre to a respected level. El-P fused the gritty sound of New York’s underground hip-hop scene with static distortion, and has continually made some of the genre’s most subversive music.
El-P was born Jaime Meline in Brooklyn, New York to Jazz pianist Harry Keys. While growing up, Meline had been expelled from several schools as a result of his aversion to authority. This hostility towards authority can perhaps be seen as a precursor to El-P’s rebellious musical tendencies, which always challenges the status quo. When not getting booted from school, Meline was involving himself in New York’s surging hip-hop scene. In 1992, at the age of 18, Meline (now calling himself El-P) befriended a DJ named Mr. Len and the two formed Company Flow. The group’s sound drew plenty from the grimy sound of the underground as well as inspiration from sci-fi and their political views. In 1993, Company Flow released its first single, Juvenile Techniques (Libra Records), which proved to be fairly fruitful within underground hip-hop circles. Steadily becoming a name in the scene, Company Flow added rapper Big Juss to the lineup and the trio released another dual-single, Eight Steps to Perfection/Vital Nerve (Official Recordings), in 1996 before releasing their EP Funcrusher (1996 Official Recordings), which would continue to enhance the group’s stature. Soon a bidding war ensued for Company Flow but, remaining loyal to their own value system, El-P, Mr. Len, and Big Juss decided to carefully explore label options to ensure that they could continue to make music on their own terms. Eventually, they opted to sign with Rawkus Records, a fledgling New York label that would become pivotal in launching underground hip-hop to national recognition.
Company Flow’s debut full-length album, 1997’s Funcrusher Plus (Rawkus Records), was hailed as a true work of art. The album contains many songs that the group had recorded over the previous three years, including several from the original Funcrusher. The release also includes the previously-released singles “Vital Nerve” and “Eight Steps to Perfection” as well as new synth-heavy tracks like “Blind” and “The Fire in Which You Burn.” El-P produced a vast majority of the album, and his abstract audio compositions and production skills were hailed immensely. As MCs, the trio of EL-P, Mr. Len, and Big Juss dabbled in abstract territory that completely defined convention. Often considered the album that launched Rawkus’s prolific reign, Funcrusher Plus is widely held as a true watershed album of East Coast hip-hop. Company Flow had a rare combination in that their production skills were as equally lauded as their lyrical prowess. Perhaps hoping to expand on this dynamic, the group followed Funcrusher Plus with the entirely instrumental album Little Johnny From the Hospital: Breaks & Instrumentals Vol.1 (Rawkus) in 1999. Despite the group’s sizable influence on underground hip-hop, El-P began to have disagreements with Rawkus and decided to leave the label, resulting in the three members of Company Flow amicably venturing off on their own.
Hellbent on yielding music on his own terms, El-P launched his own label called Definitive Jux, where he would further build on his hybrid of street-level rap music and an esoteric sensibility, which can be heard through artists whom have graced the label such as Aesop Rock, Cannibal Ox, and RJD2. Now in charge of his own label, El-P produced duo Cannibal Ox’s album The Cold Vein (Definitive Jux) in 2001. El-P’s brooding and frosty beats provide the perfect soundscape for rappers Vast Aire and Vordul Mega’s slithering lyrics. The album received a good amount of critical praise, especially for El-P’s production, which drew comparison’s to early Wu-Tang Clan records and was even likened to Brian Eno’s work. The following year, Cannibal Ox released El-P Presents Cannibal Oxtrumentals (2002 Definitive Jux) — an album solely comprised of El-P’s instrumentals from The Cold Vein. Thanks in large part to El-P’s work on The Cold Vein, Definitive Jux quickly rose to prominence.
Continuing his artistic legacy of autonomy, El-P released his first solo album in 2002, Fantastic Damage (Definitive Jux), which gained favorable reviews from noteworthy publications like Rolling Stone and Stylus. Along with El-P’s own growling rhymes, the album is supplemented by guest appearances from other underground hip-hop mainstays like Aesop Rock, Cage, and Vast Aire. Fantastic Damage is also a true testament to the forward-thinking duality of El-P and his Definitive Jux cohorts. Everything about the album, from the abstract cover-art to the warped beats to El-P’s paranoid and science fiction-tinged rhymes, are subversive, yet somehow listenable. El-P’s rhyme delivery is always frantic and is noted for its references to futurism as well as nods to classic hip-hop pioneers like Boogie Down Productions. That same year, El-P released an instrumental version of his album called Fandamstrumentals (2002 Definitive Jux) that contains several remixes as well.
In 2002, El-P composed the soundtrack for Bomb the System, a film about graffiti artists. El-P would again defy convention and even his own genre as he collaborated with jazz group The Blue Series Continuum on the album High Water (Thirsty Ear), released in 2004. Temporarily abandoning hip-hop all together for High Water, El-P had the group extemporaneously rearrange works that he himself had created. He then took these improvisations and reworked them to create an entirely new beast. The track “When the Moon Was Blue” features El-P’s father, jazz pianist Harry Keys, on vocals. Many respected jazz outlets gave the album a fair amount of praise. Later in 2004, El-P followed up with Collecting the Kid (Definitive Jux), which is a miscellaneous assortment of unreleased tracks he had been working on, including beats, scores, and b-sides from past projects.
Meanwhile, El-P remained busy by producing music for albums on his label such as Aesop Rock’s Bazooka Tooth (2003 Definitive Jux) and Cage’s Hell’s Winter (2005 Definitive Jux). El-P also contributed his production skills to a fair amount of work from other hip-hop artists such as Jedi Mind Tricks and Aceyalone. El-P also appears on the song “Megaton B-Boy 2000” alongside German industrial legend Alex Empire. Their collaboration appears on the album So... How’s Your Girl (1999 Tommy Boy Records) from the group Handsome Boy Modeling School, a collaboration between hip-hop producers Dan the Automator and Prince Paul.
El-P’s second proper full-length, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (Definitive Jux), was released in 2007 — nearly five years after his influential Fantastic Damage. The album is again graced by several prominent underground hip-hop icons like Aesop Rock, Murs, Slug, and Mr. Lif. Additionally, other influential artists from across the musical spectrum were involved, such as Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails and Cat Power. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead went on to become El-P’s most commercially successful album, selling roughly 11,000 copies in its first week.
El-P has never been content to sit still. While enthralled with hip-hop and its origins, El-P has always taken a mad-scientist approach to his music, opting to destroy that which has been created only to reconstruct it in his own image, as he produces, raps, and manages every aspect of his work. Genres have also not been able to contain El-P’s craft and while his musical roots lie within hip-hop, his thumping beats have oozed into the territory of jazz, rock, electronic, and beyond.