EL-P: A Scanner, Darkly
- Words: Scott Thill
It seems a lifetime ago. Destruction screaming through the air, deep into the city, smashing into the skyline's metal-and-glass spines. The nation cocooning into fear, paranoia, and delusion, succumbing to hallucinations of wholeness via consumerism, a population drugged to grab the party line and move to the front of the checkout line. As if nothing ever happened.
And did it? In the blink of a disastrous new millennium, time stopped and reversed, rewinding to hide in corrupt churches, lucrative invasions, self-indulgent tax cuts. The invisible gears of America's massive multiplayer façade continued to turn, cracking bodies and shattering minds and trying to make everything break for good.
Jaime Meline, known to the world as El-P, saw it all happen and he couldn't take it. In 2002, he went on the offensive, fighting against the fictions with Fantastic Damage, an album whose shotgun sonics were matched only by the seething vitriol of his informed lyricism. "Deep Space 9mm," a syncopated rejection of the previous millennium's optimism, envisioned America as a new Rome. "Stepfather Factory" soundtracked a fatherless future where children obsess over useless products, mothers are raped and forgotten, and deliverance comes via mass-produced automatons fueled by alcohol and violence.
But El-P's bracing truth was too much for people. All Music Guide called the album full of "paranoid totalitarian nightmares"–after 9/11, no less. Rolling Stone gave him high marks for sound but short shrift for subject matter, accusing him of "swinging wildly" with "inscrutable rhymes." Fantastic Damage survived as a potent underground must-have, but the rest of the culture imbibed the more accessible emo-rage of another white rapper named Eminem. If you ask El-P, the narcotizing is still in effect.
"Where are the angry records?" Meline asks me over the phone, sounding like he's trying to kill off the last vestiges of a cold. "I'm fucking angry and upset right now, and I'm also scared and trying to come to grips with balancing this incredible fatalism and the fact that I am still alive, that I am still here. We're not dead yet, but even the violent records aren't angry these days. And that shit fucking annoys me."
At least Meline is doing his part to change that. I'll Sleep When You're Dead (Definitive Jux), his hard-hitting follow-up to Fantastic Damage, is easily as loud, angry, and dystopian as its immortal predecessor, if not more so. It packs years of post-9/11 turmoil tightly into 13 acidic tracks. As a testament to El-P's growing stature and relevance, it features a guest sheet that's longer than the memories of most Americans, including cameos from Mars Volta's Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala, Cat Power's Chan Marshall, TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe, even Nine Inch Nails' architect Trent Reznor, as well as the usual cast of characters from Definitive Jux like Aesop Rock and Mr. Lif. But their voices are all practically unrecognizable, pounded down into El-P's muscular mixes of noise and poetry that dizzyingly defy convention.
"Someone who listened to the new record said something that made a lot of sense to me," he explains. "It was this: Your musical background will dictate how you hear this record. If you're a hip-hop head, you'll hear hip-hop. If you're a rock head, you'll hear that too. To me, it's all hip-hop, but it's everything else too. I don't really fucking care anymore, you know? I really don't, man. Where I'm trying to go with music, and the influences I have' just want to mash it all together and rebuild it. Make it coherent."
Coherence is on parade here, but so is overwhelming density; each track is soaked with satire, allusion, political fury, and cacophony. "Tasmanian Pain Coaster" lifts a conversation between the doomed Laura Palmer and friend Donna Hayward from David Lynch's disturbing film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, while "Smithereens (Stop Cryin)" uses the original Star Trek's red alert alarm as a tracking tempo as El-P comes out swinging against a "world of super-duper whores." "Drive" situates four-plus minutes of laconic sociopolitical commentary in a matrix of automotive metaphor, slamming Hummers and Pimp My Ride samples into an apocalyptic highway for El-P to drive down spitting lines like "my generation is carpooling with doom and disease."
"There's a lot of metaphor in that song," El-P confides, "and some of it I want to just let people unlock. I will say that I really spent a lot of time trying to streamline my writing. But it's a general way of saying that there is dread around the corner, and I think a lot of people are ignoring it."
But few tracks from Fantastic Damage–or Funcrusher Plus, his classic with Company Flow, for that matter–are as personal and devastating as twin stars "Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love)" and "The Overly Dramatic Truth." "Habeas Corpses" is a dystopian sci-fi slice of heartbreak about an executioner's love for the woman he is charged to kill: "I'll tell her she's innocent and she'll show me she's not/I kiss the number on her arm then lay her on the cot/I'm the first to touch her without gloves on/She's the first to kiss me without crying/Life before her was just dying/Me and prisoner two-four-seven-two-nine-zero-zed/Away from all this violence live inside each other's heads." It hurts to listen to it, especially when you see the photo El-P posted on his blog next to its lyrics: A lone Iraqi woman in a burqa carrying groceries down a destroyed street while an American soldier points a rifle at her from a distance.
And then there is the confessional pain of "The Overly Dramatic Truth," which El-P wrote about a relationship that went awry because the woman in question was too young, too naïve, and too trusting in a world where all she sees is "living forever" while all he sees is "war."
"I think my man Cage said it best," El-P reminisces. "'Pain, suffering, confusion, love, happiness? That's college for writers.' This is what we pull from. It's hard. That song was not easy for me to put on the album. It's a pretty revealing song, you know? And I'm always struggling with that: How much do you reveal, how much do you hide? I decided early on in my career that I was just going to reveal everything. I'm not going to do it halfway. I'm not going to write this song and not really go there." He pauses. "I just think that's the only way to do it. No guts no glory, basically."
"The Overly Dramatic Truth" is Jaime Meline at his all-time greatest, opening his own wounds and corruption and letting everyone see the wreckage. Its steady stream of lyrical oppositions and juxtapositions are immediate and visceral; lines like "You think I'm a genius/I know I'm a whore" and "You're too young to ask out loud/I'm too old and I know that" slowly strip layers from this onion, powered by a descending keyboard progression and dramatic sexual language that is anything but titillating. It might be the most honest, harrowing relationship song written this century.
"It's really about being in a relationship with someone who has fallen hard for you and, although you care for them, you're not really in love with them," he elaborates. "And you're faced with the fact that every moment you're in their company they are falling deeper and you are setting them up for a bigger fall. I just kind of felt dark about it, because I felt like I knew myself much more than she knew herself, knew that I was weak enough to let her dig her own grave. It's definitely bigger than the specific incident in my life that triggered that song, but it also definitely came from somewhere very personal."
As philosophers and artists have shown throughout the ages, the personal and political are the inextricable yin and yang of human experience. That illuminating schema informs the stellar artistic production of El-P's career better than anything else. When the dust of his dusted generation settles, his output will stand as the uncompromising work of an artist who did not shy away from throwing everything he had into everything he did. Even if that meant excavating his own naked nerves and wounds.
"That's our fucking job [as artists]," he exclaims. "You get the bullshit filtration of experience from the rest of the world. I think motherfuckers need to act like the records they are making are the last ones they will ever make. And that's the only thing in my mind while I'm making my own."
Under the Influence
Decoding El-P's favorite sources of inspiration.
El-P has a taste for speculative narrative. "Habeas Corpses" name-drops dystopian flick Soylent Green, while riffing on the totalitarian futures envisaged in George Orwell's 1984 and George Lucas' THX-1138. His love of Philip K. Dick plays out in songs like "Constellation Funk." That said, El-P was no fan of Richard Linklater's animated version of Dick's A Scanner Darkly. "Hated it." Too much Keanu? "Fuck him."
"Watchmen was my shit," says El-P. Alan Moore's epochal graphic novel, perhaps hitting the big screen by election year 2008, changed the comics game forever–and its ending was a violent holocaust in Manhattan. El-P also morphed the title of Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen for his new song "League of Extraordinary Nobodies."
Tracks like "Drive" are as infused with metaphor about global warming and peak oil as MTV and dumbass rappers. "Global peak oil sort of sent me into a panic attack for about a year once I started researching it," he says. "When I started peeping what people were really saying about what it would mean and how it would affect us, it fucked me up."
El-P is a dark dude, but not without a sense of humor. On "Deep Space 9mm," he apes Phil Hartman's "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer" from Saturday Night Live. Before the defiant "Smithereens (Stop Cryin)" begins, he says "Cue the dramatic intro machine!" "The League of Extraordinary Nobodies" uses a laugh track as a backing track. After the serious-as-cancer "Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love)," his crew erupts in laughter.
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