Ask aficionados what New York hip-hop sounds like and you’ll likely get songs by Run-DMC, Jay-Z, and Biggie. These are expected—and correct—choices. Elsewhere in the pantheon, though, there’s some dusty shelf space reserved for “A B-Boy’s Alpha,” the gritty five-borough tribute from Cannibal Ox’s lone album. The main attraction here is not lyrical, though; it’s the sledgehammer percussion laced with dark ambiance, or the keyboard and guitar riffs drifting in and out like honking cabs on a rainy street. “Alpha” and its accompanying album were both produced by Jaime Meline, alias: El-P, founder of the fledgling label that released it. This album served as opening salvo for a sound that came to define the New York underground for years to come. Until one day it didn’t.
By the time El-P resigned from his position as artistic director of Definitive Jux in 2010, the label hadn’t put out a significant release in two years. Something had changed in the music industry, and in the overall climate of hip-hop, and the differences took their toll on the label. More importantly, running the label took a toll on its boss, El-P, who ultimately put Definitive Jux on hold to focus more on his work as a solo artist. The resulting album, Cancer for Cure, which was released May 22, contains some of the most potent music the rapper/producer has ever created. Stepping down may have elevated his craft to a higher level.
“I’m a much different person than I used to be. For a long time, I wanted to be directly involved in everything that was going on around me, and I wanted, naively, to control it,” El-P says. “But I got to the point in my life where I didn’t feel like doing it anymore. That’s given me the room to concentrate on what I want to concentrate on right now in my life, which is making music.”
As a lyricist, El-P is a hyper-verbose spitfire full of paranoia and contradictions. Production-wise, his electro-aggro beats are forward-leaning in a way that conjures images of gunmetal gray machines, and the political ideology of 1984. Perhaps because of the consistency of these signifiers, at a certain point, El-P started getting pigeonholed.
“Some things people write about my music can be a little annoying to read over and over again, even if they are kind of true. And then other things aren’t even true,” he says. “When people describe my shit as ‘sci-fi’ and ‘dystopian,’ it seems like they just regurgitate it from other reviews. I mean, I’m not making songs about space.”
Although the oscillating synthesizers and skittering snares on Cancer may do little to curb descriptions that invoke cyborgs, El-P’s new audio palette is decidedly earthbound. There’s more live instrumentation than ever before, with a horn section on “Stay Down,” organs on “Request Denied,” and guitars all over the map.
The vocals have improved too. El-P’s words zoom by so fast that there’s no way to catch everything on the first pass. His flow has grown smoother though, probably in the same way that, over time, rocks get polished by a stream. The lyrics are more grounded this time out as well, and so is the rapper’s position on how they’re received.
“Sometimes the words I put together aren’t meant to be literal. They’re like imagery and internal poetry meant to sound a vague symbol where the lines cross each other,” El-P says. “I don’t think you can be too concerned about whether other people completely get it. The only thing to be concerned about is if you want people to get it and they can’t. Sometimes you need it to be clear for the impact of the song, and that’s something I learned making this album; that it’s a powerful tool to be direct at times.”
Cancer features more songs that tell straightforward stories than its predecessors. “Tougher Colder Killer” is about a soldier with PTSD, while “The Jig Is Up” applies the Woody Allen-via-Groucho Marx axiom, “I wouldn’t want to be a part of any club that would have me,” to some deep suspicions about a romantic relationship that seems too good to be true. One thing that hasn’t changed on the new album, though, is the length of time that preceded it.
“It just sort of happens; I wish it didn’t,” El-P says of the five-year hiatuses that have accompanied each of his solo releases. “The records take a while to make, so it always seems to shake out that way. Maybe I’m on some weird internal clock where every five years I have to shout at the world.”
El-P doesn’t just wake up one day and decide it’s time to do a new album, though. He’s an in-demand producer, always working on beats, and sometimes filing soundscapes away for himself for when the time is right. “I’m not that prolific. I need inspiration. I need to have something to say, and I also need to be able to focus on it. Sometimes it takes a while for me to get geared up so I can kind of shut everything out around me and just really sit down and focus,” El-P says, adding, “I have to have a grasp on what it is I’m trying to express first. I try to take an intimate picture of what I’m thinking, and a lot of times it doesn’t come immediately. Sometimes you’re just unsure for a while about what matters to you; what’s bullshit, and what the stuff is that’s worth examining.”
If the music sounds like it changes during the void in between albums, it’s because the artist also changes. One major difference since the last record is the 2008 passing of El-P’s good friend, the rapper known as Camu Tao. Sitting down to record Cancer was the first time the producer truly focused on music since Tao’s death, and the album is dedicated to him. “If I flew a plane, I’d skywrite his name. But these records are where I put my heart and where I make my statement,” El-P says. “It wouldn’t have been the same record if he was still around because I would have had something else to think about. It had a profound effect on me, though, and it got me thinking a lot about mortality and about being alive, and about wanting to be alive, which is what I think this album is about.”
Fortunately, the former label head’s career right now is more alive than ever. Since finding a home as an artist at Fat Possum Records, El-P has earned some of his best critical notices to date, both for Cancer and the also just-released album by Southern rapper Killer Mike, which El-P produced in its entirety. This second project marked the first time El-P produced a whole album for another artist since Cannibal Ox and the first Def Jux album over 10 years ago, perhaps signaling a creative rebirth in the wake of that record label’s hiatus.
“I’m really lucky I still have the chance to make music and have people actually consider it relevant. And I don’t take it lightly,” El-P says. “I don’t feel like I have something to prove, but I feel like I owe something. I feel like I owe it to myself and to the people around me, to do the best music that I can to the best of my abilities.”