There’s an accidental symmetry to El-P’s first three albums. He didn’t necessarily map it out that way, but each of his three records was released five years apart, making 2022 a year of noteworthy anniversaries: Cancer 4 Cure is 10 this month, its predecessor I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead turned 15 in March, and his debut, Fantastic Damage, is 20. In looking back, El-P can’t help but appreciate the parallels in hindsight.
“It’s only cool 20 years later,” the rapper/producer tells SPIN with both amusement and exasperation over the phone from his New York City home. “At the time it was like, ‘Why does it take five years to put an album out?!’”
Born Jaime Meline, El-P has spent the past decade as half of the bombastic Run the Jewels, trading verses with his longtime friend and creative partner Killer Mike. RTJ is the latest in a career defined by three distinct eras; El-P’s first co-helmed New York rap outfit Company Flow in his 20s. Their influential album Funcrusher Plus was a document of quick-witted one-liners and occasional moments of deeply personal reflections, like the anguished “The Last Good Sleep,” which addresses a true account of Meline’s stepfather abusing his mother. After Company Flow split in the early 2000s, El-P launched his solo career and founded his own label, Definitive Jux. Through it, he released and produced forward-thinking music by indie rap upstarts, most of them friends and collaborators, including Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif, and Cage—and his first two solo albums, solidifying him as an influential figure in underground hip-hop.
For the better part of a decade, El-P’s catalog seemed virtually invisible — absent from streaming services, with the exception of Cancer 4 Cure (originally released by Fat Possum), and out of print in physical formats. He readily assumes responsibility for allowing them to lapse.
“I’m not the best at honoring my own quote-unquote legacy, whatever it is,” he says. “I’m always looking at the next project. I think there are positive aspects to that attitude, but the negative thing is you wake up one day and nobody can listen to those albums anymore. It was really my fault. I didn’t take the time and have the headspace to take care of that. Because of the introduction of streaming and how much it became a bedrock for new music, there were a few things that fell through the cracks, and we had to make adjustments.
“One of them was that it didn’t even occur to me that those weren’t available because a kid only has a Spotify account, or a kid only has an Apple Music account,” he adds. “In my mind, the era that I came up in, you had all the music that you needed to have.”
Now on streaming and newly reissued on vinyl through Fat Possum, El-P reintroduces his solo catalog to an audience raised on his tag-team bars on Run the Jewels. Fantastic Damage is the boldest and brashest of the bunch, a booming, synth-heavy destroyer rife with paranoia and anxiety, as well as some of the most personal material of his career as well, including his sardonic spin on childhood trauma with “Stepfather Factory.” I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is more psychedelic and fatalistic, untangling patterns of self-destruction with guest appearances from Trent Reznor, The Mars Volta and Cat Power. The ominous Cancer 4 Cure feels in large part like a more concise parallel to his debut, finding El-P coming to terms with grief while navigating his trademark visionary soundscapes; as the hook on “The Full Retard” goes: “You can pump this shit, like they do in the future.” Looking back, Meline finds the unintended narrative that the trio of albums completes compelling.
“When you hear Company Flow and you hear Fantastic Damage and I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead and you hear Cancer 4 Cure, I think you really are hearing a journey for someone,” he says. “There’s clear growth, and I know it for a fact because I know where I was. And let’s be honest, when you’re in your 20s, five years is a huge fucking amount of time. You are different.
“That’s what I really like about the catalog,” he continues. “I listen to it and I’m like, it’s the same person obviously, but not only in spirit and intelligence and approach but in a sort of emotional intelligence, there is growth and there’s something happening. It’s moving somewhere. And if nothing else, I do feel good about that.”
On the 20th anniversary of Fantastic Damage, El-P spoke to SPIN about revisiting his early records, finding his voice as a solo artist, and learning to choose his words more carefully.
SPIN: After being part of a group dynamic with Company Flow, when you started work on Fantastic Damage, did you have a concrete vision for the album?
El-P: Yeah, I mean, I did. First of all, I never wanted to be a solo artist. I always wanted to be in a group. I always wanted to be EPMD or Run-DMC, so when Company Flow fell apart, it took me a minute to figure out what I was going to do. There wasn’t just some immediate, “Oh I’ll just put out a solo album.” I was definitely thrown for a loop and didn’t quite embrace that idea, and I think that’s why it was five years after Funcrusher Plus that it came out. I kind of knew that if I was going to do it, that I was going to put my name out there as the primary focus, it would have to be different than what I’d done. There would have to be some kind of justification, like why are you listening to me? Company Flow was two dudes who wanted to be rappers all their lives just trying to say the funniest, grimiest shit they could possibly say and get all their little jabs out at the world. But it wasn’t particularly personal. Some stuff was—”The Last Good Sleep” for me was obviously very personal.
Doing that record kind of, in a way, set the tone for me with what I might be able to do with Fantastic Damage. Before I put out “The Last Good Sleep,” which I was hesitant to do, because I was not convinced anyone would give a shit about my personal family tragedy, I didn’t really understand that those things connected with people on a broader level. I thought it was too personal. But seeing how it affected people and affected me, kind of informed me a little bit going forward with my solo record, with a new tool in my arsenal. It opened up a world for me, like I can kind of go in a little bit and take influence from my personal life and go from there. Other than that, I just wanted it to be a chaotic, fiery, alive record. I’d been producing the Cannibal Ox record and it was very moody and cinematic and even cold because it just made sense for me for that record. But I wanted this one to be a fireball coming through your kitchen. Other than that, no, I didn’t have a plan. [Laughs.]
There’s a lot of paranoia, and anxiety on Fantastic Damage. Was that, to some degree, reflective of where you were personally at the time?
Not to some degree, to the fullest degree, absolutely. When you’re listening to that record, you’re not listening to a dude who has a lot of quiet thoughts. It’s very much an exorcism, and that’s where I was at.
But there’s also a lot of creativity and ideas happening on the record, as well as on other projects you were working on, like Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein. Even though you were still getting used to working outside of a group dynamic, were you enjoying the possibilities of exploring so many new ideas?
For sure, and that’s where I’ve always been with music. During that time, I was always making sure that I had the freedom to take my time and do what I wanted. And music to me, at that time, was still kind of new. I had done a couple of albums, but I was still learning and unlocking what I could do and what I wanted to do. It was a very rich, creative time for me. I didn’t have any rules. And I didn’t have any real definitions other than some of the old adages and standards I had of rap music, which is that the shit had to bump. But it was a very fertile and experimental phase in my progression where I was learning what I could do. It was a step in my evolution from a loop-based, funky riff type of thing to looking at music as a production. There was a beginning, middle, and end, and there were no real rules to it, you could change midway through, you could morph into something else, it could break. There was no one, ever in my career, looking over my shoulder and saying, “What the fuck are you doing, man? This is crazy.”
How much has time changed your perspective on your solo records?
You know, I think that doing these records, there was a bit of a process of going back and having to listen to them over again. Like, “alright kid, whaddya got.” Let me try and beam my brain back to where it was, and I think that it was a really healthy thing. I had to fight the part of me that was like “use a compressor goddamnit”—the part of me that knows what he’s doing in the studio, now. But I think I just walked away from it with the perspective of being proud of that kid, who’s not me anymore, but who’s part of me as a foundation. Before, I probably would have walked away and ditched the whole thing. That’s one of the more brutal critiques you can make of your own music. But I don’t have such a hard edge about it anymore. [Those albums] meant something emotionally to me, and I know they meant something to other people. Time has been kinder to this process than I might have been if I were sort of forced to wake up and deal with it.
Def Jux ended between I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead and Cancer 4 Cure—did it come about because you were doing too much at once?
Oh yeah, 100%. And doing too much and it not working. [Laughs.] I was spread thin, I was emotionally pretty destroyed because some shit had happened, (Camu Tao) had died, and all of a sudden, this juggernaut that had just built up into this explosion in the early 2000s. And everyone was dropping like flies. For me, it felt like a job. It started to feel like I was spending more time putting out fires and trying to make sure that, against all odds, I could do the right thing. The part of me that was a writer and musician, that was just being trampled on. As much as I like to think I had the bravery to foresight to step away from Def Jux because of those reasons, it really had to collapse underneath me before I could reemerge as an artist. It was a beautiful thing but it had run its course on so many levels. And I don’t think it was tenable for me to be that person anymore. I had to confront that, but beyond that…once the building collapsed and the cloud of asbestos and dust and shards of glass got brushed off my face and pants, all I had left was music. As terrifying as that was, it ultimately was really the key to my future, personally, as a human. I had gotten out of touch with the fact that I was here because of music. I didn’t want to be a record label guy. I didn’t want power, I just wanted to make music. Sometimes you gotta get robbed before you realize what you really value.
What’s the biggest personal change you’ve undergone since releasing your first solo album 20 years ago?
As a kid, I really, really wanted to be heard, I really wanted to be recognized as interesting, smart, I wanted approval. I had something to say and I thought something about everything, and I think the thing that changed was that had just sort of disappeared for me. The less I can talk the better at this point. [Laughs.] My pursuit of what I’m doing is really, it’s in parallel to my declining interest in my pursuit of exposure and fame. Which is ironic because I’m more exposed and famous than I’ve ever been. But beyond that, I think I’m kinder. I spent a long time trying to be kinder and trying to understand what it was about me that couldn’t get that right. And this is all a very strange and personal thing, but it’s true. I think that I’m kinder now. And I’m calmer. And it doesn’t mean that there’s no turmoil or no opinion about anything, it just means that, like my music, I choose my words more carefully. And so it reflects in my music. I think when you hear my music now…the words, when they matter, they’re not wasted.