I didn’t grow up cutting high school, drinking beer, dreaming of being a record label owner. I was rapping, I was trying to figure out how to win a battle, not be a businessman. If anything I’ve wanted nothing to do with business, but it’s something I grew into and something I took over myself. I’ve learned to love it for what it is.
story by Ariel Sundel
“I’m incredibly lustful for fuckin’ experiences in music,” says hip-hop’s Renaissance man, El-Producto, or El-P for short. Born Jaime Meline in NYC, El-P has done it all — rapping, producing, and even owning his own record label, Definitive Jux (better known as Def Jux, though not officially due to Def Jam’s cease and desist order). After speaking with Meline, Chicago Innerview has learned that the secret to his success is his passion for music and his drive to constantly improve himself.
As demonstrated by many of his projects, most notably one he did in 2004 with free jazz group The Blue Series Continuum, El-P really tries to grow as a musician — which means consistently stepping outside his comfort zone. The album that resulted from this free jazz collaboration, High Water, won praise in both the hip-hop and jazz worlds. “Part of the whole reason I did it was because I was pretty positive that I was gonna completely embarrass myself, and those are the types of things that I force myself to do,” explains El-P.
“I kinda feel like that’s what it’s about,” he continues. “Those unsure-footing moments are the moments that I think provide the most for me in the long run.” He’s convinced that “there’s no way you can be completely isolated from all those types of experiences and learn anything.” And he also values his mistakes for what he can learn from them: “Even the disasters, I always pull something out,” he says.
So what new fish-out-of-water project will El-P pull out next? “I haven’t quite figured out what I wanna put my hands on…Usually I’ll put an album out and then about six months later something really interesting comes up. So I’m kinda leaving it up to the proverbial universe to figure that one out.” For now he’s just basking in the glory of his latest accomplishment, his new sophomore album, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, to be released March 20. “I just really enjoyed making this record so much, getting it done, and really being my own voice again,” comments El-P.
Coming four years after his debut solo album, Fantastic Damage, El-P is pleased to be making his own music again. “What I enjoy the most are the El-P albums, because they’re the most rewarding…The process is really intense for me, so it’s not surface fun. But the accomplishment of the whole thing, finishing it, getting an idea out, figuring out how to translate the idea to my fingertips, is probably one of the most enjoyable experiences.”
Although this is only El-P’s second full-length solo studio album, he has kept plenty busy since releasing his first album Funcrusher Plus with Company Flow in 1997. He has produced albums for a long list of artists from Cannibal Ox to Zach de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine — and also created the soundtrack for the graffiti film Bomb the System.
Drawing inspiration from his environment, El-P credits the city in which he grew up, NYC, as his main influence. For him, the “chaos of the whole place, the way it’s set up, the way people live next to each other, on top of each other, detached from each other, inadvertently lends itself to my style.” While El-P prefers to make his own music, he also values producing others’ music. “It separates myself from responsibility. I don’t have to think about what I’m about; I just have to kinda put myself in someone else’s world.”
But El-P is not just a skilled musician and producer. In 2000 he founded the Definitive Jux record label, which has grown into the undisputed king of indie hip hop. “I love being able to empower myself and empower people,” he says, “and it’s exciting and it’s stressful.” Though he is pleased with the success of Def Jux, business is not El-P’s passion. “I didn’t grow up cutting high school, drinking beer, dreaming of being a record label owner. I was rapping, I was trying to figure out how to win a battle, not be a businessman. If anything I’ve wanted nothing to do with business, but it’s something I grew into and something I took over myself. I’ve learned to love it for what it is.” In fact, El-P has made it clear that everything, Def Jux included, takes a back seat to his true love: music.
So what is the business model of a record label founded, owned, and managed by a hardcore music lover? “If the music is good, then I kinda approach figuring everything else out as it comes,” he says. Focusing on the ideal of putting out good music, Def Jux then uses emerging technological advances to enhance the musical experience. “I’m not one of these people that’s intellectually and philosophically scared of technology. I’ve always tried to embrace it, therefore my label tries to embrace it.” To him, it doesn’t pay to “get too nostalgic about any one thing…At first it was like ‘Damn, they’re not making cassette tapes?’ Now it’s like ‘Ya know what? Cassette tapes suck!’”
Technology has also played a huge role in El-P’s music. “I’m like a tech whore…I’m a big believer that the more tools around you and the more handy things are, the better.” While he “tries to keep up” with owning the most advanced technology, his main instrument and “the basis for my production is the same fuckin’ ancient sampler that most people don’t know it still exists. Just the peripherals around it have changed and grown.”
With all of the new challenges facing the music industry these days, it’s easy to lose focus of what’s important. El-P puts it in perspective: “It’s our job…and also the fans’ job to a degree, to figure out how can we keep music going.”
Def Jux is doing its part by offering a digital download service on its website and trying out new promotional techniques. The Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, which teamed up with MF Doom and Danger Mouse for their Dangerdoom project in 2005, is now collaborating with Def Jux to promote their annual “Def Jux Presents” album, which will be called Definitive Swim. This compilation features new music from many of the label’s artists and will be offered for free on the Adult Swim website in early March. They also have a music video for “Flyentology”, El-P’s collaboration with Nine Inch Nail’s Trent Reznor from the new album.
Other artists on I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead include Cat Power, The Mars Volta’s Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala, James McNew of Yo La Tengo, Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio, as well as Def Jux’s Aesop Rock, Rob Sonic, Cage, and Hangar 18. El-P describes his collaborations as “great moments for me and, to a degree, fantasies come true.”
Although in the future he’d like to work with Queens of the Stone Age, Redman, and many others, there is one artist he’s willing to break the law for. “I would say that ultimately before the end of my little run here as a musician, I would probably stalk and hunt down David Bowie and force him to record with me…hopefully not at gunpoint, but if I had to do it, I’m willing to go there — and him and his people should be warned.”
With the whole technological paradigm shift going on in the music business these days, it’s reassuring to know that there is a talented musician with a record label who is willing to push the envelope to keep the music real and relevant. “I think that at the end of the day, there’s one thing out of all of this shit that people need,” El-P concludes. “And that is good music.”
El-P :: Logan Square Auditorium :: March 23 (postponed until May).