El-P has lived on the cutting edge his whole career. His work in Company Flow set the stage for the late 90s underground hip hop boom, then his Definitive Jux Records label ushered in a second wave. Very few artists from that era are still relevant, if even active. And yet somehow he flipped an unlikely pairing with Killer Mike into middle aged mainstream success with Run The Jewels. Maybe the world has finally caught up to his signature sound, a dystopian sci-fi spin on the b-boy elements. Or maybe as we’ll see by looking at his discography, El-P has learned how to make his edgy style more palatable without compromise. Run The Jewels are nothing if not industry pros, who’ve made their share of sacrifices, then saw some daylight and ran toward it. It’s a well deserved W for both guys. Musically? Eh, I’m not super inspired by their work. But if you are, and you don’t know El-P’s full catalog – check it out.
Funcrusher Plus (1997)
Funcrusher Plus is in the top tier of 90s hip hop, right there with Illmatic and Liquid Swords. Conspiratorial but not manic, anti-gangsta but not preachy, rooted in dusty New York boom bap but super progressive and future oriented. This was way ahead of the production curve, culling samples from a soundtrack fadeout or a late-50s Ravi Shankar sitar album or an obscure Hobbit cartoon. It’s all part of a cohesive sound that broke all sorts of new boundaries. Lyrically El-P and Big Jus show up with overstuffed backpacks of dense flows and odd references. You have to admire how they can carry all that and still walk with a bop. Because imitators and artists who followed this path ended up on the fringes, too wordy or too indie or whatever. Funcrusher Plus is just pure hip hop, no asterisks. Though you might need to have access to a time machine to fully appreciate it. If you do – grab a forty and a blunt and a boombox. Get Funcrusher on tape, then start looking up lottery winners.
Little Jonny From The Hospital (1999)
An instrumental album as bridge between Company Flow and the Def Jux Records era. With the group dissolving and El-P leaving Rawkus Records, this album was a stopgap, and sounds like it. It’s basically an El-P beat tape, a raw collection of what seem like works in progress. For example the “Workers Needed” beat was also on the “End To End Burners” single, with for a plea for verses, perhaps recruiting talent for the new label. So this was an unsettled time, basically cleaning out the closets for Rawkus before moving on. Which makes for a decent listen, but not really a proper followup to Funcrusher.
Def Jux Presents (EP – 2001)
Spaced out drugged out techno tribal lyrical spazzing, screeching into an icy Brooklyn stroll through the post-apocalypse. And that’s just the first song. This seven song sampler set the stage for Def Jux Records, introducing Cannibal Ox, RJ-D2, Aesop Rock, and Ill Bill from Non-Phixion – a new vanguard of underground hip hop. Cannibal Ox steal the show, previewing two key tracks from their debut album. I spun the hell out of this album in the summer of 2001. Though the lyrics and general vibe evoke grimy visions of a dark future, the high level of talent and artistic direction promise otherwise.
The Cold Vein (production – 2001)
A true classic in every sense, one of those moments of singular musical chemistry. The Cold Vein matched El-P’s beats with Vast Aire and Vordul of Cannibal Ox for a sound that’s chilly but expansive, evoking an alien atmosphere. Give it a few listens and it’ll keep drawing you back. Then set it aside and listen again. The magic is in how you’ll hear new things, or how familiar moments resonate in different ways. The music is gorgeously detailed, with hooks popping out of the wreckage. Lyrically Cannibal Ox are like an indier De La Soul, with each rapper’s distinct quirks adding to a greater sum. Vast Aire is a witty conversationalist, while Vordul goes for angular abstraction. This is a long album that doesn’t let up, showing new cards at different points, veering at times toward spoken word poetry in flows that could still hang in battle rap scenes. At the end it leaves you wanting more. It’s a shame that Cannibal Ox’s career never popped off so much from here, because they carry this album just as much as El-P’s beats. Anyway there’s a lifetime of great music on The Cold Vein.
Fantastic Damage (2002)
I want to like this one more than I do. But even now twenty years later I can’t get over my initial impression that it’s a bit of a letdown. Fantastic Damage is purposely obscure at times, I get that. The beats stomp out icy paths between subway boom bap and futuristic sci-fi, with a busy treble-y mix that can get abrasive over more than a few tracks. El-P’s denser-than-ever rhymes are impenetrable at times. I have to look up the lyrics to unpack them. Which is all fine – this is art. There is no shortage of critical praise out there for Fantastic Damage. Just be warned – this is a challenging one. And dare I say like any other artist El-P can find himself deep in the weeds when he’s aiming for a Big Statement. Which this album most certainly is. I can dig it – especially “Tuned Mass Damper” on repeat – but I’m just saying there are some lesser known gems in his catalog that deserve equal shine.
Like this one. The first in a trilogy of megamix mixtapes that for me are more listenable than his proper albums. Why? First: this is a mix of instrumental beats with a few freestyle type raps. I often prefer his instrumental work, since his beats are quirky and subtly hooky enough to stand on their own. Plus the tone is looser, especially on this first volume. It veers into long stretches of lost vinyl rock tunes, which I hear as a nod to the producer’s dilemma when you can’t figure out which cool part to loop, so fuck it let the whole thing just jam out. Which is how a mixtape should work, as an extension of the DJ’s creative spirit. The mining of psychedelic rock is akin to Edan’s Beauty and the Beat from 2005, an underrated gem of psych rock crate digging. So this is a weird one, but I think its lower stakes lend it some charm. Keep an eye on this series – this best one is coming up.
High Water (2004)
But first – we hit a fallow period. High Water was a jazzy side project, coolly received at the time. It was not hip hop enough for El-P fans, and jazz folks turned their snooty noses up, or at least more than usual. Since I just got done reviewing Frank Zappa, I can deal with a good bit of self-indulgent free jazz. Though I can see why this one didn’t have much impact. The tracks kind of meander, struggling to catch grooves or set vibes. Still I like that he made this record, if even just as a tribute to his father, a jazz musician. A few tracks (“Get Your Hands Off My Shoulder, Pig,” “When The Moon Was Full”) would fit in a career retrospective playlist.
Collecting The Kid (2004)
Next came this rather unimpressive set of spare instrumentals. At the time Collecting The Kid just didn’t seem all that essential, for El-P’s career or the indie rap scene. And relistening today, it still doesn’t have much to offer. It is just a collection, without the quirky cohesiveness of the megamix series. Nor do these tracks add anything new to his traditional sound. If you’re in the mood for El-P beats, this is not the set to reach for.
I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (2007)
His best solo album, a true emo hip hop masterpiece. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is a dystopian concept that zeroes in on the personal experience at the center of the storm. The specter of Bush II’s America hangs over like a grim cloud, but though the vibe is darkly futuristic it’s also fiercely humane. Should we characterize this album as conscious hip hop? Perhaps not, because there are no easy answers or rhetorical slam dunks here. This is smart music that doesn’t rub your nose in its pretensions. It will challenge you to think, and there’s no prize at the end. “Tasmanian Pain Coaster” is aptly titled, a Willy Wonka freakout ride on a subway train; “Flyentology” freeze frames a religious epiphany on a crashing plane; “The League Of Extraordinary Nobodies” riffs on drug paranoia with a studio audience laugh track. Big name collaborators like The Mars Volta and Trent Reznor play the background, as equally submerged as the disparate samples. My favorite track is “No Kings” which kind of drops the concept for some post-Co Flow shit talking. Super duty tough work.
I love this one. Seriously – if you’re a fan of El-P’s work, you cannot sleep on megamixx2. This is what I wanted Fantastic Damage to sound like, the perfect bridge between the dusty eccentric hip hop of Company Flow and the futuristic excursions of his solo work. We get a few freestyle type tracks, plus some solid songs like “Fuck The Law” and “Krazy Kings 3.” Mixed in with instrumental beats leaning heavier on samples, chopped and chewed up but still very New York hip hop. Where the first megamixx let loose with its indulgences, this one is reined in just enough for easier relistens. This is really good shit – not just El-by-numbers. Just so entertaining and perfectly realized. And how about an RL Burnside flip dropping in out of nowhere? Fuck it, I’m giving this one a 10.
Solid if not essential. You can hear some sonic progressions, some early elements of what would become the Run The Jewels sound. This mixtape is like going to watch a spring training game. Maybe it doesn’t count, but it’s still baseball right?
Cancer 4 Cure (2012)
El-P’s third proper solo album is not a total reinvention. Which is why it might have seemed a little underwhelming to fans. It’s still edgy as all hell, an odd mix of post-millennium tech hop with haunting sonics and personal issues. “Drones Over BKLYN” is a proper amalgamation of El-P’s styles, a great single that hints at RTJ’s mainstream ready sound. “Oh Hail No” anticipates the coming political era and “Tougher Colder Killer” features Killer Mike – both proto-Run The Jewels tracks. The second half of this album bogs down in some personal tracks that don’t quite work, like the multiple verses were filled in to fit the themes. Which kind of betrays their confessional nature. That’s the thing about ’emotionally honest’ music – you’re still operating within the constructs of a song form, so it’s like a magician maintaining an illusion. Regardless El-P has begun here a new era of musical focus. All he needs is a collaborator to fulfill that vision.
R.A.P. Music (production – 2012)
Released just a week after Cancer 4 Cure, this Killer Mike album proved that any of its issues had already been solved. We could say that C4C was too insular, that even if it perfected elements of the sound it also didn’t break new ground and could very well have been a dead end of sorts. R.A.P. Music was an injection of new spirit for El-P’s career direction. Killer Mike is a charismatic Godzilla on the mic – he’s not subtle, but his cadence is musical in classic rap terms, like a southern Ice Cube. So he pulls El-P away from the indie rap fringes, just as the production lends his sound some distinctive eccentricity. R.A.P. Music was designed to make a big impact, and at times it comes off a bit too bombastic for its own good. Still I like how Killer Mike wants to slap the rap game back into political consciousness, beyond just conscious rap. This is not hipster scarf-wearing conscious hip hop – this is deeply felt, real life stuff. And beyond some of the overt political themes there are some personal narratives on “Ghetto Gospel” or “Willie Burke Sherwood.”
Run The Jewels (2013)
I’m not a huge fan of Run The Jewels. I’m happy for El-P and Killer Mike, who’ve parlayed a side project into a full time career. They make good music, they seem like good people, they deserve all the success they get. Put them on the Super Bowl Half-Time Show™! Why not? But – their sound can be rather formulaic, the same bouncy flows over El-P beats that veer toward conformity. Maybe that’s part of the genius, how they’ve been able to slip their political views into palatable modern hip hop. Fine. I also suspect that some veteran artists learn how to distance their personal and professional lives. You have an invasive media feeding a ravenous public attuned to gossip and rumor milling, you have obligations to labels and management and national tours, you have your own damn life which is not anyone else’s business. Which might explain why Run The Jewels comes off at times like a viral marketing campaign. Yes it’s smart music, but much of that is in how it’s created rather than the product itself. It’s still very good, listenable stuff. “Sea Legs” is a highlight, with a space rollercoaster beat and lyrics about the awkward unreality of mainstream success. Every time I try to engage with this album I’m not unimpressed, but left at a bit of a distance.
Run The Jewels 2 (2014)
Okay, this one is much better. Like if the first album was a demo, or the pitch for ad in Don Draper’s office, this is the award winning ad itself. Ten songs, easily discernible with catchy hooks, and unorthodox routes that still make perfect sense. “Lie, Cheat, Steal” reminds me of an update of “Krazy Kings” from Funcrusher Plus – hypnotic verse beat with a stabbing chorus. Killer Mike owns “Early” with his police brutality verse, which spirals into a spacey chorus. “Crown” is a curveball beat that shows how adaptive the otherwise formulaic RTJ flows can be. “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)” unearths Zach de la Rocha for a guest verse. This album is like a touchdown endzone dance that doesn’t give a shit about the refs throwing flags. Fuck the refs, right guys?
Run The Jewels 3 (2016)
Well, they’re not messing with the formula. But maybe they should have. A little? It’s like another Jurassic Park movie – let me guess, the dinosaurs get loose and someone has to save the day? I prefer the instrumental version of this album. While the RTJ act sounds more interesting to me on non-album tracks with other producers’ beats (“Nobody Speak,” “Put Jewels On It”). Which means what? The formula is getting stale. Their self-aggrandizing is dullest on “Call Ticketron,” which doesn’t do anything clever with the theme of RTJ at MSG. And sometimes the anti-authority stuff feels a little wonky too, readymade for the Coachella crowd to raise their fists to. Of course that characterization is not fair especially to Killer Mike, a true activist who puts community efforts and actions behind his words, and who is unafraid to go against the grain to speak his truths. But I’m judging the music here, that’s it. And that’s my general impression of this album – is that it?
Run The Jewels 4 (2020)
Better. Smart and focused, if not too adventurous. “Ooh La La” and “Out Of Sight” interpolate Gang Starr (via Greg Nice) and Dr Dre’s D.O.C. album (via Foster Sylvers). “Walking In The Snow” and “Ju$t” focus the political messaging with clever themes, even if on the latter I don’t care for Pharrell’s chorus beating the punchline like a dead horse. A little subtlety guys, it goes a long way. Still Run The Jewels 4 is as good as we can hope to expect from this now high profile outfit. At this point I’d like to see them focus on other things, like maybe a new El-P solo album? Or production work for other rappers? Anything but more Run The Jewels? Whatever, as we’ve seen there’s lots of great El-P music out there. Now go track down megamixx2! It’s so good, I promise.