El-P is the rap game Bob Odenkirk. He went from cult genius (Company Flow, Mr Show) to late career mainstream success (Run The Jewels, Better Call Saul). In between he managed to produce an indie classic (Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein) and his own sci-fi-prog-rap masterpiece (2007’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead). By my count he’s on Career Four at this point.
Career One: his pioneering work with Company Flow. I rank their 1997 debut Funcrusher Plus with my top ten albums of all time – it’s right up there with Sgt Pepper, Illmatic, and Return To The Valley Of The Go-Go’s. Funcrusher Plus introduced a post-boom bap sound of weirdly hypnotic beats that pulled samples from old cartoon soundtracks and avant jazz fadeouts. The lyricism was next level too: dense free form verses with abstract images and esoteric references. Still Company Flow was rooted in gritty NY hip hop, with none of the nerdy stink of their imitators and contemporaries.
Maybe the fully realized genius of Funcrusher is why Co Flow didn’t last. Aside from a few more singles and an instrumental album, that was the end of Career One for El-P. Career Two is marked by his run as label impresario, leading Def Jux Records to a landmark early 2000s run. The EP Def Jux Presents included appearances by Aesop Rock, RJ-D2, Ill Bill and El-P himself (credited as Company Flow but more in the style of his first solo album Fantastic Damage). I played that EP to death when it came out: it sounded like a musical future that was too cool to ever really happen. Cannibal Ox, a duo of unique Harlem MCs Vordul and Vast Aire, were the highlight of this era. Their 2001 debut The Cold Vein is a masterpiece of arty hip hop and an absolute peak of El-P’s production work. It was born to be a classic and it has aged like fine wine.
For a while it seemed like El-P would stay behind the boards. He lent his trademark spacey production to other artists like Cage, Mr Lif, and my personal favorite: a Prefuse 73 remix with Ghostface. Career Three begins with his return to the mic for two solo albums with a more ambitious, aggressive sound and lyrics that delved into personal territory. I also associate 2007’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead and 2012’s Cancer 4 Cure with the dissolution of Def Jux. These are cathartic albums, informed by real world frustrations. Sort of an extension of Co Flow’s “Last Good Sleep” but much deeper: childhood traumas, drug addictions, technology fears, conspiracy theories, spiritual isolation. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is a powerful conceptual album that requires some deep digging to understand.
Now here we are in Career Four, wherein El-P finally (and somewhat unexpectedly) gets his Better Call Saul moment. His production work for Killer Mike’s 2012 R.A.P. Music began a partnership that morphed into Run The Jewels. RTJ is another musical reinvention, jettisoning the boom bap and emo rap for what I’d describe as electro-post-millennium-party-hip hop. I mean, Run The Jewels is party music is it not? Like if Kid ‘n Play had bars and ill production. Of the trilogy of albums I prefer Run The Jewels 2, but overall they have a consistent bump and seem built for live performance. RTJ is the sound of a well-earned victory lap.
El-P is on the Top 50 list as not just a producer but an MC. His style has evolved from abstract braggadocio to densely packed impenetrable wordplay to the bouncy trademark Run-the-Jewels-flow. But his spirit remains weird, absurd, comical, and always genuine NY hip hop. “I bring a tetherball full of nitroglycerine to the local knife fight/Keep listening….” No problem.