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El-P - Misunderstood Master

Author: Liz Galinovic
Monday, February 16, 2009

Revered for his beatmaking and highly personal, if at times misinterpreted lyrics, New York hip hopper El-P is comfortable with being abstract, yet remains committed to opening up to his listeners in a way few artists are willing to risk. 3D’s Liz Galinovic helps piece the enigma together by taking a journey to the dark side with the man himself.

Much to my disappointment El-Producto is not an El Mariachi inspired name that translates to The Producer. In fact, it's not a well thought out name at all, rather an elongated version of what people had already started to call him when he was just a young dude freestyling: El-P. Since starting out at the age of 17 as one part of the group Company Flow, the New York-based El-P has founded independent hip hop label Definitive Jux, worked with artists such as Beck, Nine Inch Nails and The Mars Volta, produced a jazz album and scored the film Bomb the System, amongst other things. Somewhere in all this he has made the time to release two solo albums: Fantastic Damage (2003), and more recently the acclaimed I'll Sleep When You're Dead. As his career continues to evolve ‘The Producer’ tag seems all the more fitting, yet talking to the man responsible for some very complex lyrics, a more appropriate summation of EL-P would be The Pontificator.

Upon first hearing El-P, most people tend to throw out words like ‘experimental’ and ‘avant-garde.’ His beats are always impressively evidenced with the various influences they carry, while his lyrical ability is something else; tracks range from fictional accounts of probable happenings to revelations that could make you wince at the mere thought of such honest, personal disclosure.

However, if the listener operates by linear thinking, chances are they’ll fail to grasp the meaning sailing over their head. EL-P himself concedes that often people completely misinterpret what he’s saying: “It’s poetry, so there’s a lot of room for misinterpretation; there’s room for disconnection. I like to think that it’s there, that if you sit with it, the pieces are there. I don’t think I’m presenting anything that’s impossible to get, you know. I’m just using language like some people use paint. I could probably say things a lot clearer, be a lot more direct, but I kind of feel like that just isn’t my nature, isn’t my style. Sometimes it is, and I think that those things can be powerful, but it’s a relationship between me and the person listening and it’s kind of my job to balance it. I would create this piece the way it is, but at the same time have no intention of, or direct joy in creating some impossible puzzle for someone to figure out. But yeah, a lot of the time people just don’t quite get what I’m talking about.”

He’s not wrong. Flyentology, a track commonly misunderstood as a rant against religious dogma, asserts that, ‘There are no aliens in the foxholes, there is no intellect in the air... just a working example of faith versus physics’, and even its title evokes some dubious association with the Church of Scientology. Yet the track is actually a confession of a fear of flying, an acknowledgement of how completely unreligious people pray to a god they never believed in the minute they experience utter fear. As El-P confesses, “I realised my intellectual disdain for the whole concept of what religion is and what faith is and how little of it I seem to have in general and then all of a sudden I’m like an ordained minister when I’m in the sky”.

And what of Tasmanian Pain Coaster- The story of pain itself is easy to lift from the track, but how does the titular State tie in- “One of my favourite cartoons as a kid was the Tasmanian Devil. It was just wreaking havoc through people’s lives. It was kind of my description, what I named the worst possible train ride. Which was what the song was about, you know, being on the train and having this conversation unfold and it sort of erupting into insanity. And it was just sort of my way... it was the only thing I could think of.”

As listeners move through the album, though they may not always grasp the tracks’ intended meanings there’s no escaping the darkness that hovers over them. The Stepfather Factory conjures men succumbing to violent booze-fuelled malfunctions. While even love song The Overly Dramatic Truth doesn’t pretend to hold much hope for a happy ending; instead its lover is told to get out before the ‘ignorance and bliss that I still wish I had’ is destroyed by ‘my savage thread’ because ‘I can’t give what I can’t take.’ 

With tracks such as these one might assume that El-P has lived a tumultuous life, but ‘Poor Me’ doesn’t appear to be the next hit single. “I think like anybody I’ve had ups and downs; there aren’t a lot of people who don’t have their own story. I think the difference is when you’re a writer, when you’re an artist, you have a hell of a lot more time to sit around and pontificate about that shit. I had a lot of tumultuous years, but they were also great in a way. The things that inspire me are often me working out some of those things. I don’t think an album with me talking about that cool time I went to eat donuts with my mum would... yeah. I find myself opening up a little bit for some reason. That’s just my nature, that’s just the way I am.”

And there’s more to come. Already working on his new album, tentatively titled The Cancer for Cure, El-P’s pontificating about life, his in particular, is set to continue. “I'm hell-bent on getting it finished by the end of the year. I'm just trying to wrap my head around it. I've had a lot of shit going on last year that, just personally, was difficult for me to get passed and start rapping about. I had a good friend pass away and a couple of other things, but yeah, I'm in the studio right now; when I get back from touring I'm going full-on with the record and I think that so far it's shaping up to be really fucked up.”

No doubt the results will be typically insightful, and reflect El-P’s deep and ever evolving sense of perspective. “I’m always searching; always trying to, whatever it is that I’m doing, even as a man, take the next step,” he confides. “I think in order to do that you’ve got to have some kind of understanding, some kind of insight into the picture of who you are at the time.”

WHAT: Plays the Gaelic Theatre
WHEN: Friday 27 February