Originally published in URB Magazine, May 2002.
With Company Flow, El-P changed hip-hop. Brash, young and ready-to-battle, he became an iconoclastic hero known for apocalyptic production techniques, furious rhyme skills and a vicious sense of humor. Now his Definitive Jux label is defining the new sound of the underground and his first solo album is ready to drop. Daniel Chamberlin talks with Jaime Meline about high school shenanigans, Steven Seagal, his mother’s love and how to grow up without growing old.
“My instinct to say devilish things, you know, in the wrong situation . . . it kicked in pretty hard when I was onstage in Madison Square Garden in front of 30,000 people.” Hip-hop icon El-P is talking about his former group, Company Flow, opening up alongside Eddie Vedder, Ani Difranco and Patti Smith, for the Green Party’s candidate in the 2000 presidential election, Ralph Nader.
“That was like, the first thing that popped into my head that I would say, you know what I mean? Like, ‘I just want to thank Ralph Nader for his support of NAMBLA,’” he laughs. Any suggested alliances with the controversial National Man/Boy Love Association would not have helped the Green Party’s already slim chances in the ’00 presidential election. “They were really nervous about having us there. They literally put us in like, a closet. We sat there all fuckin’ day. After we performed — and this is the reason why Ralph Nader’s kinda the man — Ralph Nader brought his fruit plate into our room. He was like, ‘You guys are amazing . . . I’m so sorry that you sat in this, like, The Matrix room where you just had to, like, imagine food.’”
El-P’s an imposing figure on stage — known to tumble into the crowd without missing a beat — but he’s also a friendly fixture in the Brooklyn neighborhood where he’s lived for the past five years. It’s a place where the local bakery keeps ice coffee brewing throughout the winter just for him, and where gray-haired storekeepers invite him to backyard barbecues. Just as URB documented in our June 2001 issue, Vast Aire from Cannibal Ox lives with him, sleeping downstairs under a large Bruce Hornsby tour poster, right next to the minimal studio where Boston MC Mr. Lif is finishing up his debut album, I, Phantom, due out this fall. A rotating collection of “Jukies” lounge upstairs playing video games on a 25-year-old television that sits under a humongous Italian Blade Runner poster.
I first met El-P in London, England. I was on my way to the British music festival All Tomorrow’s Parties and was hitching a ride on the Def Jux tour bus. As a result, I was also crashing on the floor in a hotel room crowded with Def Jux label mates. I awoke to the motley crew debating the merits of various Steven Seagal movies and freestyling power ballads, using their MC skills to ape REO Speedwagon and Night Ranger classics. Now, a year later, El-P and Co. are still dissecting the cinematic contributions of the ponytailed martial arts meathead. Each Jukie drops scene-stealing monologues on the racial politics and metaphysical implications of Marked for Death and On Deadly Ground; they easily switch from serious discussion of classic hip-hop lore, Jay-Z, David Bowie, Radiohead and Prince to impressions of Las Vegas performer Danny Gans and tiger-loving item Siegfried & Roy.
“My house is like the center for the rotating commune,” he says. “My couch has seen every underground rapper’s ass. It’s cool, certainly there are times when I want everyone to get the fuck out of my house, but those are few and far between.”
I’m here in Brooklyn to talk with El-P about his first solo artist LP, Fantastic Damage. He’s under a lot of pressure — he’s handling all the producing and guest MCs only pop up on a couple of tracks. It’s a highly anticipated project, because when El-P makes hip-hop, he changes hip-hop. Fantastic Damage is going to be held up to his legacy — the now-defunct Co Flow’s two seminal hip-hop albums. It’ll also have to live up to the suffocating inner-city cyborg hip-hop electro-clash of Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein, an album he produced that raised expectations for his upstart label, Def Jux. Expectations fulfilled by compilations such as Definitive Jux Presents II and albums and singles from Mr. Lif, Aesop Rock and URB Next 100’s RJD2.
With his new album — an intricate web of autobiographical lyricism locked together with monstrous distorted guitar-sample solos, fragmented bursts of rhythmic electro shrapnel and weirdly melodic doo-wop choruses — El-P is checking himself. Events of the past few years have resulted in his desire to get right with his family and his friends, to get his life together. Fantastic Damage is the sound of a brash young hip-hop hero growing the fuck up.
Heavy Flow Days
I’m a thinker/Evil anus letting off stinkers
— Company Flow, “8 Steps to Perfection”
Def Jux is so hot right now that Def Jam served the label with a cease and desist order. Now it’s Definitive Jux releases that are making their way into the review pages of Entertainment Weekly and on to Billboard’s Hot Rap Singles charts. Shortly after El-P unravels the in between days of Company Flow and Def Jux, disheveled Jux superstar Aesop Rock arrives at the apartment by taxi and announces happily that “they were playing [El-P single] ‘Stepfather Factory’ on the radio — the cab driver just schooled me on who El-P was.” True story. But Aesop played it cool with the driver, listening to his introductory history of Company Flow — the trio of Mr. Len, Big Juss and El-P — as he steered the car up to El-P’s stoop.
Co Flow’s first LP, Funcrusher Plus, was among a handful of independently produced records that heralded the quasi-mythical underground hip-hop boom of the mid-’90s. The album was the first hip-hop release on Rawkus, the then-indie label that became a hip-hop powerhouse with signature compilations like Soundbombing. Already confident from a string of singles that had reportedly sold upwards of 30,000 copies — “Juvenile Technics,” “Population Control,” “8 Steps to Perfection” — on the tiny Libra and Official labels, El-P and his companions joined up with Rawkus in 1997 on their own terms, writing their own contract.
Co Flow’s tracks are stanky, dissonant crunch-clusters of metallic hip-hop funk. The rhymes are densely woven disses, dialogues and stories, sometimes rhymed smoothly as a gust of summertime subway breeze, sometimes belched as acid-reflux spews of psychotic blitz. “We had people returning the CD to Rawkus with angry letters,” El-P remembers. But it pleased NYC hip-hop locals who heard echoes of the rattled production of tracks from Slick Rick and Run-DMC. Their angular, progressive riff on classic rap construction combined with the confrontational “Independent as Fuck” slogan they stamped on their records got them glowing reviews and placement high atop a cinder-block altar to DIY ethics.
Len, Juss and El-P’s racially diverse fanbase grew, but they also became anachronistic ideologues for the mostly white, highly critical, college-dwelling “backpack” set; El-P describes this archetypal fan as wearing a ponytail, Teva sandals and “one of those strange Mexican sweatshirts.” They identified with what they took to be Company Flow’s outsider politics and anti-corporate attitudes. El-P was not necessarily happy about this. “A lot of kids come in thinking that the cool shit is to be annoyed already,” he says. “I don’t like talkin’ to cats who can only talk about how shit is so dead.”
“I’ve seen people defend Co Flow saying if you don’t get it, then you’re just not ethereal or intelligent or lucid enough,” he says. “And that pisses me off. It’s like, ‘No, if they don’t like our shit, they just don’t like it. It just doesn’t move them the way they wanna be moving.’”
But by 1999, Company Flow’s second major release, the more ethereal, lucid instrumental album Little Johnny From the Hospitul was not moving the way they wanted it to. El-P blamed Rawkus for engineering a distribution deal without their permission and Co Flow subsequently decided to make their departure.
“Signed to Rawkus?/I’d rather be mouth-fucked by Nazis unconscious,” he rhymes on Fantastic Damage’s first single, “Deep Space 9mm.” In other words, he’s still not cool with the label (which was recently purchased by major label MCA). “I was just really fuckin’ disappointed. I was like, ‘Man, you guys had the chance to be a different kind of company,’” he sighs, saddened and a little exhausted by the tale he’s just related. Things had deteriorated within Company Flow as well. Worried that collaborating further would endanger their friendship, El-P, Len and Juss agreed to call it quits. Their final release came in 2001 on the Def Jux Presents compilation.
School’s Out Forever
This is for kids worried about the apocalypse/Do something and stop talking shit
— El-P, “Truancy”
“Ow! Son of a bitch. I think she just ripped a chunk out of my leg,” El-P grimaces. His cat, Mini Beast, has just interrupted the interview. “In the name of love,” he adds and continues stroking her back. Mini Beast is the product of a broken home — a drunken girlfriend brought her over to El-P’s one night years ago. The girlfriend became an ex, but El-P maintained custody. Now, although she might need her claws trimmed a bit, she’s a well-adjusted, affectionate animal that everyone in the house looks after.
“She’s just bad,” says Vast. He worries over her falling out of one of the apartment’s open windows and keeps hopping up to pluck her from the sill. “You know you’re not supposed to be up there,” he chastises.
The point of all this feline coddling being that cats don’t tone down their attitude for anyone, so Mini Beasts genial demeanor is confirmation that El-P’s apartment is a relaxing space, a hip-hop retreat that seems to live up to its communal description. There’s a family vibe that runs among the label; family is something that is extremely important to Jaime Meline’s everyday life, and it’s the dominant theme on Fantastic Damage.
Born in the mid-’70s, El-P grew up in Manhattan and Brooklyn. His parents parted ways when he was 7 years old. His mother was raised Catholic, his father is Jewish. “I somehow got none of it except a circumcision at birth. And that I’m thankful for,” he deadpans when we talk about religion and family with Mr. Lif in a low-key Vietnamese restaurant. Harry Meline was “just one of those smoky-bar piano-player singing cats,” and he taught Jaime to play piano when he was a child.
“My dad was hilarious, my dad was a fuckin’ rebel,” El-P says, enjoying a beverage made of beans, milk and colorful gelatin. “He always had the same authority struggles that I did. One day his boss told him that he had to wear a tie and this incensed him. The next day my dad came in with a tie tied around his head. Weirdly enough, one of the reasons I got kicked out of high school is because my principal told me that I couldn’t wear my hat backwards.”
School was a problem for the young Meline, but not because he had trouble with the books. “We were just snotty smart kids with attitude,” says schoolyard chum Jacob Kalish. “There was a run-in with a gym teacher,” Kalish reminisces over kickball antics. “The teacher was kind of taunting [Jaime] before he kicked the ball. Then he kicked a home run and ran around the bases with his middle fingers in the air screaming, ‘Eat me!’ That was indicative of [his] problems. He almost got suspended, but he got out of it,” he starts laughing. “His thing was getting out of it by crying.”
When he was kicked out of his second high school — the backward baseball cap scandal — he and his mother had a heart-to-heart. “My mom sat me down and was like, ‘Okay, here’s the deal, idiot,’” he smiles. “’You’re going to shut the fuck up, grin and bear it and go through school like everyone else does and stop being a wise ass and stop being insulted when people are trying to assert any type of authority over you. Or you’re gonna come up with Plan B.’ And to my mother’s credit, God bless her, we sat down and came up with plenty. Plan B was what ended up being my life.”
“It was hard for me to let him go into his own vision of himself,” says Nan Dillon, his mother. “But it was so clear what he really wanted to do. He missed getting some of the education, but [now] he’s really educated himself, he’s so unbelievably well read.”
El-P aced his GED and enrolled in audio engineering school, where he excelled. After graduating, he decided to give higher education a try and enrolled at Hunter College, but says he felt “confused and itchy” since most of his courses didn’t relate to the direction he was headed. In 1993, Company Flow released their first single, “Juvenile Technics,” and he dropped out.
“[I’ve been] addicted since the age of 16 to being in control of my future,” he says. “It’s difficult for me to ever imagine putting myself in a position where someone else is funding [Definitive Jux] and could potentially order me to do something. I just can’t fuck around like that. I think to an extent it’s also hurt me in my life, because sometimes personality-wise when I was younger, I guess, I probably went so far out of my way to stand out. I didn’t pick my battles and probably, as a younger kid — even when I met Lenny and Juss — during those years that aspect of my personality was not roped in enough. I was too wild. I was too stubborn. Too much of a know-it-all . . . I think my goal now is the moderation of that.”
No Sleep Till Brooklyn
I’m a man for what it’s worth/And my family grew up without manhood in’ its structure/We were stronger for that I do believe/We held our own against some fuckin’ evil people
— El-P, “Constellation Funk”
“’Last Good Sleep’ was really cathartic for me as a 21-year-old. That song was 10 years in the writing,” says El-P. It’s a quiet Sunday night at Jux Manor. Lif’s downstairs either trying to finish a chorus for his new album or trying to finish Final Fantasy X, and the rest of the house has gone out for the evening. “That was the first time I realized that there were more options than being clever and being funny and smart and having some bangin’ shit.”
Company Flow’s “Last Good Sleep” is the true story of El-P’s mother’s battery at the hands of his drunken stepfather. “It sounded like an argument,” he remembers. “I didn’t realize my mother was getting her face smashed against a brick wall. And then it finally dawned on me the next day that it happened. For years I didn’t do anything, there was no therapy, so I was stuck with these nightmares. And this underlying, gnawing feeling of guilt that I knew or I could have known or done something to intercept this problem.” His mother promptly threw the abuser out, reported the incident to the police and changed all the locks. Nobody in the Meline family talked about it for years, but for the next decade El-P had agonizing nightmares. He was still looking to confront his mother’s attacker, once literally chasing a stranger through a subway car thinking it was his ex-stepfather.
“When I played [‘Last Good Sleep’] for my mother she broke down and as I was holding her and telling her it was okay and it was over, all of a sudden I was in a position where I was healing her and healing me. I had my last nightmare that night,” he says. “It was over for me.”
For Nan, the real catharsis came when he performed the song for her at Company Flow’s final show on March 29, 2001. “What an amazing celebration of our relationship for him to be able to do that,” she says, “with no shame and no secrets. I just stood there and cried.
“I think he’s more aware of himself as a spokesperson for a lot of hurt people,” she says. “I can feel him baring that responsibility now.
Fantastic Damage picks up where “Last Good Sleep” left off. It’s an album about growing up and figuring out your priorities in life (see sidebar for El-P’s breakdown). For El-P, that meant leaving his paranoia behind — he’s still got boxes of matches, candles and purified water left over from his cache of Y2K survival supplies — in favor of maturity and responsibility. “My younger sister almost got hurt really badly a couple years ago, actually, New Year’s Day 2000,” he remembers, reluctant to reveal details. “The same day that I was holed up, high on drugs, thinking the world was going to end, sharpening my stick, planning my mountaintop commune. Then I got a phone call that I wasn’t expecting. Something really serious had happened to [her] and that was one of the things that affected me and one of the themes of my album that just, it hit home, fuck this. I cannot sit around and be involved in this conspiracy, fear shit, I can’t sit around and ignore any more, musically, the relationships I have with these people I love.”
“It’s very clear to me that Jaime is now a man,” says his mom, the pride obvious in her voice. “Having been through the pains of a helpless boy who suffered powerlessly and fought his way through it. Now he has more personal power than anyone I can think of.”
Focus on the Family
Boy meets world, of course his pops is gone/What you figure/That chalky outline on the ground is a father figure?
— Cannibal Ox, “Iron Galaxy”
Since El-P spends most of his time in the company of Jukies, he admits that’s where his own paternal instincts show. He smiles proudly when he sees Vast heading off to meet fellow Cannibal Ox Vordul Megilah for a practice session. Though PlayStation 2 games are a dominant pastime, El-P is the last to have a go at a fresh copy of State of Emergency. “It’s on some really ignorant shit,” he laughs as Lif, Vast and Aesop brutalize riot police in the game’s mall-based looter-melees.
“The boss has always been great,” says Aesop. “It wasn’t Aesop at first, it was ‘Hey little bitch, get the coffee, you fuckin’ asshole.’ On several occasions he spilled a cup over my head because it had too much sugar or too little sugar. Eventually I just battled him.” He can’t keep a straight face but keeps the pranks rolling. “He doesn’t like my shit very much. I’m just a sex symbol.”
All of the Jukies clown El-P when he’s in the room, but in private interviews — “benevolent, Jesus-like genius” is the phrase he suggests to Lif, Vast and Aesop as he heads for the door — they identify him as a concerned friend who is also one of the most sought-after producers working in contemporary hip-hop.
“We have managed to create a family for each other where we know that we get to have fun,” says El-P. “I get a chance to be around people who I can really honestly talk to. Hopefully, I think they know how much it concerns me what they’re feeling and what they’re going through. It gives me a chance to let myself be selfless and let myself be involved in something that isn’t just me.” He smiles wryly, catching himself mid-soliloquy. “And in conclusion, I’m just a really great human.”