In this weekly feature, we’re profiling the unsung heroes of hip hop music: the producers. These musicians, responsible for creating beats, sampling and collaborating with MCs, slave away behind the scene while rappers get most (if not all) of the credit. With Behind The Boards, we’re looking to shine the spotlight on the best producers in the game.
"Producer gave me a beat, said it's the beat of the year / I said El-P didn't do it, so get the fuck outta here"
- Killer Mike on Run The Jewels' "Banana Clipper"
That boast may seem like the product of fraternal pride, as Mike and El-P are friends and frequent collaborators, but in his 21 years as a producer, El-P has made plenty of beats that could compete for the top spot on any of those years' "Best Of" lists. Getting his start as a member of underground favorites Company Flow, El went on to found hugely influential alt-hip hop label Definitive Jux (R.I.P.), start a successful solo career as an MC, and foster the careers of younger rappers as a producer. Follow the many twists and turns of his career in this latest edition of Behind The Boards.
The Company Flow Era
The son of jazz pianist Harry Keyes, El-P (Jaime Meline) grew up in Brooklyn, immersing himself in the borough's hip hop culture after being expelled from several schools at a young age. He met future Company Flow member Mr. Len at his 18th birthday party after hiring him as a DJ, and the two founded Company Flow together shortly afterward in 1993. They released their debut single, "Juvenile Techniques," later that year, featuring rapping by El (who went by El-Producto at the time) and co-production by him and Len. Listen to that debut single below.
In retrospect, "Juvenile Techniques" feels something like a rudimental template for Co-Flow's later material. Slightly distorted samples blend horns, a funky beat and a recording of someone whistling together into a cohesive whole, ending up as a more lo-fi take on the traditionalist boom-bap that ruled NYC in the early '90s. The song also features a vocal sample ("The juvenile, believe we're livin' foul") from a very rare demo recorded by Mobb Deep under the name Poetical Prophets, both members of which El had met earlier in his childhood.
Inviting rapper Bigg Jus into the fold, Company Flow released the Funcrusher EP in 1996. This marked a huge advancement in sound for El, who produced seven of the EP's eight tracks, as well as a step-up in the lyrics department. Especially on "Vital Nerve," Company Flow introduced some of the darkest, most hard-edged hip hop that the world had seen in 1996 (with the exception, perhaps, of RZA's menacing beats on The Wu-Tang Clan's debut), accompanied by dense lyrics that reference comic book villains Mumm-Ra and Magneto. Listen to "Vital Nerve" below.
It was this stylistic shift from the cleaner, more wealth-obsessed rap that dominated NYC at the time, that led El-P to proclaim in a 2012 interview, "Company Flow started the label of indie hip hop." Though a case could also be made for Peanut Butter Wolf's Stone's Throw label as the epicenter of left-of-center hip hop, El and Company Flow are certainly still regarded as some of the first artists to make rap a more independent playing field. The Funcrusher EP set off a bidding war between record labels to sign the hot group, and they eventually settled on Rawkus Records, the label that helped jump-start the careers of Talib Kweli and Mos Def. In 1997, Rawkus released an expanded edition of the EP as an album entitled Funcrusher Plus, which again featured El-P production on the majority of its songs. Even though Company Flow would break up shortly afterward, the album would go on to be recognized as a cult classic, with Pitchfork saying the following upon its 2009 reissue:
"As abrasive and confrontational as this album might've sounded in the Bentley-buying shiny-suit atmosphere of 1997, Funcrusher Plus seems both more vital and more unfathomable now."
After releasing an instrumental album in 1999 and recording a few stray tracks here and there, Company Flow disbanded and El parted ways with Rawkus, but not before their mark had been made. Listen to one of their last tracks, 1999's fierce political diatribe, "Patriotism," below.
Def Jux and Solo Albums
After observing the poor management that would run Rawkus Records (NYC's leading alt-rap label at the time) into the ground in the mid-2000s, EL-P decided to found his own label in 1999. Def Jux (later officially changed to "Definitive Jux" after a dispute with Def Jam) quickly became widely renowned for its albums by artists like RJD2, Aesop Rock and Mr. Lif, most of which featured El-P production. One of the label's first releases was a 2000 EP by Mr. Lif called Enters The Colossus, which had "Arise," one of El's first productions for another artist, on it. Its instrumental was a warped, chaotic slice of funk, and a sign of things to come from El-P. Listen below.
It was here, in the confines of his own label, that El's sound began crystallize. Retaining the boom-bap blueprint, he added touches of weirdness, including sci-fi-esque sound effects, that strange, atmospheric organ in the background, and a generally chaotic feel absent from most hip hop of the era. For a period in the first couple years of the 2000s, it seemed as if El was trying to out-weird himself on every new track he produced. This would culminate with Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein, an album entirely produced by El, and one that has been frequently called Def Jux's all-time greatest release. With beats that sounded like they were cooked up in a mad scientist's lab, the album saw El becoming a singular force in hip hop, crafting instrumentals that were almost impossible to dissect, let alone imitate. Standout track "Raspberry Fields" was particularly earth-shattering in terms of is total destruction of hip hop boundaries. Hear it below.
Warped doesn't even begin to describe "Raspberry Fields." A vocal sample (or maybe it's a synth) is rendered utterly unrecognizable by the veritable war zone created by the stuttering beat and distorted low-end synths that swirl around Vast Aire and Vordul Mega's wise lyrics in a certifiably off-kilter fashion. The song is a highlight on an album of show-stopping, game-changing tracks, and it would pave the way for El-P's soon-to-flourish solo career.
In 2001, El-P dropped the single "Stepfather Factory," his first song as a solo artist. It would later show up on his 2002 debut album, Fantastic Damage, described by El as "a confrontational, funky, nasty-ass, noisy record that nobody wants to make anymore" in a 2002 interview. The album was met by critical acclaim, with its seemingly post-apocalyptic paranoia being pegged as perfect theme music for post-9/11 New York. Much of this was due to El's lyrics, which were inspired by authors Phillip K. Dick and George Orwell, but his production perfectly matched the post-industrial fallout he described on the album. Listening to Fantastic Damage kind of feels like walking around Blade Runner-era Los Angeles, dilapidated machinery and all, with El-P providing constant commentary amid the barely-controlled clangor. Listen to "Stepfather Factory," which sounds like it's being propelled by a humming, rotating engine of some sort, below.
After the release of Fantastic Damage, El laid low for a few years, producing for artists on the Def Jux roster, including the majority of Cage's 2005 album Hell's Winter. In 2004, he released an instrumental jazz album with pianist Matthew Shipp, with one song featuring his father on vocals. By the time he was ready to craft a sophomore release, he had accrued quite a diverse rolodex of artists that wanted to collaborate with him. Many of them, including The Mars Volta's Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala, Nine Inch Nail's Trent Reznor, and Cat Power's Chan Marshall, showed up on 2007's I'll Sleep When You're Dead, a prog-rap masterpiece many have called El-P's magnum opus. By this point in time, El had married his distorted boom-bap aesthetic with rock guitars and industrial music, forming a retort to the nu-metal craze that had swept the nation a few years earlier. His production became a little less unhinged, and even incorporated reinterpretations of classic hip hop tracks by Boogie Down Productions and Run-DMC, with the latter's "Peter Piper" beat forming the backbone of I'll Sleep When You're Dead's "EMG." That song, along with others on the album, formed a bridge between thrilling abrasiveness and time-honored NYC hip hop, scaring away far fewer potential listeners with its (slightly) more digestible sound. Listen to "EMG" below.
Bringing together an old TV jingle, that Run-DMC beat, and a second half that recalls El's older material, "EMG" showed his ability to simultaneously straddle the past, present and future of hip hop, something many other "indie hip hop" producers fail to do due to their purist beliefs. When asked about his refusal to stick to tried-and-true underground hip hop confines, El said:
"I get disgusted by the underground. It's only the underground cats who say, 'Hip-hop has to stay here.' Then you turn on the commercial radio and you hear a sick, twisted, strangely Indian-Rhythmic, synthed-out Timbaland or Neptunes beat. These guys are taking risks and they can do it because they know who they are and they know where they're coming from; there's no insecurity there, and it's all hip-hop. I despise the hip-hop nostalgia police."
By breaking down boundaries as a producer, label head and rapper, El made the hip hop landscape a more accepting and adventurous place, even after he closed Def Jux in 2010.
From Running a Label to Run The Jewels
Def Jux stopped releasing records in 2010, going "on hiatus" (in El's words), but still distributing its old titles. El stepped down as CEO and artistic director to focus on producing and his solo career, and has since popped up as a featured artist on songs by younger rappers like Das Racist and Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire, seeming like the Godfather of alternative rap. Apart from releasing another great solo album, Cancer 4 Cure, El's main endeavor has been his partnership with Killer Mike, a rapper from Atlanta who was formerly best-known for his guest verses on OutKast songs.
After meeting in 2011, Mike and El became fast friends, even calling themselves "best friends" as early as 2012. Mike's 2012 album R.A.P. Music, almost universally hailed as his best ever, was entirely produced by El-P, who slightly altered his sound to match Mike's Southern style. Inspired by Ice Cube's collaborative album with NYC's Bomb Squad production team, Amerikkka's Most Wanted, the LP has a North-meets-South vibe that strengthens Mike's ferocious rapping. Listen to "Big Beast," a standout track from R.A.P. Music that also features T.I. and Bun B, below.
Apart from featuring some of the biggest rappers that El-P's ever worked with, "Big Beast" is notable for its hard-hitting beat that never distracts from the song's marquee talent. The rest of R.A.P. Music featured more socially-conscious fare that gelled perfectly with El's own noted disapproval of Big Brother-style government. After Cancer 4 Cure and R.A.P. Music had been released, Mike and El decided they hadn't seen enough of each other, and formed Run The Jewels as a collaborative project. Their self-titled debut as a duo was released last year to critical acclaim, even despite how fun and off-the-cuff its music felt in comparison to their more self-serious 2012 albums as solo artists. More than anything, it sounded like two best friends having a blast in the studio, with punchlines, wordplay and cheeky content galore. El-P was a bit more adventurous in the beat department than he was on R.A.P. Music, with songs like "DDFH" (Do Dope, Fuck Hope) seeing him return to more warped territory. Listen to that track below.
With a sequel to Run The Jewels due out later this year, there's no telling how much more fun El and Mike have in store for us. One thing's for sure, no matter what the follow-up sounds like, its beats will bang, as El-P has never been one to disappoint in that department.
Be sure to check out more from our "Behind The Boards" series right here on Zumic.