El-P interview: 'It's an insane reality we're living in'

El-P has been on a major roll in the first half of 2012. He reunited with his revered ‘90s crew Company Flow to play a handful of well-received concerts, produced an instant-classic hip-hop album (“R.A.P. Music”) by his friend, Atlanta rapper Killer Mike, and released his third studio album, the album-of-the-year contender “Cancer 4 Cure” (Fat Possum).

The creative floodgates opened soon after El-P closed the books in 2010 on his hip-hop label, Definitive Jux. In the last decade, the label released classic albums by the likes of Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif, RJD2 and El-P himself, but the business of selling recorded music had become more challenging and time-consuming than ever. For El-P, trying to keep a label afloat was becoming a creative drain.

“The real truth of it is that it had its time, not only for me but for everyone,” says El-P (a k a Jaime Meline). “I needed to focus on music. That was essentially it. Running the label was taking too much of my time, and ultimately detracting from my life as opposed to giving to it. It yielded some amazing records. But I believe just like with Company Flow, there is a right way to go out. You’ve got to recognize it when it’s time to go.”

Are labels going to be extinct soon? “We’re not at that stage yet but we’re headed there,” he says. “You’re gonna get music for free. Artists still need labels. But what a label is will change. It’s not as much about selling music at retail. That is just disappearing. There are no comebacks. Vinyl is a small niche market. Physical goods will be dead in the next few years. Labels are curators of taste, and the best ones know how to monetize what an artist is trying to do. The future is wide open for me. I don’t sweat it.”

He has reason to be confident. In the last year he juggled working on Killer Mike’s “R.A.P. Music” with his own album, and both have set the bar for hip-hop in 2012. On Friday, El-P and Killer Mike will perform at the Bottom Lounge, in one of the year’s best double bills.

El-P has a well-deserved reputation as a devil-is-in-the-details studio perfectionist, the kind of artist who shuts out the world while immersing himself in a project. So how was he able to find time to work with Killer Mike on an album while also working on his own?

“I kept putting Mike off, thinking I couldn’t do it, but it turned out great – working on the Killer Mike record came at the correct time to step away from my (album) for a second,” he says. “There was an energy I carried over into completing my record. My record would not be the same without that experience of working with Mike.”

“R.A.P. Music” allowed El-P to get outside himself a bit, working as a producer and becoming a set of trusted ears rather than the sole decision-maker. “Mike and I knew the type of record we wanted to make -- not a sound, more a feeling. We wanted to make a record that made us feel the same way records in our childhood made us feel when we became rap fans. That understanding led to everything else happening naturally. There was no real plan, just get in there and make stuff that gave us that silly grin. We were like teenagers sitting in the same room making beats and rhymes. Every time he would get to the mike, he didn’t write anything down -- maybe one line or two -- because he was so amped about the music. He would freestyle and go line by line. I thought I’d have to constantly record this guy, but it would just flow out of him and I’d watch him connect the dots. He told me later that he always writes stuff down, so it gave me a great feeling to know he was responding to the music in that way.”

“Cancer 4 Cure” brims with vivid storytelling and bleak images. Paranoia, fear, a mounting sense of desperation – the album has the feel of a citizen journal from the front lines of a police state.

El-P has joked about being classified as a creator of dystopian, science-fiction worlds. Those critiques miss the point, he says. “The future is always happening. How could you possibly call something science fiction at this point unless it has to do with something that hasn’t been done? When I write about ‘Drones over Brooklyn,’ it’s not like I’m making something up. Drones are policing American cities. I’m not a ‘dystopian, futuristic master,’ I’m a schnook walking the street. It’s an insane reality we’re living in, and I’m just trying to translate it for myself.”

The cold-sweat nightmare his albums evoke involves some intense role-playing. “The records are an isolating experience to some degree. That has yielded decent results, even if sometimes I want to tear my face off and throw the rest of my body out the window. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I do the records so I can be a real person. That almost Kafka-esque protagonist is very much me. I don’t have to dig too deep to find inspiration for these characters (laughs). But I’m not just that. I have this functional schizoid personality that allows me to set that personality aside so I can live my life without shooting anyone.”

greg@gregkot.com

El-P and Killer Mike: 8 p.m. Friday at the Bottom Lounge, 1375 W. Lake St., $21; ticketweb.com.

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