Let's get one thing straight: This is not a comeback. Yes, the buzz surrounding El-P's May release "Cancer 4 Cure," his first vocal album in five years, might signify otherwise, but like most things the Brooklyn-based rapper/producer has done through his 20-year career, the success of "Cancer 4 Cure" is as difficult to pin down as the record itself. To call "Cancer" a straightforward rap record is to undershoot it. However, to call it anything else would be heresy. And to call its success a watershed moment in El-P's career, the beginning of some new phase, is to lowball just how ubiquitous the real-life Jaime Meline is and has been for the past two decades. "Cancer 4 Cure" is Meline's premiere release since stepping down as artistic director of Def Jux -- a label he co-founded in 1999 -- in order to focus on music full-time. It's also his first record in years to be released on another imprint, the blues/indie-minded Fat Possum Records. El-P is in a different place, both musically and professionally. And when Vita.mn called the 37-year-old rapper on his tour bus last week, he was quick to point that fact out.
"If you've aged five years and you're not in a different place then something's fucking wrong with you, basically," El-P said of his artistic growth, a trait that helped earn his latest release an A-rating from the Onion's A.V. Club and "Best New Music" status from Pitchfork.
But let's back up: Rewind 20-odd years to 1993. Meline is a teenager in New York City. The son of a jazz musician, he's been expelled from several schools for problems with authority; he's also just cut his first single, "Juvenile Techniques," with two friends. After hiring Lenny Smythe (aka DJ Mr. Len) to spin at his 18th birthday party, the two strike up a friendship, rapper Bigg Jus joins up soon after and the three start making music together under the name Company Flow.
By day, El-P and Len are at Tower Records, working mail-order jobs to fund the bills for their nightly recording sessions. In 1997 they release the legendary "Funcrusher Plus" album, now considered one of the most important hip-hop records of the '90s. El-P co-founds the beloved record label Definitive Jux in 1999 and although Company Flow dissolves, he continues working as a producer and rapper in the years that follow. Artistically he's had his hand in everything from hip-hop to jazz fusion, but when asked whether he's a rapper or producer foremost, Meline comes off borderline offended.
"Well, I mean, I'm a rapper. I don't want to not rap over my music, but I have released multiple records of instrumentals," he huffed. "Over the years, I've gotten to the point where I try to make it so that the music can stand on its own."
That's one of the major strengths of "Cancer 4 Cure," the kind of standout production that can accentuate a verse without overpowering it, but could stand on its own sonic legs, as well. "For me as a musician, I've gotten to the point where I just want the music to tell a story regardless of whether or not the lyrics are there," El-P said. It's something that he's known for and something that in recent years he has done incredibly well: putting a narrative arc into his music whether it's vocal or not.
Like El-P himself, "Cancer 4 Cure" transcends hip-hop. The album ducks and weaves into something larger than 12 tracks. Chock-full of the kind of heavy, sweeping dark drum and bass-y production that marked his last solo release, the critically lauded 2007 album "I'll Sleep When You're Dead," it's a testament to El-P's skill as a producer as well as rapper. It's also a testament to his ability to zoom out and look at the music on a broader instrumental scale. By wearing both hats, his end products are much more interesting musically than a simple hook beat, but they're also worlds more time-consuming, something Meline readily admits to.