Thomas Johnson has run the numbers.
“Things are crazy right now, so people need to make something that reflects something beyond a clean record. People need heroes right now, even if it’s just a record. I know I do (Magnet Magazine, 2007).”
In 2007, it seemed as if the world was a pushed red button away from bursting into fire. A false war was being waged to boost an economy that would crater the next year. A Manhattan steam explosion filled New York’s streets and air with asbestos. The angels had all gone away — were they ever there. El-P wasn’t a household name, and even though he’s decidedly closer in 2017, homemakers across the world are equally unlikely to bump “The Full Retard” as they would “Run The Numbers” or “Dr. Hell No And The Praying Mantis.” He doesn’t seem remotely concerned. He’s still one of the genre’s most effective two-way players. Plenty busy continuing to sway the underground some twenty years after moulding it in his image.
Things are even crazier right now. The news has become a reality show with soaring ratings and keeping up is soul-crushing. But things were almost as batshit ten years ago, and it’s important not to forget; those who cannot remember the past are gonna fuck shit up for the rest of us. So it goes. 2007, 2017, 1984. Ten years ago, when El-P said we needed heroes, I’d bet money he never thought to take the mantle himself. I’d also bet he wouldn’t have seen himself catalyzing the best rap group hurdling through space, selling out stadiums, or finding his likeness on a comic book every other month.
When I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead was released in March 2007, El-P was the underground’s aorta and Def Jux remained its beating heart. Fantastic Damage was an affair crowded with paranoia and distrust like his previous efforts, but marked a refinement of underground standards he defined on Funcrusher Plus and The Cold Vein. At the time, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead was a quantum leap form that jump-off point. Now, it’s an artifact of a dreadful era that mirrors our current predicament. His notions are even more poignant today, and we haven’t even caught up to them.
“Right now seems feels like the most potent time for inspiration (2007)”
I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead was the pivot between halves of El’s career. It catalyzed an increasing accessibility to his music that he has continued to streamline. The first “Independent As Fuck” phase largely demarcated underground rap. You really can’t overstate his presence in the scene. Even when the rabbit hole didn’t wind back to his studio, you could likely find El flipping the bird and smoking Newports wherever it led. Funcrusher Plus, The Cold Vein and Fantastic Damage—’97, ’01 and ’02 respectively—are at once blueprints and crown jewels of music made where no sun reaches. As part of Company Flow, El brought the viscosity to the Stretch & Bobbito Show where he would premiere CoFlow’s lead singles “Juvenile Technique” and “8 Steps To Perfection. ” Unlike numerous Stretch & Bobbito alumni, many of whom account for rap’s Rushmore, Company Flow were largely ignored by major labels (they wound up signing to Rawkus, but you know how that went). Instead, after being passed up by Tommy Boy (“This isn’t for you”) and Loud Records (Mobb Deep got there first), the trio used the rejection as an impetus for a DIY strategy that is now commonly referred to as “Soundcloud.”
The aesthetic was straightforward enough, which betrayed the complexity of the work: music like corrugated sheet metal, harsh, layered and cold, hammered with words that sometimes fit and often times didn’t. FanDam doubled down, and sounded like protest music recorded in an automated factory (Jobs for the community!). El-P warped what rap sounded like to accommodate himself, unabashedly tweaking an already successful formula to accommodate his definition of prosperity. Bars that read like doomsday prophesies were jammed into industrial synths and mangled samples. By traditional standards they weren’t hits, but little if anything about El-P is traditional. And fuck it, they stuck.
The second half—the one we’re in right now—delineated those standards. He made a concerted effort to trim I’ll Sleep down to a neat thirteen tracks, more than fifteen minutes shorter than Fantastic Damage’s titanic scale. The music was no less complex than before (example: closer “Poisenville Kids No Wins” contains over 80 tracks worth of music and oscillates between 6/4 and 4/4 time)(It also contained two James Brown samples that never got cleared, infringement laws be damned), but El-P streamlined his approach to alleviate the jarring effects his music was typically known for.
I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is a metallurgic experiment by a blacksmith with a thousand yard gaze. It’s cold and hard and sharp and resistant to erosion; alloy melted down under unfathomable pressure to produce homogenized steel resistant to blemishes. Features had formerly been used in excess to provide a foil. Beginning with I’ll Sleep, El’s mastered the art of fusing disparate elements to add texture to his songs. The “George Clooney as the Gay Dog In South Park” method. Trent Reznor amplified the friction of “Flyentology’s” torn existentialism and Cat Power brought levity and warmth to “Poisenville Kids’” suicidal musings. Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala of the Mars Volta appeared on the “TPC’s” outro to whine, “Your future’s uncertain here now/The plot smears on the wall,” essentially the album’s thesis.
It would be hard to imagine songs like Cancer4Cure’s “Stay Down” or Run The Jewels 2’s “Early” existing, two post-2010 essentials where Nick Diamonds and BOOTS, respectively, lend their vocalized hooks to astonishing results. Kanye used the same strategy when he added Andre 3000 to “30 Hours,” as did Frank Ocean when he (obscurely) featured Beyonce and Kendrick and Amber Coffman and Yung Lean on Blonde. Whether they were inspired by ISWYD is neither here nor there; the bottom line is that El did it a decade before they did.
“If I didn’t have music I would probably just do drugs ‘till I was dead (2007)”
Determined not to be referred to as a blogger, El chronicled the process of making I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead on a blogspot page that shared the album’s title. It worked similarly to contemporary Twitter ravings, except there were no ads, no Kanye, and the audience was much smaller. Every few days, El would post lyrics, tarot card readings, ProTools screenshots, photos of his equipment, his boot on Mr. Dibbs throat, what was on rotation (The Temptations), sneaker maintenance preferences (towel, no toothbrush), and updates on his increasingly problematic mustache. Fan interaction was still limited and TMZ had yet to patrol the interwebz like vultures (not that El-P would have been on their radar anyway), but his roll-out technique predates our current MSG-filling hype trains.
Even some of the things he posted mirror social media outbursts of recent: questionable humour, ramblings, health concerns, failed promises, and scathing disses. The distinction between the two is blurrier than ever, but ten years ago El ferociously maintained his stance: “I’m not a blogger, I’m an artist.”
“What does one blog about if he’s not either criticizing someone else’s art or making fun of a celebrity?” El chronicled the degradation of his body and sanity on the blog. He likened it to Scorcese’s Taxi Driver as a portrait of New York’s bleak underbelly, and his atrophy mirrors the transformation Travis Bickle. Instead of assassinating a single senator though, El looked to take aim at every figure of power in the world (but mostly Bloomberg and Bush). A critic’s favorite motif is that pain precedes notable art. Funcrusher Plus is littered with morbid glimpses of the Brooklyn that raised El-P, Fantastic Damage’s dissonance is a product of his bitter fallout with Rawkus and the ghost of Camu Tao haunts Cancer4Cure.
If I’ll Sleep is a moment then it’s the instant of combustion. It’s the exact second five years worth of accruing bullshit breaks the camel’s back and splits you open. Label maintenance, prolific production and squabbling with Def Jam over the label name wore him down to the point of an explosive release. From “TPC’s” chilling intro to the grumbling drums that close out “Reprise (This Must Be Our Time),” the album bristles like a volatile confession. Meline is notorious for his grueling recording process, and he’s said that crafting an album is akin to going through hell. He confessed to negatively altering his appearance (i.e. the robust lip curtain) to motivate him not to leave the studio. Songs were torn down and rebuilt handfuls of time until the tracks were ugly and captivating brutish and genuine as Frankenstein’s monster. Around the constant refining and only himself to say when’s when, El was known to smoke and drink and cry in front of his equipment. Like a good artist should.
“[It’s] Like a future me beaming back transmission of what I might want to know and leaving me cursed — or blessed — with seeing the world through grey-coloured glasses (Magnet Magazine, 2007).”
It’s always been easier to compare El-P to a a literary counterpart than a musical one. He’s been rumbling down a singular path within his genre for decades without anyone really even making an attempt to vie for space in his lane (Sole tried). And it’s well-documented that Phillip K. Dick, George Orwell, and Aldous Huxley were instrumental in his personal/professional development. But listening to I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead feels like trying to penetrate a massive, hysterical, realist fiction. It plays like DeLillo or DFW mega-novel reads—Underworld or Infinite Jest—dense, daunting and demanding, a 1500 page behemoth stretching its spine with all its author’s tangential ideas. He tackles everything: organized religion, consumerism, pollution, mortality, sexual politics, the prison complex, government authority and corruption, wage disparities, mainstream recognition, the reality of being a military state, and traffic. Brooklyn, fear, drug addiction, transition, sex, and flying.
Like those authors, El’s best work comes when his ideas are delivered at high-concept. Tightly written narratives continue to be the crown jewels of his career; the details and intrigue he develops are as engrossing as any novelist’s, and his vision as imaginative as any director. Songs like “Stepfather Factory,” “The Nang, The Front, The Bush And The Shit,” and “Last Good Sleep” are proof that he deserves to be mentioned among raps best songwriters, and the narratives on I’ll Sleep place him near the top of said company.
The complexity of the production, his rhyme schemes and lyrics, totally belie the fact that these stories—as detailed as they are—stay easy to follow. “Tasmanian Pain Coaster” is a microcosm framed by a junkie’s meditative soliloquy on the caboose of the A train where El fell in love with music. The character, an employee at King’s County hospital, smokes PCP and test rats in a government lab. The protagonist of “The League Of Extraordinary Nobodies,” is an irritable comedian killing it for a crowd of assholes, vain and totally ignorant the fact that he’s ridiculing them. Concise and timeless and nauseatingly relatable. If you found yourself plummeting from 30,000 feet, would your final thoughts differ all that much from those on “Flyentology?” In 2017, is the idea of potential drafting all that outlandish? Would your response be similar to “Dear Sirs?”
One of El’s best blogspot tidbits came on August 19th, where he described I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead as “psychedelic BDP, Scott LaRock and Ced Gee take acid.” On “EMG,” he bumps BDP mix through his double D Duracel destiny Raheem kit. It’s easy to see the lineage—Criminal Minded in particular. It precedes ISWYD by almost exactly two decades, but jars similarly with pummeling percussion and warped synths. Both relay the drudgery of day-to-day torture, encapsulate what it means to be a New Yorker. And while both are about as friendly as a stick-up, I’ll Sleep took the aggression to absurdist levels.
In the final moment of Shakespeare-meets-Rodley Scott tragedy “Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love)” El’P’s character—a sadistic prison guard—shoots and kills Prisoner 247290-Z, the only person who’s ever shown him tenderness. He and Mr. Len have a nice chuckle about it. The video for “Smithereens (Stop Cryin’)” is literally him being tortured in a Guantanamo jumpsuit while he reminds the listener that ”the last thought that I had in the back of the little bus/was of a Oklahoma city flair through kiddy flesh fade to dust.”
“I want to see this planet before we can’t cross borders anymore (Dazed, 2008).”
“It won’t happen again like that, it definitely won’t. There’s no fucking way I’m waiting five years again” Producto told UnderGroundHipHop a few months after ISWYD was released. He would also tell Pitchfork that same year that I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead was, “This is one fucking moment, one creation, one thing.” He’s said on multiple occasions that his albums functions as markers in his life, snapshots of his values, opinions, and struggles. The songs are moments as well; a chat on the A-Train, gridlocked traffic, a five o’clock stroll to the bodegas. That the universality of the experiences, and their accompanying frustrations, are still pristinely articulated speaks to the tightness of El-P’s songwriting. The silver-lining to releasing a solo album every five years, which he continued with C4C in 2012, is that the space between releases only helps to accentuate progression. For that reason, his catalogue is one of rap’s purest displays of artistic development; there are marked difference—personal and stylistic—but they never betray core-appeal. In 2017, it’s doubtful that he would rather be unconsciously mouth-fucked by Nazi’s than sign to Rawkus, but the idea of ‘independent as fuck’ maintains.
When I’ll Sleep originally released, Jeff mentioned in Stylus that it’s not hard to find poignancy in nihilism at a juncture where you couldn’t “open up your newspaper without reading about a never-ending war, a corrupt Attorney General, and a spy-cover-blowing Vice President.” Bush’s misguided military conflict has ended, but its ramifications still shoot-up streets and nightclubs every few months. The two most powerful militaries on Earth continue to wage a decades long cold war that becomes increasingly personal by the day. The American government went through a brief eight years of hope that took nosedive into something resembling comedy were it not a reality. Camu Tao, one of El’s closest friends, died of lung-cancer in 2008. He released Camu’s scrap recordings and fastened them into King Of Hearts, a swan song for Def Jux before the imprint went on an indefinite hiatus. Seven years removed, it’s future doesn’t look optimistic. 2007 was bleak. 2017 is a flat joke. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead continues to remain light-years ahead, prescient and untouchable.
‘Dystopian’ is a critic’s favorite adjective, and the most common one ascribed to Jaime Meline throughout his 20 years bombing the system. But he’s not writing sci-fi, he’s writing Brooklyn. In New York circa 2007, family homelessness hit its highest mark in 30 years, as did the country’s income disparity. 35k residents were in shelters. Ja Rule was prepping his return. By definition, a dystopia is a fictional setting wherein a glass will never be more than half empty and Murphy’s Law holds fate in a full nelson. It’s an exact pessimism that increasingly worsens as the present inches closer to a future our past selves could have only imagined.
The underlying and oft-ignored theme of El-P’s career has been one of hope. You don’t seethe at the thought of a dark tomorrow unless you hold your breathe for the dawn that must follow. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is a sharp exhale wrung out for an hour, an exasperated release by someone who sees the path we’re going down—the path we’ve gone down—and knows we can do better. Perfectly preserved ennui. Crossing borders is impossible for millions because of religious bigotry. God remains dusted out of his mind. We need heroes now like we did ten years ago, like we did 20 years ago, like we will in 100. El-P long ago sacrificed his ignorance and bliss to be that hero. It’s always been more than just a record.