Drones overhead and smartphones in hand, we drift through panoptic lives and push-button wars. It sometimes feels like most songwriters couldn’t give a crap, but not hip-hop visionary El-P: He’s still raging with feeling against the machine, delivering dystopian messages from within the increasingly dense machine music he painstakingly crafts.
The Brooklyn rapper’s latest round of literate but inflammatory blasts comes on Cancer for Cure, out Tuesday on Fat Possum Records. The technocratic concerns addressed in the arresting new songs are our own, enraptured as we are by paranoia and programming.
“We’re always living in the future, my friend,” El-P told Wired by phone. “Except we haven’t gotten our goddamn floating cars yet.”
Parsing Cancer for Cure’s rapid-fire raps and swarming soundtracking, El-P, known to Homeland Security as Jaime Meline, is concerned with death, drones and rebooting humanity’s cyborg heart. But instead of writing what Bob Dylan (another New York truth-teller) once called “finger-pointing songs” that ignore the “really really real,” El-P’s poetry and beatcraft are visceral and personal, and he’s clearly got mortality on his mind.
“I’m at the point in my life now where I’ve got some serious intellectual and spiritual decisions to make about who it is that I am, and how I want to carry myself through what is pretty much a demented world,” said El-P, who left acclaimed ’90s indie-hop upstart Company Flow in 2001 and stepped down as artistic director of his independent label Definitive Jux in 2010. “So I don’t feel like taking an observational perspective, because I don’t feel like an observer. Any sort of raging I do against whatever machinations that exist comes from the heart. It’s never about pointing fingers at everyone else, because to do that would just be hubris. It wouldn’t ring true.”
Instead, El-P convincingly morphs into myriad characters in disquieting situations: at the edge of a mass grave (“Tougher Colder Killer“), on the run from omnipresent surveillance (“Drones Over BKLN“), vainly trying to escape reality (“Works Every Time”), mistaking sex for control (“Sign Here”) and spiritually drowning beneath predictable abuses of power, from Obama to Reagan (“Stay Down“).
Cancer for Cure boots up frenetically on “Request Denied,” streaming above left. The song kicks off with a sample of William S. Burroughs reading from his 1961 cut-up novel The Soft Machine, the Beat writer’s influential metaphor for human bodies under siege from control mechanisms. The insurgent exhortation of “Request Denied ” — “This is war to extermination/Fight cell by cell through bodies and mind screens of the Earth/Souls rotten from the orgasm drug/Flesh shuddering from the ovens/Prisoners of the Earth, come out. Storm the studio” — fits the Occupy millennium like a Mugwump straitjacket.
“He’s actually one of the authors that really meant something to me as a teenager,” El-P said of Burroughs. “There’s a point in tragedy and fear, in the almost impenetrable scope of the disaster the we have created for ourselves, where everything reverses. Where that tragedy and fear gets sucked through the other end and comes out absolutely hilarious and ridiculous. For someone like myself, that reversal is a saving grace.”
El-P’s similarly dark vision and acid humor are especially on point in “Drones Over BKLN,” uncensored below and viewable above in Wired.com’s gallery of El-P’s speculative videos and Cancer for Cure promos. Released last summer as part of Adult Swim‘s Singles Program, it could be his most immersive, impressive track ever, which is no small feat for a hip-hop artist 10 years into his solo career. “You better stay aloof when the troops move or suicide booths soothe/The who’s who of looters shoot/The bullets go zoom zoom/Your pain is the porn, pal,” he warns, shouting out Futurama as smartly as he scarily conjures a cartoonish world where humans have become crosshair fodder.
“After laying on my roof one night looking up at the sky, I just had this very strange but absolute realization come over me,” El-P said. “Soon, there will be drones flying over our cities. And this is not science fiction. This is the reality of a good portion of the world right now.”
That’s not to say that El-P, born in 1975 and bred on a steady diet of dystopian favorites like Brazil and Blade Runner, is a dedicated sci-fi crate-digger. He’s much more interested in exploiting the genre’s limitless toolbox than memorizing its canon and geeking its ephemera.
“I’m into its extreme metaphor, which is likely where all my sci-fi references come from,” said El-P, who followed up his defiant solo debut Fantastic Damage with the shocked-and-awed I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead in 2007. “I don’t know that there are too many other genres in culture like sci-fi that are allowed to take the present and completely turn it on its head. Certainly, I’ve never been particularly moved by wizards and dwarves” (explaining later via Twitter that “it should be noted that I am moved by Peter Dinklage“).
But don’t mistake his incendiary poetry for technocultural sermonizing: El-P is no preacher. His intent, during the ’90s with Company Flow and the ’00s mostly on his own, is to construct a hard-hitting portrait of the artist as an abstraction on the existential radar. In a century subsumed by depersonalized media and manipulation, El-P seems determined to point the way to humanity’s still-beating heart by getting personal.
“I don’t think anybody likes to be talked down to, and that’s not something I want to be a part of,” he said. “I’m just going for the eloquent translation of my personal experience. And I find that, if I’m lucky enough to communicate well enough while being wrapped up in my own head like it’s the only thing in the world, there is more fertile ground for connection than there would be if I was regurgitating some bullshit geopolitical perspective.
“And that’s just the truth,” he added. “I don’t have a solution, I’m not writing about politics. I don’t give a fuck about that shit. I’m trying to write songs about getting from the train station to home without crying.”
This article appeared at Wired