El-P (of Run the Jewels and Company Flow fame) makes the impossible feat of sustaining creativity through constant reinvention seem easy. His podcast series with Open Mike Eagle goes deep on his work and the fiercely independent ethos that guides it.
Everything you create has two lives. While you are working on it, what you create is all yours. You can take it in any direction. You will likely love and hate what you are creating at the same time. Then it begins a new life all its own when you share it with the world. It can resonate with people in ways you could never have imagined.
“People would come up to me with tears in their eyes, and I was like ‘Oh, I was wrong about what this could mean to people.'”
This is El-P (aka El-Producto, aka Jaime Meline, rapper, hip hop producer and – along with Killer Mike – one half of Run The Jewels) telling fellow rapper Open Mike Eagle of his surprise at reactions to the track Last Good Sleep, from the immortal album Funcrusher Plus by his old band Company Flow.
“At night I cover my ears in tears…” Last Good Sleep is an emotionally raw tale of domestic abuse. It covers lyrical territory that was largely unexplored by hip hop up to that point. It deals uncompromisingly with real life at its most bleak.
El-P has never been one to compromise. The fire in which his creativity burns is as bright and as searing as ever. Reinvention has been a constant over his 25-plus years of idiosyncratic and fiercely uncompromising (but always – for want of a better word – dope) music and lyrics.*
How do you sustain creativity and keep things always fresh over such a long period? By being always excited about the next thing. By looking always ahead. As El-P says in his 2020 appearance on Scroobius Pip’s podcast:
“I never cared to be known for the last thing I did. I wanted to be known for the next thing I did.” **
So what happens when a mind that is all about relentless forward motion is forced to focus on the rearview mirror?
The answer is unfolding week by week right now (as I write this). In the second season of his excellent What Had Happened Was podcast, Open Mike Eagle goes deep with El-P for an epic exploration of his life and work.
Three steps to perfection
There are so many jewels on the creative process in this series of What Had Happened Was. The first episode looks at the building blocks of El-P’s career. I see three foundations to El-P’s work here, each equally vital:
- Music and production. Noise, dissonance and unexpected rhythmic twists and turns are frequent characteristics of the tracks El-P creates as a producer. He talks at one point about the vital importance of not being afraid to make music that could prove “too weird for people to like”.
- Lyrics and rapping. El-P’s words give you lyrical density and complexity in extremis. Some of his lyrics are outright potty-mouthed (but in the most delightfully imaginative way), while others are like cryptic crossword clues where the answer might suddenly reveal itself to you years later. His staccato delivery is often as idiosyncratic as his music. It’s no surprise to hear him tell Open Mike Eagle about his attitude to language from the Company Flow days: “We were obsessed with language. How can you make things that aren’t supposed to make sense make people laugh? Or make people feel like they’ve been insulted?”***
- The El-P ethos. Equally as important as the talent is the guiding spirit. What we might call the El-P ethos. For me, this is the most interesting aspect of his creativity, as it pervades everything he does. In the fifth episode, he talks about the force that drives him: “As long as I’ve ever been [making music], my desire, my ethos and my hope is that when I’m done with this, that people can look at what I’ve done in my career and say that I contributed something. I’m really trying to find myself through this music. There’s no question about that.” I’d argue that the El-P ethos can be summed up in a three-word motto that appeared on the original Funcrusher EP: “Independent as fuck.”****
A distinctly odd choice of wedding march
It might seem paradoxical at first. But by taking the most esoteric and deeply personal path to find himself through his art, El-P has time and again created words and music that connect and resonate with people on a deep emotional level.
I love how Open Mike Eagle (the calmest and most charming of podcast hosts) covers not just the creative process, but also what comes after: the life your words and your works take on when they are out in the world.
I saw an amazing and perfect example of this the one time I saw El-P live, at a Company Flow gig at Subterania in west London in June 1999. They were joined onstage by a small gaggle of underground rappers, including Mr Lif (who would go on to release two great solo albums on El-P’s Definitive Juxx label). At one point between songs, a girl at the front of the audience managed to get Mr Lif’s attention and shouted something in his ear. El-P was starting to announce the next song, but Mr Lif interrupted him, saying “Yo, El, you gotta hear this”, and passing the microphone to the girl. She used this moment to thank Company Flow for a song that had a special resonance for her. Her wedding had taken place in Australia a few weeks earlier, and she had walked down the aisle to the Company Flow track The Fire In Which You Burn.
If you’ve never heard this song before, please take a moment to listen to it. I’ll wait.
I’d hazard that this is and will forever prove to be the only wedding in history to boast this distinctly odd choice of wedding march. The Fire In Which You Burn is as fiercely uncompromising a song as you could ever wish to hear. It is almost a musical manifesto for and embodiment of El-P’s “independent as fuck” ethos.
El-P himself – not a gent who is often lost for words – looked gobsmacked in that instant, momentarily speechless to hear that this fierce piece of music had been used in this way. But I am sure he must also have been delighted to hear about this unforeseeable afterlife for one of his own creations.
Once your works are out in the world, ideas can take on a life of their own, in ways never imagined by their creator. A spirit of true independence can attract like minds.
No matter how oddball and how uniquely you your creation might seem, there will be someone out there who will take it to heart, who will give it a new life.
You are in all probability not the only one out there who is, to adapt a phrase from the great gent, “independent as fuck”.
Everything you create has two lives.
“Every other goddamned year I’m brand new
It’s been twenty plus years, you think that’s a clue? (Huh?)
Maybe this guy kinda kill what he do
He’s prolly that dude, he left enough proof”
** These excellent words inspired my December 2020 blog post Living in two worlds):
*** There’s a great story in the first episode of the Open Mike Eagle podcast series about how the word “Funcrusher” came to be thanks to a handwriting-related misunderstanding (I’ll let you listen to find out what badly written word it was by listening to the podcast episode in question).
**** I love El-P’s story (from the first episode) about how the phrase “independent as fuck” came to be while he and Bigg Jus were putting together the physical copies of Company Flow’s original Funcrusher EP:
“We were sitting at the kitchen table, cutting out glue sticks with letters and blah-blah-blah and trying to make the labels that we were going to fuckin’ Xerox and make the 12″ with. This is a true story – I literally looked at Jus and looked at the pile of garbage on our table and I looked at us trying to make a record with our hands, and I was like: ‘Yo, we’re not just independent, man. We’re independent as FUUUUUUUCK!’ We are. And we’re writing that on this shit.’ And that’s what we did. And from that point on we were like ‘fuck a deal’.”
- Run the Jewels 10.21.15 (22210590648) via Wikimedia Commons.
- Run the Jewels 10.21.15 (21777211043) via Wikimedia Commons.
- Run the Jewels 10.21.15 (22372322716) via Wikimedia Commons.
- My June 1999 Company Flow ticket stub, as bought from Stargreen Box Office in Argyll Street, London, and photographed by MJCarty.