By Mark Guarino
With all of the major moneyed hype bolstering Eminem, it’s natural to think he’s the only white rapper in the game.
Not so if you check out the hip-hop underground, which has been on fire in the last couple of years with artists like Mos Def, Jurassic Five, Dilated Peoples, Common and recently, rapper El-P.
Born Jaime Meline, the 27-year-old New Yorker is the face of independence. He helms the upstart label Definitive Jux, home to like-minded contemporaries Aesop Rock and Mr. Lif. The label was born when El-P and his critically-acclaimed trio Company Flow left Rawkus, home to Mos Def and Pharoahe Monch, complaining the label was mismanaged and was acting too much like a major.
These days, El-P has been busy running the label, touring and also producing tracks for the forthcoming debut from former Rage Against the Machine frontman Zach de la Rocha. The collaboration is a natural one — both artists share a diehard political conscience. El-P’s recently-released solo debut, “Fantastic Damage,” is universally being praised as a return to the adventuresome energy of old school hip-hop but with a definite political spirit that has mostly disappeared from the mainstream. While Eminem is raging against Britney Spears and his mother, El-P has his sights set on the election debacle in Florida (“Fantastic Damage”) and the corporate misdeeds of Disney (“Dead Disnee”). And with a lyrical flow that packs a one-two punch.
What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation we had last week.
Q: Was the reason you decided to form your own label because so many independents wanted to act like the majors?
A: Definitely, it’s exactly that. It’s like common symptom. A lot of the cats are only independent because they have to be, not because they want to be. The way they’re looking at business plans and the way they think about it, is all with the sense of being a major label. The only problem is, they’re not a major label. They don’t have the experience, they don’t have the money and they don’t have the resources. So therefore, it just doesn’t work. And for me, I just I felt like I knew in my head that I was smarter than them. I felt like, (expletive) it, you don’t see any other way to sell a record than to have a radio hit? You’re an independent label, radio doesn’t matter. Q: What are the advantages?
A: (You avoid) having little (expletive) Skippy who got bumped from the mailroom and is now working marketing, (expletive) up my record because he bumped into me in the elevator and didn’t like me. It’s just insanity. I want to be a working musician. I don’t want to be a famous musician. So maybe I can just find some good middle ground and look at it like that. That’s what we’re trying to achieve as opposed to it being a stepping stone to make millions. We want to put our records out and don’t want to cater to what the mainstream media deems necessary.
Q: Yet your record was been praised in mainstream publications, from Spin to Entertainment Weekly.
A: And that’s cool and I think at the end of the day, it’s about music. And music holds the same ground and the playing field is leveled when it comes down to music. And I believe that the music that these people are involved with on my label can stand up to anything.
Q: Has the lack of newness in mainstream hip-hop negatively affected the music overall
A: I’m not one of these people who just hate anything mainstream. I listen to rap music. If it’s dope, I’ll listen to it. When I was growing up, we had no concept of mainstream of anything other than the music of the mainstream. I will say this: they think they found a formula, you know what I mean? I think that production-wise, there’s a lot of interesting, crazy (expletive) happening from the Neptunes and Timbaland. I think musically, it’s really good. But I do think that the cats kind of stumbled to the (expletive) formula. They think, “hey you have inner city music, let’s push the imagery of money.” Because that’s never not going to be attractive to someone who doesn’t have money. As far as the corporations think, that is the audience of rap, no matter how diverse any community is, the corporate suits are going to look at it that their target audience is a group of people who want money. I’ve been a fan of music all my life and this seems like a particularly long phase that the mainstream is going through right now. I believe that it can’t indefinitely sustain itself.
Q: Does that single-mindedness account for the success of Eminem?
A: I’m not much of an industry analyst. I think Eminem is a dope rapper. I think he’s incredibly clever. He looks like he’s in N’Sync and he knows that. He dyes his hair blond and works out and wears tanktops and looks like Justin Timberlake, so he knows the game. I don’t know, how can you identify the root of any pop star’s success? You basically have to appeal to young girls. And a broad racial audience. And Eminem has got that. At the same time, he manages to do the type of music he wants to do. I actually agree with Eminem. I’m glad that he is a pop star because he really is the most interesting pop star out there now. And he’s the only cat who is saying anything dangerous. There’s the real danger which is, “this is dangerous to have kids hear because it’s (expletive) ignorant.” And then there’s the danger where, “okay, this is maybe (expletive) ignorant, but also it’s kind of interesting and it’s kind of funny and it’s kind of dark.” I think that appeals. I’m not mad at him.
Q: What do hip-hop fans want to hear but they’re not getting?
A: I think that people want to hear honesty. I think that honesty is a commodity these days. And it can’t be replicated. I think our fans are like me in that there’s just a rawness about hip-hop that can be there and an inventiveness that can be there simultaneously. And one doesn’t have to be sacrificed for the other. I’m trying to be progressive, I’m trying to make something new and I’ll admit to that. But at the same time, I’m grounded in my mind and in my approach and in my references and in the way that I’m referencing my sort of inspirations and these pillars of hip-hop music, this vibe, this energy.
Q: You’re not forgetting history.
A: Not at all. In fact I think I’m sticking to it. Because in my head the way I saw hip-hop music history unfold was that every record that came out was a complete progression of the music. With every hip-hop record from the early to mid ‘80s, it was a whole new way to look at hip-hop, a whole new way to think about it, a whole new type of characters, a whole new vibe and that’s the way I learned. It was all about the style, about who has the next style who’s looking at or interpreting it a different way. And at the same time giving you that old feeling. I hope that that’s what our audience gets from us.
Q: And a lot of people say that’s what stagnant in the music today.
A: It kind of annoys me. What does it say about someone’s opinion of hip-hop music in general, that they think it’s constantly on the brink of extermination? I remember coming up when I was young and trying to get into a studio, this guy took me aside and said, “listen son, you seem smart, you obviously have talent, let me tell you: I was here for disco. I saw disco come and go. Rap, same (expletive).” Like he was trying to save me, you know what I mean? For what it’s worth, disco and rap are not the same thing (laughs). There’s always been a thriving culture, it’s just whether not it’s in the mainstream. And sometimes, it’s vice versa. Sometimes the underground is incredibly stagnant and there’s nobody coming out with anything breaking through, so the only stuff that’s fun to listen to is the (expletive) in the mainstream. Me personally, I do think there needs to a lot of different voices that get listened to, allowing people, different people, and different personalities to be able to identify with this (expletive). Because it’s our culture, it’s beyond New York now obviously and it’s beyond the inner city. It’s youth culture, youth language now. It’s how we’re going to be communicating with each other basically.