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No Sleep for Brooklyn

Indie-rap fireplug El-P returns...bombastically bleak as ever

I really don't like looking at the back of a record and seeing the word featuring a million times,” says Brooklyn rapper, producer and Definitive Jux overlord El-P.

Incidentally, his new album, I'll Sleep When You're Dead, features cameos from members of the Mars Volta and TV on the Radio, as well as Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power), Matt Sweeney, Trent Reznor and Yo La Tengo — all of whom mingle with his standard crew of guest rappers: Cage, Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif, Slug and Murs.

El-P — born Jaime Meline — sits in a Mexican restaurant near his apartment, enjoying guacamole and margaritas, and delighting in the notion that he has filled his fan base with terror. Specifically, we fear an ostentatious, Santana-esque debacle, besotted with the famous pals he's accrued for some of the densest, most anxiety-ridden underground hip-hop ever sired. "I was sort of sitting there grinning," he says. "I just knew exactly what everyone was thinking. You know what? I would think the same thing." And what would that be? "That this is probably a really heavy-handed attempt at making some sort of pathetic crossover record."

Rest easy, kids — Dead buries all of Meline's famous friends in a rotting dementia. I can't find the Yo La Tengo guy or the dude from TV on the Radio. The brutally exhilarating opener, "Tasmanian Pain Coaster," is all but over by the time the Mars Volta dudes show up for an inconsequential minute of falsetto wheedling. An hour or so later, Chan Marshall repeatedly moans "Never again" on the closer "Poisenville Kids No Wins/Reprise (This Must Be Our Time)." But at first, you'll probably mistake her for a Portishead sample. And yes, Trent Reznor shows up for some constipated muttering on "Flyentology," but mostly he just screams "No!"

Meline's heavily hyped guest stars are so uglied up, they could probably sue. "I get to bring them in and use them and twist them to my advantage," explains Meline. "I just wanted to do it and not be a douche bag. But I didn't go out of my way to hide them. I could be accused of under-using. I did have someone tell me that they were shocked at how I squandered my resources. That's not what it was about. Whatever I hear, I hear — period."

What he hears is despair and decay, as this guy doesn't fuck around. Those unfamiliar with El-P's work should consult 1997's Funcrusher Plus, the primary document left by his trio Company Flow; it begins with "Bad Touch Example" — sampling a don't-let-anyone-touch-your-private-parts children's PSA — and only grows more disturbing from there. That nightmarish tableau will prepare you for "Stepfather Factory," a horrifying monologue on his solo debut, Fantastic Damage. The track fades out over a lonely accordion and a disembodied voice repeatedly intoning, "Why are you making me hurt you? I love you." It's the exact intersection of corny and bone-chilling.

The one comparable moment on Dead — "Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love)," with its "I found love on a prison ship" mantra and goofy tale of doomed automaton lovers — sits at the corny end of the spectrum. But generally, the pathos on Dead is less amusing, slathered in black-hole-dense beats that twist and shatter like pornographic/ homicidal Go-Bots.

Company Flow dissolved in 2000, and though, as Meline puts it, "We tried to celebrate it, as opposed to it being some pathetic, dithering fart into nonexistence," the breakup generated considerable hostility anyway, particularly toward their label, Rawkus. Meline's self-made imprint, Definitive Jux, blossomed soon thereafter, and the animosity between labels past and present peaked on what is probably his most famous line to date, taken from Fantastic Damage: "Sign to Rawkus? I'd rather be mouth-fucked by Nazis unconscious."

He might've outgrown such viscera since then, but not the underlying causes. "The moment that I'm not a kid is the moment I'm not angry," Meline says. "The moment I'm not confused. Then I'll realize that maybe I'm not a child anymore." On the other hand, "Anger and intelligence are often synonymous. I don't think [losing my anger] is possible."

Hostility still abounds, but at the very least, Meline is more comfortable with temporarily taking a more behind-the-scenes label mogul/producer/remixer role. Most of Def Jux's best records — particularly The Cold Vein, Cannibal Ox's 2001 debut — bear his production imprint.

But Dead is the long-awaited resurgence of El-P the persona, the leading man. And it comes at a time when Def Jux could use another monster hit. Cannibal Ox has struggled with the Cold Vein follow-up. Then there was RJD2, a sample-heavy producer who emerged from Columbus in 2002 with the outstanding epic Dead Ringer. Unfortunately, after one too many DJ Shadow comparisons, he left Def Jux, only to put out The Third Hand, a profoundly odd, almost singer-songwriter album.

"I gotta give RJ props for not givin' a flying fuck," says Meline. "That's the type of artists that we are. We're okay with the idea of possibly fucking it all up. That's how I feel about the whole label, and that's how I feel about these records that I make. If I'm gonna fall on my fucking face, I'm gonna gloriously fall on my face. It's gonna be a bloody horrible train wreck."

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