Happy 10th Anniversary to El-P’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, originally released March 20, 2007.
The music of Jaime “El-P” Meline has always been fascinated with trauma. Whether physical, mental, or emotional, it’s an underlying theme throughout large swaths of the music that he has created across his nearly 25-year career. He was particularly consumed by the subject throughout his three solo albums, including I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, which was released 10 years ago today.
El-P dropped ISWYD after a five-year break between albums. The length of time between projects was understandable, as El-P was running one of the preeminent independent hip-hop labels, Definitive Jux, at the time. After getting into the game as a third of the groundbreaking crew Company Flow, he launched the label in 2000 in hopes of creating a forum for artists he loved to express themselves freely and create dope music. Definitive Jux became the home for some of the most acclaimed independent hip-hop artists recording music at the time, including Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock, RJD2, Mr. Lif, Cage, and C-Rayz Walz, just to name a few.
In 2002, El-P released his first solo album, Fantastic Damage, then mostly toiled as a label head, only releasing a pair of instrumental albums in 2004, including the experimental jazz album High Water and Collecting the Kid, an instrumental compilation of some of his previous works. So when ISWYD was released 10 years ago, it was a powerful statement. It is El-P’s best solo album, one of the better albums of the ’00s, and the second-best album Definitive Jux released (after Cannibal Ox’s Cold Vein).
When ISWYD dropped a decade ago, it was the first album released by Definitive Jux in almost a year. After Mr. Lif’s Mo Mega album dropped in June 2006, the label took a voluntary hiatus from releasing product in order to build their internal structure and develop their artists. ISWYD was the label’s “re-introduction,” as the album dropped along with the launch of their own digital download store, designed to compete with iTunes, as record labels and websites were wont to do during the mid-’00s.
ISWYD is El-P’s dedication to the city of New York, where, as a Brooklyn resident, he was born and raised. And like much of the music that El-P creates, it’s also about despair, misery, and desperation. It’s the ballad of a city still living with the PTSD that was inflicted upon it after September 11, 2001, despite the fact that the city was well into the throes of gentrification by 2007. Amongst the references to Anchor Man, Wonder Showzen, and 28 Days Later, El created odes to the river of pain that continued to flow just beneath the surface.
“It’s a raw, honest, gritty behemoth of an album, with me being assholic and screaming in your face,” El-P said to me in an interview I did with him for the East Bay Express 10 years ago. “This album is a response to five years of being on the precipice of World War 3; five more years of my city watching the city where I live getting its soul sucked out of it. It’s about fucking trudging through every day with the cloud of war over your head. You try not to think about, but every 10 minutes it pops into your head. You’re trying to trudge along through the world, just trying to live, and you keep clashing up against reality.”
El-P tackles this drudgery right off the bat, with ISWYD’s opener, “Tasmanian Pain Coaster.” El describes running into a disheveled friend on a subway platform, politely asking him how he’s doing. After the friend responds with the perfunctory “I maintain,” El decides to dispense with the banal pleasantries and ask how he’s REALLY doing. This “mistakenly jostles loose” in his friend a prolonged stream of consciousness, bookended with “’The whole design got my mind crying, if I’m lying I’m dying… shit’” and “In other words I’m trash, glad you asked.” El’s nameless friend rapidly describes the hurt and anguish of his existence as a member of the “Brotherhood of the working wounded,” trapped like a rat in giant maze.
El-P’s production style began to change a bit with ISWYD. Since the beginning of his career, he had relied on sampling, particularly his trusty EPS-16 keyboard, to put together his beats. And though many of the beats on ISWYD are still built around samples, he began to incorporate live instrumentation as well. “Tasmanian Pain Coaster” features a moog intro as well as electric guitar. It is also the first of a handful of tracks on the album to feature vocals from “alternative” rockers, as Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, lead singer of (the now defunct) The Mars Volta and El’s friend, handles the song’s outro.
Lyrically, El-P utilizes a number of styles and deliveries throughout ISWYD. On tracks like “Tasmanian Pain Coaster” he utilizes a fast-paced flow designed to convey a verbal barrage. On other tracks, he delivers his rhymes in brief, declarative phrases. There are fewer words, but each measure packs a lot of verbal power.
On “Smithereens (Stop Crying),” the album’s second single, El alternates between both styles, describing life in the hectic New York, contrasting his worldview growing up in the gritty ’80s and early ’90s, with how the city appears now. He rhymes, “And the goons that I collude with on this rude shit same way / And will break a crab down in public, just to manipulate their pain” and later, “Pure savage established hard rock talk circa ’93 proof / Walked the high road to infinity with similarly truant moves.”
“Up All Night” is the album’s high point, a blistering, raucous ode to disillusionment. El raps’ “I'm a young man; I want happy / We deserve that; dream collapsing / I'm just one man; so damn angry / True confusion; Scared what truth is.” Production-wise, El is in rare form, as the track is anchored by a pulsing, war drum-like percussion line and supported by synth samples and atmospheric noises.
El-P does still create some straight meat and potatoes hip-hop for ISWYD. “EMG” (a.k.a. “Everything Must Go”) uses elements from Just Ice’s “Cold Getting Dumb” and X-Clan’s “Grand Verbalizer,” with DJ Big Wiz providing the scratches and El rhyming about finding ways to rebel against the oppressive system. Meanwhile, “No Kings” is, as El raps on the track, some “Young deadly dumb kick snare pattern play,” with El kicking raw rhymes over a straight boom-bap drum track.” And “Run the Numbers,” his frenetic duet with Aesop Rock, is a similar display of skills.
On “Drive,” El describes negotiating the streets and roads of New York City in the most dire way possible, all while utilizing extended car-related metaphors and references. On the brief “Dear Sirs,” El envisions the city literally coming to life. It transforms into what is simultaneously a hellish landscape to punish those who exploit citizens throughout the planet, as well as a strange utopia for the oppressed, now “blissfully bathed naked” in pools of liquid cash.
El-P melds his storytelling skill with his documented love of science fiction with the song “Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love).” Thematically and content-wise, the track borrows elements from such films as Equilibrium, 1984, and Blade Runner, with a little bit of 25th Hour sprinkled in for good measure. The track paints a bleak, dystopian future with authoritarian forces ruling over the conquered. Here El-P and Cage assume the roles of guards/executioners on a “prison ship,” responsible for disposing of dissidents. While Cage portrays the conscience-less murderer only too happy to dispense violence, El raps from the perspective of a man struggling with his role in this pitiless society, particularly after interacting with a beautiful female prisoner. And like all good dystopian tales, “Habeas Corpses” comes to a grim ending.
“Flyentology,” the album’s first single, is another piece of unique storytelling and an exploration by El into a troubled psyche, this time his own. The song is ostensibly about El’s fear of flying, and his reflection that while he is still an atheist, when he’s in flight and something goes wrong, he’s becomes as religious as anyone. The chorus features contributions from both Def Jux’s Rob Sonic and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, expertly articulating the joust between religion and science that often occurs in one’s mind during stressful situations.
The album ends with “Poisonville Kids No Wins,” a final dedication to New York City. With vocal support from Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, El imagines himself on a deserted city corner during the small hours of the morning, contemplating the meaning of his existence and whether life is worth living. With the final verse, he again imagines the city itself coming to life, with the building itself whispering into his ear. The city chastises him for believing that the pain and sorrow that he feels makes him unique, concluding that if it has to persevere through all the death and destruction, he should as well. It sums up the idea echoed throughout the album, that painful existence is a rite of passage for all, and, as bleak as it sounds, sometimes survival is a victory.
Though ISWYD was intended to be the new cornerstone from which Definitive Jux built its future, the label didn’t last very long after its reboot. It subsequently released some very good to great albums, (such as Aesop Rock’s None Shall Pass, Hangar 18’s Sweep the Leg, and Mighty Underdogs’ Droppin Science Fiction) but started to slow down again by 2008. The label folded altogether by 2010, with Camu Tao’s posthumously released King of Hearts serving as the final album released by the label. Of course, El-P maintained: in 2012, an executive at Cartoon Network introduced him to Killer Mike, and the rest is history.
ISWYD remains as bleak and pitiless today as it was 10 years ago, but it undoubtedly opened up the next phase of El-P’s career, and set him on the path for the artist he has become today. The trauma may still exist, but he has been able to channel it into something darkly beautiful, while honoring his roots all the while.
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