El-P returns with two classic LPs

Producer, MC, and Def Jux mastermind talks Killer Mike and Cancer4Cure

The pairing of Brooklyn-based rapper/producer El-P with Atlanta's own Killer Mike may have seemed like an odd match to some. But the fruit of their labor, Killer Mike's sixth and hardest-hitting album yet, R.A.P. Music (Williams Street), has revitalized substantive hip-hop. At the same time, El-P managed to crank out his own solo album as well, Cancer4Cure (Fat Possum). It's a far more experimental journey than Killer Mike's lefty gangsta mantras, but they're companion pieces cut from the same palette of progressive, mutually inspired hip-hop energy.

As Killer Mike and El-P embark on their Into the Wild Tour together, El-P (born Jaime Meline) reflects on the time leading up to this two-pronged assault, his decision to place his Def Jux label on hiatus, and crafting a classic record that rises above trends and regional vernacular.

You're back from a long break with two career-defining albums. What brought you to such a creative peak?

It's been five years since I'll Sleep When You're Dead was released. I've done some touring since then, but really spent time trying figure out what to do with Def Jux. I wasn't sure if I was going to do it anymore, partially because I was losing money, partially because I wanted to make more music. I wanted to be in a studio more than anything else, but didn't know if closing the label was the right thing to do. It's surreal how everything came together like it did, but it feels right.

You didn't have a master plan?

My master plan was letting go of having a master plan. I spent seven years trying to control everything, so I stopped and let whatever's going to happen happen. I didn't know if anyone was going to like my record or not, and I certainly didn't expect the response it's received. But when we made Killer Mike's record, we thought we had something to be excited about. You always hope that people will love it, but I've worked on a lot of records, and not all of them made me think, "This is special."

Were you working on Cancer4Cure at the same time?

I was, which is why I almost didn't produce Killer Mike's record. Mine was already a year-and-a-half late, and I told him I'd do a couple beats, but not the whole record. He said, "Cool, come to Atlanta and let's do some shit." We got along really well, and he kept asking me to do the record. I kept saying, "No, I have to do my record!" Eventually he broke me down. I was like, "Fuck it! When's the next time I'm going to have this much fun in the studio?"

There's definitely an us-against-them mentality within Atlanta's underground hip-hop scene, but Killer Mike occupies his own space somewhere in the middle. Did that work to your advantage?

Atlanta's not the only city that pits one scene against the other, and we knew that we had an opportunity to blur some of those lines with this record. If we could pull this off, we could make a record that leaps over those lines, maybe even open a new door. We didn't want to be a part of one scene, or one regional sound, we wanted something that harkened to a time when people were just making classic records. To do that, we had to forget about everything, lock ourselves in a room together, and make that shit! We may have been right about that, because it seems to be connecting with people.

True story: While walking home from the record store with the LP under my arm, a stranger yelled from his car, "That shit's on vinyl? Where'd you get it?"

That's awesome! I think the energy that we put into the record is sparking that feeling of remembering what it's like to be excited about getting a record — not because it's the new hot shit, but because you have to hear it.