"I'm not particularly that brilliant," El-P says, laughing. "It takes me longer to do something worthy of putting out."
The Brooklyn-based rapper, former label head, and indie hip-hop stalwart isn't bothered by the five years it took to put together his latest collection, Cancer 4 Cure (out now via Fat Possum records). Then again, someone with his track record isn't beholden to the urgency that infects the young Turks, feverishly posting a new video or remix every two weeks.
"I don't really write records until I'm inspired, until I have an idea of what I want to say," he says. "Sometimes it takes a lot of living before the words just come."
The living between the new album and 2007's I'll Sleep When You're Dead hasn't been easy. El-P lost his friend and collaborator, Camu Tao, to lung cancer in 2008, and the subsequent healing process is navigated throughout the new record. "These records are me working through things and getting through all of the fucking dialogue that could be really toxic if held inside," he says. "They are a form for me to howl at the moon a little bit so I don't have to do it in places like restaurants."
Cancer 4 Cure also is the first record he's released since dissolving Definitive Jux in 2010, the flagship label of underground rap he founded at the turn of the millennium. The imprint positioned El-P as a backpacker tastemaker, with a roster boasting MCs like Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Cannibal Ox, and Aesop Rock.
"It was a labor of love, and I lost all my money doing this shit — several times — but it was okay with me because I loved it," he says. "It was a tough decision to make, but it feels, in retrospect, like a good decision."
The extra time on his hands afforded efforts outside of his own jams. Among many high-profile collaborations, El-P produced Chicago veteran Killer Mike's latest album, R.A.P. Music, a critically lauded collection of hard-hitting block rockers. Killer Mike appears on Cancer 4 Cure, along with rising left-field stars like Mr. Motherfucking Exquire and Danny Brown, and Paul Banks, the quavering voice of doom-pop band Interpol.
The break also allowed him to get back to business: El-P still is a vigilant New Yorker struck by invasive technology and the omnipresence of police surveillance, like Fox Mulder with a mic."The Full Retard," a track full of claustrophobic boom-bap, embodies this paranoia (or this pragmatism, if you will). El-P's kinetic rhymes conjure a realm of catastrophe. "Yes, indeed / a dawn of the dirt and doom draws nearer," he barks. The chorus commands: "Pump this shit, like they do in the future."
Out of nowhere, the screwy horns and synth bursts cut out, replaced by narcotic organs. A dopey angelic voice proclaims a world free from destruction, with humans of all shapes and colors frolicking in fields of dandelions.
Then there's machine gun fire. The charlatan is out of commission, the beat kicks back in, and El-P jumps headfirst into the dystopian cesspool.
Though it sounds like a future-tense scenario, his vision is hardly a work of Philip K. Dick fantasy. He says he wishes he sounded like a sci-fi writer instead of some dude who checks the papers in Brooklyn.
"Have you read the news? There are civilian-monitoring drones being deployed in major cities in America every week," a topic he touches on with "Drones Over BKLYN." "We are living that dystopia. It has nothing to do with sci-fi or the future. It has to do with the truth of our society right now."
It's hardly a warm consolation, but El-P's newest work has a tone of rebirth. The album cover is a spread of broken glass lying on the blacktop, assembled in the shape of a bird.
"My music is about being alive and reconciling the real truth to live as a human," El-P says, and while the damage has been inventoried by the end of Cancer 4 Cure, a tattered solace is earned from doing all that living.