Exceptions to the mainstream are prevalent, no matter how hard we want to ignore that fact, but an oft-missed question is, what about the outliers? Those so outside the normal distribution of genre inclinations that they are not only unique, but exist in genres all unto their own, while still exhibiting some characteristics of a central genre.
Alternative hip-hop is one such category. It takes the basic elements of rap music (rhymes, flow, wordplay, beat-driven, home to alter-egos) and all but discards everything else in favor of individual expression and experimentation. The layman’s understanding of what rap is means nothing in the world of alternative hip-hop. Here, there are no rules, there are no set topics or song types. Lyricism is at dead center, but lyrics often branch out into the metaphorical and can require more than a customary listen to decipher, or else they branch into areas mainstream and extension forms of hip-hop do not extend to. Song structures may be quite uneven; whereas regular hip-hop is sample-based and loops set samples, alternative hip-hop plays with it by shifting samples around, or featuring live instrumentalisation. But perhaps the most apparent is that one of the biggest parts of rap, hooks (or, “choruses”) are often considered optional and can be completely absent. El-P, for instance, often discards or understates these parts. Case in point:
Who is El-P?
El-P (initially El-Producto) is a rapper and producer from Brooklyn, New York. Initially, he was a member of the rap trio Company Flow (El-P, Bigg Jus, Mr. Len) which was then-signed to Rawkus Records. After two albums (Funcrusher Plus in 1997 and Little Johnny from the Hospitul: Breaks & Instrumentals, Vol. 1 in 1999) the trio had a bad falling out with Rawkus over the label’s mistreatment of them. El-P sought a solo career, and co-founded Definitive Jux Records in 1999. El-P alludes to this in his track Deep Space 9mm (from his Def Jux debut, Fantastic Damage) with the line, “Sign to Rawkus? I’d rather be mouth-fucked by Nazis unconscious.”
El-P’s style is built on diversity made possible by the unity of opposites: the real and the fantastical, the outspoken and the hidden, the hard-hitting and the soft center. His lyricism, his musical style reflects this. His beats can be anything from extremely prevalent (and even oppressive) to being basic and almost fading into the background; the instrumentals employ a wide range from classical hip-hop synthesizers and live instruments to 8-bit sequencers. His lyrical content, often blending on-the-nose statements (“Why should I be sober when God’s clearly dusted out his mind?”) to the more cryptic (“Pure savage established hard rock circa ’93 proof”) and topically includes strong objections to how the world is run and what it has become, existential questioning of his own existence and where he stands in the world, science fiction stories about prison ship executioners falling in love with prisoners, and much more.
El-P’s identity as a New Yorker (and/or a Brooklynite) is significant to both his lyrics and how he appears: whether he’s wearing a hat or a beanie, it’s always tipped to the left, which he informed the audience that it was a Brooklyn custom. He makes references to New York and Brooklyn frequently. Further, having lived in New York myself, I can say that he gives a most accurate description of how it is (“On my New York shit it’s the customary bop: Don’t talk to anyone, look forward, mind yourself, continue walk.”) On an interesting note, his track Drones over Brkyln (from the 2012 Cancer 4 Cure) turned out to be prophetic when months after the fact, the news reel said military drones were spotted over Brooklyn.
Recently, El-P has gone into a collaboration with the Grind Time Official star, Killer Mike (he, too, had in 2012 released a wildly successful LP, R.A.P. Music) with whom he had worked previously on Tougher Colder Killer (from Cancer 4 Cure.) The project, titled Run the Jewels (referencing an LL Cool J song) is available for free downloading online, and displays El-P toning down the amount of sophistication in his style in favor of harder punches, perhaps to not act as a complete foil to Killer Mike.
Discography (as El-P; includes only main albums, foregoing his other work for the sake of focus)
(2002) Fantastic Damage
(2007) I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead
(2012) Cancer 4 Cure
Note: Definitive Jux Records today represents some of the most prevalent names in alternative hip-hop such as Despot, Cage, Dizzee Rascal, Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock, and the deceased Camu Tao.