The Complicatist: El-P, Killer Mike

Philip K. Dick Meets the Rappers, Downtown

by Gordon Campbell

This month’s column is about the marriage made in heaven between the Atlanta rapper Killer Mike and the New York producer Jaime Meline, better known as El-P …I mean, who would have thought that Mike’s political bombast would combine so effectively with El-Ps deep space paranoia? (In art as in romance, the inevitability of connections seem obvious only in hindsight) Both these guys, so it happens, are 37 years old. Meaning : they’re not only mature artists working at the top of their game, and moreover….slow burning careers and thirty-something second acts aren’t all that common in hip hop. Not sure why that should be.

1. Hezekiah Jenkins : “The Panic Is On” El-P : “Time Won’t Tell”
For starters though, I’d like to link to a January,1931 recording by a white country musician called Hezekiah Jenkins. “The Panic Is On” was written in the depths of the Depression, but could just as easily have been written last year by the Occupy protesters – right down to the mentions of urban mental derangement, like the guy walking the streets in his underwear. (Some things haven’t changed much since 1931.) In case anyone would like to access the lyrics and guitar tabs for this song, you can find them right here.

It’s a stretch, but a connection can be made between “The Panic Is On” on one hand, and the video for “Time Won’t Tell” which is an instrumental track from El-P’s We’re All Going To Burn in Hell Megamixx 3. (The video may also remind some of David Gordon Green’s debut film George Washington in the way it treats cityscapes as archaeological ruins, ripe for exploration and scavenging.) That aside, the video deals with something Hezekiah Jenkins would have endorsed : the will to survive, and the capacity for joy. The video may begin with seemingly predatory teenage boys at the forefront, but the resolution is utterly not what you’d expect.

 

2. El-P : “Stepfather Factory” Killer Mike : “ The Devil Is A Lie”
These two tracks precede the duo’s current collaboration on 2012’s R.A.P. Music album. Ever since his long gone days as co-founder and CEO of the Def Jux label, El-P has shown a keen interest in the convergence between the mechanisation of humanity, and the humanising of the machine. Philip K. Dick territory, in essence. The best early example is “Stepfather Factory” from his 2002 debut album Fantastic Damage. With typical intensity, El-P makes the links between the dehumanising nature of market capitalism and domestic violence :

(I’m gonna build) a Stepfather Factory
The latest in technology
Stepfather Factory
Jobs for the community
A Stepfather Factory
The age of familial industry
A Stepfather Factory
Building tomorrow’s fathers today….

Before you start there’s a few details you must learn
Technical specs about your unit. to make things run smooth
In an effort to find an energy source our company’s learned
The cheapest way to keep his battery running is with booze
Plug it in, give it a name, man of the house, help sustain
Wear the pants, you can relax…
Brings us to the safety chapter
(Section 87 in your handbook subsection 16 entitled
Troubleshooting)
Fuel sources are at a slight risk of mixing
With the crispy plutonium centre
Of your automated new spouse and then driven
Possibly leading to the unpredicted stimulation of its artificial emotion circuits
And in a few unsubstantiated clinical trials this condition
has led to simulated feelings of resentment and worthlessness
Manifested in the highly unlikely but still possible act
of physical aggression towards you and your loved ones fleshy surfaces
Remember, no cash returns
Only credits towards future purchases
“Why are you hurting me?
“I love you.”
“Why are you hurting me?
I love you.”
“Why are you hurting me?
I love you.”

Meanwhile, down in Georgia….Killer Mike had, by this time, already made his debut with a track on Outkast’s Stankonia album, and – subsequently – kept his links to Big Boi alive on the Speakerboxx/ The Love Below double album. By 2008, “The Devil Is A Lie” not only illustrates his vocal and lyrical strengths but also how (pre- El-P) other producers really didn’t really know how to focus it. For my money, the best of Mike’s tracks from the 2000s deal with a secular/church divide that’s as old as the blues itself. For a guy who takes no political prisoners lyrically, it may be surprising to run across the simple poignancy of a verse like this, from 2008”s “God In the Building” :

The church ladies weep when they hear ya man speak
They say they see GOD in me but I’m in the street.
They ask me why I’m rappin’, tell me I’m called to preach
I smile, and kiss ’em on they honey brown cheeks

“The Devil Is A Lie” has moments of empty flailing, but – as agitprop – its hard to quibble with a track that closes with Mike exhorting his audience to READ and read about : George Jackson, the Malcolm X autobiography. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Thurston and Paul Robeson, among others.

 

3. El-P “Tasmanian Pain Coaster” Aesop Rock : “ Zero Dark Thirty” “Fast Cars”
This El-P track is from 2007’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead album and kicks off with dialogue between Donna Hayward and Laura Palmer, from David Lynch’s post Twin Peaks mindfuck, Fire Walk With Me. Aesop Rock (aka Ian Bavitz) was an early Def Jux signing but ‘Zero Dark Thirty” comes from his upcoming Skelethon album. “Fast Cars” is an older track, and on it Aesop R. deals in lighter fashion with some of El-P’s dark obsessions….For instance :
I used to pray the treatments got easier with my aging
like serotonin weekends was merely comedic hazing.
Wrong, but along his travels located the key to world peace:
“Kill every mother ++++++ but me.”
You cool with that?
Cool. Bang.
You?
Cool. Hang.
You?
No?
Uh… bang?
Cool.
Sorry, dog, rules are rules.
And too long have I followed yours.
I’m trying to get them years back,
and walk through every cipher with dynamite in a beer hat.

 

4. Killer Mike : “Reagan” “Big Beast” Finally, a few current tracks by Killer Mike (aka Michael Render) from his May 2012 album R.A.P. Music, which has been produced by El-P. Talk about convolutions and happystance. Def Jux has been put (temporarily at least) into financial hibernation. As a result, El-P’s May 2012 album Cancer 4 Cure is on the Fat Possum indie label. On the other hand, the Killer Mike album is on the Atlanta label Williams Street, which is a subsidiary of Ted Turner’s Turner Broadcasting System. Rail against The Man as much as you like, but one way or another, he will own you. Parental warning : some parents may find the language on “Big Beast” offensive.