Catharsis in Distortion: El-P’s Best

Following the US election on Nov 8, 2016, we asked Dowsers contributors to discuss the moods and music the results inspired. We collected their responses in this series, After the Election. The following text is a transcript of an e-mail to a friend that accompanied the playlist.

Hey Jordan,

Sorry that it has taken me so long to write this to you. Since I last saw you, things have been a bit crazy, for all of us, I guess. I’m glad to hear that you’re doing well. I was worried, at first, with you being in Texas, but I’m glad to hear that Austin remains a solid blue fortress. I know you mentioned that you were into Run the Jewels, but hadn’t dug into any of El-P’s solo work, so I’ve made you a playlist of his early work. You can find it here. As a note, I had to make a Youtube playlist since his earlier work is not on any streaming services.

So, I’ve been listening to El-P’s music in various incarnations for nearly 20 years. At first, I lumped him in with the other abstract/heady/sci-fi emcees of that era — Del the Funky Homosapien, MF DOOM, Kool Keith, et al — but that doesn’t feel accurate now. Those guys were walking, rapping therasuses or science books, and tapped into a grimey-but-essentially-goofy thread of afrofuturism where robots and aliens are cool, and people talk in polysyllabic rhymes. For El-P, the idea of unseen universes didn’t carry so much a promise of escape (as it traditionally does for afrofuturism), as it represented an opaque, existential threat, and his lyrical density was more of a textural element.

Impenetrability was the point. The occasional Marxist-tinged slogan or Philip Dick reference would surface, but you didn’t need to unpack all of El-P’s clustered alliteration to understand that things were fucked and scary. There’s a sense of vulnerability when he describes drones hovering over Brooklyn, or builds a narrative around the idea of a factory that manufactures abusive stepfathers, or describes a Nazi theme park. Like he raps on “Tuned Mass Damper,” “Motherfucker, does this sound abstract?/ I hope that it sounded more confusing than that.”

The first album that I ever professionally reviewed was El-P’s solo debut, Fantastic Damage. The album came out in May, 2002 — a few months after the attacks on the Twin Towers — and it’s hard to overstate how important it was to many of us. There are those who’ve pointed out the similarities between 9/11 and this election — the collective shock, a sense of unreality, the helplessness and fear we feel. But there are also differences. After 9/11, culture as we know it shut down. We were urged to pull together, irony was declared dead, dissent quashed, and, for the sake of our safety and our nation, monoculture reinstated. Neil Young tried to heal us during a marathon for dead firemen. My roommate foisted an American flag outside of our apartment. For months, things were like this: patriotic country songs and overwrought rock anthems. We’d all come together collectively, as a nation, and it was weird as fuck.

Fantastic Damage — with its throughlines of static; lo-fi rumble; crusty, cacophonous boom bap; and jerky, noisey funk — was an anecdote to the sanguine. Every word that El-P rapped rang true, even the ones I couldn’t understand, which were a lot of them. It validated a lot of the confusion and darkness and paranoia we felt. It contained no answers, per se, but it was enough to know that there were others who felt like they were walking through the world with a gun held to our heads (see the video for “Deep Space 9mm”).

I’ve returned to those early albums since the election. Honestly, Run the Jewels feels more appropriate now. It’s cleaner, clearer, and more focused in its dissent; its anger is cut through with liberal doses of humor and levity. Killer Mike is a moderating force for El-P. Fantastic Damage feels like an ugly artifact unearthed from a dark time capsule. Maybe we don’t need to open that, yet.

Anyway, I hope you’re well. I finished that Emma Cline book. I was wrong and you were right: It’s good. The prose in the first 50 pages was really verbose and overworked. It felt like she had something to prove, as a young, first-time novelist. But once it settled in, it was pretty great. The Suzanne character felt well-developed and original. I liked that issues of gender and sexuality were present, but kept at arm’s length; it made them feel more powerful. Did you finish Savage Detectives? I’ve been thinking about rereading 2666. Last night, I read Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s The Last Wolf. It’s only one sentence long, but that sentence lasts for 75 pages.

So, yeah, I hope you’re doing well. Write me back and let know what’s up.