No Blood for MP3s 

El-P steers Def Jux Digital, promises to Sleep When You're Dead.

East Coast rapper El-P has been the poster child of independent hip-hop for the past decade. As one-third of Company Flow, he set the underground on its ear in 1997 with Funcrusher Plus. Since then, he's set it off as a solo MC, produced and remixed for his indie hip-hop compatriots as well the likes of TV on the Radio, Nine Inch Nails, and the Mars Volta, and started his own "major" indie label, Definitive Jux. "We were waving the flag before the 'movement' ever existed," he says. "But we're not saviors, 'cause that shit is out of our control."

So five years after the commander of the Def Jux army dropped Fantastic Damage, El-P releases I'll Sleep When You're Dead this month. An ode to life in post-9/11 New York City, I'll Sleep ... is "a raw, honest, gritty behemoth of an album, with me being assholic and screaming in your face," he says. "It's about fucking trudging through every day with the cloud of war over your head. You're trying to trudge along through the world, just trying to live, and you keep clashing up against reality."

El-P sets the tone of the album with the opening track, "Tasmanian Pain Coaster," a tale of running into a fictional acquaintance on the subway. He notices the guy's disheveled look and the bloodstains on his sneakers, and makes the mistake of asking how he's doing. All of I'll Sleep ... pulses with the same raw, manic energy. "Drive" plays like a high-speed joyride through Hell. "Habeas Corpses" tells of love in a post-apocalyptic totalitarian society, a bit like 1984 crossed with Equilibrium; not exactly easy listening.

No bother, El-P says. He operates under the assumption that his music will be ignored. He's more concerned with Def Jux, which made a rather unorthodox decision in 2006: After releasing Mr. Lif's Mo Mega in early spring, the label effectively shut down for the year. As it turned out, rap tanked in '06, few labels did particularly well, and the move now looks prescient. "While all these other labels were out releasing records and scrambling to make things work in this market, we got our internal structure together," El-P says.

Def Jux' digital download store became the most ambitious undertaking of the hiatus. Listeners can buy MP3s directly from the label, rather than through the iTunes middle man. El-P hopes slightly lower prices (as in a penny cheaper), exclusive tracks, and bonus material will tempt iTunes customers to switch for something with more attitude.

In other media, the first single for I'll Sleep's "Flyentology" track boasts directions by the brains behind cult cartoon phenomenon Adult Swim, and El-P says they're now shooting a video for "Smithereens." He figures he might even try to get it on MTV and BET. "Why not?" he wonders. "I'm always trying to bring more pain into this decrepit world."

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