EL-P, Middle East Downstairs, May 1, 2007
There were just a few holdouts from the backpack era for last Tuesday's El-P’s Middle East show, which kicked off a tour in support of his second full-length, the macabre and satisfying I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (Definitive Jux). The underground hip-hop movement that five years ago seemed positioned to infiltrate (or at least co-exist with) the mainstream has slowed to a crawl. El-P was at the heart of that movement, both with his Definitive Jux label and as a member of Company Flow.
But rather than retreat into his ever-shrinking corner of the universe, he’s embraced the indie world that would be most open to his style. Guests on the new album include Trent Reznor, Cat Power, and the Mars Volta, and the crowd at the Middle East reflected this range. Unlike past shows, where El-P has relied on just a microphone and a DAT, this was a full performance, complete with hype man, a rock-style light show, and a costume: orange jumpsuit, fake blood smeared on his face. His DJ even solo’d to Radiohead until someone unplugged the turntables, but El-P saved the day with an a cappella performance of Company Flow’s “Patriotism.” His poised response proved he’s matured as a performer, and the unaccompanied delivery pointed up his underrated skill as a lyricist.
As a rapper/producer, EL-P hasn’t moved away from the abstract hip-hop style he once commanded just to accommodate a more rock-oriented audience — “Up All Night,” the highlight at the Middle East, merges firm choruses with pounding beats and dark samples. Changing times and evolving tastes have found people who wouldn’t have checked for hip-hop five years ago open to good music of all kinds, and El-P, expanding his horizons along with them, has met them halfway. Hip-hop’s loss is indie’s gain.
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