Not long ago a good friend of mine (and fellow emcee) texted me from the much-beloved hiphop festival Scribble Jam: "Underground rap is boring as shit, why didn't you tell me? I thought we were friends, man." Yeah, it's true, watching—or even listening to—90 percent of so-called underground hiphop is absolutely paint-dry compelling, almost as musically unadventurous as it is pretentious. A lot of righteous rah-rah and wave-your-hand-in-the-air pandering that, ultimately, signifies nothing.
The last time I saw the most innovative artist in the sphere of indie-rap, El-P, he stormed the stage with a multimedia shock-and-awe assault on the senses. The Company Flow founder/Def Jux impresario staged a scene ripped straight from "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos"—El in an orange jailhouse jumper, blood smeared on his face, searchlights sweeping the stage. Screens flickered behind the band, who stood glowering at the crowd in fatigues and ski masks. There's nothing cozy or intimate about El's stage show—it's every bit as brutal, paranoid, and dissonant as the barren, dystopian hiphop landscape he has serialized throughout his career. It's also hype as all hell; the man bounces all over the stage like he sees snipers in the rafters, and it's no surprise that he rehearses like a boxer might, wearing a weighted vest and wristbands.
2007's I'll Sleep When You're Dead shook up the '80s electro-futuristic Terminator vibe he'd established on 2002's Fantastic Damage—akin to dousing his dusted Blade Runner b-boy in high-grade LSD and shoving his ass out of the Humvee. Bangers like "Smithereens (Stop Crying)" and "Everything Must Go" pierce your inadequate armor and make you wonder what it sounds like to huff Krylon in Fallujah. Subtle collaborations with Trent Reznor (the battlefield boogie "Flyentology") and personnel from a handful of platinum-cred indie rock crews (Yo La Tengo, the Mars Volta, Cat Power) also put a little English on the woozy spin of El-Producto's swiftly tilting planet.
Usually the genius of those bent on pushing hiphop light years ahead doesn't translate to the live arena, but Def Jukie #1 has got the goods. Don't give up on the underground yet. You tell your friends, I'll tell mine.