It’s been a few years since I dipped into El-P’s sprawling back catalogue to select some of my favourite moments. This time round I’ve chosen an angle that he became synonymous with quite early on in his career, that of the dystopian visionary. George Orwell samples, Phillip K Dick references and even a shortlisted Blade Runner 2049 soundtrack only strengthened the association. But in reality these visions were always more grounded in reality than we would perhaps like to have believed. Especially on his more recent escapades with Run The Jewels, where the dystopia we feared in the future, morphed into the existence we populate in the present. Reality checks mistaken for bad omens. So on that positive note, let’s begin.
“I’m alone again, clutching a loaded Glock soaked in chromium
Hoping that the thought police just don’t bust in my home again.” – Butane (R.A.P. Music)
I’m starting off with the track that foreshadowed the arrival of Run The Jewels, including the prophetic intro to El-P’s verse (“Yo Mike, they fucked up putting us together, man”). It also included El referencing one of the archetypes of dystopian fiction, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, as he keeps his fingers crossed that the Thinkpol won’t pay him another visit.
“Hey lil guy, I’m just walking through
From another timeline where monsters eat truth.” – Holy Calamafuck (RTJ4)
Now we jump from the birth of Run The Jewels, right up to their most recent offering, RTJ4. Released at a time when the world seemed to have finally caught up with El-P’s hellish descriptions of a near-future, this particular bar was almost constantly circulating my memory from the moment I heard it. I think its appeal lies in the juxtaposition of a friendly greeting with such a nightmarish vision, and then the realisation that it’s our timeline he’s describing. High-fives, everyone.
“Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue
If I exist right now I damn sure can’t provide you proof
Definitions of existence in this state are loose
You’ve done enough, relax, I’ll finish tying up my noose.” – Works Every Time (Cancer 4 Cure)
Okay so while this might not be a direct shout out to the dystopia we all know and love(?), it sure as hell feels like the very place that El-P is trying to escape from, at least in a mental capacity. It also lures us in with a nod to Airplane! – one of the greatest comedies ever created, don’t argue – and ends on a distinctly macabre note. Also, Cancer 4 Cure is arguably El-P’s most dystopian album, so it comes with the territory.
“And they say productivity is up this month but I’ve lost my passion
Sick of waiting in line for my weekly chocolate ration.” – Ridiculoid (The Cold Vein)
It’s back to the 1984 allusions for El-P’s second appearance on Cannibal Ox’s 2001 masterpiece. Here we find El-P tired of the relentless promotion of productivity as the ultimate goal and fed up with the tedium of queuing for your measly food allowances. And who can blame him? That notion of productivity promotion will ring true for anyone who has ever worked for an obscenely large company like Amazon, where the push to hit targets erases the need for basic human comfort. Cheers, Jeff.
“Yo, I touch with rusted clutch spun out of the dust
And careen into the temples of automated destruct
Nanotech bugs in the blood get unplugged.” – Accidents Don’t Happen (Fantastic Damage)
This one kicks off one of my favourite El-P tracks of all time, a track that would also be classified as part of the Weathermen canon, thanks to features from Cage and Camu Tao. While I can’t put my finger on what exactly El is referring to with ‘temples of automated destruct’, the next line is straight out of the How To Rule a Futuristic Hellscape handbook, as our protagonist sabotages his bodily intruders.
“Not saying it’s a conspiracy, but you’re all against me
You see a future where Run the Jewels ain’t the shit
Cancel my Hitler-killing trip
Turn the time machine back around a century.” – The Ground Below (RTJ4)
My final pick and another one from RTJ4. This one isn’t even dystopian in the sense that we’ve become accustomed to, but it does imagine a very Jewel-Runneresque vision of a world plunged into darkness. It also boasts a tidy little rhyme scheme and it genuinely made me laugh the first time I heard it, which is another common theme with El-P’s lyrics. And thank god for that, because laughter really is the best medicine for what ails us and right now, we need all that we can muster.