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Elemental P

31 January 2013 | 7:00 am | Cyclone Wehner

“There’s just a whole helluva lot of great rap out right now – honestly. I think it’s one of the best times for hip hop music in general. Maybe there were a few years where it was a little stale, but I just think that there’s so many new cool voices out right now."

Ice Cube had a hit single with It Was A Good Day in the early '90s – and MC/producer El-P (aka Jaime Meline) might consider the title It Was A Good Year. He enjoyed a bountiful 2012, indeed. The Company Flow stalwart not only received acclaim for his boldly eclectic production on Atlanta MC Killer Mike's RAP Music, but also for his allegorical solo endeavour, Cancer4Cure

C4C was among two hip hop albums selected for the prestigious Q mag's list 'The 50 Best Albums Of 2012' (“it was one of the underground's old hands who made the year's best hip hop record”). Not that the Brooklynite obsessively tracks such things. “I'm aware here and there,” Meline laughs, speaking from a domestic setting with kids in the background. “It's always nice.” He may yet be happier that the hip hop heads dug it. “Honestly, it's been an amazing response. For some reason, this record seemed to strike a note with a lot of people. Who knows why? I don't know why. Maybe it was just the right record for the right time. You never really know what's gonna happen. You put your heart and soul into these things and then you put it out there and all you can do is just hope that people wanna hear what you wanna say. I just feel lucky that that's the case. I certainly don't take it for granted. I mean, I've seen both sides of the coin critically. So it's been really cool pretty much across the board. I felt like this record has maybe even been my best received record that I've ever done. For a guy who's been making full-length records since 1997, it's nice to not feel like I'm on a downwards slope, you know?” While Meline has done talk programs previously, in 2012 he performed on Late Show With David Letterman, shaking the host's hand, and Conan. “It does seem a little strange, doesn't it?,” he says laconically. “It seems a little odd that they'd let me do that, especially because I'm not exactly saying the most general population-friendly stuff.”

This summer Meline is returning to Australia, heading Laneway alongside another alt/urban act in Jessie Ware. He's the festival's first-ever MC. “I'm really excited about it.” Meline is still to study the line-up, he's been so busy. The thirtysomething is a godfather of the backpack hip hop movement. A jazz pianist's son, he came to the fore with Company Flow in the early '90s. The trio released the influential album Funcrusher Plus on Rawkus Records. They split in 2001. Meline presented his solo debut, Fantastic Damage, the next year, I'll Sleep When You're Dead following in 2007. (There was an electro-jazz side-project, High Water, between.) But he devoted much of his time to building up the indie Definitive Jux after rough experiences with Rawkus. Meline has now pulled back, the label on ice, to concentrate on his music. C4C, issued through the traditionally blues-based Fat Possum, was his first album in five years – although he did circulate mixtapes.

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Meline is already planning to cut more music with the longtime OutKast affiliate Killer Mike, now a member of T.I.'s Grand Hustle clique. “We're talking about doing a collaborative record, actually, with both of us rhyming,” he says. “He's a huge, huge, huge part of my life now. Our friendship and the collaboration was great – and we really wanna make a lot of new music together. I've got a bunch of plans, but I haven't figured out exactly what I'm gonna approach first. I'm kinda taking my time and trying to figure it out. I'm getting some cool opportunities, but I'm just enjoying not knowing what the hell is gonna happen.”

Company Flow have reunited for gigs as recently as 2011 (“People kinda kept asking,” Meline has said). But Meline is unsure about their recording a comeback album. “I don't know. There's always a chance. Certainly, it's not something that I'm opposed to – in theory. The Company Flow thing is a very special thing for us involved and I think that the circumstances have to just kind of align. But us doing those reunion shows, doing a bunch of festivals and things, definitely paved the way for that possibility. I wouldn't be surprised if something happened but, at the same time, I've also been on my own path for the last decade or so – and that's the main game that I'm following. So we'll see what happens. I'm not opposed to it, though.”

Meline isn't adverse to rock music (he remixed Nine Inch Nails' Only). His homie Paul Banks, Interpol's frontman, sings on C4C's Works Every Time. “We had a mutual respect for each other's music and we became friends,” Meline reveals. “I'm a huge rock fan, actually. I think you could probably tell when you listen to my records that I'm definitely a rock fan. I listen to everything, though. I'm just a music fan. You know, when you're a hip hop producer, the first thing you start doing is collecting records, and you collect records from every genre, and those records affect you. It's very rare to find a hip hop producer who's not aware of, and even knowledgeable in, multiple different genres of music. I think that's important. You find that in rock, too. All these rock guys are huge hip hop fans. To some degree, everybody wishes they were the other thing. A lot of rock guys secretly wish that they were rappers, and a lot of rappers and rap producers secretly wish that they had a rock band (laughs). So it's cool to see people come together. For a long time, every time some rock and rap shit got together, it was just the worst possible combination of ideas ever. But I think there's a bit of sophistication that's come along in the past 15 years or so, especially in the past ten years, where people really know about each other's music in a real way and so there's some tasteful collaborations that are happening. For a long time it was just like, Oh, no – not another Limp Bizkit!”

New MCs Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky have generated heat. Meline rates those who feature on his record, like Killer Mike. However, he also admires buddies Das Racist, Albanian-American MC Action Bronson, and Flipmode Squad graduate Roc Marciano. “There's just a whole helluva lot of great rap out right now – honestly. I think it's one of the best times for hip hop music in general. Maybe there were a few years where it was a little stale, but I just think that there's so many new cool voices out right now. As a hip hop fan, it's been very inspiring.”

Meline intends to convert more fans with his live slot at Laneway. “Honestly, we just have a pummelling, savage, relentless set (laughs) – but we put our asses to these shows, we put ourselves into it really hard. Even if you don't know who we are, I think that you'll walk away from seeing us feeling like you saw a real performance. It's something that we really take seriously. I love it. There's only two things that I love about the music industry, if you don't count the occasional cheque, which are making music and performing music – and I take both of those things equally serious. So we just go out there and put our heart out there and try to put as much of our energy out there as possible.”

Friday 1 February - Laneway Festival, Brisbane QLD
Saturday 2 February - Laneway Festival, Sydney NSW
Sunday 3 February - Laneway Festival, Footscray VIC
Wednesday 6 February - Corner Hotel, Melbourne VIC
Friday 8 February - Laneway Festival, Adelaide SA
Saturday 9 February - Laneway Festival, Perth WA