Rapper, Producer, and Label Chief El-P Is Jux What Hip-Hop Needs

You probably don’t know El-P. But in indie-rap circles, he’s been a driving force for years. And with a fresh slate of groundbreaking projects, he might just tunnel up to the mainstream.

With its raw beats and mind-bending lyrics, Company Flow’s 1997 debut, Funcrusher Plus, was a revelation for the rap underground. For El-P, the group’s producer, rapper, and mastermind, it was the start of a trailblazing career. When Flow disbanded in 2000, El-P created Definitive Jux, the most galvanizing new hip-hop label since Def Jam. In 2001, he helped produce stellar albums from Def Jux acts Cannibal Ox and Aesop Rock that became hipster favorites (Can Ox’s The Cold Vein finished at No. 15 on The Village Voice’s critics poll).

This year, El-P promises to keep shaking up the status yo. His solo debut, Fantastic Damage (due May 14), infuses rap with wit and superior musicianship. ”I’m trying to take what you can do on a hip-hop album a little further,” he says. ”I’m tired of hearing s — – on the underground that doesn’t bang — I want an album that will make children throw furniture.”

While Fantastic Damage raises the bar for indie rappers, a collaboration between El-P and Zack de la Rocha, formerly of Rage Against the Machine, takes aim at bland rap-rock acts. ”Zack wanted some of the noise and rawness,” El-P says of the forthcoming album, which also may feature DJ Premier, DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist, and Roni Size. ”It’d be nice to have someone out there who’s actually saying something, instead of these ‘feel my pain’ suburban calls to arms that rock seems to have become.”

On the DJ front, El-P will team with Gorillaz creator Dan the Automator on Sammy’s Roumanians (named after a Manhattan noshery ”out of respect for the schmaltz”). ”It’s a beat record, Mantronix style,” he says of the disc, due in 2003. With the coupla milliseconds left in his day, he’ll remix Cornershop’s ”Slip the Drummer One” and produce a disc from rapper Mr. Lif. ”I like to stay busy,” understates El-P. ”I’m not happy unless I’m up in the s — -, building something from the bottom up.”