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Everyone knows El-P these days as one half of Run the Jewels and, to a lesser extent, for his acclaimed solo discography. From all the way back in the 90’s days of Rawkus and Company Flow, to Def Jux and The Weathermen (notably The Cold Vein and tracks with Aesop Rock) and beyond, El has a massive discography of beats and collaborations which get passed over far too often. These relatively underground records deserves some love, not only for their producer, but also for their place in backpack history.
Mr. Lif – I Phantom (2002) & Mo’ Mega (2006)
A cornerstone of Def Jux, Boston’s Mr. Lif has always been one of the smartest, most true-to-the-game MC’s out. His perennial concept album I Phantom was an inventive, broad critique of society’s woes through the eyes of one man’s dream for a better world, and its eventual collapse. I Phantom‘s follow up Mo’ Mega remains harder to track down however. Regardless, both albums feature significant production credits from El-P, who was able to bring his unique blend of hardcore East Coast sounds with something apocalyptic.
Listen to I Phantom on Bandcamp
Cage – Hell’s Winter (2005)
While Cage was another Def Jux mainstay, he was always a bit of an oddball stylistically and could be polarizing to listeners. 2002’s Movies For the Blind (featuring the El-P produced “Holdin a Jar 2”), while a classic, was an almost Slim Shady-esque display of over the top violence and depravity – a result of Cage’s own tough life experiences. On Hell’s Winter however, he more successfully channeled that energy into something introspective and critical. Nearly half the tracks produced by El-P, this project’s tone was a bit softer, acoustic, and indie leaning in sound; With Cage’s increasing maturity, the atmosphere had to match. This was also a hint at the direction his future albums would take.
Listen to Hell’s Winter on Bandcamp
Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire – Lost in Translation (2011)
A much newer artist, Brooklyn rapper Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire has been carrying the mantle of hardcore backpack music. His breakout mixtape Lost in Translation featured several El-P beats, however none of them were original. Rather, Ex remixed some older productions from The Cold Vein and El’s WeAreAllGoingToHell instrumental series. This was a real display of who he was trying to be as an artist at the time and matched the debaucherous, dark topics he was both living and rapping about. Additionally, this tape includes the classic posse cut “The Last Huzzah!” and one of El-P’s best, most creative verses ever.
Listen to Lost in Translation on Bandcamp
Del tha Funkee Homosapien – “Offspring” (2000)
One of El’s earlier placements, “Offspring” marked a unique collaboration. Del tha Funkee Homosapien and the Hieroglyphics crew were already icons of West Coast backpack, so it might surprise some that he was briefly signed to Def Jux later on. Regardless, this track, while a bit rough around the edges, was a fun coast-to-coast meeting which proved Del’s versatility. He remains an all time talent on the mic and was truly ahead of his time with such effortless, unique flows and concepts.
Listen to Both Sides of the Brain on Bandcamp
Murs – “The Dance” (2003)
Another interesting member of Def Jux, Murs’ earliest works are distinctly different from the more West Coast or soulful 9th Wonder productions he is so heavily associated with. The End of the Beginning was a distinctly heavy, yet fun project with New York fingerprints all over it. El’s beat on here is simply bombastic, especially with its futuristic laser effects. It would be great to see him produce for some West Coast artists again and meet them halfway sonically, the way he placed his own twist on Killer Mike’s Southern roots with R.A.P. Music.
Listen to The End of the Beginning on Spotify
Das Racist – “Relax” (2011)
Like Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire, Das Racist were a dope crew who brought the backpack movement to a more modern, somewhat mainstream stage. They were rather polarizing, often dismissed as little more than joke rap or memes, but they actually weaved some profound messages into that fun façade. Plus they were widely loved by hiphop legends and collabed with artists such as Roc Marciano, Boi-1-da, and of course El-P. Their only studio album Relax might not be as beloved as their mixtapes, but featured this oddly minimal, forward thinking beat courtesy of Producto.
While Run the Jewels continue to put out some phenomenal music, you have to look back fondly on all of El-P’s old styles and eras. To hear him branch out once again and grace someone else with production would be great, but no matter what we’re getting, it will always be quality, inspired, and a step forward.