"Someone took his artificial leg off and handed it to me to sign at a show," says El-P, recalling the strangest thing he's ever seen on tour. The Brooklyn-based rapper and producer, born Jaime Meline, is looking back as he prepares to hit the road yet again, this time to promote his latest album, Cancer4Cure. If any amputee action goes down on this run, it'll also be witnessed by Meline's new tour mates: Detroit hipster favorite Danny Brown, raggedy Brooklyn firebrand Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire, and Atlanta's Killer Mike, whose new album, R.A.P. Music — currently the most acclaimed hip-hop record of the year — was produced entirely by Meline. If you can tell a lot about a rapper by the company he keeps, then the 2012 version of El-P is completely on the pulse of hip-hop.
It wasn't always this way. As one-third of the group Company Flow, Meline helped instigate the independent rap movement of the mid-'90s, a scene that was pitched as a reaction (or antidote) to the materialistic and flashy world of mainstream rap. Co Flow's debut album, Funcrusher Plus, included the slogan "Independent as fuck" in the artwork. It sounds narrow and clichéd — and it was — but back then, most people either liked Puff Daddy and Jay-Z, or Company Flow and Mos Def. Openly liking rappers from both worlds was out of the question.
As the decade moved on, defining oneself as an indie rap artist became less a badge of honor than a sign of commercial and artistic poverty. Many records were pressed up under the indie umbrella not by choice, but because they weren't good enough to be released in any other arena. Still, the dividing lines remained: The idea of El-P producing a song entitled "Big Beast," which features Killer Mike referencing Atlanta's Magic City strip club alongside Bun B and T.I. — the latter rapping about how "choppers go off in my 'hood" — would've sounded more like a joke than a serious proposition. In 2012, it's the fiery opener to R.A.P. Music.
The way Meline tells it, though, the opposition of different rap scenes to one another was reinforced more by fans and the media than the artists themselves. He says he first heard Killer Mike on Outkast's "The Whole World." "Man, I listened to all that shit," he says of Southern rap. "I grew up on that shit, Outkast, U.G.K. I was up on the same stuff that people from the East Coast were up on, maybe a little bit more though." Asked if he felt there was ever a point where his core followers — the ones still pledging allegiance to the independent-as-fuck mantra and faithfully buying anything stamped with the logo of his Definitive Jux label — would be appalled that he'd listen to Southern rap, Meline pauses and says, "I don't really know. I think that maybe if that's the case, it didn't matter and doesn't matter to me. I like what I like. I wouldn't give a shit what anybody wants me to like."
This inclusiveness and love of hip-hop in all its rich regional forms empowers Cancer4Cure and R.A.P. Music. The latter has Killer Mike referencing "Def Jam circa '83" over modern-sounding beats that punch and hit home with the raw power of that label's defining Rick Rubin productions. It's a loud-ass record, and it happens to feature a rapper with a big, authoritative voice and things of substance to say. (In a sentiment that echoes Meline, Mike says he first came across his new producer pal's music "just like any other random rap fan — The Source covered Funcrusher Plus.")
Cancer4Cure combines El-P's usual tricky lyrics — he admits that sometimes his songs aren't the easiest to interpret — with beats that sound like a snazzy synthesis of hip-hop's past, present, and prospective future: First single "The Full Retard" trades pulsing laser sound effects with horn stabs that look back to 1980s hip-hop, while a Camu Tao vocal grab mandates, "So you should pump this shit like they do in the future." It's like rap gumbo. The guests continue this theme, with eXquire and Danny Brown lighting up the clattering "Oh Hail Now," while Killer Mike pops up on "Tougher Colder" (which has a charming Meline observing it's "a lovely day to go blitzkrieg, isn't it?").
This fusing of scenes and styles, of rappers and regions, is what makes Cancer4Cure a totally modern rap album. Meline admits that the Internet has helped break down certain barriers — "I think it couldn't have hurt, for sure," he says — but the album is also a sign of changing times, in which hip-hop at all levels is a lot more integrated. And if the latest El-P album is representative of a new way of thinking, it's come from just about the purest place of all. Asked about the motivations behind the sound and personnel of Cancer4Cure, Meline's answer is simple and resolute: "I'm just a fan."