When avant-garde pianist Matthew Shipp approached El-P with the idea of doing a collaboration with a sextet of seasoned jazz musicians, the indie hip-hop impresario's first reaction was one of almost abject fear. “The only reason I accepted was because I've been pretty disciplined about doing things that terrify me,” El-P says. “I mean, there's a difference between making beats and being a producer, and I didn't want to just sit around behind a board and watch these guys play. At the same time, I didn't know what else to tell them to do, so I figured I would combine the two: I would bring music in and then see what they did in reaction to that.”
It's a bold departure from El-P's own work with his legendary group Company Flow (and, more recently, with the artists that populate his Definitive Juxtaposition imprint), but High Water (Thirsty Ear, 2004) was also intended to move beyond the basic “hip-hop remix treatment” of contemporary jazz. With the New York City collective Blue Series Continuum (featuring Shipp, bassist William Parker, drummer Guillermo Brown and others) improvising over laptop musical themes provided by El-P, who later took apart and restructured the results into finished songs, the album is a strange and at times startling mix of free jazz, hip-hop, funk, false starts and just plain freaky moments — all of it taking shape in a moody atmosphere that's damn near disturbing.
El-P attributes that vibe to his own tastes, as well as to those of his father, jazz pianist Harry Meline, aka Harry Keys. “I kind of tricked him into being involved in this project,” El says with a smirk. “I asked him to put together a list of songs that were favorites of his, [so] he recorded himself playing and singing on some little box with an external microphone and sent a tape to me. And my pops is a dark cat — me and him are similar. All his choices were very dark and depressing, and I was thrilled with that.” Samples of those performances find their way into the almost Funkadelic-styled ballad “When the Moon Was Blue” — a master stroke of editing that showcases El-P's deft touch as a producer, with his father's remote-sounding vocal hovering eerily over the resequenced bits of live instrumentation, programmed beats and layered synths.
“I knew that I was basically being called upon to destroy what everybody did, so I tried to do it with the most finesse possible and just be respectful of it,” El admits. Working from the original session tracks (loaded raw into Digidesign Pro Tools) and relying only on an Ensoniq EPS 16-Plus keyboard sampler (“a fuckin' dinosaur,” he says), an Oberheim OB-12 synth, an Access Virus synth and a Roland D-550 rackmount synth, he essentially rearranged the music from scratch. “Get Modal” is a jaunty example of his approach, with merged snippets of live horns, piano and acoustic bass with vocal shouts, synth swells and guitar samples over Brown's driving backbeat. Elsewhere, “Get Your Hand Off My Shoulder, Pig” is a Sun Ra — inflected hip-hop opus evoking New York nights and rain-soaked streets with a funky beat, mournful horns and relentlessly plunky piano by Shipp — all augmented by El's tripped-out synth patches.
Although El-P acknowledges that High Water is an unusual creative step (especially for someone who was once hired by Zack de la Rocha to produce tracks for a now-shelved solo album and whose latest group, Central Services, is a rock band of sorts), the perceived break in continuity doesn't faze him. “Like everything I'm doing with Def Jux, this is the type of record I want to be involved in,” he explains. “It's really about confronting opinions about what music is and what hip-hop is, with people reacting to what you do and then not understanding the next move you make and then being pissed that they don't understand. I try to shut my eyes to all of that and just be involved with good people who are talented and can make good records.”