El-P and his backing band (including Mr. Dibbs on the ones and twos) are not donning the most fetching hip-hop gear at the El Rey Theater on May 21. More like door-to-door insurance salesmen or chemistry teachers or local politicians, all clingy gray trousers, shiny ties, and white button-up shirts. El-P’s even got some blood smeared on his face to complete the look. As prominent as the costumes may be, they’re not really the point. The music is, and dear god has Mr. Producto and company unleashed it.
The first two tracks of the performance are the first two from I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, which concerns me a bit, but these songs are an open palm to the cheek live. “Tasmanian Pain Coaster” does everything it’s supposed to — it builds, it froths, it chugs and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. It’s not just rock that can use walls of noise as a weapon; El-P’s production values and Mr. Dibbs’ frenetic mixing comprise a relentless aural assault. “Smithereens” threatens to pummel us into just that.
El hits us with some classics from Fantastic Damage (2002) before going back to more highlights from the new record. He gets especially heated over “Up All Night,” going into a long political tirade about how we are all intelligent and that he doesn’t need to preach to us. By this point he’s stripped down to a T-shirt and rubbed off some of the fake blood, and he lets Mr. Dibbs take the spotlight for a few minutes. He bends over the decks, twisting Blackalicious around Tribe, and it makes me wish he were the gig’s opener rather than Yak Ballz.
That surprise is followed by another: Aesop Rock. He’s out to do “Run the Numbers” and then sticks around to do some of his own stuff, including “Fast Cars, Danger, Fire, and Knives” and a track off his forthcoming album. He leaves the stage to all sorts of compliments from El-P.
El-P seems to be getting a lot of flak for coming off as emo, and apparently this is why. He really throws himself into performing, shaking and nearly convulsing (think Ian Curtis), and his sincerity is so clear that it hurts. So for “The Overly Dramatic Truth,” he’s not really stretching the truth at all. He’s completely spent by the end of this frenzy. But he’s smiling. And this isn’t an act. The poor girl; he’s breaking my heart for her it’s so intense.
He closes out the gig with the coke-addled “League of Extraordinary Nobodies,” which is a total head-nodding highlight, and “Poisonville Kings.” Then tells us he’s going to pretend to leave till we make enough noise for him to come back and he does just that, hitting us with “Stepfather Factory.” It’s not just women who have ripped El’s heart out. Broken hearts, broken homes, broken beats: I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is El-P’s magnum opus.