Words and interview

Thomas Hobbs



Hayley Wells

Know The Score: El-P on 2002’s Solaris

The producer and rapper reveals the soul-cleansing moment he discovered Cliff Martinez’s soundtrack.

Pioneering rapper and producer El-P’s music has always felt cinematic. A big portion of the artist’s solo material is rooted in post-apocalyptic themes that explore the hollowness of late capitalism, with songs like ‘Dead Disnee’ and ‘Delorean’ clearly made by a keen student of John Carpenter’s They Live.

His fragmented beats surge with the urgency of a chase sequence in a Mad Max film, helping to illuminate nightmarish flash imagery such as drones conducting a “mechanical fox hunt” over Brooklyn, or wagging finger tips capable of conducting MRI scans. He’s the closest thing rap music has to Philip K Dick.

El-P is also one half of Run The Jewels, alongside rapper Killer Mike. Arguably, the duo’s music is underpinned by a lot more hope than El-P’s solo work, pushing the idea that the evil in America can be overcome by people from different walks of life (El-P is white and from New York City, Mike is black and from Atlanta) coming together. With its references to police brutality and the idea of toppling despotic world leaders, new album ‘RTJ4’ might just be this year’s most socially relevant release, with El-P producing a record that not only sounds like the soundtrack to a raucous party at the end of the world, but also the fuel for a protest movement.

“With ‘RTJ4’, resistance comes in the form of me and Mike’s friendship. We wanted to make this cinematic album where the anti-heroes survive and speed away into the sunset,” El-P says. “The thing I am most proud of about ‘RTJ4’ is you don’t walk away from it frowning or feeling down, even when the odds often feel insurmountable. The idea was that if we’re going down then we’re gonna go down swinging, and I think there’s a real beauty and relevance to that right now.”

Despite the fact that El-P’s music is often the antithesis to stillness, his all-time favourite film score, Cliff Martinez’s composition for 2002’s Solaris, is above all soothing. Steven Soderbergh’s divisive remake was something El-P was grateful to discover while experiencing the hangover from hell. “I had partied all night and I was completely destroyed. It was one of those classic hangovers where you spend the whole day locked on the couch and rent a movie. The music was so soul-cleansing that I immediately bought the soundtrack and just played it on a loop for 10 straight hours. To be honest, I kind of never stopped.”

Everyone has that one record they turn to whenever life becomes a bit too much; the familiarity of the music provides us with a necessary emotional reset. For El-P, that record is Martinez’s Solaris score. “This music just became the soundtrack to my life. To this day, I cannot fly without listening to ‘Will She Come Back’ as the plane takes off. The music touches on stress, but also stress resolution. It’s perfect to listen to when you just want to level out.”

Soderbergh’s film follows psychiatrist Dr Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) as he investigates a space expedition to Solaris, a strange nebulous-like planet that’s somehow capable of embedding itself into the human subconscious, turning people’s desires into reality. This results in Clooney having interactions with his dead wife (played by Natascha McElhone), with Martinez combining electronic and classical instrumentation that feels like it floats searchingly in and out of the narrative.

It’s easy to see why Martinez’s score made such a big impression on El-P; the music feels meditative and dreamlike, as verdant synths bloom and a Cristal baschet (which El-P tried to buy after watching the film, but balked at the $50,000 price tag) purrs at a frequency that doesn’t quite feel of this world. Nothing is how it seems in Solaris, and this is evidenced by the way the score and the unconventional sequencing reflect the splintered emotional state of Clooney’s character. Yes, it’s a film set in space, but it’s more about the spaces in the human mind and how we choose to fill them after experiencing loss.

“I love that even through the dread, there’s this undercurrent of hope that exists within the film’s music,” El-P says. “Cliff hints that this is a hopeful story through the resolution of his chords and there’s this gorgeous alchemy to the music. It’s what makes it feel different from Tarkovsky’s adaptation [of Stanisław Lem’s 1961 novel].”

He adds: “I believe that sci-fi is a vehicle to exaggerate the human experience and make a statement about it. This film isn’t about space, it’s about loss. But even though the film is embedded in sadness and fear, Cliff never makes you feel despair no matter how tense things get. His music beautifully carries you through this thing and doesn’t drop you on your head, and that’s a masterful thing to be able do.”

Interestingly, El-P sees parallels between the work of Martinez (who, incidentally, was interviewed for this series), and the way rap music is constructed. “With Solaris, Martinez combines steel drums with these long string chords that swell through the music. All of the notes are syncopated through delays. A lot of these choices don’t make sense – just like the world of Solaris doesn’t. Sampling and combining things that aren’t normally drawn together is fundamental [to being a rap producer], and Cliff works like that too. As a producer, your ears get tainted. I’m able to figure out and recognise a process when I listen to most types of music, but I could never really pin this one down, and I love that.”

While Run The Jewels has taken up a lot of El-P’s time in recent years, he has started to make fresh moves into film scoring. First there was the leak of the music he submitted for the trailer for Blade Runner 2049. Though it was ultimately turned down, its frenetic pace chimes with the eyes-in-the-back-of-your-head paranoia of Ridley Scott’s original. “I wanted to tap into the spirit of Vangelis’ score,” he explains. “Maybe in another reality that gig was offered to me. I hope that someday I get my hands on something of that magnitude.”

Then there was Josh Trank’s Capone, which may not have been warmly received by critics but does at least feature an emotionally resonant score by El-P. Rather than being embedded in the Prohibition era, the restrained music is rooted in dissonant electronica that succeeds in tapping into the loneliness and disaffection that comes with being a notorious gangster past his prime.

“How do I make a period piece with synths?” El-P says of the starting point for his Capone score. “How do I use a fucking Yamaha CS-80 on a period piece about a syphilitic Al Capone shitting his adult diaper and having all these disconcerting flashbacks of his violent past while alone in his house? The music you hear shows what’s inside Capone’s heart. I didn’t want this music to be its own character, but more of a narrator.”

There’s even a loving reference to Cliff Martinez in his Capone score. “The wind chimes that you hear on the song ‘Little Italy’ were definitely a homage to Solaris,” El-P reveals. “I knew I wanted to incorporate my own version of that disparate, ethereal bell sound, which echoes within this big open space and is so often Cliff’s trademark. I wanted to create a piece of music that bled into every moment. Learning how to play a wind chime was so much fun too!” He says it would be a “dream” to one day work with Martinez and learn from his process.

Looking ahead, El-P says that ‘RTJ5’ will happen but “only when the time is right”. He admits that the self-isolation protocols brought about by the coronavirus pandemic have impacted his and Mike’s working relationship, with the pair very much fans of being in the same room together and “feeling each other’s energy” opposed to emailing verses, which is something El-P says they will never do. He’s excited to tour the ‘RTJ4’ album in 2021, but jokes that these shows might have to feature “personal mosh pit bubbles” for every audience member in order to prevent the spread of germs.

Whatever the future holds for El-P, you can be sure Martinez’s Solaris score will be playing in the background. “I remember buying the Star Wars vinyl as a kid and it having such an impact on me,” he concludes, “but there’s still no piece of music in my life that I have listened to more than Solaris. There are records I hold in high regard, but this one has stuck with me and pushed me to grow as a producer. The music is medicinal. It shepherds you through these complex emotions, but does it in a way that feels responsible. It acknowledges pain, but also takes responsibility for not shattering you. I can’t envision a day where I won’t turn to it for inspiration.”

El-P’s Capone score is out digitally now, and available to pre-order on vinyl at productomart.com

Published 20 Sep 2020

Tags: El-P Know The Score Solaris Steven Soderbergh

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