At 16, Jaime Meline, having been expelled from two high schools in eight months, had a choice.
"I could," he recalls, "have changed and fit into a scholastic system I could not fit into. I could have been moulded into the type of person that would feel no angst or rebellion in that arena. But I chose to do music instead. Being troubled and being kicked out of school facilitated that. And I'm glad it did."
With the benefit of an additional 16 years behind him, Meline is able to make the statement with confidence. Since abandoning the school system -- save for studies in musical engineering -- Meline, as El-Producto (El-P), has been a major player in the world of underground hip-hop.
His first project, Company Flow, initiated a new era in Brooklyn hip-hop. Subsequent releases as well as collaborations with Handsome Boy Modeling School as well as avant-garde jazz musicians have delivered on that early promise.
Moreover, as co-founder and CEO of the seminal record label Definitive Jux, Meline has anticipated and dictated underground hip-hop tastes for the better part of a decade.
So no, the one-time troubled youth has no regrets about his choice. Though, he admits, two years' worth of studies in engineering did reveal the value of the proper education.
"I probably soaked up none of the minute details," Meline states, "but I got a feel and a sense for something, and it contributed to my overall perspective.
"It was good that I got to be around people that were all about music. For the first time, it was like, 'Oh, I don't have anything to be angry at anymore. I have all this energy and I'm putting it into something I want to do.' That was a big turning point for me."
And so, Meline and his Company Flow partners set out to redefine hip-hop. A 1993 EP, Funcrusher, turned heads. The album, inevitably entitled Funcrusher Plus, put the trio over the top. And created for the group a tough act to follow.
"Our sound was raw, it was off the cuff," Meline muses. "We brought an element that people had been missing. Maybe they couldn't put their finger on what was missing, but they were missing that element. And at the same time it didn't sound like anything that had happened before.
"It was the right time, the right sentiment. But it got bigger than we ever imagined it would be."
Ultimately, despite a fine, overlooked followup, Company Flow quietly called it quits, leaving Meline to pursue a solo career launched in style with 2002's Fantastic Damage, a soulful album with which El-P strived to distance his sound from that of his former combo.
"It was really intimidating at first," Meline admits of going it alone, "but once I figured out in my head what it was like to do my stuff instead of that stuff, it was pretty easy -- because it's a completely different thing. Company Flow was all about brash, sh-t-talking and trying to be the cleverest and the rawest you could ever be on a record.
"I knew that when I did my music it was an opportunity for me to leave all of that behind and go in a direction where I got to really use myself as the template for the music I was making -- to bring a little bit more of who I am into the music as opposed to just being a rapper.
"That's the tack that I took; it was the only clear one I could see that would be potent enough for me to not be 'the guy from Company Flow.' "
He is still brash, clever and raw. And, of course, he remains the guy from Definitive Jux.
"Well," he clarifies, "I mostly just sit around and make music all day and then I answer e-mail. I'm the dude writing the cheques, but thank God I don't have to be 'The label guy.' "
And that, too, is by choice.
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