El-P: The Outsider

June 29, 2007 at 3:36 pm | Posted in Interviews | Leave a comment

Written by Rafael Martinez  

Unbeknownst, to the club going, finger snapping, ay bay bay hollering hip-hop fans, El-P is the architect of one of the biggest independent movements in hip-hop. El-P helped launch Rawkus Records in the minds and hearts of backpackers as part of the legendary trio Company Flow. When his relationship with Rawkus soured, rather than sign with a major, El-P stuck to his indie roots and formed his own label Definitive Jux. In the past seven years indie artist like Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif , RJD2 and Cage have found a creative safe haven in Def Jux. While successfully running the label El-P has continued to develop his solo-career as emcee and producer, recently dropping his sophomore project I’ll Sleep When Your Dead. As reluctant as he maybe to take the title, El-P is a hip-hop mogul on the indie grind.

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RAF: I know your touring in support of the album, how has life on the road been treating you?


El-P: It’s been good man, I’m a little exhausted, but I’m managing.


RAF: So everyone seems to have different ways of describing your music and production. It’s been called spacey, futuristic, Bomb Squad-esque, how do you see your music?

El-P: Well I really don’t man. I’m just a kid who grew up in Brooklyn, who fucking loved hip-hop all his life. I just don’t do it. Same way I don’t like to review other peoples’ records.


RAF: Aight (laughs), all your albums you paint this bleak picture of the world highly authoritative and sterile. Where do you see the world in a hundred years?


El-P: I couldn’t even imagine that – hopefully some sort of state of rebuilding, because I think we are headed for some sort of crash. But I couldn’t even imagine the world a hundred years from now. I am still trying to deal with New York City right now.


RAF: I wanted to get your thoughts on the Don Imus and Oprah controversy. I think while everyone is making this outcry, asking hip-hop to create a positive message, yet I know if hip-hop brings a political or empowering message I guarantee they would want hip-hop to return to the bitches and ho’s talk.


El-P: Well you know I agree, but I think the people who are rejecting the bitches and ho’s thing are not the corporate people (laughs). The corporate people love the bitches and ho’s thing. The people who are actually getting offended are actually and legitimately offended by the shit. On that note I am sure this will not make the article I do kinda feel like that whole thing let’s put more curse words on the reversal list and the bleep out list is kinda of like putting a band aide on an open jugular. It doesn’t really seem to be getting to the root of the problem. Its just kinda of funny to me everyone was supporting this shit until the second someone gets offended. I don’t get it. It has been offensive to so many people for so long. Why now all of sudden?

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RAF: Let me ask you about your production process and when you sketch the new album are there certain images or feelings and emotions you couldn’t translate into music?


El-P: Well you know it’s getting easier for me. The more I learn about music, the longer I have been in this business, the longer I have been a producer – the translation becomes easier from what is in my head to my hands. Which is why I kinda feel this is my best record because that translation has become quicker, easier and a lot more accurate. For me I am never satisfied, I never think I am good enough, I never think the music is on point enough and I never think I am at the point where I want to be musically. But it’s not because I’m beating myself up or hypercritical. It’s because the more I see, the more I learn and get involved in music, I love it. I have been putting records out since 93, so I am just now starting to really understand what the fuck it is I am trying to do.


RAF: In the same vein are there certain things you feel shouldn’t put a record?


El-P: Well you know usually when I run into those situations – I force myself to put it on a record (laughs). Because those scenarios that are too honest or that your scared to put on a record that reveal something about yourself more than you want to, usually, that’s exactly what you need to be putting on a record. It seems like people are much more willing to put bullshit and lies on a record. That is exactly what I don’t want to put on a record. The stuff that is easier to put on a record, the stuff that won’t expose me and not make me feel uncomfortable that is the shit that needs to be left on the editing floor.


RAF: Going forward has it ever crossed your mind to complete flip the script and change the signature El-P sound? Similarly to DJ Shadow’s last album The Outsider where he concentrated on hyphy music.


El-P: I kinda follow my own heart – I don’t involve the fans, in the creative process. The fact is I do a lot of other projects outside of my record. This is only my second solo record. I’ve done jazz albums, film scores, producing rock records, doing rock remixes. So I don’t really feel I need to make some overt statement about my capabilities as a producer or flip anything. All I feel I need to do is follow my own shit. What the fans get when they follow me is they get a direction they get a confession from where I was at last time. 


RAF: So the new album you have some rock collaborations Trent Reznor, Mars Volta and TV on the Radio, considering a lot of the rock/rap collabos have been so fucking awful, do you feel like its picking up a loaded gun?


El-P: I wasn’t afraid to do it, I was cautious about the way that I did it. Because of how tragically fucking bad it usually is when people do it. The thing is I am actually cool with these people. There is actually some sort of relationship there. Its not some bullshit – there is a real respect between everybody on the record. So I just kinda figured out a way to do it. For me I had to bring them into my world and not make it about the collaboration. I brought these people on because I heard parts on the record that I thought would be cool to have them on. Not because I wanted to create a record and they were willing to do a song with me and I made a song around that. I all ready had all of these songs and I just treated it like a sample. I looked at it like the art of sampling. Name me one classic hip-hop record from the 80’s to the 90’s that didn’t sample directly from a rock record? Shit, I’ll give you money. Basically to me it’s an extension of the whole breakdown and reconstruction of a genre, that’s what hip-hop producers do. For me if I found what Mars Volta sung on some record, I would have sampled that shit. A lot of people do the overstated collaboration, the collaboration should never be more important than the song, the idea.


RAF: Yeah I agree your approach as sampling is probably the best. I don’t think I have seen a rock/rap collaboration that was truly organic, where there was no tension.


El-P: I don’t think your right, I understand why you would say that but I treat it as sampling but they where genuine collaborations. I weaved into my music – I took the stuff apart I played with it. But there is a lot of common ground man – it’s not that big of a deal. Especially when you listen to Trent Reznor, to me he is not the biggest leap production wise. It is a leap to a degree. But most of that leap is in the minds of the people who define the genres from a critical stand point. When you listen to this dude’s (Trent Reznor) drums, that’s why a lot of hip-hop cats like Nine Inch Nails because of the bass and the drums – the shit is just savage. With Mars Volta – their structure, the effects they use the way go about there shit isn’t so impossibly different from some of the approaches I have taken. Most of the leaps and hurdles that have to be overcome when you do something like this is a) the way people perceive it and b) just making the shit sound good. It requires some thought and I knew I could pull it off.


RAF: So how do you feel your first solo album Fantastic Damage and I’ll Sleep When Your Dead relate to each other?


El-P: This record was written from the prospective of someone who’s been alive and shuffling around New York City for five years in the midst of all this bullshit. It really was about struggle. One man, one physiological prospective. Trying to wake up everyday and function like everything is still cool but everything isn’t necessarily cool. I think that’s the reality of New York right now. Shit man we are trauma victims a lot has gone on since then that has really sucked some of the soul, energy and life out of all of us. Whether or not we are admitting it, people are fucked up right now. I was fucked up personally, I’ve been through a lot of shit and this is what this record is about. It’s not about being afraid of the future or anything like that, its literally me trying to survive and walk through this city and still maintain sanity and life. A lot of my friends didn’t do that and didn’t survive. As far as future albums I don’t have a grand vision I just try to take snapshots and make it the most genuine shit possible.


RAF: I know you from Brooklyn, I was born and raised there myself and live a few blocks away from the Atlantic Yards project. This is gonna change the borough completely. Where do you stand on this?


El-P: I am pretty worried about it to be honest. I am not looking forward to it. The neighborhood I live in is going to be greatly affected by it. I am not going to front. All my life I have lived in Brooklyn and it’s always been a refuge, some sanity – in comparison. It didn’t get the Walt Disney makeover like Manhattan did.


RAF: It’s been about 7 years give or take since your record label Definitive Jux started. Back then did you see the label where it’s at now, are you happy with its direction?


El-P: I am constantly busting my ass, as we all are to ensure that it is a better label at all times. As always I think it is a work in progress. But yes I think we got a really good thing going and it’s mostly because of the amazing people who work there and because of the artists we work with. It’s been a fun ride – I still feel it’s got a lot of places to go. As long as it continues to make sense I will fuck wit it. I am sure one day eventually I will walk away from this whole business, you know and just do music. But in the meantime I have the opportunity to help cats help create a career for themselves. It’s definitely something I enjoy. From day one we constantly try to make our shit the tightest shit, the most transparent, the best independent label on the planet. I don’t know if we can claim that but we are up there.


RAF: It seems to me with Def Jux people have generally two reactions they either love or they don’t fuck with it. Does this bother you?


El-P: Well I think there are people out there who make up their minds on shit based on stuff besides the music. There are perceptions that have come, based on magazines that there is some sort of unifying theme or factor to all the music that is put out on Def Jux. Anybody can like our music or not like our music, but to say you don’t like any music on the label, even the music that has not even come out yet (laughs). But I kinda feel that’s the mood and vibe of fandom right now – people just draw hard lines. When I grew up people listened to rock ‘n’ roll or hip-hop, but a lot of motherfuckers listened to both. Now its I listen to this type of hip-hop or this type of hip-hop (laughs), its pretty ridiculous, I think anyone over the age of like 29 looks that at that whole attitude as silly.


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