Two years ago I began contributing to the quarterly print publication, Ghettoblaster Magazine, and with my very first article had the opportunity to interview one of my favorite hip hop artists of all time. I’ve been a huge fan of EL-P for years and, whether it was his work with Company Flow in the 90s; the widely lauded production on the now-classic Canibal Ox‘s debut, Cold Vein; his tremendous subsequent solo releases; or the 2004 foray into the jazz world with High Water, which saw him collaborating with Mathew Shipp‘s The Blue Series Continuum, I’ve pretty much loved all of it. One of EL‘s greatest strengths is his fearlessness in willing to experiment with the art form that he’s become such a vital figure in, allowing him to consistently expand his inimitable voice and versatility, contributing something entirely new to the hip hop culture that is uniquely his own in a way that very few have been or may ever be able to.
At the time of my interview (May 2012), EL was just about to release his first new solo album in 5 years, as well as an album that he produced in its entirety for Atlanta-based Dungeon Family veteran (and new best pal), Killer Mike. Both efforts would prove to be among the most impressive releases of the entire year. The duo of Mike and EL would first tour together in support of the respective projects, before officially announcing their partnership as the duo Run The Jewels. The free LP that the duo released last year under the RTJ moniker landed itself toward the top of endless “best of the year” lists in its own right. For me, it’s been great to see two of raps greatest assets finally get their due, after being criminally overlooked for far too long. With so much talk about the highly anticipated RTJ follow up album that’s in the works, these days, I felt that now would be as good a time as any to finally post the transcript of that conversation that I had with the rapper/producer during the buildup, right before everything really began to pop off on a larger scale. Enough time has passed.
The following interview piece was originally published in Issue #32 of Ghettoblaster Magazine, which can still be purchased by clicking HERE. [Also, look for the current issue (#37) with Step Brothers on the cover to read my interview with Stephen Malkmus.]
Hopefully you enjoy it and get something out of it. I did.
“The Overly Dramatic Truth” – Interview with EL-P
“Bring me the dramatic intro machine”
When rapper/producer Jaime “El-Producto” Meline released Fantastic Damage, 10 years ago, it was a turning point. It would be his first real solo effort outside of Company Flow and, as Funcrusher Plus continued to garner the newly defunct NYC trio praise as one of the most groundbreaking and influential hip hop albums of all time, it was easy to speculate that El-P’s best work might already be behind him. Fandam arrived as a densely cinematic and meticulously crafted piece that not only proved such concerns unwarranted, but helped to officially solidify the Meline-founded Definitive Jux as the most important independent hip hop label of the new millennium. The doom-laden soundscapes of Co-Flow remained, but there was a tangible increase in their dimensionality and the drums were kicking harder and more frequently. Lyrically, the content was becoming deeper, more developed and profound; the verses more intricate.
After a decade of directing his attention toward other artists, 2010 saw the label-head putting the brakes on Def Jux to refocus on the production of his own work. EL’s latest release, Cancer For Cure, marks his first proper full-length in 5 years and, in many ways, it continues the evolution where 2007’s mind-blowingly visceral I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead left off. It’s both a freeze frame of his mind during its creation and a culmination of everything that he’s absorbed up until this point. Common themes like domestic abuse, technological paranoia, and war are revisited, while old-school stabs and cowbells are woven throughout the sounds of mutagen ooze-drenched 808s and analog synths booming through subway tunnels below futuristic Blade Runner-esque cityscapes.
El-Producto recently spoke with us about C4C, producing for Killer Mike, and why it consistently takes him 5 years to put out an album.
After I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead came out, I read an interview where you mentioned that you had 5 years of ideas building up to it and that you had so many extra concepts that there was enough to put out 3 more albums. Did any of that material from back then actually make it onto Cancer For Cure?
Not really. *laughs* I definitely thought that [it would], at the time. But, you know, the way it works is that you go on tour–you end up touring basically for a year, year-and-a-half, off and on. And I was doing other projects and I was trying to get other people’s records out and different shit. I was trying to figure out what to do with the record label. So, by the time that I really started putting this record together, most of the stuff that I had left over had either, been re-appropriated for other shit, like that Weareallgonnaburninhellmegamixxx3 that I did, or had been redone and crafted into beats for other people. So, really, none of that stuff wound up being on this album. This album is all kind of a fresh start.
With the Megamixxxes that you do, there’s still a cohesion to it. Every album does have an intro and it seems to have a nice song structure, arc, and cohesion to it. I was wondering how important that is to you to make sure that there’s a unifying thread for a whole piece as an album, as opposed to little singles that are floating disconnected.
To me that’s the craft. That’s what I do. That’s the thing that I’m shooting for. That’s exactly what I try and focus on when I make these records. I want there to be a beginning, a middle, and an end. I want it to feel like film. I just want it to be linear, to a degree. I concentrate a lot on that. I work a lot on that. And that’s maybe why, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing, I’ll probably take a little more time than an average person on an album. Just ‘cuz it takes a lot of time, in my mind, to really feel like I’ve nailed what I want to do. It’s one thing just sort of making songs, but when you’re really connecting and putting a record together, I feel like those little extra touches make it a little bit more special.
That’s where I think it kind of shines, where the tracks and the production and all those pieces come together. There are some dramatic and more intense sections. I know that you even make a sort of tongue-in-cheek reference on “Smithereens” (from I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead) with the “dramatic intro” reference. Do you ever get to the point where you’re like, “That’s just not working”? How important is it to you to know when to scrap something and just start over?
For sure. In fact, I’ll probably scrap and start over like 5 or 6 times per song. *laughs* I’m a little bit crazy when it comes to that shit. I’ve been known to have 8 different versions of the same song. It’s just giving myself the luxury of time to make sure that I loved it. Sometimes that means spitting 3 verses over a beat that you just kind of whipped up and it inspired you to write. Then, you go back and you work on changing it around-–what you said. Sometimes the beats just completely change. That’s just always been a part of my process. I don’t really know why. I guess it’s just, it is what it is. There were no plans to take as much time as I did between records but, at this point, that is what I’ve done. So, I guess I’m just used to really giving myself that luxury. Maybe it’s a luxury that I really won’t be able to afford for too much longer, but it’s what I’ve been doing.
On “The Full Retard” there’s a sample of Camu Tao’s “When You’re Going Down” and then you also dedicate the album to him on “$4 Vic” at the end. How influential was he, in your mind, while you were creating this album?
Well, he’s influential in my mind, in my life a lot, in general. I kind of always have him in my mind a bit. And, I think I started writing the record not long after he passed away. So, he’s a presence, for sure. I knew the next record that I made, he was gonna be a presence somewhere; in my head, in the way that I… just because it was a big deal to me. So, yeah, he’s a big inspiration to me. How was he an inspiration? I’m not 100% sure, except that I know that my friendship with him and his passing affected me as a man… as a person. There are a lot of ways that he’s inspired me and is going to continue to inspire me. One of them is that it got me thinking a lot about mortality and it got me thinking a lot about what it is that I want out of my life. So, I think this record, to some degree, owes a lot to that, because, in a lot of ways, that is sort of what I’m working through in this record.
It seems almost like there’s a bit of a full circle, because I know that (Camu) might have been the catalyst for you to begin a lot of this material, but at the end, you’re working with Killer Mike and it seems like it started with the loss of a friend and then, it ended with a new friendship. Did working with Mike cross over and affect this album at all?
Oh yeah, definitely. Working with Mike was amazing. I hadn’t thought of it like that, but I guess in some ways you’re right. I don’t think there’s any replacing anyone; I just think that I got lucky. It’s rare. I mean, you get to be a certain age and you’re in your 30s… No way do you expect to make a really, really great new friend, necessarily. You kind of feel like you have the friends that you’re gonna have. To a degree, it always changes and people’s lives change and shit, but I guess I was really lucky getting to work with Mike, because he just brought a great energy and I think that did carry over into making the record. Y’know, kind of inspired me. I sort of did the first part of the record before working with Mike, then I took a break and I worked with him, and then I finished up the record. It definitely kept me going, gave me an extra push, because Mike is just so energetic. He’s been very positive in my life, just having that energy around me. He’s been very encouraging.
What’s impressive to me about the album that you produced for him —R.A.P. Music—is that, although I think that it melds really well and the production’s great, it still seems like it’s his voice. It seems like he was able to come out a little bit. I know that he’s singing hooks and the song about his grandpa is a really personal track. How do you see yourself in a producer role like that? You kind of disappear a little bit.
Yeah, I think that’s really important. I’m always learning more and I feel I’m finding more inside information, the more I do this. I think, at this point, the way that I look at this is it’s my job to help him find his voice. It’s my job to help him make his record. It is not my job to make my record and have him rap over it. And I think that, if you listen to both of our records, that they’re very different. And that was on purpose. I, kind of, felt like I had an idea of what Mike wanted. We talked about it a lot, but also, we just connected on it. It was pretty natural. I think that, for whatever reason, Mike is actually, probably more comfortable and sounds more at home on this type of record. Working with one person and really being able to go in and– I mean, we talked and hung out and I think it shows in the record. Maybe not directly, but I can see it because I remember everything that happened that led to every little decision.
I’ve listened to both back to back and that’s what stood out to me. I didn’t feel like I was listening to a continuation. If I think about it, I can hear your production in there, but it felt like he was coming out.
Yeah. And that’s how it’s supposed to be, I think. It’s his record and I was there to help him facilitate it and he really wanted that experience. I think it worked out for the best. When I started producing for other people, it was just me making beats for myself and sometimes someone would pay me to rap over them. At this point, I’ve learned a bit. I kind of understand a little bit more about what it means to produce for somebody. So, it was very important to me to respect who Mike was and try and craft a sound for him that could be unique and, at the same time, do what it is that I do. I don’t think that I really compromised on either of those things and I’m pretty proud of it, man. I think that it came out the right way, personally.
After you put that much time into making your album and also working on his album, how eager are you to go out and share it and tour and how much of you just wants to take a break?
*laughs* You know, there’s a part of me that would love to just sit at home, smoke weed, and make music forever. But, there’s only 2 things that I’ve really ever enjoyed doing in the music business and one of them was making records, and the other one is going out and playing. It’s time man, I’m excited about it. I’m actually really psyched to get out on the road. It’s been enough time. It’s time for me to do that again and not even just on a career level. It’s time for me to do that again for myself. I actually really enjoy it. I’m excited about it.
One of my favorite tracks on this release is “Works Every Time” and, by listening to it, it seems like it’s a cross between some kind of drug deal and some Total Recall, Vanilla Sky-type, Eternal Sunshine shit. I was hoping you could elaborate a little bit on the concept.
Basically, it just occurred to me that the things we do when we’re unhappy and we’re trying to get out of our own heads, a lot of times, it’s purchasing a drug, or a drink, or whatever it may be. I’ve certainly come from a family of people who struggle with all that stuff and I struggle with it sometimes. Not in the way that, necessarily, other people do, but I have a wild streak. I’ve thought about it a lot and I’m going in and out of it. I’ve let myself, just sort of, go wild sometimes and I’ve pulled myself back several times. It just occurred to me that, when you buy these things, you’re sort of buying a ticket on a shuttle to a different planet. It’s like a cheap ticket to get to a different place where things are different and you’re not the same person and you don’t have to worry about all that bullshit. It’s really connected to the idea that you spend so much time drinking and doing drugs. You bought a ticket and you take a ride and, at a certain point, even in your pursuit of oblivion, you can’t help but notice that you kind of don’t even want to be at this new place. You’re not even particularly that excited about this new planet that you’re on, which is sort of this shitty, shallow, replica of the planet you come from. Of course, whenever I say the word “planet”, everyone will say “Sci fi!” Yeah, sure, it’s sci fi, but really it’s just about getting fucked up too much and wanting to escape. But, at the same time, you get to a certain point in your life, like I said, where you know, even if you’re doing drugs, even if you’re getting drunk, that this place that you’re going to out of habit–just because you haven’t figured out any better way to escape the bullshit in your head–is not the particularly greatest place in this world.
On the track “For My Upstairs Neighbor” it seems like a continuation of “Last Good Sleep” from Funcrusher and “Stepfather Factory” [from Fantastic Damage]. With such intense and personal subject matter, have you gotten a lot of feedback from people who connect to those type of tracks specifically?
I have, definitely. I think that those two tracks, “Last Good Sleep” and “Stepfather Factory,” I probably got the most feedback from people, in terms of them being affected by me emotionally, or connected. Which is weird, because, when I did “Last Good Sleep,” I had never done a song like that and I thought that I was just writing a song about my life. I thought that it was very specific and just totally my story. And what I realized was that’s not the case. And, even further, what I realized is that, the further you go inward, the more that you make it about you, and the more eloquent your translation of your experience, the more you’ll connect to people that you don’t know, because we’re not unique. We all experience pain and loss and suffering and all these things. It was a surprise to me. It was a lesson that I’ve stayed with and I’ve gone back to, which is, “Fuck the audience. Fuck everyone. Fuck everything. Do the thing that’s in your heart. Don’t listen to anything else. Do the thing that really means something to you and you’ll be surprised by how many people you’ll actually be able to communicate with.” I’ve never really liked when people have gone out of their way to very specifically try to teach a lesson to anybody or say something too direct to anybody.
Since you grew up in NY during the 80s and MCA just passed away, I was wondering if you ever met him.
I did meet MCA. I actually went to the same school that Mike D went to in Brooklyn. I was younger than those guys, significantly, but I do remember vaguely seeing Mike D at the school. He must have been like, a senior or something and I must have been in grade school. Very young. But I actually did get a chance to meet and talk a little bit with MCA when Company Flow opened up for the Beastie Boys in 1999. We did 2 shows with them. We did NY and Philly. He was really cool, but beyond that, he was a hero of mine and I grew up listening to his music and I cried when he died. No joke. That shit fucked me up. Because, for a New Yorker, the Beasties—you can’t get more New York than that. To me, they meant everything cool and everything funny and everything crazy about that era that I grew up in. I have so many memories connected with it. I always had such admiration for the way they just did whatever the fuck they wanted, and they never did anything else, and they always did it for each other. You could tell that they really were just in it to do shit with each other. They didn’t give a shit about fame. I think a lot of people could learn from those guys. I was very saddened by his passing.
All photographs were taken at Neumos Seattle on 7.01.12 during the “Into The Wild” tour