Interview by Abjekt
Photos by Zac Slack.
El-P is a name that everyone who is remotely interested in hip hop knows. From his time in Company Flow to his career as a record label owner, the New Yorker has risen to the top of the tree and released his new album I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead this year after a prolonged absence from putting out solo material.
After rocking Dingwalls to its very core earlier this year, El returned to London for a show at the Scala and Abjekt caught up with him to discuss his history, the balancing act he performs at Def Jux and, of course, that moustache.
Starting near the beginning, obviously you were in Company Flow a while back.
This is true.
How much of an experience and how helpful was it as you moved into a solo career that you were in Company Flow? Did you get a good grounding in the group?
Yeah, I mean that was how I came into the business really. I was a solo artist first, the first Company Flow single was just me rhyming on it and Lenny was there doing the cuts and Juss joined the group later. But yeah, I didn’t have any intention of being a solo artist, I thought Company Flow was going to go on forever… but it didn’t and I kinda got used to the idea.
Luckily I think Company Flow did help me out because we always took the time to do our own solo tracks on the album, me and Juss both had 2 or 3 solo tracks on there so we weren’t strangers to doing our own songs. But it was a little scary at first because it was like “Oh shit, I’m on my own, there’s no-one to blame but me now”, but once I got used to the idea, it just seemed right.
A lot of people have cited Company Flow as an influence or a big breakthrough group for what were you doing, were you ever aware of this or were you just into what you were doing?
I don’t think you’re ever really aware at the time of how people are going to perceive it, we were just glad that anyone liked our music, we didn’t know if that was going to happen. We just liked what we were doing, we were having fun and we loved the music and making the music and the art form of it, the culture of hip hop. That was what we were all about so it was kind of like making music for yourself to a degree and I think that’s because of the fact that we had that mind state, we just made the craziest shit that we wanted to make. I think that we were lucky because we tapped into something that people really liked at the time, I think it was just right time, right place – the style just landed at the right time I think.
Once it dawned on me that we had fans and were selling records, it was really fucking weird to me, like “how is this possible?”. Of course there’s part of you that thinks you’re the dopest shit on the planet and of course you should be platinum and it’s only a matter of people hearing you and then you will be platinum… I’ve long since given that up. But honestly every time I put a record out, I’m very fucking grateful that people are still checking for me.
So, next in the time line was when Company Flow went their different ways and you started Def Jux. Was it a career plan to start a record label or was it just something you fell into doing?
Well, we started a record label before we hooked up with Rawkus, we put the first Company Flow EP out, and the 12 inches, on our own record label and that’s how we got started, fucking with Fat Beats, we came up in that era, so it was always a plan. Doing the Rawkus deal was an imprint but realistically once we signed with Rawkus, we didn’t do shit, we weren’t a record label anymore, we were just an artist/group.
But yeah, the original plan was to go to Rawkus for a one record deal and take whatever we got from that and go back to the record label idea, but we felt the best way to get exposure was fucking with someone who could put some money behind us. It was spoken about and understood at the beginning, we lost the idea for a year or two but I realised I still wanted to do that. I had this thing inside me that wanted to… not start a record label, but just involved myself in a different way. It’s like, I don’t have any love for running a record label, I could give this shit up tomorrow and I wouldn’t care, it’s really about the fact that I’ve been able to work with people I love and respect and doing the music in the way I want to do it without having to argue about it. I guess it’s a control thing.
I’ve read that you called yourself a “businessman by accident”, would you say that running the label has meant having to put your solo career on the back burner for a while for the good of the other artists on the label?
It has yeah. And that’s something pains me and that I know is a worth sacrifice. I don’t think there are that many people that have to balance their personal aspirations with other people’s. But that’s something that I chose to do because I really care about the guys that I work with, my life just changed and it wasn’t all about me. All of a sudden I had the burden and had to show them proof, because I had my friends putting their faith in me and the operation that I built. But I can tell you, now that I’ve had the chance to dip back in to doing what I really love, quite honestly my true passion is doing my own music, and I don’t wanna stop that.
I would sooner step back from the business side and do the artist side at this point and that’s something I’m considering because these past few years we needed to establish everyone and get them on their feet, but everyone’s doing good and doing their thing now. I still feel that responsibility, but I’ve got these voices inside my head and that’s what’s been driving me since day 1 – That’s the shit that got me kicked out of school, that had me in the streets drinking 40s and freestyling and that’s the voice that’s still there for me and is still the most important one.
So it was almost 5 years between Fan Dam and the new record, I was wondering if your methods in songwriting or putting the album together changed over that time? Because you worked with a lot of different artists on the High Water album…
I did a lot of different shit, I worked on a lot of different projects and it gave me a chance to fuck around with techniques and throw myself into different situations. I’m all about constantly trying to find the next style, the next idea for myself so that’s why I do those other things. I did High Water, a film score, a bunch of remixes, I produced for Cage and Lif so yeah I think I could look someone directly in the eye and say “I’ve changed, my style has changed”, because that’s kind of what I’m about anyway. I’m not one of these cats that has found the perfect thing and is happy with it, I never think there is one right way to do things, I’ve never thought that. The exciting thing for me was always to try and refine the things I say and try to make sense, in a way that reflects who I am now.
For the same reason that I can’t be the same El-P that was 21 years old and doing a whole album of battle rap shit, I’m just a different person and I gotta make sure the music reflects that. And I feel like one of the things people know that they can count on me for is that I’m still searching and when they listen they know I’m headed somewhere, which doesn’t mean that all of a sudden its going to be some sort of harp/orchestral music with some sort of crazy lofty shit, but I am trying to get better at what I do and I think that hopefully I am. That’s the sort of thing you leave up to the fans, and I think that fans who follow what you do want to hear you make some progression and at the same time be who they are and maintain with what you fell in love with them for at the beginning and that’s really the balance that I’m trying to go for.
And to that end, you’ve got a pretty eclectic mix of guests on the album but the one thing I was really pleased about, because I have to admit I was pretty worried to start with…
As was everyone!
…Was it going to be a The Mars Volta song with El-P rapping over it, was it going to be a Cat Power song. So, obviously it was important to you to keep your sound whilst being able to bring these people in.
I just look at this shit like a sample or bringing a session musician in y’know? I don’t look at it like “hey, here’s my big rap-rock collab”, that’s bullshit to me. The fact of the matter is that if you’re a hip hop producer, you own so many records and you’re sampling all these different genres and putting them together. It’s all the same thing to me, I think people make a mistake of switching their shit up as soon as they get to collaborate with someone outside of their genre, I’ve been collaborating with people outside of my genre since I first started, they just didn’t know about it. And then some of them, when they did, sued me. I just think its an extension of the whole idea of what hip hop cats do best, which is pick apart and pull apart all the things we like from different genres and put them together to make something new that’s ours and use all the parts that sound dope to us.
I mean, 90% of your favourite hip hop records are from rock albums, breaks, little breaks or jazz records or funk records. Little moments that you got stuck in your head and once I got the chance to work with some of the cats in other ways that I’d like outside the genre, it seemed like a natural thing to bring them. It’s not like I made a list like “I’m going to go and get Trent, I’m going to get Cat Power”, I knew these people and was working with them in different capacities and I just tried to make it work, instead of making it forced.
I knew that the second everyone looked at the list of collaborators, it was going to be like “Oh fuck, here he goes, he’s trying to make his crossover” and I think that I made a concerted effort that it didn’t come out like that.
I have to say, I was so pleased to hear the record and the way it came out because it was so typically El with these guys on it.
There are 3 tracks on the album that are grouped together that I thought were really interesting – Dear Sirs, Run The Numbers and Habeas Corpses – and it seems like a trilogy within the album about how society is getting fucked up. What I was interested in as well was that it wasn’t you saying “Fuck Bush, Blair is a prick”, it was more an everyman style “this is how I’m reacting to it”.
But that’s my perspective period and that’s the perspective I try and put across over the whole record. I don’t think anyone needs to hear from me base logic bullshit protest grand statements. You don’t need to hear from me about George Bush, if you haven’t made your mind up about that, you’re fucked up anyway. I don’t look at it like that, I’ve been pretty lucky that I’ve never been classified as a conscious rapper, because I think people can tell that I’m not, I’m a pretty fucked up cat, I just try and approach these ideas from the point of view of someone who is just trying to get up and fucking get the train somewhere and all these things are affecting them and that very simple activity.
For me, if you’re talking about your life and really paint a picture, whatever political is going on is going to seep in somehow. But I don’t think everyone wants to hear it directly, and I certainly don’t want to talk about it, because I don’t know enough about that. I’m too smart to think I’m smart, I’d rather tell you what it felt to stand on the corner at 5am and I think if you paint the picture right and you do it with some care, people will feel the backdrop. But the middle part is the most overtly political but I avoided saying people’s names.
I would say it’s a war trilogy, the first is my response to a draft letter, saying “fuck you I’m not going to war”. Run The Numbers is me in the war, despite my protest and we’re running around looking for purpose and landmines and the third is even further into the future where I become the war, I am a part of the war and somehow a willing participant and having seconds thoughts about what it means to be human and also powerful and I guess that’s pretty much it. It’s an easier perspective, people can listen to you talk about something that is internal… who the fuck wants to see some dude stand up and rattle off a bunch of shit that you can read on any website, it’s boring. It’s just repeating easily google-able facts.
I’m more interested in the mechanisms of the mind and the struggle and how we’re going to compose ourselves during these times and still are the fucked up people that we are and trying to balance the idea that “I’m happy and I wanna live” but where we’re walking is a borderline war zone. I think that makes for interesting subject matter.
So, to take the tone a little lighter, you grew what became an infamous moustache during the recording of the album. How comes you shaved it off dude?
I finished the album dude…
I dunno man, I think you’ve started a trend, I noticed Slug has got a handlebar moustache now.
You know what? I’m going to take full responsibility for that, Slug is a fucking biter and you can tell him I said that. That’s my fucking man, but he bit my moustache. The only thing is Slug probably looks a lot cooler with his, but I needed to shave that thing off. Though I’m not gonna lie, every now and then I sneak it back in there, just for myself for a couple of days.
Right then, we’re here in London, and you’re back after playing a show at Dingwalls earlier in the year, and I’ve got to say, that was show of the year for me. Are you happy to be coming back to London so soon?
Oh yeah man, I’ve been dying to come back here.
How did you enjoy the show at Dingwalls?
That shit was NUTS man. I mean London repped, I hope they rep tonight y’know because it’s hard but London really repped which is good because London was the first spot I ever came out to perform in 97 at the Jazz Cafe and that was a legendary show for us personally, this set off us taking our music outside of our little area and I wanted to come back, when you tour the UK, you go out there and you don’t come back for a year and I just wanted to come the fuck back out man. The shows were so good and it was so fun, I just wanted to come back out and show cats out here that we were serious and that we were here. We’re not some phantoms that were just going to dip in every once in a while and think we were the shit. We had a great time performing out here and we wanted to recapture that.
Yeah, for sure. In fact, I went to that Dingwalls show with Zac and he said it was the most hardcore like show he’s seen in the last 5 years just because the crowd were so on point with the music, and had a blast.
Yeah man, that’s cool.
I don’t know if you have them with you again this time, but you had some live musicians…
Well, we’re just missing one, we’re missing the bassist because he couldn’t make it out here.
Was that something that you definitely wanted, this other dimension to the live show?
My man who plays keys for us, and our bassist are on my record, they are all friends of mine from New York and I didn’t wanna replace my music with a band, a lot of rappers are like “OK we need to step it up”, but I mean, you want a grimey hip hop show but at the same time I think it’s cool to accentuate the sound sometimes and when you’re in a live space, sometimes playing a live record is cool but having something that might not be on the record just fills the whole even more and makes it more unpredictable and I think it just makes for a better vibe personally. I’m into it, and unfortunately I can’t travel with the band the whole time, but just adding them to a few shows gives it another vibe.
So just to finish off, it’s been a pretty good year for Def Jux as far as releases go. Obviously your record came out, Aesop Rock’s and Rob Sonic’s just came out which I was really impressed by, he really stepped it up big time on that.
Rob’s murdering shit right now. I mean, Rob’s last album was slept on, people didn’t peep it as much as they should have, and I think people are starting to get ready for him because he’s proven himself to just be ridiculous.
That’s a fresh album man for sure, and there’s a Hangar 18 album coming out too this year.
Hangar 18 coming yup.
So how do you see 2007 for Def Jux?
Honestly I see 2007 as our re-emergence year. Starting with Lif’s record and Cage’s record setting the plate and I think it’s been an amazing year for us and everyone is delivering their A material and it’s great for me because I think the fans are feeling more relaxed because they’re like “You’re not going to lose your mind or disappear”. I feel a lot of good will coming from the fans again because there was a time when we didn’t put a lot of records out and there were a couple of records that people didn’t connect with for different reasons and I feel like there’s this energy now that’s come back and people realise that we’re really here and serious about this shit and it’s a great feeling.
So what’s planned for 2008 then? It’s not going to be another 5 years before the new El-P release is it?
Shit, well no. I’m putting out an EP next year and we just signed a deal with Del. Del on Def Jux, you’re the first person I’ve told about this officially. We’re releasing the album that he’s had done, The 11th Hour, he’s actually releasing that through Def Jux. Cage’s new record, we’re working on Mr Lif’s new record… we’re working on a lot of shit, it’s going to be stuff people don’t expect, but it’s going to be a really good year.
Exciting times man. We’ll that’s everything, thanks for your time and enjoy tonight!
Thank you very much, you too!