Bursting on to the scene with a brazen “Independent as f—” mantra, NYC MC/producer/label owner El-P is one of hip-hop’s most innovative. As part of Company Flow, El-P not only produced a classic record in Funcrusher Plus, but also helped spearhead the mid-90s rap renaissance in New York. Since famously splitting with Rawkus Records and establishing Definitive Jux, he has continued to push boundaries and break new artists with an uncompromising approach. With names like Aesop Rock, RJD2, Cage and Murs, the label has released some of the most diverse hip-hop of the new millennium and solidified El-P as fantastic judge of talent. Beyond rapping, El-P’s production speaks for itself. Along with working with some of the above mentioned artists, he has also worked on the alt-jazz album, High Water, and scored the film “Bomb The System.”
True to his ever evolving roots and inspirations, El-P deftly tackles diverse political and personal subject matter on his solo records. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, the follow-up to 2002’s Fantastic Damage responds and relates to the many facets of life that collide in urban society. Once again, El-P offers dense musical backdrops paired with thoughtful and provoking lyrics. With I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead in stores, Ballerstatus caught up with El-P to briefly discuss the album, how he runs his label and his bold predictions for the NCAA tournament.
Ballerstatus.com: Tell me about the album.
El-P: The album is called I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead and it’s out now. It’s my attempt at an eloquent translation of the psychological mind state of a man living in strange times.
Ballerstatus.com: You have a diverse set of guests and collaborators on the album; I want to know if you set out to work with each of them from the start, or if they come naturally though the development of the album?
El-P: Yeah, the latter as opposed to the former. It definitely wasn’t something I set out to do. Anyone who is on the record, the songs were essentially created already, and I just had some friends and some people I had been working with recently that I had heard and thought they could add something to the record, so I asked them to do it. I definitely didn’t set out to make any record; I didn’t create any songs for those collaborations. Those collaborations came in sort of the same way that I sample a record, you know? Instead of sampling a record, I’m sampling a live musician.
Ballerstatus.com: Do you approach your solo records differently from your other work?
El-P: No, it’s definitely a different process; it’s definitely its own thing. When I produce for other people, it’s really about getting into the mind state of what they’re going for and trying to understand and help them realize their vision. And, when I do my records, it’s kind of my excuse to go nuts and put in every little trick and every little inspiration and moment of dementedness that I have been wanting to incorporate into music and kind of go all out. I think it’s definitely a different thing than when I produce for other people.
Ballerstatus.com: As a label boss, do you feel pressure to have other Def Jux artists on your own records?
El-P: Pressure? F– no. It’s my honor to get those guys on my record.
Ballerstatus.com: Do you ever make them battle for your own personal amusement?
El-P: Make who battle?
Ballerstatus.com: The rappers on the label.
El-P: I’m not some kind of dungeon master in control of other people’s lives (laughing).
Ballerstatus.com: I thought it would be kind of cool.
El-P: No, I’ve never made anyone battle for my own amusement. No.
Ballerstatus.com: I’ve heard you are really into sci-fi and wondered if that’s true, and if so, how much of an inspiration that is to your lyrics?
El-P: You know, sure, I’m into sci-fi like everyone of my generation in into sci-fi. I’m into sci-fi the way everyone loves “Star Wars” and “Blade Runner.” What I’m more into is sociological fiction, like George Orwell and Phillip K. Dick. I’m into the idea of, you know, the normal man versus the powerful man. I guess I see the world in a bit of a dark way, similar to some of the heroes, some of the people I grew up with as a kid reading and the movies I saw, but I’m not writing songs about science fiction. There’s nothing like that in my music. But, you know, some of the dark angles I approach things with could be attributed to some of that.
Ballerstatus.com: Would you say that growing up and living in New York attributes to some of that as well?
El-P: No question. It’s a very unique city. And it’s a very stressful city, noisy city. It’s fast paced, you know? There’s a lot of amazing sh–, a lot of pain and a lot of sorrow, and it’s all clashing at the same time. I think its one of the hugest influences in my work.
Ballerstatus.com: What impresses me most about your work is that from the outset of your career is you don’t follow the other trends of what others were doing in New York… the mainstream artists. And you have continued to push boundaries and not become stagnant like some others in the city. What inspires you to keep pushing?
El-P: Well, man, I never disconnected myself from the things I loved about doing what I do. The art, as I involve myself in it, is very personal for me. And, it’s based not only on the things that I learned when I was a kid — from graffiti artists and break dancers about the hip-hop culture growing up in New York City during the late 70s and early 80s. I just never gave a f—. I just don’t care what other people are doing. Of course, I’m interested in the new styles and new approaches, but at the same time I’ve always been interested in carving out my own ideas. And I guess, to some degree, it’s the best possible thing I can do — to remain interested in myself and have fun with it, to live in my own universe (laughs). I just trust myself as a fan, I trust my roots, I trust my fandom, and I trust where I’m headed as an artist, enough to listen to my own voice. And, I think that the only important thing that you can do is have your own voice. The second that you are to affected by what others do is the second you cease to be interesting.
Ballerstatus.com: Are there any mainstream artists that you find interesting?
El-P: Yeah, of course. My musical tastes are not limited to any kind of genre; I’m hugely widely open to all good music. And, I grew up on mainstream artists, so the whole idea that simply because I do my business independently doesn’t have any effect on my appreciation for music at all, in any way.
Ballerstatus.com: If you had to pick a member of Dipset to produce a song for, who would it be?
El-P: Um, Cam’ron? Cam’ron or Juelz. I’m a fan of Dipset. Dipset is sick to me, personally. I think they are ill.
Ballerstatus.com: What song are you most proud of?
El-P: (repeats questions to himself) That changes. You have your relationship to jams that mean something to you. Every song, I’m proud when I’ve finished it, of what I’ve accomplished. At the same time, it’s just a snapshot of where I am at the moment, so I don’t hold on to this sh–. I’m not a big proponent of looking back much. I don’t spend a lot of time patting myself on the back.
Ballerstatus.com: Speaking of looking back, Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five where just inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Do you see yourself joining them?
El-P: Probably not.
Ballerstatus.com: Melle Mel has talked about the era of the super producer, in rap and pop, do you have any thoughts on how the business is going and how production is generally handled?
El-P: Well, I’ll tell you what, I think the best records that are possibly made are records that are made with a self contained group — a group that is either working with a producer or are the producers themselves, because I don’t think that records that are compilations of 10-15 different producers are the best type of records for a position or a sound, or to create a tome. I think that the records that I try and do, that I involve myself with my label, are aiming for something a little more coherent or more consistent than what’s done in the mainstream. We don’t have to worry about all the sh– that people do in the mainstream. We don’t have to worry if our records aren’t commercially viable; we know they aren’t commercially viable. So, therefore, we can just do whatever the hell we want to do, and there’s a lot of freedom involved in that. And, I think there is honor in the production of a full length record. I think there is something great about the same producer that started the record on the first track ending the record on the last track. You know, my personal preference, those are the records that will ultimately mean something for hip-hop.
Ballerstatus.com: What’s next for the label?
El-P: My record is out, Aesop Rock’s record is coming out in the summer. We’re doing a 10 year anniversary edition of Funcrusher Plus with a last show DVD.
El-P: Despot, a new artist we signed. We are releasing Camu Tao, which will be his first solo record. We’re doing a lot of stuff, and all I can hope for is that we produce good records.
Ballerstatus.com: You once jokingly said, “Sports are for fags.” On that note, do you have any predictions for the NCAA tournament?
El-P: I don’t give a f— at all.
Ballerstatus.com: Fair enough. Anything else?
El-P: No, not really. Thank you to everyone who’s been a supporter, and I hope everyone comes out to the shows. It’s going to be fun.