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El-P: One Fantastically Damaged Emcee…

by Maurice Downes

Who really knows what they'll do when they grow up? Given the fact that most kids give goofy-ass answers like "astronaut," one can never be perfectly sure. Better yet, how often will doing what you love come into play?

Take El-P. He grew up, like many NYC kids, loving hip-hop to death. Going around, copping mix tapes and putting his own name in the rhymes, he dreamed of growing up to do the same. And then one day, through that annoying path of incidence and mistake called life, he ended up making it happen.

OK… this tale is interesting and uncommon, but it's not unheard of. But some of those that produce our popular culture of music quietly and unobtrusively, just so happen to completely change the musical horizon. He did this with the mere intention of creating a hip-hop album, nothing more, nothing less.

I recently got the chance to talk with Mr. El Producto at his super-secret lab somewhere on the eastern seaboard… I think. I know I took a subway there, so… draw your own conclusions. Our conversation winded through his years as a (ahem) young emcee, to his deal with Rawkus and the formation of Company Flow, and eventually the fallout which lead him to found the Definitive Jux label (responsible for critically acclaimed releases by Aesop Rock and Cannibal Ox). El-p's new solo release, Fantastic Damage, is in stores now.

Tell the people about Def Jux… err, what have you been up to since Co Flow… just tell us about yourself…

I like music… I like long walks… (laughs)

What have I been doing since the official last Co Flow show… about a year ago, in March. I've been doing Def Jux, I'm the founder and owner owner of Def Jux records. Put out the Cannibal Ox album, the Mr. Lif album, the Aesop Rock album, two Def Jux Presents Albums… yeah, just trying to make this little dream of some pure form of hip hop label… something closer than (what) is out there. In terms of trying to create and solidify our scene… release the music that we believe in… create a label that people can get behind without thinking that we'll fuck up. It's important for me as a fan… I've been working on my solo album which is done now…

Yeah, so let's talk a little bit about that real quick. Not to sound cheesy, but is there some kind of theme or… point to Fantastic Damage

I mean, a couple of things. I'm trying to capture how I perceive the city and the world right now. Trying to capture a vibe, a tension that I think exists in our generation. Us kind of teetering on the edge of something big and very confusing. Being the people that are supposed to inherit whatever it is that is being set up… and us looking at that and seeing no order. No semblance of sanity. You know, the people who are supposed to be handing us the tools to create society as "the young folk". It's all very scary, noisy, nervous.

Does the album demonstrate a sort of hope and frustration at the same time or something?

I think so, both of those things. Hence the title. Both, the beauty and the destruction kind of existing at the same time. It's very definitive of our generation, probably of every generation. It also relates to me personally, my mind [laughs], I teeter between being very insane and very organized. It's a personal record. It's much more of a human approach than I've ever taken in terms of lyrically. I'm letting cats know some pretty intimate details about my life and how I came to be who I am. The way I think about things as opposed to CO Flow which was a little bit more bboy, talk shit, say some funny, clever things. CO Flow was about "what's the most intricate, fucking weird way that I can say that you're wack". It works, but it's not that important to me.

Yeah. Did you hate the Houston Rockets that much? (Line from 8 Steps To Perfection: "…and motherfuck the Houston Rockets…")

At the time I did. [laughs] At the time I was very upset. I think I was more upset at the Knicks, more pissed at the Knicks.

Hey, at least they made the playoffs.

Yeah, at least they made the playoffs… I'm an older cat now, I've gone through shit. There's a lot of things that I've gone through internally that led me to wanting to kind of approach music in a lot more human way. When I was younger, I didn't want to.

Can we talk about 'Stepfather Factory'? It seems very emotional, like something you were dealing with.

It's kind of my follow up to "Last Good Sleep" which was a song on my first album. It was a true story about my life. It was very sort of cathartic for me. "Stepfather Factory" is my opportunity to re-approach the subject more coldly, more analytical. A little more wise-ass if you will. Examining the phenomenon of broken families and the way that they try to fill the gaps that seem like they need to be filled but organically it doesn't necessarily work. Mothers that try to run out and find people to replace, or to take the burden off of them. But they do it a little too quickly, too desperately. And also the phenom of these men; they do the whole Trojan Horse thing. "I look good on the outside, but once I'm in there I'm gonna let the demons out".

So it was kinda my sarcastic way of approaching that idea. I liked that metaphor; I liked the twisted thought that even if you bought a robotic stepfather it would still get drunk and beat your ass. You're fucked, they can't even make stepfathers that work. But, I probably won't write another song about that. I kind of just wanted to wrap it up, it's something that I wanted to say. After writing the first song I realized how much of an effect it had on people… there are a lot of motherfuckers out there who had similar experiences. You don't realize that when you're just writing something that's just about you.

Is there a kind of process for creating your music?

Yeah, you know. There's nothing really set in stone. Most of the time, it's music first cause I'm a producer as well, so a lot of time I try to create a mode that'll spark me to write. Music conjures images in my head, kind of the way a music score can be so important to a movie. Say way for me. I'm usually sparked up from music. My cadence, my flow, and my ideas come from that. That's usually the way I create a mood of music, and depending on how my mind reacts…

How'd you come to start emceeing… just take us back.

Originally it was just me trying to replicate Kool Moe Dee, Fat Boys, Slick Rick, DMC… all those cats coming out from the 80's. Just being a fan and standing up and trying to say their rhymes; walk with 'em. Like singing a song, you know? Eventually I started putting my names in the rhymes, fucking around… and it works, it's like Mad Libs. Then I'd be fucking around, freestyle, and just started to write a little bit. Then I was always just a musician, I was always trying to make music. My pops was a jazz musician. The first thing I started to do was, when I wanted to make hip-hop music was I just had a boom box and I would do pause tapes. Basically loop the beat on the hip-hop record; recording and pressing pause and keep repeating the process and keep rewinding. To the point where you have 30 minutes of the perfect loop of someone else's record. That's how it kind of started and then when I got a little bit older I started getting my hands on some equipment here and there. By the time I was like 13 I had a sampler, I had a little 4 track and some little bullshit drum machine. Then it kind of evolved; my rhyme style and my production simultaneously.

Any emcees whose style you think influenced you?

Run DMC, Boogie Down Productions (editor's note: most important hip-hop group of all time…), Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane. Cats like D.O.C., EPMD. EPMD kind of changed my life, they were my favorite group of all time for a long time. I kind of had the same classic emcee roots as anyone who… they gave me a free cupcake at this place for some reason…

Somehow they had to offset the cost of the sandwich… This cost 4.50? how 'bout a cupcake?

Yeah, how bout a really fucking strange cupcake? I don't even know if I've could even eat this cupcake in like ten years. She gave me a free cupcake……..

Yeah, so I was always trying to emulate my influences. I followed who everyone else followed. Whoever was hot. Ultramagnetics, Public Enemy. I was just there. Everytime something came up, I was just like "Oh shit!". I grew up in the era where it was like "Oh my god, there's a new group, there's a new rap record out!" Now it's like "Oh… my… god. It's like there's a 1000 new rap records out"

You know, seriously, I can't even watch BET anymore. Not even BET (which was never watchable) just Rap City. Because it used to be like three shitty videos and like, the one I was waiting for.

Right, you're never gonna see that much anymore.

I was actually shocked as hell when I saw Afu-Ra had a video… That's weird, man.

Look at all this, man. It's weird, it's got this weird plastic candy flavor… I dunno, BET, whatever. But you know, at this point my inspiration are my peers. There are cats in the mainstream that inspire me like Ghostface, and Jay-Z… I like Freeway. You know Freeway?

Yeah, I know Freeway.

He's sick… so there are cats and there are records that inspire me. Outkast is brilliant. I'm not too inspired by their style much because it's just too Southern for me. But I thought it was a brilliant album. You know, I wanted to be EPMD, I wanted to be KRS-ONE. But my mind wouldn't necessarily allow me to sound like those cats. But the influence was what I think was there. You know, Organized Konfusion, Poor Righteous Teachers, X-Clan these were all people I eventually ended up meeting.

I was a huge Native Tongue guy from back in the day...

I wasn't as big a Native Tongue freak... I was the cat who was like, when I heard De La Soul came out I said "What is this hippie shit?" Seriously I was.

Everyone said that.

There were a lot of cats who were like "This is the hottest shit ever" and, you know, I was listening to EPMD and I was like "Ah, this pussy shit". But then I got into them and I stopped fronting. And then when De La Soul is Dead came out I was like "Ah....."

Classic. When Funcrusher Plus came out there was really nothing else like it... so, how'd you come up with all that... how'd Company Flow come together?

I was just trying to make beats, my ideas about hip-hop. Then our styles developed by us just playing around with each other. Trying to one up each other a little bit and do different things

But say a song like 'Fire in Which You Burn' where, to my knowledge, it's the only hip-hop track with sitars.

At the time it was...

Yeah, there are a bunch now. I won't say it was a weird album, but a lot of different ideas came from that album. Was it just playing a game of one-up?

That's what hip-hop is to me. That's what it always was to me, that's how I learned it. You're always trying to do the next thing, do the next style. If you're a dancer you're always trying to do the next move. You're a DJ... period. So I don't hold reverence for sounding like... a lot of cats like to come at you about there's this one classic hip-hop sound, you know. The boom-bap, and it's like "Motherfucker, I've been listening to hip-hop for..." The old sound is whatever's new, to me. To me 'Fire in which you burn' is like my version of 'Milk is chillin... Top Billin'

Love that song.

It was an advanced, or different version of that to me. That's always the way it is to me. I just believe that it's about style really. That's the beautiful thing about hip-hop is it's just about style. Cats have their own shit, everyone had their own thing. And the cat that had the new thing, the new slang, the new way to say something, the new way to paint or whatever... those were the ill cats.

I'm only happy when I'm doing that... and it gets me into deep water sometimes because what I end up doing is things that people haven't heard before and therefore it takes them... so they think they just don't like it at all. There are mad cats who hated us and hate me when they first hear my shit, because it's not what they're used to. It's not the normal shit that they're used to. But what I most take pride in is the fact that it's B-boy. You're not going to listen to my shit and think it's some condescending art-student/ spoken word poet. I am a B-boy, I grew up in this shit. And another thing is that a lot of cats come back to it, and they end up hearing something that they like, and they follow that line and they start to rediscover some of the other stuff we did and they really enjoy it.

Some of my best friends who are my biggest supporters at first HATED my shit... they didn't understand it, it didn't make sense to them. And then it grew on them, and they realized we were doing something. I'm used to that, to an extent. Whenever I do a record I try to do something that I haven't done before. And for me, that usually results in doing something that no one has done before. And that's not even on some cocky shit it's just like for whatever reason I'm twisted like that. In my head it's the natural progression. That's the only thing that keeps it interesting, the only thing that keeps it fun for me. I can' just do one thing and do it well forever... it'd get played out eventually.

My new album will take some time to digest, a lot of it... cats ain't heard this shit before. But, you have. It's something I think you have heard... you've heard bomb squad, you've heard RUN DMC... you've heard the elements, the things that have inspired the base of the music, but cats haven't heard the final result.

How'd you guys get together (Co Flow)

Um... I got together with Len, because I met him at my 18th birthday party. My friend knew him, he was DJing. I was like "yo, I need a DJ." He called up this kid, Len... and me and Len are the same age and have similar love for music. I was already about to put out a record in '93 called Juvenile Techniques... with this label called Libra records, and one of the people who worked there was called Juss. So I put Len on, because I needed a DJ... if you're going to do a hip-hop group you need a DJ... so he came through. He did the sample for the chorus on the record and I just said why don't you just do this with me?

Then Juss came in later because he ended up living at my crib with me... he'd been out of town for a few years and he came back and he needed a place to crash and was working with a record label. He then started working on things with me and we ended up becoming friends, and then when the label situation went sour he stuck with me and then we started working and putting our money into recording music. Originally we were going to be solo artists; it was going to be Company Flow and Big Juss and we were going to release a split EP kind of thing. Then we ended up being like "Fuck it, let's just combine"

How did the decision to make Def Jux come up?

It wasn't that hard for me. A lot of it had to do with the fact that I didn't want to fuck with Rawkus anymore. I didn't feel good about it anymore.

There were problems at Rawkus?

Yeah, there were problems. That's why I left them. I mean there were problems at a lot of levels and when it came down to it... and when it came down to weighing what I wanted to do... continuing to do the Rawkus thing or something else, it was like my original plan of doing something for myself, some kind of foundation and putting my ideas in effect... that stood out more than anything else. It was a lifestyle decision.

We had gone through a lot of stuff with Company Flow... Juss had left the group, Rawkus was not working out with us on a shitload of levels... financially, philosophically. And I'm just a big believer in rolling the dice on yourself, and standing behind yourself and taking risks. For us it was a risk, we were like "we're gonna walk away?"

We did a 60,000 dollar video with Rawkus... I can't do a 60,000 dollar video, I'll never do another 60,000 dollar video. It's like, we were walking away from a lot of distribution and exposure... that kind of thing. But, you know, it was because I believed that was the right thing to do. I'm not one of these cats... I'm not one of these fucking sheep who can just follow... especially if I don't think that the shepherd knows anything. I'm down to be involved with people who have vision, but I didn't think that their vision was stronger than my vision. I don't think that their understanding or skills as businessmen were that much stronger than mine... it felt like all they had was money. And that to me wasn't powerful enough to stick around, but money never meant that much to me. Which is an easy thing for me to say, because I didn't grow up dirt ass poor... I was a middle class kid. But, in terms of money... the only thing I ever wanted was to live, to pay my rent. To be self sufficient.

That's the dream.

The regular shit, the regular thing that makes you feel like you're an adult. You're taking care of things. So, for me, it was the natural step. It was like "You know what? Fuck all that, fuck you. Fuck your fucking weird vision. Your loss, I'm clear. I got clarity, I got people around me who believe in the music, you don't. And even if you did you probably wouldn't even pay me what I was owed."

Fuck it, I can be more powerful, I can be more happy like this... but I do not like being put in a situation where I'm having to vie for people's attention. Or I'm having to scream or fight battles to get the regular respect and... I'm not trying to force my life down your throat. If you don't understand me, if you're not going to handle my shit right... just step off basically. I'll do it. And it's not a big deal, I'm a grown man, you're grown... go away. Fuck off, I'll do it. You won't ever have to hear from me again.

So, it was basically Fuck off, I'm doing my own thing.

Yeah, I always wanted to do my own thing. Those cats knew me, they knew I had very clear ideas and philosophies about how commerce and art mix. At this point I just felt like I had the experience behind the philosophy.

We were putting out records since '94, but we weren't really a label. We tried to an extent, but we didn't have the experience, we didn't have the 'juice' [laughs].

At this point it was like I'm gonna do the rare thing which is I'm gonna take what I built and what the people around me have built for years... I'm gonna take it and actually use it for me and my people... as opposed to just throwing it into the big pot of collected props and money for someone else. How 'bout this, I'm taking myself and my experience and hard work and I'm gonna turn it into something for my friends and myself. That was the whole reason.



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