One Fantastically Damaged Emcee
by Maurice Downes
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.
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
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
just tell us about yourself
I like music
I like long walks
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.
Did you hate the Houston Rockets that much? (Line from 8
Steps To Perfection: "
and motherfuck the Houston
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
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
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
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
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
I like Freeway. You know Freeway?
Yeah, I know Freeway.
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.