Straight Outta Brooklyn: Q&A with MC El-P
El-P was the founder of Company Flow. The crew is best known as a trio (with DJ Mr. Len and co-MC/producer Bigg Jus) that released only one album, 1997's Funcrusher Plus. Riotously complex, yet funky, it played a big part in launching a then-new movement of avant-minded hiphop, which came to be called the Underground. The album also put the multi-ethnic scene's flagship New York label, Rawkus, on the map.
The three artists who made Funcrusher Plus hadn't known each other long when they recorded it, and they never worked together again. Mr. Len and Bigg Jus are now solo artists.
As is El-P. The disbanded group's only white member, he remained a star attraction in the Underground via guest appearances and productions. Last year he kicked his own indie label, Def Jux (since renamed Definitive Jux under pressure from Def Jam), into high gear, thrilling a niche audience with heady releases by downtowner Aesop Rock and Harlem's Cannibal Ox. Definitive Jux continues in the vein of Company Flow by wedding uncompromising black pop to the sensibility of a bohemian intellectual?arguably something hiphop's been doing since its inception, both with and without white input.
The label will unveil its owner's first solo album, Fantastic Damage, on May 14. It finds El-P at the top of his game. He vents with less restraint, confronts listeners more directly and crams words tighter than ever. The beat style that always suggested a staggering robot destroyer is now accompanied by a torrent of noise, making El-P one of too-few hiphop producers trying to pick up the thread started more than a decade ago by the Bomb Squad.
This interview took place in El-P's messy, bachelor-pad apartment in a quiet corner of Brooklyn. It immediately followed what looked like a frustrating session in his basement studio.
It was interesting to see you having technical difficulties down there, because a lot of your lyrics are about an uncomfortable relationship with technology. Historically, a lot of hiphop was partly about being overjoyed with machines.
I'm not overjoyed with it, man, it's a love-hate relationship. I appreciate that it enables me to do things that I wouldn't have been able to do five years ago, but I've also been known to take hammers to pieces of technology. People have witnessed it. I snap every once in a while. I just feel like every once in a while you have to show technology who's the master, y'know? I actually took a hammer to a five-disc CD changer about a year ago. I flipped out. It wasn't working correctly. I was trying to get a CD out of it and the door wouldn't quite open, it just kept going, "vvvvt." So I opened it. It's like, "You are my slave. My whore. My bitch. If you don't work for me?" I can't do the role-reversal thing. I don't want to sweet-talk it. At the same time, y'know, I love technology because I love making music. I love videogames. I have every stupid gadget that comes out. I'm 100-percent a consumer. But I do it with the understanding that I'm a pathetic person.
You've been inspired by science fiction for its way of approaching the issue.
I don't read science fiction per se. I was never into Isaac Asimov or any of that shit? I'm not that interested in reading about fantasy races of aliens. It's the dystopian vision that's interesting to me. As a metaphor it's a good writing tool?a way to point out some real possibilities and some truths about what's going on in our lives now. Philip K. Dick?easily my favorite writer?he hated the "science fiction" term but he embraced it. It was more philosophy or sociology.
His checks were coming from a certain sector of the market. Do you ever feel that your audience is, in the same way, expecting your work to fit in some pigeonhole category?
Nah, I don't really give a fuck about my audience. But there is an influence, definitely, in that writing style?in terms of it being fast, with concepts popping out, and of a lot of ideas that can lead different places crammed in. That's always the way I've written. I've tried to throw in a lot of?depending?but my sort of template style has been throwing a lot of information into one structure.
Do you feel any tension between your approach and hiphop tradition?
I'm steeped in tradition. I'm soaked in it. I'm more traditional that any of these motherfuckers. A lot of cats?I was raised in New York in the 80s. I saw hiphop unfold. I know what it's about.
Where were you living?
Downtown Manhattan, downtown Brooklyn, in between. Wherever my mother moved.
I feel like my shit is highly traditional in the sense that I hold the pillars of what I think?of the shit that inspired me. I hold that with me with everything I do. I'm not interested in going beyond those elements so far that they're not recognizable. But as long as I hold on to those things it gives me room to do anything else. It's like my failed attempt at being Run-DMC. I wanna be Run-DMC, but unfortunately my mind is different, so filtered through me it comes out sounding strange. But it's all about drums. If the drums are hard and you have that b-boy essence and you know what the fuck is going on, then do whatever you want. The shit that I don't like is the shit where cats are, like, trying to go so far beyond whatever they perceive to be the realm of hiphop that they don't even understand how the music developed or where their styles are from. Cats who condescend to it. I don't think I'm smarter than hiphop.
You give the bratty wing of the white, independent rap scene quite a smack on Fantastic Damage.
Sure. And I'm not talking about anyone. It's a whole type of fan base now. It's like a subgenre of hiphop now. People who prefer to be intellectual over happy. Who prefer to be upset instead of happy. You either genuinely have problems or you search them out. When you're young and you're smart, one of the quickest ways to seem smart is to be critical, is to criticize. Especially privileged kids. I'm guilty of that too, when I was young. You want to be able to connect to someone. But after that, you have human experience, you have growth. Once being smart doesn't really hold up anymore?once experience comes and just whips your ass, you have to re-approach shit. And that's okay. I think a lot of people go through that. I did. That's why my album is so much more personal and emotional than the stuff I did on Funcrusher. That was me just trying to be smart?funny smart. Just trying to talk shit. Me and Jus would just sit around and figure out the funniest things that we could actually say.
What did you get out of sharing the mic with Jus?
It was great fun. I had a great time. I liked the meshing of the two different styles and the way we could bounce off each other. We had similar senses of humor. I loved being in a group, and when it worked it was so good. I never personally wanted to do a solo record. At the same time, though, if I had to be honest, if I look at it now: okay, I never wanted to do a solo record but at the same time I always wanted to be in charge. I always wanted, ultimately, to be in control. So something had to give, I suppose.
How old are you?
I just turned 27.
What's your ethnic background?
I don't know. My father's family is Jewish, and my mother was straight-up Daughter of the Revolution, Irish and maybe some French. I'm really not sure.
You don't identify with any of those?
Nah. If anything, more of the Jewish side, because that was the most cultural thing I experienced as a kid. When I was involved in that side of my family, we'd always go to Passover and Chanukah. I wasn't raised with the religion, but I was raised with the people and the culture. I never separated them. My dad isn't a practicing Jew?he's a hiding Jew, actually.
Most white MCs have some sort of ethnic or minority sensibility.
I think most music that's good comes from a perspective of having a different tilt. Definitely growing up with stories about people in my family surviving Nazi concentration camps and understanding and witnessing the strong cultural community vibe that my family had around the holidays was important to me. My father was a very antiestablishment kind of cat. He was a jazz pianist; that's what he did. He was the guy who, when he had kids, went to go work on Wall Street, but one day the boss told him to wear a tie, so he came in the next day with a tie around his head. He was that guy. He told me at a young age, "Don't wear a suit." My pops was crazy.
Is your dad on any records?
No, he never recorded. He wasn't in it for fame.
You inherited some of his anti-authority streak. Didn't you get thrown out of a few prestigious schools?
A couple. A private school called St. Ann's, in Brooklyn Heights. It's one of those schools that when you go there as a kid they tell your parents that you're a genius so that they'll pay the fuckin' tuition. That was a good school, with good teachers, though. I got kicked out. I didn't really fit in. Me and my friends didn't fit in there.
Didn't Mike D of the Beastie Boys go there?
Yeah?he didn't really fit in either? I can't even say it was St. Ann's. I just wasn't fitting into schools in general. It wasn't working for me. It's not that me and my friends didn't fit in like we got picked on and spit on. It just wasn't our group of people.
Wasn't there a bunch of arty kids there who were into graffiti, breakdancing and rap?
Yeah, and that's who we were friends with. But ultimately, the reason I got kicked out was that the powers that be didn't like my vibe. I wasn't very "Go team." I was just doing my shit. Sitting in the stairwell listening to headphones. We had a group of good friends, a lot of cats who were creative. I just wanted to do my shit. I got kicked out of two schools. After that, I was at a crossroads: "Am I going to do this school thing? Can I do it? Do I want to? Or am I going to come up with Plan B?" The only thing I was doing besides school was music. So I started to take that really seriously, and I went to engineering school. I said, "Fuck it. I'll go to school, but it won't be for something that I have no interest in." The only thing I was interested in at school was English. Writing. I excelled at that. But the other shit, I just didn't go. I was outside drinking beer or running around being a delinquent.
What would you say to the teenage El-P if you could talk to him today?
"Shut up. Shut the fuck up."
You must have a lot of fans who are like that. Smart little delinquents.
Don't get it twisted: I wasn't in the Trench Coat Mafia or anything. I had friends.
Yeah, so do your fans, right?
Aha. No they don't.
What's something that you doubt your fans know about you? Something that's not revealed onstage?
I think people think I'm a bastard?like a tough bastard all the time.
Your voice is tough.
My voice is tough, the way I deliver my shit is tough and I can be tough, but that's not who I am at all times. I think probably a lot of people don't realize that I'm not quite as, um?I'm kind of a relaxed cat. My rhymes are one thing. The way that I kick my shit and perform is one thing, but I'm not Mr. Angry all the time. People think I'm the God of Anger. That's what annoys me?people don't even listen to lyrics these days. They just hear my delivery.
Are you mad at Rawkus? There's that line on the album about how you'd rather be raped by Nazis than sign a contract with them.
I believe the term I used was "mouth-fucked." "Mouth-fucked by Nazis, unconscious?" Hey, I just didn't want to let them think they were completely off the hook for, y'know, fuckin' with me.
Do they owe you money?
Did you see any money from Funcrusher at all?
Oh, that's really none of your business. But they do owe us money and that's our business. But that's not why?I'm just poking them a little. I think they had a good thing going and they fucked it up. I think they lost clarity of vision. I think if they were smart they would've thrown themselves into what was pure about the label?why people were liking the label, which was that they were putting out new hiphop music, and putting money behind it, and blowing up music that maybe previously hadn't had the opportunity to go through those channels. I don't think they realized what people liked about them. I think they were just kinda happy that they were getting props.
But whatever. My relationship with Rawkus was good until it wasn't. When it started to get bad, I left. It's not a big deal. I just like to poke them in the ribs a little bit. Now I feel like I'm following correctly in their footsteps to an extent. I'm trying to create something that, in an alternate universe, they could have created?[though] with much less money. I don't have the funding of Rupert Murdoch behind me. But I have the heart and the vision, I think, to do something more powerful than they ended up doing. But who knows? I'm not trying to say that Rawkus won't do something good. I'm just saying that I thought they represented something for a long time, and then I found out that they didn't. And I felt a little duped by it. Especially considering that I'm so careful about who I work with. That's why I eventually stepped to them like, "Look, I see where you're going and where you want to go and I know where I'm going and where I've always wanted to go, so let's just call it a day. And walk away happy, knowing that you got a connection to hiphop that you didn't have before, and I got some exposure that I didn't have before, and it all worked out." And all the rest of the technical stuff is just personal business.
You and your label get a lot of press in Europe. Is your audience any different over there?
My audience is just my audience. They're all the same type of people, hungry for that b-boy energy that we love so much? We get good press, but they also dis the shit out of me. That's what you got to love about Europe, or at least London.
In England you're big enough to be getting backlash.
Yeah, I expected backlash for a long time. I got it, and I've even gone through it a little bit. I think I might be coming out the other end. I think I might actually be at the point now where people will want to listen to my shit again! [sarcastically] Everyone should wait five years between records.
London is funny. The press over there is hilarious. I love them to death, and at the same time I fuckin' despise them. They'll be the first motherfuckers to go to your show and spend half the fuckin' article describing how you looked. They'll describe how you're overweight or something. It's like, Motherfucker, have you brushed your teeth today? They've done that a few times to me. It's like, Okay, yes, I weigh 200 pounds, I'm 5-9?sue me. What the fuck do you want? I'm not a fuckin' model. Leave me alone. Trust me: I get more ass than you.
I like London.
I definitely appreciate it. It's one of the few places I think I could move if I had to go out of the country, which I may.
Are you thinking about leaving the country because of the President or something?
Well, yeah. Every year I have that month of panic where I start looking around. I went through so much millennial panic when the clock was about to strike 2000. I was that motherfucker who went and bought canned food and shit. I can't go through that again. At this point I'm like, Okay, fine, the world's going to end. I can write about it here and there from my perspective, but it's over and I can't put that much energy into it anymore. I'll never be as afraid until bombs are straight-up going off outside of my crib. Which they are, but, you know.
Your song "Patriotism" is one of the most anti-American rap songs of all time. Did 9/11 give you a sense of people who are more evil than our government?
I don't compare. I just get a sense that there's evil out there. Serious evil, and it's busting through. It can't be contained anymore by our little paradigm of security. I don't separate our government from a Middle Eastern government or any fuckin' government who's killing, anyone who's oppressive. I'll be honest with you?I love America. I'm not even gonna front. Once you get a glimpse of some of the ways people live that we just take for granted, it certainly is eye-opening. But we're also at the forefront of apocalypse technology. We're bringing it to you live and direct: apocalypse.
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