I’m a child of the 80s when, as emcee/producer/label-owner El-Producto puts it, every Hip-hop record that came out was that new sound, that next shit. As you all know, I’m still a huge Hip-hop fan, but those new styles just don’t drop that often, much less with every new release. Now typically someone hits it big with a style and others scramble to sound the same. Not so with El-P. His musical M.O. is from that previous era where you had to innovate or you fell off, and biting was not allowed or tolerated under any circumstances.
Also reared on 80s music and culture, El’s apocalyptic boom-bap bounces between the frenetic cut-and-paste of the early Bomb Squad and the off-world synths and sounds of The Art of Noise — perhaps taking its initial cues from a collision of Nation of Millions and In Visible Silence. From there, only one thing is guaranteed: The drums will be bangin’. All other bets are hedged.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that the drums on his new record, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, are bangin’, but the guests along for the ride might surprise some people. In the mix are friends and fellow travelers Trent Reznor, Chan Marshall, members of TV on the Radio, The Mars Volta, and Yo La Tengo, as well as Def Jux fam Aesop Rock and Cage with cuts by the mighty Mr. Dibbs and DJ Big Wiz (Special, special shouts to Wiz: Our thoughts are with you, brother.). Don’t let the names overwhelm you though. This is El’s record from jump to stop.
It’s been four years since we’ve gotten an El-P LP proper, but to be fair, El has been busy behind the boards producing and remixing for the likes of Del the Funky Homosapien, Prefuse73, TV on the Radio, Nine Inch Nails, Slow Suicide Stimulus, and fellow Def Jukies Cage Kennylz, Mr. Lif, S.A. Smash, and others. Oh sure, there was his future-jazz Blue Series Continuum record, High Water (Thirsty Ear, 2004), which, along with the Blue Series Continuum crew of Matthew Shipp, Guillermo E. Brown, William Parker, Daniel Carter, Steve Swell, and Roy Campbell, featured his dad Harry Keys on one song. Then there was the eclectic, but consistent compilation Collecting the Kid (Def Jux, 2004), which brought together stray pieces from his soundtrack work on the graff flick Bomb the System (Palm Pictures, 2002) with unreleased tracks from his group with Camu Tao, Central Services, among other odds and ends. Aside from a few guest appearances (El has shared tracks with fellow wordsmiths Aesop Rock, The Weathermen, Del, Ghostface Killah, C-Rayz Walz, and Cage), El’s fingers have been on the knobs, keys, and buttons — as opposed to the mic — since 2002.
Production credits notwithstanding, El-P is a monster of an emcee. His presence, power, and lyrical prowess on the mic are unmatched. Where other lyricists just bring their next release, he brings the fucking State of the Union. He’s Rick Deckard to all of the microphone replicants out looking for life-extension. There’s a reason their lifespans are limited, and El-P proves it in spades.
Admittedly, I’m more of a fan than a critic, and more of a nerd than a thug, but those tensions are evident in El-P as well. He lives and loves Hip-hop, but will quickly call bullshit on wackness. He’s also smart as fuck and loves science fiction, but won’t hesitate to bust you in your shit.
From his days in the seminal 90s Hip-hop crew Company Flow to his current assault on the ears of the jaded, El-Producto is always bringing it rough and rugged. The future is now.
Roy Christopher: You’re approaching Hip-hop from a different angle than anyone else. What’s your take on what you’re bringing to it that makes that difference?
El-Producto: Originality… Style… I don’t delude myself into thinking that this shit sounds like all the other Hip-hop out there. Basically, I pride myself on the fact that it doesn’t, but it all comes from a Brooklyn kid who grew up on all the classics, and all of those things are just layered in it. Honestly, if I had to think about it, I’d say I’m bringing some decently-needed style to the whole picture. I think that’s the cornerstone of my whole shit and that’s why I always look at it as raw Hip-hop because that to me is the ultimate purpose.
I grew up learning about Hip-hop from writers, break dancers, and really being involved in the culture and the whole shit was about style and having your own twist on it. If you come out sounding like what everyone else is sounding like then you’re a toy. So, I filled in from a lot of the traditional shit that I grew up on and the era that I came up in, and underneath it all, underneath the trippy sound is my Ced G influence and my Scott La Rock influence and my Bomb Squad influence. When different cats listen to the record, whatever their background is, a lot of them pick out different things from it. People who are familiar with that and grew up listening to the same stuff I did have an easier time hearing that.
RC: It’s like you’ve said before about that era, whenever a new record came out that was the new shit, the new sound.
EP: Yeah, and somewhere along the line people have grown into this malaise that they’ve applied to themselves philosophically, and I think it’s just that they’ve stopped being moved by music. I think it’s an excuse for people to justify the fact that they’ve stopped craving to be thrilled. I think it’s cynical, and I can’t be cynical in my approach to music. I have to always be throwing myself down a flight of stairs hoping that at the bottom of the stairs is what I’m looking for. I don’t have that thing in me that tells me to preserve myself and to stop going where I feel I want to go and what I want to hear. I don’t have that thing in me that tells me that there’s a rule to apply to making a great record — a part from a few things: The drums have to bang. That’s the number one, and for what it’s worth, I think I’ve got that part down.
RC: No doubt. Ryan Kidwell once said that playing it safe is not interesting.
EP: Yeah, you start to wonder who you’re playing it safe for. The same people who would have you play it safe are the same people who don’t want to hear it when you do. The audience and the critical community don’t enter into my creative process because I feel like I’m a pretty good representation of a music fan. So, I just go where I have to go. The thing about it is that I know who I am. I was born and raised in New York City and grew up on some ill B-boy shit, and so this is me. Everything that emanates from me is an extension of that — it’s built in. I believe in reference, but I don’t believe in imitation. I don’t hold on to too much nostalgia because I don’t have to.
RC: Word. You have a lot of guests on this record. Where others just pile ‘em on to see who they can fuck with and what names they can get on their record, your guest spots make sense. How much chance was involved in who showed up on the record and how much was fully planned?
EP: It was a combination of elements. If you write down all of the names who appear even in the most minor way on the record it looks like it could be some crazy collaboration-style record. The reaction I’m getting from people when they listen to it is that they couldn’t necessarily tell who was on the record. Most of the time it’s me making songs and trying to come up with some idea and at any given time I might feel that someone that I know or that I’m cool with or in contact with or who’s in my circle — friends or peers — I hear their voice somewhere and think that they might be able to add to it, and that’s usually when I reach out. The idea is there first, the music is there first, and what I’m trying to do is there first. On this record there was nothing that I did that was created specifically for anyone else to come on, except the song with Cage because we sat down and wrote it together, and the song with Aesop, but that’s just on some family rap shit. With all the other guys, I had talked to some of them about the idea — to have the Mars Volta guys, Trent, and Cat Power — about the possibility of me including them. Just so that they would be open if I heard it. And it happened that I really did feel that there were moments that would work with them, and I tried to do it tastefully. I tried to make it so it wasn’t some heavy-handed rock-rap style thing.
RC: I got the advance and there’s no information about who’s on what song, and I couldn’t tell at first, except for Cage and Aes ’cause I know those guys.
EP: Well, you can tell that there are certain parts where it’s probably not me. [laughs]
RC: Yeah, but the overall experience is that it’s your fucking record.
EP: Well, good ’cause that was important to me. That’s what it was about. This has to be my record. There are moments where there are other voices, but it’s almost like I’m sampling. I’m sampling from experience and putting it in at the right time. I think one of the mistakes you can make when you have access to work with some of the guys that you admire is the temptation to use them as much as possible, and that just wasn’t what is was about for me.
RC: It was fun to read about your progress while working on the record. What prompted your doing the blog?
EP: It was kind of a spontaneous thing. I was sitting around and happened to be looking at different sites on the internet and started bouncing around on some of the random blogs. I started to realize that the majority of these things — really all of them, as different as they all seem to be — they’re really all critical blogs. You know, a guy who listens to some music, maybe recommends some of it, and maybe hates some of it. Or film or whatever, but all connected to the critical community, and it doesn’t seem like it’s connected to the creative community yet — at all. Is there another use for this? It’s just a medium that you write things on, why is everyone writing the same things?
So, I just signed up to get my own blog. I’ve seen how much fans enjoy the interaction being let in to a degree on MySpace, message boards, things like that where you can communicate to a degree, but even that is kinda cold. When artists attempt to communicate directly with them on message boards it comes off a little wack because you’re always floating in like some sort of other entity, saying things, and then running away. I figured fuck it, why not create an artist’s view of the artistic process and let it be public. It will let people in a little bit and see how they dig it. Something that was attached to the creative process as opposed to a critical process or the sum result of gathering up a bunch of people’s art and saying something about it. I didn’t know how people would respond to it, but the response was crazy. It was overwhelming, and I kinda feel bad that I stopped doing it, but I’m not a blogger. I’m an artist.
Maybe I’ll start it up again. It’ll stick around. I was really shocked how much people were into it, but it’s kinda like if I were to stumble upon one of my favorite artist’s collection of notebooks, all their scribblings and little pictures they’d cut out and put in there, all of that great shit that goes on when artists are in that mode. It’s always fun to me. It’s always ill to see those things, and I’ll even flip through my friend’s stuff just because it’s interesting to me.
That was the only reason. It wasn’t any grand plan. It was just kind of an idea. It just seemed like a natural thing. I’m surprised more people haven’t done it.
RC: Me too, and you and Dibbs had a lot of fun with it, and so did all of us who were reading it.
EP: I think we’ll probably start it up again for the tour.
RC: I was going to ask you about that next. Who are you going out with first?
EP: We’re working on it right now. On the main tour it looks like I’m going to be rolling out with Hangar 18 as my opening act. Anyone who hasn’t seen Hangar 18 perform should definitely come out.
RC: Definitely. They stayed with me the last time they came out here. Those are my boys.
EP: Oh, word. No doubt. No doubt.
Basically, I’m just trying to go out there with a tight crew of cats and put together a cool set with interesting set design, interesting lighting, and do something a little bit different than what we normally do.
RC: I’m a big Alexander Calder fan, so ever since seeing the bird in the art on Fantastic Damage, I’ve wanted to hear the Calder story.
EP: The details are a little hazy, but basically the story goes that my mother in the 70s — late 70s perhaps, maybe 78 or 79 — worked with him. She was working in advertising back then, and she worked with him on some project. She was a big fan of his, and she asked him to draw something for her baby, and I was maybe one or two, maybe three, I don’t know. He drew this bird for me on this toy wooden airplane that she had bought for me. It’s just something that’s always been around all my life.
My mother and my father back in the day were highly into art. They were kinda scenesters. They hung out with Robert Crumb. They were into all of that and they were big fans of Calder. So I’ve had this thing lying around all my life, it’s just always been there. It’s maybe one thing I still have from my childhood — this drawing on this toy airplane drawn in pencil by this fucking legendary guy. It started to represent me for myself. It’s the oldest thing that someone had drawn for me. The more I learned about who he was as I got older the more interesting it was to me as opposed to being just this thing that I had, but it’s old, it’s in pencil, it’s on wood, and it’s fading and eventually it’s probably not going to be visible anymore. I figured I’d put it on my body somewhere. I figure if I’m ever super poor I can always lop off my arm, put it in formaldehyde, and auction it off [laughs]. So, it’s just become a representation of who I am. It’s just been there all my life and it’s symbolism that doesn’t represent anything else except my life. I like to think of it as some ancient archetypal symbol that represents me.
RC: Is there anything I didn’t bring up that I didn’t talk about here?
EP: It’s on you. I’m not chomping at the bit! [laughs]
RC: Well, don’t wait another four years to give us another record.
EP: No doubt.
Here’s the first video from El-P’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, “Smithereens” (runtime: 4:26):
And here’s the video for “Flyentology” (runtime: 4:04) featuring Trent Reznor: