If El-P’s place as hip-hop royalty was ever questioned, 2012 should quell all doubts. The Brooklyn producer/emcee has dropped two of the year’s strongest Rap albums: Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music, which he produced in its entirety, and his new solo album, Cancer 4 Cure.
Though he doesn’t get the credit of double threats like Kanye West, his catalog tells a different story: his melodically cantankerous production style, self-depreciating rhymes, and years as the head of label Definitive Jux have established him as one of the most respected Indie Rap acts in the industry. In an interview with HipHopDX, El-P talks about working with Killer Mike, the painful process behind his solo material, putting Def Jux on hiatus, and deliberates where his late friend Camu Tao would be musically.
El-P Explains Collaborating With Killer Mike On R.A.P. Music
HipHopDX: How did you and Killer Mike first link?
El-P: We met through a mutual friend at Adult Swim - a guy that we had both worked with. I’ve done a lot of music for them and worked on some projects with them, and they had signed [Killer] Mike to put his [R.A.P. Music album] out. It was his idea, he asked both of us if we’d be interested in working with each other, and we both said yeah. I went to Atlanta with some beats, and just stayed down there for five days or a week, got in the studio with Mike and we hit it off. The music we were doing came really naturally. I was only going to do two or three songs, because I was finishing up [Cancer 4 Cure], but they asked me if I’d do the whole record. I said, “Eh, I can’t do it,” and they kept asking me. I was having so much fun with Mike, and I thought the music was so good, so I was like, “Fuck it, let’s do it.”
DX: How is working with him different from working with a Mr. Len, Cannibal Ox, or any of the full records you’ve produced?
El-P: I probably had the most fun producing a record for anyone, that I did producing for Mike. We just got along, he’s easy to work with, he’s fun and cool as fuck. When he’s inspired, it just comes out of him - and that’s something that seemed to happen for the whole record. He must’ve wrote down three lines for every song that’s on that album. He would just go, and I’d take him back and record, and the shit would just come out of his head. I thought that was just how he works, but he told me later, he had never done that before. There was a chemistry there that brought out the best in him and the best in me.
I had a great time. Either of us, we just say what we think. It’s not really an issue: neither of us will take it personal, and it was really easy to work with him. He wanted direction and he wanted an opinion, and same with me. For the most part, neither of us really had to say much to each other, because for some reason, it all happened really easily.
DX: Are there any songs on the record you prefer more than others?
El-P: I have my favorites, but they change. Every tiem I listen to the record, I gravitate toward something else. I think “Willie Burke Sherwood” is my favorite song on the record, just because I think there’s something really powerful and autobiographical about that song. You really learn about Mike Render on that record, and not just Killer Mike. It’s just a beautiful song. He rose to the occasion. He knew it was a song that had to be heartfelt because of the tone of the music. It’s kind of called for, and he just brought it. I was blown away by the way he strung it all together.
The reason it’s called “Willie Burke Sherwood,” after his grandfather, who he’s talking about in the song, because we recorded it on the anniversary of his death. He was just thinking about it, you know?
DX: You’re a solo artist; how does your process working as a solo artist differ from your process of working in a group? And how long had it been since you had produced a whole record for someone?
El-P: This is the first record that I’ve 100% produced for anyone else since the Cannibal Ox [The Cold Vein album]. I’ve done a bunch of music on a bunch of other peoples’ records, but it was never 100% full on me until this one with Mike.
DX: Is there an adaptation process of having to consider someone else’s stuff instead of just your own?
El-P: To a degree, yeah. To be honest, in my mind, it’s actually a little bit easier, because I approach my music differently. Once you take me out of the equation—and the lineage of my records, and what I try to do with my music—you start to relax a little bit, and get into someone else’s head.
I know how to make a different type of record for Mike than I would make for myself.it was a little warmer, a little bit funkier. It was easier, because there was another person there. It was a collaboration in a lot of ways. I got an energy back from Mike that let me understand where the music can go. When I do it by myself, it’s a little more intense, because I’m relying on myself every step of the way to guide and know when it feels right. With Mike, I could tell it was right when the shit that came out of his mouth was right. I could tell when we had something going, and I would follow that energy.
For me, it’s a bit more intensive. I’m more, probably, borderline insane when it comes to how much I obsess over my albums. I really try and push myself. In my mind, when I’m doing my records, I’m pushing myself against myself and what’s the right feel for me now. That can be hard to figure out sometimes for me. They’re both rewarding in different ways. I love producing for people like Mike—I’ll produce for Mike as long as we’re alive, as long as he’s down I’m down. But producing my own records, that’s really who I am.
El-P Explains The Slow, Careful Process In Making Cancer 4 Cure
DX: I read somewhere that you said that putting together Cancer 4 Cure was a really grueling process. What made it that way?
El-P: I don’t rattle records off like a lot of other artists, I don’t just throw them out. There’s a reason why every time I’m back out in the spotlight, I look a little older [Laughs]—because I am. I obsess over the shit. More importantly, I know I’m not going to be turning these things out all the time. So when I do these, I want them to be the best thing I had in me at the moment. Whether it’s good or bad, or turns out the best way possible, I want to leave the record feeling like I gave it my fucking all. And no matter what anyone says when I put that record out to the public, it doesn’t matter, because I know when I was done with that bitch, I felt like that’s what I could do.
So it takes me a little while, and sometimes it can be intense. My process is all about revamping shit and changing shit. My process is very weird, because a song starts one way, and ends up ridiculously far away from the way it started lots of times. Every song you hear, there were potentially three or four versions of that song. That’s not because I’m not confident in what I do, but because I’m still searching. I want that shit to really blow my mind as much as they can.
When I put a record together, as the songs start coming together, I’ll alter other songs just so they work. i’m into making records that have a sound, not just songs. I wanted to make this record have a very identifiable sound, a mood that changes that doesn’t get abandoned. Like a film. Watch a [David] Cronenberg film, and he’s got that vibe through the whole shit. No matter what happens, there’s something there that holds it all together. A lot of the time, that’s what I’m looking for.
It’s ridiculous to complain about making music all day. “Grueling” may be more of an exaggeration, but within the context of making a record, it’s not just some happy go lucky, super punk shit. I’m working really hard on shit, and I’m my own worst critic.
DX: In the Huffington Post review of C4C, the writer said that you and your music aren’t easy. It isn’t easily digestible, it isn’t surface value. Do you make it that complex on purpose?
El-P: Yeah, I guess I do make it that way. It’s not intentional, I’m not sitting here like, “I’m going to make a record that’s going to be hard and super-complicated.” I don’t really think that way, but I guess that’s kind of my style, in a way. You’ve got and people who are going to draw the most intricate shit possible, because that’s beautiful to them. That’s my shit; I hear so much, I love doing it, I love detail, and I love things to unfold. There’s something amazing about simplistic…you’ve got to strike a balance. I don’t think anyone’s interested; I’m certainly not interested in doing music that’s complicated for complicated sake. But I do end up wanting to take it places that maybe other people don’t have the same aesthetic or approach it that way. My goal, hopefully, is to take something layered and detailed, but still make it something you can bob your head to. It still has to be dope. I’m not writing a term paper, I didn’t go to college. I’m just trying to make some shit that’s going to blow the doors off your car when I bump it, but I really enjoy the process of seeing where I can go with the music.
El-P Updates On His Relationship With The Def Jukies
DX: A while ago, you put Def Jux on hiatus. What prompted that decision?
El-P: It was just time, man. We had a great run, but it wasn’t something I was feeling anymore. I didn’t feel like it was right for me to keep going. My intentions, heart and focus were shifting. Everything was telling me it was time to step away from it and focus on something else. It wasn’t like I was rich; I was too stressed out doing it, and I wasn’t rich. So I couldn’t figure out on paper why I was still doing it. Beyond that, I felt very strongly it would be wrong for me to keep doing it. I have to be 100% immersed when I’m behind something for it to work and for me to be a functioning part of it. we had our time, and it was a great time, but it was time for everyone involved, including me, to move on to something else. It wasn’t more complicated than that.
DX: Despot is on the new album, but what are your relationships like with the other artists from the label?
El-P: I’ve taken the last couple years and just stepped away into my own world a little bit, admittedly. I’ve just been trying to do my shit. But it’s all good. But part of the whole shift with my life, things just buckled down and me getting in my own zone again, concentrating on the music as hard as I could. That’s basically it. The people on my record were the people in town at the time [laughing], the people that were around and I was talking to about it that were right there. Like, “Cool, you’re in the studio, jump in.” It’s been cool, interesting, and kind of necessary. It’s been an interesting transition over the past couple years. But at this point, I’m getting good with it.
DX: So you think that decision has had a positive effect on your music?
El-P: I think so, yeah I do. Every once in a while, you need to shake it up a bit, stay fresh and reapproach it. I’ve been making records for a while now, and in a lot of ways, it ended up being exactly what it needed to be in order for this record to happen. There’s definitely an element that’s missing out of my life: the stress of making sure everything is going OK at the record label, being wrapped up and concerned with working with other people to set their records off. Not having that there really being able to focus with a stretch of time allowed me to do more records in a two-year stretch that I’ve ever done. I did the Megamix album, the Killer Mike album, and my album. For me, that’s kind of amazing. The fact that I was even able to focus in and get that time was a result of that decision. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I think it was the right one.
DX: I also read that since your music is dark, there’s a certain process you have that takes you into that dark, emotional place. How do you tap into that?
El-P: It’s not like I think my music has to be dark, and I wait around until I’m feeling dark. That is the tone of my art. There are filmmakers who make very intense films, and comic book artists who draw very violent, intense comics. That’s just their aesthetic, and when they go into their place of expressing themselves, that’s what pops up.
That’s been the case for me for a while. In a lot of ways, these records are a way for me to purge all the toxic shit in my head so I can live a regular life. If I didn’t have these records, I would be walking around as insane as the guy on the record that you’re listening to. I can’t be that all the time. That is a very big part of me; it’s not just some character I’m creating, it’s a huge part of my mind and who I am. But in order to expel that shit, and not have to fucking walk around with a t-shirt that says “Kill me” all day, I do these records. It’s hard for me to warm up to confronting all the bullshit in my head, it’s not that easy. It’s not like when I’m a kid, and “I’m going to say the funniest, stupidest, rawest shit possible.” That’s not really where my head is at anymore. Am I really ready to confront all this bullshit?
I make records that I think are pretty fucking honest. A lot of the time, they don’t put me in the greatest light. I’m not making a record talking about what an awesome person I am. It’s not easy to sit down and confront all of these things that I tend to confront when I’m making a record. Which is why doing the record with Mike record was such a nice break. I’m like, “Yes, finally! This will just be fun. Mike can worry about what he has to say about himself, I’ll just be here.” If I didn’t have Mike’s record to break the process up a little bit, I probably would’ve had to step off again.
DX: Your friend Camu Tao passed a while ago. What do you think he would be doing musically right now? And how did dealing with his death affect Cancer 4 Cure?
El-P: I think about that a lot, to be honest. I think about that all the time. In a way, I have no idea. Because Camu [Tao] was so unpredictable. I don’t know if you heard the King Of Hearts record, but that was the last thing he had done, and no one expected that to come out of that dude. His friends around him knew that was happening, but even to us, it was shocking to some ways. I really felt like the sky’s the limit for that dude, whatever he was going to do, it was exciting.
I think about it a lot, even in the process of making my record. Because thinking about Camu, and what he might do, reminded me to be brave, and do whatever I wanted to do. Because Camu didn’t give a fuck, and that made for amazing music. I believe personally, that had he gotten a chance to develop his music and to stick with it, Camu would’ve been huge. People are just now catching up to some of the hype he was getting five or six years ago. In terms of the direction his music was taking and the sound, I think that Camu would be a star. I honestly do.