Although he has been active in hip-hop since the ‘90s, Detroit-MC Elzhi has been criminally underrated for years now. However, with the hunger of a rookie and the honed skills of a seasoned veteran, it doesn’t look like El will go unnoticed much longer. With his innovative online LP tribute to Illmatic, Elmatic, set for release on May 10, and a slew of other possible creative outlets before him, Elzhi is making it clear that he has only just begun. TRU spoke with him on topics that included his tribute to Nas, his passion for hip-hop, and his plans for the future. Peep game.
TRU: Word is that Elmatic has been a long time coming. What has gotten in the way of realizing the album?
Elzhi: I mean, life. Dealing with family issues. Situations with (Slum Village) that I was dealing with behind closed doors. Also, what got in the way was that people was telling me that there was other people doing tributes to Illmatic. I felt like, you know, I wasn’t gonna go through with it. But I had people like DJ House Shoes that were pushing me to go through with it. I reached out to Will Sessions and they was down with it, and the rest is history. Will Sessions is a band based out of Detroit, and they’re known for playing funk music.
TRU: California-MC Fashawn dropped a mixtape last year called Ode to Illmatic, on which he rapped over the album‘s instrumentals. How is Elmatic like that mixtape? How is it different?
Elzhi: The only way it’s like that mixtape is we’re both paying homage to Illmatic. I feel we both share that same feeling about Nas’ work with that album. The difference is, (Fashawn) rapped over the instrumentals, and I actually had a live band play it over. The whole thing is played over live. It’s like an album. Actually, we’re calling it a free album. It’s got skits, it’s got interludes. Pete Rock is on the interludes.
TRU: What other factors motivated and inspired you to create the album?
Elzhi: Basically, I just wanted to do something different. We had the idea like three years ago. I was given the idea from a guy named DJ House Shoes. We was overseas, and we was just kicking it, and he said it would make perfect sense to do an album called Elmatic. I was like, ‘man, that’s a great idea,’ but that was like three years ago. So when we got back into it, I was like, ‘You know what? We got to put a twist on it and add live instrumentation.’ That was our way of putting our own twist on it.
TRU: Are you at all worried about backlash or nit-picking of Elmatic that could potentially come as a result of it being a reworking of what some consider to be the greatest hip hop album of all time?
Elzhi: Nah. I’m not worried about that. I post this free album from a fan’s point of view. I’m a fan of Illmatic. I’m paying homage to Illmatic. I was just blessed with the ability to also rap myself; to also rap on my own. You may have people that compare the two, but really it’s just my way of putting that out there for the youth. Because the youth may not have heard it, and that’s a shame.
TRU: Have you spoken with Nas about this project?
Elzhi: We’ve spoken with his people. We actually gave a copy to his manager, but I think Nas is on the road doing his thing right now. We definitely gave them a copy. I would love it if I could get a chance to talk to him and let him know how much (Illmatic) changed me as an artist.
When you look at somebody like Kanye West (you see that) he gives respect to Nas. There’s a lot of people who really respect that album and that piece of work.
TRU: Is there anything else you would like to tell me about Elmatic?
Elzhi: For one, it drops May 10th. It’s a free, downloadable album. At first, it started off as a mixtape. At first it was like, ‘okay, I’m gonna rap to the instrumentals.’ And when that didn’t work, and we made it a live album, a lot of people was telling me that it should be like an album. There’s a couple guest appearances on there. We got Pete Rock on skits. (We got) DJ House Shoes, Crisis, (who) worked with 9th Wonder, Stokley from Mint Condition, and Royce Da 5’9. Every track that’s played live is played by Will Sessions.
TRU: Hip-hop started out sampling the popular dance and soul records of the 70s. If sampling is a benchmark of hip-hop culture, why then do you think that someone’s creative reworking is often looked down upon?
Elzhi: I mean, if you’re gonna flip something, you gotta do it right. I’m not opposed to anybody flipping anything. As long as its done right, it shouldn’t matter. Artists are influenced by other artists. And if somebody wants to pay homage, that should be cool. If it was right, then it shouldn’t really be no problem. The hip-hop that I knew, (and) the hip-hop that I know is from the early ‘90s. So if you got anybody speaking about that classic era, and trying to produce that classic era in their own way, I feel like that’s good for the culture- especially in today’s time.
TRU: From your viewpoint, how has hip-hop changed from a decade ago to now?
Elzhi: Hip-hop has changed in many ways because you got companies that used to put money into hip-hop artists, and give hip-hop artists a certain kind of appeal. But now these major companies don’t do that anymore. Now they cater more to music that goes more to the club, or music that is more pop. That’s how it has changed. The reason why it’s not in the forefront is because it’s underground and major labels isn’t trying to put money in hip-hop like they used to because pop music is wanted, or club music is wanted. But there was a time when somebody like Redman or Gang Starr went Gold because they had the people backing them.
TRU: If you had to choose one, would you rather be rich and famous, or a revered and admired MC?
Elzhi: I was just telling my manager about this a couple days ago. We was just talking about the hip-hop community and people from back in the day that really hasn’t gotten on yet. Some of them work in the plants (in Detroit), but they still (rapping) because of the love. A lot of people become rap artists because they figure that’s a way to get paid. But there’s certain people that I know personally that’s doing music that they’re doing because of the love. And I’m one of those people. I definitely would feel some kind of way if my music wasn’t felt. And I want people to know who I am through my music and I want people to accept my music. I rather would take people liking my music more than anything.
TRU: Would you consider yourself underrated? If so, why?
Elzhi: I think I may be underrated because there’s certain people out here that really don’t even know that I exist. When I put out Witness My Growth, that was something I put out myself. Even The Preface didn’t get any promotion like that. It wasn’t in videos. I feel like I might be underrated because people isn’t really aware of what I’m capable of doing. But now that I got new management, that’s a problem solved. We’re gonna have a video for “Halftime” coming out this week. So now is the time that people are gonna start being aware of what I do.
I’m still gonna give 120 percent to my craft at all times. It’s definitely gonna be a change. I’ve got a couple features that’s gonna be dropping this year with MF Doom (and) Consequence from GOOD Music. It’s starting to pop off.
TRU: You’ve been involved in the making of some great albums both with Slum Village and on your own. What do you think is necessary in order to craft a great album?
Elzhi: For one, it’s basically just creating a sound. Always doing something different than your last record. You have people like Large Professor, people like Notorious B.I.G., and people like Method Man, who used to flip their whole styles. When you create an album, you should always want to outdo your last album. I think that’s one thing you need to think about when you go into the studio and you’re recording a record.
TRU: You’ve been around a long time. Hip-hop culture has not historically been kind to its elder statesmen. With that knowledge, how do you plan to move forward to continue to make great music that will be respected? In other words, where do you see yourself in five years?
Elzhi: I see myself with albums up under my belt. I see myself with more official albums on a larger scale. I might get off on a little acting. I got a whole bunch of ideas. Me and my manager Jay Barber got a whole bunch of ideas about clothing lines and books. I see myself going outside of hip-hop and expressing my creativity in other ways. I’m gonna always do what I love to do. I see myself in five years continuing what I love to do. Yeah man, just continuing to make great music and contributing to the hip-hop culture, really. Music is infinite, man.