We’re gonna go ahead and call it: El-P has got to be producer of the year in 2012. Who else is able to claim he’s at the helm of not only one, but two albums that are bound to fit in this year’s top 5 lists? After catching up with El-P during his European tour we learned about a few more irons he’s got in the fire, why he won’t vote in the presidential elections and how the future of the music industry might look.
Working with Killer Mike
Sitting at a nice secluded area outside of the Amsterdam venue he was performing that night, El-P apologizes for forcing us to sit outside: Sorry, I just like to smoke.” There’s no need to apologize. The weather is unseasonably pleasant and we’re looking out over the canal, seated on a set of garden furniture unapproachable from outside the venue and hemmed in by trees. The atmosphere is calm and El-P is open and oustpoken, bringing us the good news that after R.A.P. Music, his stellar collaboration with Killer Mike, there’s more music from the duo in the works. “Producing something with Mike was an amazing experience because I just love that motherfucker. I just love what he says and love what he does and we had such a good vibe” he says, adding “I’m gonna do another one with Mike, definitely. I think me and him are gonna do a record where we’re both rapping together. I like the challenge of going and doing something people wouldn’t expect. People didn’t expect me to do the Killer Mike album but now it won’t be weird to them when I do another one. Sometimes you gotta break through some of the ideas that people have about it.” No longer interested in simply selling beats, a practice quite common to producers in rap, El-Producto is out to forge creative partnerships. “I’m interested in making full-length records and I don’t really have the time to just be rattling off beats and throwing them at random cats” he says, shortly pausing to half-jokingly add “Unless I’m getting broke the fuck off. Then I’ll do that shit.”
Killer Mike and El-P might not have seemed as an obvious pairing to some, but thankfully (and rightfully, in hindsight) someone at Adult Swim did: “I worked with Cartoon Network/Adult Swim a lot, and Mike was signed to them, he actually did voice stuff for cartoons. Our guy Jason DeMarco over there was the one who put us together, he was a fan of both of us and worked with both of us.” The method of companies outside the traditional record industry sponsoring music is something that might offer a viable alternative to the those labels, he thinks. “He [Jason DeMarco] was funding a lot of it through corporate stuff, back on Def Jux we did Definitive Swim, the free compilation album with them, and that was all sponsored by car companies. That’s a model that started to happen that made a lot of sense. You’ve got companies like Reebok and Red Bull that are putting out good shit, good music.”
Future of the music industry
Asked wether sponsorship is the furure of the music industry, he remains unsure. All he knows for certain is things done changed. “Sometimes you gotta let go of the old ways just because it’s inevitable. I do still very much believe that if you make good music, that you’ll be able to have a working career. If you really put everything you have into your records, and you do it well, there’s a good chance to have a life with this” he states. A complaint often heard is that labels won’t have the financial buffer to put out riskier stuff, but El-Producto isn’t buying it: “The lower tier finds it’s own route. I come out that lower tier when there was no industry, from the underground where there was nothing, so we just built our own culture. We did our own open mics and shows, radio stations played us. We didn’t have anyone coming at us with money. When we finally had the independent hip-hop record label scene, it was the next step, but that was created out of that scene. Whatever the mechanism is that allows people to make money doing it, we’ll find one, a new one.”
But the relationship with fans will always remain the key according to El. “You guys need the music, we need to make the music, we need each other. That’s a very symbiotic relationship and it’s something that we all have the responsibility to take care of. That’s the thing everyone needs to remember. It’s not like I’m saying you have the responsibility to pay me money, but if we’re doing this, there’s not gonna be a me without you, it’s not gonna be possible.”
“It’s okay not to know what happens”
After a critically acclaimed run as head of indie-label Def Jux in the early ’00s, El-P put the label on indefinite hiatus in early 2010. “It definitely freed me up creatively, not running a label. Not having the timesuck and the burden of trying to keep it working on so many levels. It’s given me a lot of time and taken a lot of stress of me” he says, backed up by the evidence of the most productive run he’s head in his entire career, with three albums (Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Life, his own Cancer 4 Cure and the instrumental Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixxx3) in two years. “I spent a long time just trying to control everything and make sure everything was perfect, and it’s impossible. I think that I’m a lot more happier and a lot more creative now that I’ve admitted that it’s okay not know what the fuck is gonna happen.”
Politics As Usual
His music often tackles dark subject matter and massive middle fingers to the matrix. The word dystopian is so commonly used in descriptions of his work it’s turned into somewhat of a cliché by now. His mistrust of authority is something that has always come natural to him. “I don’t know what makes a man think in that way, all I know is that’s how I’ve always felt. It probably came up from somehow in my childhood, I was probably angry about certain things, but more than anything some people have the, I won’t say gift because it doesn’t feel good all the time, or even ever, but some people see things a different way” he says. “I’m not saying that’s better, if anything it’s a disablement in society, like I’m handicapped. I’m walking around and I can’t get excited about sports, I can’t believe the presidential elections matter, I can’t watch the news and believe everything.”
Asked wether he plans on voting in the upcoming elections El-P makes his intentions more than clear: “Absolutely not. Why would I participate in something that I didn’t think mattered?” Choosing the lesser of two evils is still not a choice El-P would be willing to make. “I don’t think “evil” is an option, for my leaders. I’m not electing someone who’s “evil.” It doesn’t make sense on paper to me, it’s insulting to my logic and my spirit and I don’t believe there’s anything noble about participating in something that you know is corrupted. Even if it’s not 100% corrupted, sometimes the only voice you have is conscientious objection. [...] Motherfuckers say “oh, you can’t complain, unless you vote,” my response is “you can’t complain, ’cause you voted. I didn’t vote that motherfucker into office!” I don’t vote on American Idol either but I can complain about how bad the show is. Shit sucks.”
There’s a famous stand-up performance by Bill Hicks, in which an idealistic president is elected and upon finally entering the White House, is immediately shown a film of the Kennedy assassination from a heretofore unknown angle. “Any questions?” the secret service aks the incumbent commander in chief, a story El-P believes is not far off the mark. “There is no parties. there’s one party, that’s it. The rest of it is a false division, meant to portray the illusion of choice in society, when in reality the policies that mean anything are staying exactly the same” he says, apologizing for getting himself on a tangent.
“Getting my shit together”
“I needed to face a few truths, get my shit together” El-P says when speaking on his deceased friend and Def Jux artist Camu Tao, who passed away due to lung cancer in 2008. He’s taking a much more laidback tone than he does when talking politics. “I had a couple of tough years after our friend died” he adds, referring to the other members in the seemingly defunct supergroup Weathermen both he and Camu were part of. “It affected everyone differently but it cleared things up for me and made me come to the decision that I needed to refocus my life, change a little bit. In my mid-30s you gotta make a few decisions on what’ll make you happier and what you should be focusing on.”
Those decisions seem to have worked out well for him, with more music coming out than ever and gaining acclaim among a whole new audience as well as his established fanbase. Feeling relaxed and looking forward, his records may still sound dystopian, but El-P is doing pretty good.
Parts of this interview have been published on online Dutch hip-hop magazine HIJS. Neither are identical though. Consider this the B-side.
Photo by Gersom Naarden