An abridged version of this interview originally appeared at Pop & Hiss. El-P performs tonight at Low End Theory; it explains everything. The only way this can be topped is if Natalie Portman decides to become a barista at my corner coffee shop.
You probably could’ve made a lot more money by performing at the Echo or the Troubadour, but you decided to do your album release party at Low End Theory. What led to that decision?
I like the scene and the people involved. It reminds me a lot of the scenes that were happening in the mid- to late ’90s in New York, stuff that caters to real hard-core beat heads. I could’ve gone somewhere and gotten some more money, but I wanted to do an instrumental set and that’s what they do, so why not go straight to the source, to the people who love it. I also really like the dudes that came out of the Low End. Plus, if I were to do a show at the Troubadour or the El Rey and sell it out and just stand onstage and play beats, they’d probably want to stab me.
Have you ever been there?
Nope, but I’ve seen it on YouTube and it looks crazy. I know Flying Lotus and Gaslamp Killer pretty well and they’re dope dudes.
Do you listen to a lot of dubstep?
Definitely. I’ve always been about noise and thumping drums and when I heard it, I was vibing with it pretty instantly.
Do you have any favorite artists?
I really like Lotus and Gaslamp. I’m definitely a big fan of Glitch Mob, especially their podcasts. I really like Hudson Mohawke. There’s a lot of cats that I’m into, but I wouldn’t call myself an aficionado.
What sort of set are you planning on doing?
I’m not bringing a band. I’m just going to rock some [stuff] that no one’s heard and some [stuff] that people have. I’m also going to be testing out some new beats and [stuff] like that. Maybe a little bit of stuff from the new record.
You’ve been making instrumental records since the late ’90s, but it seems like their popularity has exploded in the last few years. Why do you think that is?
It goes in waves. When Company Flow turned “Little Johnny From the Hospital” into Rawkus, they looked at us like we were crazy. Our first album had given no indication that we’d do something like that and before that the only instrumental hip-hop had been done by Scott La Rock and a few others, so we were one of the first.
There was Shadow, but that seemed almost trip-hop.
Shadow was right around the same time. He definitely was part of that first wave. It’s interesting to see the resurgence of instrumental music’s popularity. I’ve been dropping instrumental records on the low for my whole career, so it’s been weird and cool to see the genre really coming into its own for the first own time.
It would seem that there are a lot of parallels between the music you’ve always done and the aesthetic of the Low End Theory and other branches of contemporary bass music. Heavy bass, hard drums, loud noise…
I definitely think the what I came up on was hard beat stuff. Boogie Down Productions and Ultramagnetic MC’s, Mantronix, Run-DMC and Public Enemy. It’s ingrained in my music and that will never change. It seems that people fall in and out of love with that sound in waves, and it’s interesting to watch people wanting to be crushed by drums. Mainstream hip-hop is not bringing that — or at least it’s not what’s in vogue right now. So the dubstep dudes are taking the ball and running with it — like, “OK, you guys aren’t using these hard-core drums, you’ve leaving them on the floor? Cool, we’ll take it.’
Do you see them as continuing on in a tradition that you helped build?
I don’t really listen to music with self-reference in mind, but i’d like to think that we there’s a kinship.
How did your Justin Bieber remix come about and why did you make me like a Justin Bieber song?
Once people actually took me up on the challenge, I was like ‘oh fuck, what have I gotten myself into? I had already made the music loop of the McCarney ‘Live and let Die’ shit. I had actually wanted to drop it on a mixtape, but there were no drums, just that general loop. That shit is just huge to me, in a perfect world I would’ve put a song out like that officially. But when I started thinking about the Bieber shit, I went to my hard drive — often, when I do remixes I’ll just throw what I’ve been working on with the acapellas and see if it works Sometimes I’ll find something that fits and change to fit the acapella. That’s what happened to the Bieber shit.
The thing that I loved about it and my perspective on it was, a) I wanted to show people that I can do anything, on some arrogant cocky shit. Like I can make you like Bieber, and people are like, ‘fuck you.’ It was fun. I get to take this pre-fab weird bullshit Disney sexuality thing and throw it through the truth blender. I get to make this song an artistic statement. Something raw and hilarious. That’s what I love about hip hop music and sampling– it allows you to turn some shit on its head. Hip-hop is like, we don’t give a fuck, we’re going to fuck your shit up, and make it whatever we want. We’re going to be like Brand Nubian and take Edie Brickell and turn it into a song about trife women. I’ve always loved that shit.
I was like if I’m going to do this, let me get down to the brass tax of what this kid is saying. He’s really saying ‘fuck you.’ It was a funny opportunity to say something about pop music and it was a way of challenging myself. People are so locked off with music– no one wants to like Bieber people. I’m guilty of it. People define themselves as much by what they don’t like as much as what they do. By the time I was done remixing it, I was like ‘fuck it,’ I actually like this song. I’ll admit it.
Do you see that closed-mindedness as a problem for many of the people who used to be considered “underground hip-hop fans.” And to build on that, do you see it as increasingly difficult for a rapper to make it with the dissolution of what was the old underground economy?
I think that there’s a transition happening. It’s always hard to make it as a rapper. It’s really up to the artists themselves. Some people have the correct hustle to get a fan base and have a legitimate grind that’s workable to them and some people will never be able to do that, for whatever reason. It’s hard out there for people. I don’t have the answers. We’re all somewhat guilty. There’s so much goddamn music out there, that it really is on you to stand out. No one can pity you into success.
I constantly hear rappers talking about how they need support — like it was a handout or something.
When I was first came out I was like that too. Of course, that was a time when people still did support. That was different era. Independent hip hop was a brand new perpsective that people could relate to — it was different than what they’d heard before. After so many years, it stopped being so radically different that you could no longer get an automatic bye just by being indie. I’m not shitting on anyone. I do think there are amazing artists who don’t get the recognition that they should, and vice versa.
Who do you think deserves more attention?
How about everyone on the roster of Def Jux? I just spent the last ten years trying to bring that about and trying to support and get exposure for people who I though had something and I still believe they do. In a lot of cases, it worked well. In others, people weren’t listening. There was a time period where certain acts slid in and have careers, where others with similar talent slipped in too late. It’s just always hard. I know that for me, I personally am at a point in my life where it’s nice to not have to think about that. For the first time in a long while, I’m just really excited to get to be focusing on making music.
Do you think that the day-to-day business of running Def Jux had made it so that creating music was a chore?
I’ll tell you without getting into it too much, because there’s a part of me that feels like it’s a little tacky to talk about it. It was hard and is hard for me, because the decision that was made affects more than just me. It was very difficult because I didn’t want to hurt anyone. Right now, I feel a little conflicted being on some me shit, so I’m doing my best to transition into that in a cool way. I just think that really for me, everything goes in cycles, you’re not doing anyone a favor if you’re not all there in your head. I think that part of being a man is looking around and assessing a situation. If it’s not right for you and others, then you have to make the correct decision even if it’s more difficult.
I believe firmly that what’s happening now is the correct thing to happen for everybody involved. I know what the alternative was, and that being said, I am really amped about the future. I don’t think I was ever 100 percent able to be to accept that I couldn’t do both. I was always pretty stubborn about that — fooling myself into thinking that I could run a record label, be an artist, and have a business relationship and be everyone’s friend all the time. I was wrong about that, not on all levels, just that it wasn’t 100 percent the way I would’ve liked it to be. Now that Ive accepted that, for the first time in a long time, I’m starting to feel energized, I’m starting to feel that anything can happen and that there’s something new coming for me. I’m really excited about being a musician –it’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. I’m amped about giving it another chance to pursue it in a different way. It’s time for something now. I’m on some positive shit these days.
So is it safe to say that you’re no longer going to be taking as long between records?
Trust me, I hate the fact that I watch myself age every time I put a record out. I came into this industry at 18. I’ve basically released a record every five years. I don’t have 20 more five year periods left. I’m in the early part of my 30s — about to be mid-30s– and I think that I don’t want to see a 45 year-old white rapper. At least, I wouldn’t want to see me. Maybe I’ll have to put on a mask and wear angel wings or something.
What’s up with your forthcoming record? There was a blog post about a year and a half ago about how you lost a hard drive but then you recovered it.
I did recover it, but I’m probably only using one thing from there on the new album. I’ve got some [stuff] that I’m working on, some lines in the water, people I’m talking to. But I don’t want to name names. That’s like tattooing the name of your girlfriend on your arm. My future’s wide open right now and I haven’t been this excited to make music in a long time.
The last official Def Jux release is the forthcoming posthumous solo record from Camu Tao. Obviously, he meant a lot to everyone affiliated with the label. What do you miss most about him and what does getting to put out his final album mean to you?
Everyone deeply loved Camu and felt that it was a crying shame that he passed away so prematurely. The music that he was working on was so off the wall and so new, it was nothing that any us had ever done or could do. We all wanted Camu to blow up. He was the most talented dude I know.
I had to put in a million hours of work just to do what Camu could do sitting and joking around. That’s just the truth. Putting out this record is something I promised myself I would do. All the profits are going to his family and his fiancée. I’m trying to do everything in my power to get this dude heard, and obviously my power isn’t that vast. I’m just trying to do my best to show that he existed and he was brilliant.
It’s bittersweet. He didn’t finish the record, so it’s rough around the edges. But I wouldn’t put it out if I didn’t think it was beautiful. For me it felt like, the best and most important thing that I could do right now to honor him was to put some sort of exclamation point to the end of a great time and a great era. I didn’t want there to be only a question mark.
It’s weird how Dilla can get 100,00 tributes, and granted he’s one of the greatest producers of all-time and he earned it, but Camu has gotten very litte. I’m as guilty as anyone, but it seems like he deserved more.
I agree. I love Dilla. He deserves those tributes 100 percent. All I’m asking for is saying for people to listen to music again. It’s hard to get people to pay attention — people aren’t really listening, people aren’t really peeping shit, and I feel like the town crier. I’m not bitter about it, but I do know that this music needs to be heard. Whatever fucking happens happens, every dime made off the record goes to his family. There are several charitable things in relation to this release that have been coordinated with his fiance. At least it will be out there for people to decide how they feel. We know what Camu meant to us and we know why we all want to try and show people even a glimpse of that.
What was it about Camu that you thought was so unique?
He was amazing — he was lightning and he never got the chance to get his shine. The Smashy Trashy record fell on deaf ears even thought it had some bangers. We put that record out knowing people would say what the fuck, this isn’t who they are. And a lot of people ignored ignored it. King of Hearts flies in the face of everything you’d think. Camu is singing and it’s crazy stuff. I’m not a music critic. I can’t describe the music — I’ll leave that to everyone else out there. There’s two types of reactions to the record. There are those who will be completely dismissive and there will be those who will be completely blown away. There’s no middle ground. Camu wanted to make a change. He wanted to revolutionize shit.