Aaron Matthews slaughters clowns in his part of town.
From his early work with the Breakfast Club to his solo work to Slum Village, Elzhi (born Jason Powers) has proved himself as one of the most gifted writers to pick up a microphone. Coming off what could be the last Slum Village album and about to drop his 2nd solo album, The Feed, El discussed his favourite verses, Dilla, Baatin, and the art of rhyme writing.
When did you know you wanted to rap?
I used to see my auntie writing down lyrics to “Jack The Ripper” by LL Cool J, or “Children’s Story” from Slick Rick. I went through my uncle’s collection of tapes, pulling out things like Rakim, Fat Boys, Whodini. I used to play around with it myself, just freestyling and my auntie egged me on to freestyle in front of her friends. I liked the idea of just putting words together, making people feel an emotion off the words I was saying. This had to be around when I was 7 or 8.
What was the first time you recorded yourself?
Over at my boy Anthony’s house, off at 12th Street in Detroit, Michigan. I was rapping to Eric B. and Rakim’s “Chinese Arithmetic.” I had two tape recorders, sitting on the porch. We cued it up at the right time and boom, recorded a whole little rap song on it. It was crazy.
What did you sound like?
The first time I recorded myself, I didn’t like the way I sounded. Thought I sounded really nasally, and it was just weird to hear my voice being played back through the recorder. It was real nasally, almost like you sped up the record, like a little chipmunk feel.
What was it like growing up in Detroit?
When you young, you cool. At least, for me, I grew up in the hood. But I had a lot of friends, so we didn’t even really think about how poor we were, it was always fun. The way we dressed, it was just how we dressed. I didn’t even know there was anything wrong with how I dressed until we moved to another part of Michigan, where people dressed a little nicer than I did. I started checking myself, like maybe this ain’t the way you dress. Hearing moms playing Motown records and just getting that vibe…it was just a great place to be as a kid.
When did you start recording seriously?
I ran into this guy Eric from Cody High School. He did beats. He did a beat he was going to use for the high school talent show. I don’t know why I didn’t end up doing the talent show but that’s what started the friendship between me and Eric. At the time I was with a group called Fingers of Death, and we went over to Eric’s basement and started recording joints. We recorded about 6,7 records. I think that’s when I starting to know how to use my voice in a proper way to record.
What was your first appearance on wax?
That was with the Breakfast Club, a song called “Friday Night” featuring Baatin and T3. It was something we were all excited about, this is before I was a part of Slum Village, I was a member of Breakfast Club. And DJ House Shoes played the record in the legendary St. Andrews Hall. That was an incredible feeling for me, because I used to go to St. Andrews and recite other people’s records. And then I had my own record being played in that legendary spot.
How did Breakfast Club come together?
I was real cool with Lacks, which is Ta’Raach now and I was real cool with 87, Big Tone and Dwele. 87, Tone and Dwele stayed a few blocks away from me. So I got cool with all them, and I used to record at out of the study called IV Studios in the Greenfield Plaza Building. And Lacks was the engineer. And I said, man, we just need to come together and form a group. So I started the Breakfast Club. We started taking pictures and everything, asked people to be down with it. Dwele and 87 were down with it, so we got to doing music. We printed up 20 cassette tapes, because that’s all we had. It’s amazing that somebody took that cassette and put it online. Out of the nowhere, it became this underground buzz. I don’t even think we sold the cassette tapes ourselves! My boy Nick Speed still got a cassette tape.
Were you going to the Hip Hop Shop a lot in those days?
I was a part of the Hip Hop Shop, that was an incredible place. That place, along with Proof, Obie Trice, Eminem, Guilty Simpson, Phat Kat, Royce Da 5’9 as well as Slum Village…you name it, man. A lot of people making noise right now were a part of that era. That place made me stop wishing that I lived in New York City. Because artists looked at New York City as the mecca of hip-hop, which it is. That’s where it all started. In high school, I used to clown cats because the way they rhymed, I didn’t respect it. I felt like they were real simplistic. They had a lot of rhyming to do! [laughs] I was like, I wish I was in New York, where there’s real spitters. But I went to the Hip Hop Shop and it gave me a sense of pride in my city. There was people just like me, just as tight, that was trying to bust out the city. Before that, I didn’t have a sense of pride as far as hip-hop and my city. The Hip Hop Shop played a big part in my life.
How has the scene changed since then?
Detroit rap is forever changing, man. In those days, when the Hip Hop Shop was around, you had places like Da Phat House, the Ebony Showcase. St. Andrews Hall was always that deal on Friday nights. They had Mahogany for the poetry people, you had the Apartment for soul, funk. You had all these places to go to, and now there’s nothing to go to. Which is a good thing and a bad thing. We just had an event for Black Milk’s release party and people came to that, people who would probably go to a club that played hip-hop and was made just for the hip-hop scene, every week, they would probably attend that. But there’s nothing out there in Michigan like that, except for St. Andrews Hall, which we use for events.
It’s a good thing, because it got people in the studio but the scene is really not a scene anymore. Another thing that’s different, it’s a lotta people being able to see the world now. There was a point where Detroit artists were not setting foot on foreign soil. We weren’t travelling the world and now there’s people like Invincible, Finale, Danny Brown and Black Milk that’s getting that shot now. They’re able to spread that Detroit music to all corners of the world. It’s a beautiful thing, definitely an evolution in that way.
Do you think there’s more of a market for hip hop abroad?
It’s different over there. It’s an unconditional love. Like, I don’t care if he’s on radio, I don’t care if he’s on TV, we just love the music. Through the years of my travelling overseas, I’ve seen it grow more and more. I see more graffiti, more breakdancing and I’ve seen more fans at the shows. Since I’ve been touring from about 2003, I’ve seen it grow.
How did you meet J Dilla?
Dilla was one of the stars of the Hip Hop Shop. Dilla, Baatin and T3 attended the Hip Hop Shop like everyone else. I got formally introduced to Dilla through Proof…who also introduced me to Eminem. That’s crazy, man. I’ll never forget him calling me up and actually having Eminem, one of the world’s top artists, say a rhyme for me over the phone. At that time I was like 16.
What’s your most vivid memory of Dilla?
When he first came up to the Hip Hop Shop and played “The Look Of Love” by Slum Village. I guess they just finished knocking the record out. This was around the time the shop was just about to close. The Hip Hop Shop was open from 4 to 6, and it was about 5:58 or something. Dilla just comes up with the record and has DJ Head put the record on. I remember him just being excited about the record, like they had one, this that deal. He wanted people to hear it. I remember him being in the studio working and doing a beat in like 5 minutes. Just placing the needle on a record…the shit looked effortless, man. Dilla was on his Frank Sinatra, he did it his way.
What was it like joining Slum Village?
It was exciting. Slum was legendary in the Detroit area. At that time, I didn’t know Slum had that impact over in the East Coast and the West Coast. Dilla was working with Pharcyde, Q-Tip, the Roots, Busta Rhymes. Even before that, when they put out Vol.1 [Fantastic Vol.1], which was a cassette tape. People was talking about them then. They were hometown heroes. So when they invited me to join, I looked at it like a blessing. They coulda got anybody but they chose me.
Any particular memories about Baatin?
Man, it’s a lot. The conversations we had, the things he wanted to invent. He used to always tell me things [laughs] Baatin got me eating raw garlic cloves, which was nasty as hell but definitely good for you. And before he got sick, that was his routine. He was always healthy. Just a genuine guy. When he got your back, he got 100 grand. I even wrote about that: “Baatin said he got your back/you better trust”.
Tell me about your writing process.
My writing process differs because I’ve been doing it since I was 7 or 8, so I might go into different modes. I might write with a beat or without a beat, I might scat on a beat before I put the lyrics in. I might have certain words I want to rhyme within a song, that I might put on the end of a line and then create the line after I think of the words I want to rhyme with.
When I first started writing for Slum, I was like, this is different for me. At that time, I was a battle emcee. In high school, killing cats on a battle tip in the cafeteria. That’s what I was about. After my moms passed, she brought out the personal side of me, the emotional side. That’s why people are familiar with Out of Focus [Elzhi’s 1998 debut EP], they hear that personal side of me. That’s when I realized when you write down what you consider poison, you recite it into a microphone and play it back, it turns into medicine. I was a personal, battle rap emcee and those two things were non-existent in the Slum Village world. Instead of trying to force who I was into the Slum Village world, I wanted to play my part. To do what they did but add a little piece to it. I know how people is funny about change, but I just wanted to make sure what those three did was preserved.
What writers do you look up to?
I’ve always looked up to Quentin Tarantino, I love what he writes. I love what Jimi Hendrix writes. Still a fan of Illmatic. Nas is always going to be crazy with it, but I still look up to the writing on that album.
What’s happening with Elmatic?
Elmatic is coming real soon. Life got in the way. We put an extra twist on it, look out for before the year ends.
Do you have a favourite verse you’ve kicked?
The second verse to “Talking In My Sleep” . Sometimes I might write stuff but for the most part I keep it in my head. But the detail in that verse, the things I had to come up with…not to mention I wrote that verse in like 20 minutes, maybe 15, I was proud of that. I felt it was visual, I felt I was accurate with my wordplay, I still had patterns. The things I added, I was mindful of the things that may occur in someone’s dream if the dream turned into a nightmare. Anyone who would hear it might not take it for those things, they just taking it for what it is. It’s a verse, it’s a concept. But I see it in terms of words, how long it took me to write it, that’s definitely one of my favourite verses.
I got another song I’m working on called “Ms. Right”, the concept is pretty crazy.
What can we expect from The Feed?
The beats, the rhymes, everything going to be elevated. That’s what I took from Slum, it’s all about elevation, evolution. So everything I drop, it’s going to be better.