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interview : joe stannard (

So how are you, El-P?

Yeah man, I'm cool. I'm in album deadline hell right now, with my solo album "Fantastic Damage". It's going good. We just have about 3 more songs to finish up, and then a rap.

What happened to "Paincave" [the title previously mooted for El's solo debut]?

That was a title that I was playing with for a year. It was like a private joke between me and my friends. You know that dark, horrible place, where you can't see an escape, a place everyone goes to but no one has a word for? No one could make it a noun, so that was kind of a joke with us, but it just sounded like, really overly morbid (laughs). Ultimately I kind of thought people wouldn't realize it was just a joke, you know. But there are still some 'paincave' references on the album. It just kind of got merged.

Will the new album be a drastic departure from your previous work with Company Flow, Cannibal Ox, et al, or will there be a clear continuation in terms of production and lyricism?

I think it's going to be a combination of the two. I think if you were to put this new album up against "Funcrusher Plus" [CoFlow's legendary debut] then it would be a rough transition. But, since I've been working and putting music out through other people, people are going to be a little more acclimated to where I'm going. But it's a departure to an extent. Being in music and doing records, I don't feel right unless I'm kind of pushing myself, you know, a little bit further than what I've done before. And, it's not like some kind of abstract concept of trying to be more 'next level' or anything, but just to keep the music interesting for myself. I been in this now for a while, and as I get older, things change, you become more adept at doing things, more ideas open up. And for me, I feel like I been on kind of a steady climb as a technician and as a producer, and not to sound too grandiose, but as a composer to an extent, you know? Just like, in understanding song structure and really playing with it. Like I said to someone else today actually, I grew up in the era when every hip hop record was new. Every time a brand new hip hop record came out it was a complete progression from the last one. But I'm not of the school of thought that there's one 'essence of hip hop', boom bap shit that everyone has to adhere to. I don't believe in it.

Speaking to your colleagues Aesop Rock and Cannibal Ox, it became clear that the term 'underground' was not a popular one with them.

Everyone frowns on the term underground. It's something that doesn't mean that fucking much. It's a term that we brought on ourselves in a lot of ways, but fuck it, it doesn't matter. You want to call my shit underground, fine, you know? But the reality of it is, there was a point in time when 'underground' really did mean something. The industry has been knocked open for a lot of art, and when we were coming in through the door, like in '95, '96, you know, that was the case. There wasn't really any room, or there weren't any defined spaces for cats like us. People were doing different kinds of shit, but it kind of felt like it should be, you know, it could potentially be just as successful. Being underground meant something because it was like, alright, you're either on a major label or you're really not out, you know what I mean? So it was kind of a culture and a community and everyone was hanging out, and everyone kind of associated with each other. You know, being underground is really just more of something to say because it's probably the closest thing to whatever you are, but you're not really sure what the hell you are. But no one likes being called underground who's really trying to make it, and like, get their shit out there. Because when the press does take it, they section it, and that's the problem. It's like, if you're only calling me underground because you're just saying I started underground, or I came from the underground, then fine. That's all we were saying. But don't tell me that I am underground regardless of what I've done, you know what I mean?

It's a limiting term then? When the real aim of an artist is really to reach as many people as possible with their art?

The only difference is that certain artists recognize that regardless of what, if they don't appeal to as many people as they possibly can, that's fine, and as long as their doing what they want to do. I do want to be, that's the catch. Yes, I do want to be heard by as many people as possible. But - I also really refuse to cater or tailor my shit so that it can do that.

Tell us about Def Jux. What aims and intentions do you have for the label, and what would you say are its guiding principles?

The guiding principle of the label is a direct kind of reflection of everything I've always kind of been thinking, and saying, and what I stood for since I started making music. Well, first of all, the most obvious thing is that every time a someone sees that a record is on our label, I want them to feel secure in picking it up. In the very fact that it's going to be fucking good, it's going to be reaching somewhere regardless of whether or not they end up really feeling it or it's their thing. It's going to be fucking interesting and well put together. That would be the best possible thing. And, you know, it's my fucking chance to. It's the first time in my life and in my career where I can actually, literally put into effect how I feel about shit. In the past we had Official Recordings [El's pre-Def Jux indie label] that we released our first stuff off. But we were inexperienced and even though we had the correct philosophy, we ended up doing our do with Rawkus and our label kind of got swallowed, and we ended up not really having a record label. And now I've had a lot of experience and I've whittled down my beliefs and kind of sharpened them a little bit. You know, Def Jux to me is just the opportunity to like, do shit, you know, how I see things should be. It's not like I believe that's the way for everyone.

But it's your way.

It is my way! (laughs) You know what I'm saying: It's my shit.

What lessons did you learn as artist and businessman from your association with Rawkus?

Lesson number one: don't fuck with Rawkus (laughs). I mean, you know, we [Co Flow] did our thing, but Rawkus needed us at the time. They needed us to define their label and the direction they were going in. We thought that somebody was actually going to stick some dough into what we were doing and get us a little bit more exposure than we could've gotten ourselves at the time, you know? And it worked out in that sense. I've been disappointed with Rawkus, I really believed that they believed what I believed, if that makes sense (laughs). That's something of a strange sentence, but I really thought that they were looking at things the right way, and it ended up that they didn't give a fuck about the same things I did. And I think that the whole, they just fucked up. It was hard to watch. I could see from the inside they were about to really fuck themselves up because they didn't have the right mind frame anymore, you know? They didn't understand why Rawkus was Rawkus, they thought that because they were on third base that they were born there. They didn't realize that they actually stepped over first and second. Not to make a really bad baseball analogy (laughs), but they didn't get it. They didn't understand why people loved them. People loved them because they were putting music out that people wanted to hear, that was interesting, that was different, they were actually putting money behind it, and it was available in stores. It was impressive, everyone was like, "oh this it great, it's a hip hop label really backing its shit, really trying to make it blow up, but it's music that is not typical of this type of thing," you know? But inevitably they [Rawkus] just saw it as a stepping stone. I think they just realized "holy shit, we're onto something". But it wasn't by design, they didn't do it on purpose. It was by association with the people they were with, like myself, Mos Def, Talib (Kweli), Menelik, and other people around at the time. It was like, once they got the opportunity to step away from that, and attempt to make a bigger splash in the major arena, they did that. That was their mistake.

So it makes a big difference that Def Jux is run by artists rather than businessmen?

Of course it's a difference. The label was completely founded by an artist. It's the most possibly artist-friendly label there is, you know? It's like, I can't think outside of that framework, you know. Put it this way, my criteria also is: I'm not going to do any type of deal I wouldn't sign myself. So my artists are getting 50% of everything, my artists own their masters, you know, and this is kind of common now, but that was not common, especially when we were doing our deal with Rawkus. Not to mention the fact that I have the luxury of having been there to an extent, and of having a little bit of experience that I can lean back on. I know that for me I wish I'd had someone there to tell me what to expect and to help me out through some of the confusion I think everyone goes through when they're first trying to come up in this industry. So it's a pleasure for me, if I can help cats out and have fun, and show cats that they can make money on their own terms. Then, I feel at the end of the day, regardless of whether or not the label is successful, then it's okay. Right now, everybody is excited about [the label], we all have the correct vibe, we all like doing this for ourselves and for each other, everyone on the label is friends. It hasn't stopped, it's been great. I'm so lucky to be able to be working with the cats I am. They [the artists on Def Jux] all want to make money, but I have been able to experience what it really means to have long-term build-up, you know? Everyone is kind of in the same boat; everyone kind of understands that this is something created long term.

Did you face any problems setting up Def Jux?

The only major obstacle was that we had to work on getting released from our contract with Rawkus. That took a while, they bullshitted us for a year on that. Once that was done, I felt we had to use Company Flow to an extent to set the label off, and at the time me and Len were planning on doing another Company Flow full-length album. We just really didn't want to be on Rawkus anymore. But other than that there haven't really been any major obstacles. We had some things happen here and there, little bumps in the road, you know, with individuals involved with the project. Of course, you know, our city burned to the ground.

Have the events of 09/11/01 altered your outlook on New York? If so, how is this going to impact on your music?

This is going to sound weird, but no. There's a song called "Density" on my album, which was written maybe seven months before this thing happened. And now that I listen to that song, it's literally like I'm talking about that event. And it's weird because I was always a little bit crazy, you know? I've spent years of my life being really afraid and really paranoid. I was one of those geniuses who stocked up on canned foods for the millennium bug (laughs). I thought I had a Cassandra complex, you know? Running around like, "Why won't anyone listen to me? The signs are all there!" So what happened with me was like, that came and went and nothing happened. Strangely enough something did happen actually on New Years Day in my family, something really fucking tragic happened to me then. But it kind of snapped me out of it and slapped me in the face a little bit, because I have realized that the entire time all this energy and fear that I was putting into a sort of abstraction of terror, of millennial doom, and it turned out that I wasn't even looking when something really terrible happened. That forever changed me and I can never be in the same place that I used to be anymore with that type of shit. When 9/11 happened, of course I had the same reaction that everyone else had that I meet, which was horror. Then a different thing came up, kind of like just: it was sad for me to see the effect that it had on people in the city that had never considered the option that this type of thing could happen, you know, the regular working cats who have really bought into the American dream. All of a sudden everyone had to be confronted by this rush of information that wasn't all positive. A lot of things are coming out now, about America, about the world in general and our place in it, and it's very disturbing. It didn't really change me. If anything I feel oddly relaxed (laughs) I'm almost glad the apocalypse has started; now I can just kick back and let us all die (laughs).

» forward to part 2...

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