| interview : joe stannard
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.
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
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
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
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?
a limiting term then? When the real aim of an artist
is really to reach as many people as possible with their
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.
us about Def Jux. What aims and intentions do you have
for the label, and what would you say are its guiding
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.
it's your way.
It is my way! (laughs)
You know what I'm saying: It's my shit.
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.
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.
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 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
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