El-P: Satan's Little Helper
Def Jux was arguably the definitive underground hip-hop label in the USA, and the man behind the label is himself a figure of titanic importance in the independent rap scene. El-P is the producer behind the likes of Cannibal Ox and Aesop Rock, a vocal collaborator with Mike Ladd’s Infesticons and Nine Inch Nails (to name but two), and one of the three founders of the immortal Company Flow, whose 1999 classic ‘Funcrusher Plus’ spawned a million imitators in the genre of so-called ‘backpack rap.’ A seminal and influential figure, who has been in the game or fifteen years or more. “I mean, you’re talking to a guy who was selling records out of his backpack in 1995,” he says.
Nonetheless, he has embraced digital distribution and viral, online marketing, even remixing Justin Bieber to equal parts delight and horror from his Twitter followers. El-P believes the changes in the music industry must be welcomed. “I’m the first motherfucker to embrace the new era, despite the fact that it was all wonderful to be getting huge advances... but that’s not the real key to art.”
El-P’s new album is ‘WEAREALLGOINGTOBURNINHELLMEGAMIXXXVOL3.’ What inspired it? “I collected a bunch of stuff, some of it had vocals on it, but the majority of it was just music. I just felt like, let’s keep it instrumental. I figured maybe I could take these little scraps of shit and re-approach them, and try and connect them creatively.”
So how did he achieve the unified sound of ‘..HELL’? “There were a few levels of production. First, just choosing stuff I thought might be cool to actually treat, to actually create, as opposed to leaving it in its rough demo form, and secondly, taking that stuff and re-approaching it. A lot of it had begun as beats that I would try and rhyme over, or do something else with. So I re-approached them and tried to make them have more of an ‘instrumental’ structure. Then I mixed all the stems of each song. In other words, I mixed the bass, mixed the drums, mixed the guitars. And I took all of that back again, and I reconstructed all of it so that it all flowed into each other.”
A concept album then? Or not really? “It all sounds pretty pretentious when I say it out loud... it really was just an excuse to throw some shit that I had together, and put it out there for people who were waiting for me to put some music out. Once I got into the process, I realised, wow, this could be a cool little instrumental record. The theme came in the second level of production, when I tried to re-approach them and merge them all together.”
The album is full of layered, distorted synths: shades of Moroder and Carpenter weave in and out of the heavy electro beats and shoegaze guitars. “This album was inspired by things like The Warriors score and the Bladerunner score: John Carpenter, and that prog-synth rock stuff from the sixties, the seventies and the early eighties. I’m a collector of gear and synths and things, as much as I can be. So, it is something I’ve been leaning towards a little bit in my production, but that being said I don’t know how much that is going to reflect in the next album I’m making. But yeah, this time I kind of engaged in my Bladerunner / Warriors / Beverly Hills Cop theme fetish.”
What about the beats? “I never used an MPC. I always used the Ensoniq EPS 16 Plus, which is a keyboard / sampler. That’s the one I was raised on. I’ve gotten away from it to a degree: every song has that, I still use it. It’s very functional for me. I’m just not doing everything in it any more. I’m not using programs like Fruity Loops or Reason.”
Comparisons are frequently drawn between El-P’s work and The Bomb Squad – he’s not afraid to use gunshots, sirens and horns. “I wanted to throw some of that in because I love that shit, you know? To me that’s just fun, because at this point it’s like a cheap trick. You can literally put an airhorn over like, the softest shit on the planet, and people will just be like, ‘OH MY GAWD, this shit is incredible!’ I shouldn’t even be revealing this secret to you, but that’s why everyone uses airhorns. It’s literally Pavlovian at this point. You just sound the airhorn, and everyone thinks it’s the hottest shit on the planet. And you know what? It kind of is. That’s kind of what’s awesome about a well-placed airhorn, laser-effect, or gunshot.”
I mention the collapse of Def Jux, and El-P quickly responds: “I think the term collapse is a little harsh. I mean, It is sad to see anything change.” He has no regrets about either the running of Def Jux, or indeed its eventual end point. As an advocate of modern methods of distribuition, it’s clear that it was time for a new model: “It’s hard for me, because in terms of the way I think of business, and entrepreneurism, and music, I think I have a pretty modern perspective on it. I can’t really involve myself in something that isn’t modern. I don’t feel like the old way of doing things – having a full staff, doing traditional physical distribution for every record – that model has essentially died.”
But we may still see El-P guesting on and producing tracks for his former labelmates: “For me, I’m always open to collaboration, and that was one of the fun things about [Def Jux]. But at the end of the day, everybody had to just be their own artists. I know, for my part, I’m probably gonna be spending a lot more time trying to do my own music. But that being said, I love all the dudes, everybody who was involved with Def Jux.”
So the burning question is – will his next album have lyrics? “It’s definitely the follow up to ‘I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead.’ It’s a rap album, but it will also be a hybrid. What I’m trying to do is create a well-done hybrid of an instrumental record and a vocal record. It seems like somewhat uncharted territory, and something I’d like to try. I’m hoping it’s gonna come out second quarter next year.”
I ask about his remix of Justin Bieber’s ‘Baby,’ a mashup of a Bieber accapella, ‘Live & Let Die’ by Paul McCartney and grinding, industrial beats. It caused uproar among Bieber fans on Twitter in July of this year. “It was fucking hilarious! It basically came about because one day I realised Justin Bieber was on Twitter, and I started fucking with him. My first question to him was, ‘Have you discovered cocaine and hookers yet?’ Why? Because personally I get the fucking heebie-jeebies from that whole little Disney, insane-pop-child-sexuality-weirdness deal he puts out there. The whole thing is freaky to me, and also funny. But the song itself I just wanted to turn it into... see, the thing I love about remixing is that you can turn anything on its head. You can take any idea, any sentiment and just change the perspective. Keeping the lyrics intact, but just changing the song’s perspective, and just completely changing the whole tone. So Justin Bieber’s little woeful, bullshit, pre-pubescent, lovelorn, pre-sealed-by-whoever-wrote-it-for-him song can all of a sudden become this beastly, angry thing. That was why it was fun for me. But at the same time, listening to it, once I had finished... I went into it very tongue in cheek, but by the time I was done with it, I was like ‘I like this shit!’ Not only do I kinda like it... I kinda like the vocals too!”
Surely not! Was there a negative reaction to the track from his own fanbase, or just the from the Beliebers? “The most hate reactions I got to it were people cursing me to Hell for making them like Justin Bieber. I’m just a vehicle, you know? I’m just a vehicle, and Satan works through me.”
Inevitably, people are dying to know if there will ever be any new material from El-P, Bigg Jus and Mr. Len. El-P hinted tantalisingly in previous interviews that this might come to pass – are plans in motion yet? “There could very well be some new Company Flow music, in some form or another. But it’s just one of those delicate things – it’s like, at the same time, do I really wanna go back and fuck up you’re memory of [Funcrusher Plus]? It can’t be the same, you know?
“It’s like Star Wars. That’s a bit of an unworthy comparison, granted, but you know, how much did those new Star Wars movies just completely ass-rape your memories of the old Star Wars movies? That being said, I would never fuck a legacy in the ass like George Lucas. Just as a side point! George Lucas should probably be – at least – made to leave the country and move somewhere else, so that we never have to see him again. But you know, we’ve talked about doing more stuff as Company Flow. At the end of the day, I love those dudes, and Bigg Jus has always been one of my favourite emcees of all time, and Len is just... my dude, you know. So I wouldn’t be surprised if at some time in the next year you might hear something from us, either on one of our albums, maybe we’ll do something together... or maybe we’ll just throw together an EP and not even tell anyone, just press it up on vinyl and throw it in the store.”
I ask if he still lives in Brooklyn – he most assuredly does. Has he felt the effects of the area’s massive gentrification over the past few decades? “Man, you know, I grew up here, so I just kind of exist on the peripheral of gentrification. I see it happening, I know what its effects are. In a lot of ways it just... is what it is, at this point. It’s kind of sad, and destructive. I don’t think that the populous who are the gentrifying force, they’re not even in tune with why it’s a bad thing, or what it is. They just think they’re living their lives and doing their thing.
“I’m sure it happens in every single cosmopolitan city. Real estate is... It’s a corruption thing. It’s like, the developers, they come in and jack up the prices, that forces out the poor people, pushing them further and further away. The neighbourhoods that became incredible because artists that had no money were there, and they were contributing to the community. In the eighties and maybe even some of the early nineties in New York City, that era kind of created these very cool communities, which were equal parts old-school Brooklyn, and artists spaces. It was possible for the artists because huge spaces would go for no money – no-one was trying to cash in on it yet.
“That was a cool era – a lot of great art came out of that, you know? I think a lot of people come from out of town now, and try and purchase the bohemian artistic experience. The only difference being that they’re willing to pay $3000 a month. Or their Mom is willing to pay it. That’s not really what the whole thing was about, you know? That being said, if you walked around being bitter at everything that was going on... it’s the same reason I don’t read the fucking newspaper every day any more. It’s overload. I don’t wanna think about it. I don’t resent anybody who is just trying to live here and have an experience, I just know as a born-and-raised New Yorker that they’re missing a little bit of perspective and... they’re kinda fucking it up for people! (Laughs) I’m not gonna lecture anybody.”
Returning to the issue of digital distribution: does he think that this is what emerging artists should try first, before the traditional music industry route? “Absolutely. I really do believe that, yes. I think that if you’re lucky enough to get into a good situation with a record label, where you’re gonna get some serious support, then that’s great. I don’t think that record labels have completely outlived their usefulness, but I don’t think it’s right for everybody, and I certainly don’t think that the old-school dream of ‘I’m gonna make a demo, and then I’m gonna get signed to a record label,’ I think that almost doesn’t exist any more.”
Even artists of his stature have to embrace new markets: “In a lot of ways, even if you’re going to put out a record or two on a record label, or with their help, you still need to be doing Bandcamp, Facebook, you really need to be doing them all. That’s one of the reasons why, to me, I think, let’s just move forward.”
He relates this back to the start of his own record label: “The creation of Def Jux was due to the fact that we thought we could probably do this indie record label shit in a much cooler way than other people had been doing it. We felt like we had an idea about how to do it in a way that would modernise in some way the whole art-meets-commerce scenario. But now, it’s like all these things are damn near fucking built in now. And that’s kind of brilliant... I’m excited about it.”
The legacy of Company Flow and Def Jux definitely helps: “It’s a little different for me to talk about it because I’ve got a fanbase, so I’m in a much better position than people who are just starting, and are throwing their shit up on Bandcamp. But that being said, I’m really curious to see how things like that affect new artists. The fact of the matter is it always takes time to get your shit out there. Either that or it takes a fluke hit.”
So, business as usual then? “Whether or not it’s the old-school record business or the new-school record business, there are always three types of artists. People who slowly make it, people who make it overnight, and people who never make it. And that, I think, will always be the case. It’s like, what do you want? Do you want to be famous? Rich? If that’s the case, you really better start thinking about how that’s gonna happen! But if you want to be a working musician, it’s all about building up your fanbase, just the same. No matter what.”
How have things changed since he started out? “In hip-hop terms, what used to be going on the Stretch Armstrong & Bobbito show to freestyle at four in the morning, which would get your rep up and get people to know about you. Now it’s putting out a free EP. It takes a lot more work on the artist’s part, but, you know... if that’s the corner we’re backed into, we either embrace it or we don’t.”
El-P’s hugging that shit to death, even if WEAREALLGOINGTOBURNINHELL.