Track-by-track: El-P Unveils Cancer4Cure

Pushing hip-hop ever forward with his first full-blown album in five years, maverick Brooklyn producer El-P explains <i>Cancer4Cure</i>'s compelling origins

Feature by El-P | 09 May 2012
  • EL-P

Request Denied
I was thinking about how clear and simple I saw things when I was young and growing up in New York. Not that life wasn’t complicated; more that I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I wasn’t fucking with the institutions that were presented to me. Instead of school, we cut class and ran around the city skating, doing graff, getting fucked up. But it wasn’t about oblivion; it was about living. 

The song sort of skims over my childhood. I talk about early life, sitting on my father's lap listening to him play piano and how peaceful that was. Then about when he left and me, my mother and my three sisters moved to Brooklyn from Manhattan when I was seven. That’s where I found my friends, my music and my general direction. The idea of 'Request Denied' is harnessing that energy you had when you were young and feeling alive and indestructible. The idea that this world is yours for the taking and despite everything being rigged to essentially kill you, or to even ask that you kill yourself, you will not comply for anyone.

The Full Retard
I always had that Camu Tao line in my head. ‘So you can pump this shit… like they do in the future.’ That shit is just brilliant. Instead of making a song about 'the future' I just ended up making a joint about how I saw reality. It was also on some ‘I’m back, motherfuckers’ shit. I just wanted people to know I’m coming out swinging.  

Works Every Time
This is a song about trying to escape reality and using every trick in the book to do it, despite knowing that even that escape isn’t the truth or good for you. It’s for anyone who has ever had substance abuse issues or used drugs or alcohol regularly at any point in their lives because they just didn’t want to be alone with their own thoughts. It’s the idea that purchasing a bag of drugs or a pill or a drink is like purchasing a ticket to shuttle to a new world; the only problem is that after a while that doesn’t work the way you want it to and you find yourself wanting to go home from that world almost immediately. 'It’s like a fresh start on a new world… and I already wanna go home.'

Drones Over BKLYN
This is about a fever dream I had of drones hovering over my building; sniffing around; taking flicks; following me. A few months after I wrote this song all the articles about local law enforcement using drones in American cities started popping up.  

Oh Hail No
Basically this was just about being broke and being an underdog but having pride at the same time; about not bowing to anyone or anything. Some rebel shit from the garbage. Me, [Mr. Muthafuckin’] eX[quire] and Danny [Brown] all had different takes on it, but that’s the common theme.  

Tougher Colder Killer
I had the hook for this for a few years and loved it, but couldn’t figure out what the hell it was about. Eventually it hit me and I wrote the first verse from the perspective of a man who had killed in the battlefield on order from his superiors and felt tremendous guilt as to how it went down.  His victim essentially told him that ultimately he would answer to God. That exchange drove him a bit mad and he went AWOL, rejecting everything associated with the military. The verse is him penning an apology to his victim’s mother. The first line ‘to the mother of my enemy: I just killed your son’ is based on a short story my godfather wrote which essentially had the same opening line.

The second verse is essentially the flipside of that perspective. The soldier’s in the shit, killing everything in sight. I just wanted me, [Killer] Mike and Despot to inhabit that killer mentality and just go straight apeshit. We did.

True Story
This is just a quick palm read on how I see shit going down right now; another peek behind the curtain. I took my dude Heems [of Das Racist]’s vocal chop from the joint I produced on Relax and flipped it through the song. There were about eight versions of this beat before I landed on this one.

The Jig Is Up
This was about looking at the woman you are with and thinking ‘Why are you with me? I’m crazy.’ Basically indulging that paranoid idea that there must be some other reason this amazing woman is putting up with me besides love, ‘cause I don’t deserve that. It’s the idea that you almost can’t trust anyone who loves you, because on a lot of levels you don’t love yourself. Of course I don’t always feel this way, but it’s occurred to me.  

Sign Here
Just a song about sex and control. The push and pull of power between people and how they use each other to let go of the façade of themselves. The relinquishing of control for someone you trust. It’s the idea that sexual domination isn’t inherently sinister. At the same time, I used it as an excuse to say something about the nature of interrogation in general, although not in a positive or negative way. Just examining some of the strangeness of that.

For My Upstairs Neighbor
One of the last songs I wrote on the album, inspired by overhearing a stream of verbal abuse coming from my upstairs neighbors. A fictional story based on that, about how a small encounter in a hallway led to murder, and how I was fine with that and refused to say shit to the cops. Happy stuff.

Stay Down
Basically descending into madness. It’s the place on the record where I finally snap from the bullshit. I did the tragic cackle at the end in one take. It came naturally.

The first song I wrote for the record, in 2008 after my friend [Camu Tao] passed away. I was in a pretty dark place. For me, it was about acknowledging and respecting the elements of weirdness, darkness and self-destruction I had learned to know so well and saying goodbye to them. It’s about deciding that enough is enough and that I’m going to live a different way and not let those things dominate me. It’s also about wearing that stuff proudly. Not being ashamed of being weak or of being confused, but it simply being time to move on from that. It’s about saying ‘I know darkness, so what the fuck are you going to do to me?’  

FTL (Me and You)
I had this verse from the weareallgoingtoburninhellmeggamixx2. It’s the one thing I wanted on this record that had been heard before. I just felt like I wanted to end the record with a statement of hope, dark as it may be in context. For me it’s about finding strength in a hopeless place.

Cancer4Cure is released via Fat Possum on 21 May