No one would ever mistake rapper, producer, and label owner El-P as typical. He has been a trailblazer in hip-hop since 1995 by going the independent route and doing it well. Some artists got extorted by big record labels, while others tried to create their own imprint and put on their own crew of half-assed rappers who were never heard from again. Conversely, El-P and Definitive Jux created a haven for hip-hop artists to make music and own their own masters, while El-P’s eclectic taste and creative sensibility led him to projects including scoring film soundtracks (such as the indie graffiti title Bomb the System), producing the jazz album High Water, and a collaboration with Trent Reznor. I recently got a chance to talk with him about his sprawling career in hip-hop.
From FanDam to ISWYD, it seems like there is a lyrical progression. Did you change your approach at all when it came to writing, or was it just a natural [process]?
You can never really pin it down…[but] I think I got to the point where I wanted to be a little bit more concise with what I was saying. “Trim some of the fat,” if that makes any sense. This is not to say I wanted to dumb it down, but sometimes certain songs need something else — a different approach. It was a natural progression, but something, at the same time, that I thought about. I want to be able to get to the point a little quicker.
The album explores the relationship you have with New York and your fear of New York’s lethal power. It sounds like there are these moments when you are concerned about letting the listener in on those fears. For example, you say, “This is stuff I find hard for discussion/How the fuck do you explain your own self-destruction/and still remain trusted?” Where does that sentiment come from? Do the candid lyrics make you feel too vulnerable?
I think the struggle for an artist between revealing themselves and protecting themselves is a huge one. And at any given time, I’m fighting that battle. There’s the creation of music as it exists for yourself; then there’s the creeping fact that other people are going to hear it. I tend to veer towards throwing myself into those moments that seem scary to me. If I feel like I’m revealing too much, I do it anyway. But it doesn’t mean that it’s easy all the time. I figured out a long time ago that only truths that are scary about yourself are the ones that you hide. The only things that can be used against you are things that you don’t confront yourself and take control of. It’s rare that I choose to censor myself.
The song “Overly Dramatic Truth” is a great song, one of my favorites on the album. I take it as a “break-up” song. Is that about a real experience? Again, it is another instance of you making yourself vulnerable…
Yeah, it’s just something that came from a real experience and actually, to some degree, multiple experiences, but really inspired by one.
How do you see hip-hop culture and music today, and how has it changed in the past few years?
The subject has been so thoroughly examined. I find that at a certain point that I’m not meant to be a voice in that debate. I think that my preference is to just make music…to just make the best music I can. All the debate surrounding all the peripheral bullshit that people want to talk about is really just that—it’s just peripheral bullshit. No genre lives or dies by conversation. No genre lives or dies by fads, apart from perhaps disco, but disco transformed itself and became techno and…disco never died, unfortunately. I think that it’s just down to how the whole industry is getting back the album — getting back to the expression. There is not going to be any surefire bet in any genre anymore. Kids are too savvy for it. Kids want more out of their music. I don’t think that it matters what “the state of rap music is.” We all know it’s up and down. It depends on who is feeling particularly creative and ballsy enough to do what they want to do at the time.
Along those same lines, something that I come across in conversation is the idea that hip-hop will never be as it was when Public Enemy was on the radio at the same time as LL Cool J.
Or NWA at the same time as De La Soul. You won’t have that anymore, but you also won’t listen to the radio anymore. Radio and the traditional ways of delivering the music have played themselves so hard that they’re just not interested in kids any more. Radio isn’t going to even exist in its current form after a while — it’s internet. People are making their own fucking mixes and don’t want to leave it to anyone else anymore. Yeah, it’s all changed, and we could lament about it…
In essence it doesn’t matter. I feel that hip-hop fans can be so nostalgic to say that “it’s never going to be like this again.”
Sure, I understand that because [of] the quality of music that gets released and the connection to things that people hold dear. Hip-hop is the only music that has an underlying, unspoken set of principles to it — it’s the only one. And that’s why we get upset when we think that those principles are being ignored and we get kind of tired of taking the best of the worst. It’s like, “Okay, well, I guess out of this steaming heap of garbage I like this piece of garbage more than that piece of garbage.” Personally, I haven’t listened to the radio in decades. That’s just where I’m at.
You’ve been involved in some benefits here and there, including performing in 2000 for Ralph Nader’s campaign. How much of an activist [do you consider yourself to] be?
I’m very much not an activist. Sometimes I’ll do things that I think are right to do. But I don’t consider myself an activist. I try and do my job and I think everyone has something cut out for them. I think the best thing that I could do is make true music. And that in itself is activism these days. No, I have no intention of getting involved in politics on any other level than being a thinking man and being someone who incorporates his perspective into his music as best as he can. I think there are other people that are more interested in getting more involved in that whole hellish world — I’m not.
Politics aside, the way that Bono is involved in eliminating Third-World debt, Sheryl Crow is involved with stopping global warming—
Yeah, I’m going to eliminate Third-World debt…
Yeah, on your next album.
Second on my list is poverty, then I’ll probably end wars — just as long as I can make a record. It’s great if it benefits people, but half the time the money goes to despots and criminals anyway. I’m not impressed. Anything I do I prefer to do behind the scenes. I don’t think that those types of things should be used to propel yourself into the eyes of the world. I do what I do silently. That’s what I prefer. I give to charities silently and that’s my deal. Once in a while I do use the modicum of exposure that I have to do something in the name of something that I think is right. But I’m never going to get involved as publicly as other people do.
Definitive Jux has been so successful, especially in the midst of crumbling sales in every genre. It seems like you’ve done things the right way — putting out artists that you’re fans of and that you like. That being said, do you have any regrets? Would you have done anything differently?
(Sighs) Yeah, the further you go on, the more you learn and the more you wish you could go back and apply some of those ideas. I think that there are records that we put out that could have been better, that I knew had a lot of potential, but maybe weren’t completely there. But I wouldn’t name names. It’s hard to look back and think of shit like that. I wish we were the label we are now when we first started because we weren’t organized in any way. The real label shit, the real structure and the whole professionalism of it came out of necessity. It came out of realizing that we were fucking up in the first couple years because we weren’t organized. So I wish I could have had all that organized and done so that there was never any bullshit in the beginning of the whole thing. Most independent labels never even fucking get accountants, they don’t have people to deal with royalties. They don’t have real structure to deal with the artists. A lot of them don’t even have fucking contracts. You’d be shocked to know how many big independent hip-hop labels don’t even do contracts. It took us [some time] to get all that shit done, but I was really serious about it. I was like, “You know what? Fuck this!” I’m not going to create another behemoth where people feel like they’re being cheated. I wish I would have had that all setup right from the beginning.