Music: The Ongoing Struggle

El-P discusses his process, bad gas station sandwiches and post-9/11 paranoia

May 2, 2007 at 2:06 pm

El-P's new album has political elements, but don't expect him to start preaching about societal ills anytime soon.

El-P creates from the gut. One listen to his visceral, densely layered Hip Hop soundscapes and deft, world-weary rhymes offers instant proof of the guy's fierce intensity and vision. Making music is his way of dealing with a world gone mad.

It started with a rocky Brooklyn childhood — an existence marked by old-school Rap and Philip K. Dick. By 17 he was a member of Company Flow, an innovative Hip Hop crew that left an indelible mark despite its untimely demise in 2001.

Not one to waste time, El quickly formed his own label, the underground creative powerhouse Definitive Jux, and released his first solo album, Fantastic Damage, which did exactly that.

After five years of various production and remixing gigs and label cultivation, El is back with I'll Sleep When You're Dead, another bitch-slap to complacent Hip Hop that would be right at home as the soundtrack to Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men. The album features production work by Cincy Hip Hop legend Mr. Dibbs, who is also touring with the El.

CityBeat recently spoke to El, who chatted via cell phone on a Brooklyn rooftop during a brief break from his current tour.

CityBeat: How was the European tour?

El-P: Europe is always the same: Half soul crushing, half incredible. The shows are great; the driving on the Autobahn for 10 hours and eating gas station sandwiches — no.

CB: It seems like the recording process is an intimate, bubble-like existence for you. How has it been bringing it to the masses and performing with a full band?

EL-P: I'm having a lot of fun playing, and the response has been crazy. I'm having more fun performing this record than any record I've ever performed. The music is closest to anything I've ever wanted to do. The translation between what's in my head and what I can do with my hands is much quicker and much more reliable now. And I'm connected to this shit. While the early stuff that I did was a part of me as well, it wasn't really geared toward performing as well as the new stuff.

CB: I've read that making the new album was a tumultuous experience ...

El-P: Look, it's not that tumultuous, it's just that it was intense. You know, you can't fucking fake that shit. If you're writing from your heart and you're about and inspired by struggle, then you can't just do it impersonally. The best metaphor would be that I'm a method actor, because I really feel what I'm talking about and I really come from my heart. I can't figure out how to separate myself. I go through the ringer, but it's just part of my process, that's just what I do. It's a small price to pay for the honor of being able to do music. If I have to go into my head a little bit deeper and a little bit darker than most people are willing, then I'll do it because I'm just glad to be able to show up to work everyday.

CB: Your stuff has this visceral, cinematic feel, this kind of post-9/11 paranoia that really comes through.

EL-P: That's not paranoia, that's reality. That's my life. This is the way that I see the world. This is my perspective. That's the way that I approach my writing. I've always had that dark, fucked-up perspective in the way that I see the world — half humorous, but also half tragic. I'm a bastard disciple to Orwell and Philip K. Dick to a degree. It's hard to tell somebody standing on this roof watching the World Trade Center fall that he's paranoid. Fantastic Damage was written before 9/11: You don't have to be a genius to connect a few dots. 1984 wasn't written about 1984; it was written about 1948.

CB: Several of the new songs tackle political topics, but you approach it from a highly personal perspective as opposed to this big-picture portrait. It's not heavy-handed or preachy. Was that something you were concerned about?

El-P: It's just something that I just don't want to do. It's not in my personality. I don't think anyone needs to hear that shit from me. I personally don't think that rappers or musicians should be occupying the soapbox. I think it's bullshit in the same way that I don't like bumping into a stranger and having him recycle some shit that he read on a pamphlet in a fucking café. It's intellectually insulting. It's condescending. Unless you're really good at it — there are a few people who are really good at talking about relevant social issues. And they have a place. For every Mr. Liff, who's amazing at talking about things that matter to his community, there are four other people who are really fucking annoying. Man, I can't even figure out how to walk down the street, so I'm damn sure not going to tell you about politics.

CB: You've talked about the importance of making a really good album and how it can affect people deeply, especially in our current sound-bite culture.

El-P: I just think it's an honorable art form. I grew up falling in love with records and having these experiences of putting headphones on and being transported. All I want to do is make a record that people will connect to, make a record that people care about and that people will tell you to "fuck off" for an hour when you put the headphones on. The desire to be moved by music will never wane.

EL-P performs Monday at Top Cat's with Mr. Dibbs.