Straight Outta Brooklyn: Q&A with MC El-P

Written by Adam Heimlich on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

El-P was the founder of
Company Flow. The crew is best known as a trio (with DJ Mr. Len and co-MC/producer
Bigg Jus) that released only one album, 1997’s Funcrusher Plus.
Riotously complex, yet funky, it played a big part in launching a then-new movement
of avant-minded hiphop, which came to be called the Underground. The album also
put the multi-ethnic scene’s flagship New York label, Rawkus, on the map.

The three
artists who made Funcrusher Plus hadn’t known each other long when
they recorded it, and they never worked together again. Mr. Len and Bigg Jus
are now solo artists.

As is El-P.
The disbanded group’s only white member, he remained a star attraction
in the Underground via guest appearances and productions. Last year he kicked
his own indie label, Def Jux (since renamed Definitive Jux under pressure from
Def Jam), into high gear, thrilling a niche audience with heady releases by
downtowner Aesop Rock and Harlem’s Cannibal Ox. Definitive Jux continues
in the vein of Company Flow by wedding uncompromising black pop to the sensibility
of a bohemian intellectual–arguably something hiphop’s been doing
since its inception, both with and without white input.

The label
will unveil its owner’s first solo album, Fantastic Damage, on May
14. It finds El-P at the top of his game. He vents with less restraint, confronts
listeners more directly and crams words tighter than ever. The beat style that
always suggested a staggering robot destroyer is now accompanied by a torrent
of noise, making El-P one of too-few hiphop producers trying to pick up the
thread started more than a decade ago by the Bomb Squad.

This interview
took place in El-P’s messy, bachelor-pad apartment in a quiet corner of
Brooklyn. It immediately followed what looked like a frustrating session in
his basement studio.

It was interesting
to see you having technical difficulties down there, because a lot of your lyrics
are about an uncomfortable relationship with technology. Historically, a lot
of hiphop was partly about being overjoyed with machines.

not overjoyed with it, man, it’s a love-hate relationship. I appreciate
that it enables me to do things that I wouldn’t have been able to do five
years ago, but I’ve also been known to take hammers to pieces of technology.
People have witnessed it. I snap every once in a while. I just feel like every
once in a while you have to show technology who’s the master, y’know?
I actually took a hammer to a five-disc CD changer about a year ago. I flipped
out. It wasn’t working correctly. I was trying to get a CD out of it and
the door wouldn’t quite open, it just kept going, "vvvvt."
So I opened it. It’s like, "You are my slave. My whore. My bitch.
If you don’t work for me…" I can’t do the role-reversal
thing. I don’t want to sweet-talk it. At the same time, y’know, I
love technology because I love making music. I love videogames. I have every
stupid gadget that comes out. I’m 100-percent a consumer. But I do it with
the understanding that I’m a pathetic person.

been inspired by science fiction for its way of approaching the issue.

I don’t
read science fiction per se. I was never into Isaac Asimov or any of that shit…
I’m not that interested in reading about fantasy races of aliens. It’s
the dystopian vision that’s interesting to me. As a metaphor it’s
a good writing tool–a way to point out some real possibilities and some
truths about what’s going on in our lives now. Philip K. Dick–easily
my favorite writer–he hated the "science fiction" term but he
embraced it. It was more philosophy or sociology.

His checks
were coming from a certain sector of the market. Do you ever feel that your
audience is, in the same way, expecting your work to fit in some pigeonhole

Nah, I don’t
really give a fuck about my audience. But there is an influence, definitely,
in that writing style–in terms of it being fast, with concepts popping
out, and of a lot of ideas that can lead different places crammed in. That’s
always the way I’ve written. I’ve tried to throw in a lot of–depending–but
my sort of template style has been throwing a lot of information into one structure.

Do you feel
any tension between your approach and hiphop tradition?

steeped in tradition. I’m soaked in it. I’m more traditional that
any of these motherfuckers. A lot of cats–I was raised in New York in the
80s. I saw hiphop unfold. I know what it’s about.

Where were
you living?

Manhattan, downtown Brooklyn, in between. Wherever my mother moved.

I feel like
my shit is highly traditional in the sense that I hold the pillars of what I
think–of the shit that inspired me. I hold that with me with everything
I do. I’m not interested in going beyond those elements so far that they’re
not recognizable. But as long as I hold on to those things it gives me room
to do anything else. It’s like my failed attempt at being Run-DMC. I wanna
be Run-DMC, but unfortunately my mind is different, so filtered through me it
comes out sounding strange. But it’s all about drums. If the drums are
hard and you have that b-boy essence and you know what the fuck is going on,
then do whatever you want. The shit that I don’t like is the shit where
cats are, like, trying to go so far beyond whatever they perceive to be the
realm of hiphop that they don’t even understand how the music developed
or where their styles are from. Cats who condescend to it. I don’t think
I’m smarter than hiphop.

You give
the bratty wing of the white, independent rap scene quite a smack on Fantastic

Sure. And
I’m not talking about anyone. It’s a whole type of fan base now. It’s
like a subgenre of hiphop now. People who prefer to be intellectual over happy.
Who prefer to be upset instead of happy. You either genuinely have problems
or you search them out. When you’re young and you’re smart, one of
the quickest ways to seem smart is to be critical, is to criticize. Especially
privileged kids. I’m guilty of that too, when I was young. You want to
be able to connect to someone. But after that, you have human experience, you
have growth. Once being smart doesn’t really hold up anymore–once
experience comes and just whips your ass, you have to re-approach shit. And
that’s okay. I think a lot of people go through that. I did. That’s
why my album is so much more personal and emotional than the stuff I did on
Funcrusher. That was me just trying to be smart–funny smart. Just
trying to talk shit. Me and Jus would just sit around and figure out the funniest
things that we could actually say.

What did
you get out of sharing the mic with Jus?

It was great
fun. I had a great time. I liked the meshing of the two different styles and
the way we could bounce off each other. We had similar senses of humor. I loved
being in a group, and when it worked it was so good. I never personally wanted
to do a solo record. At the same time, though, if I had to be honest, if I look
at it now: okay, I never wanted to do a solo record but at the same time I always
wanted to be in charge. I always wanted, ultimately, to be in control. So something
had to give, I suppose.

How old
are you?

I just turned

your ethnic background?

I don’t
know. My father’s family is Jewish, and my mother was straight-up Daughter
of the Revolution, Irish and maybe some French. I’m really not sure.

You don’t
identify with any of those?

Nah. If
anything, more of the Jewish side, because that was the most cultural thing
I experienced as a kid. When I was involved in that side of my family, we’d
always go to Passover and Chanukah. I wasn’t raised with the religion,
but I was raised with the people and the culture. I never separated them. My
dad isn’t a practicing Jew–he’s a hiding Jew, actually.

Most white
MCs have some sort of ethnic or minority sensibility.

I think
most music that’s good comes from a perspective of having a different tilt.
Definitely growing up with stories about people in my family surviving Nazi
concentration camps and understanding and witnessing the strong cultural community
vibe that my family had around the holidays was important to me. My father was
a very antiestablishment kind of cat. He was a jazz pianist; that’s what
he did. He was the guy who, when he had kids, went to go work on Wall Street,
but one day the boss told him to wear a tie, so he came in the next day with
a tie around his head. He was that guy. He told me at a young age, "Don’t
wear a suit." My pops was crazy.

Is your
dad on any records?

No, he never
recorded. He wasn’t in it for fame.

You inherited
some of his anti-authority streak. Didn’t you get thrown out of a few prestigious

A couple.
A private school called St. Ann’s, in Brooklyn Heights. It’s one of
those schools that when you go there as a kid they tell your parents that you’re
a genius so that they’ll pay the fuckin’ tuition. That was a good
school, with good teachers, though. I got kicked out. I didn’t really fit
in. Me and my friends didn’t fit in there.

Mike D of the Beastie Boys go there?

didn’t really fit in either… I can’t even say it was St. Ann’s.
I just wasn’t fitting into schools in general. It wasn’t working for
me. It’s not that me and my friends didn’t fit in like we got picked
on and spit on. It just wasn’t our group of people.

there a bunch of arty kids there who were into graffiti, breakdancing and rap?

Yeah, and
that’s who we were friends with. But ultimately, the reason I got kicked
out was that the powers that be didn’t like my vibe. I wasn’t very
"Go team." I was just doing my shit. Sitting in the stairwell listening
to headphones. We had a group of good friends, a lot of cats who were creative.
I just wanted to do my shit. I got kicked out of two schools. After that, I
was at a crossroads: "Am I going to do this school thing? Can I do it?
Do I want to? Or am I going to come up with Plan B?" The only thing I was
doing besides school was music. So I started to take that really seriously,
and I went to engineering school. I said, "Fuck it. I’ll go to school,
but it won’t be for something that I have no interest in." The only
thing I was interested in at school was English. Writing. I excelled at that.
But the other shit, I just didn’t go. I was outside drinking beer or running
around being a delinquent.

What would
you say to the teenage El-P if you could talk to him today?

up. Shut the fuck up."

You must
have a lot of fans who are like that. Smart little delinquents.

get it twisted: I wasn’t in the Trench Coat Mafia or anything. I had friends.

Yeah, so
do your fans, right?

Aha. No
they don’t.

something that you doubt your fans know about you? Something that’s not
revealed onstage?

I think
people think I’m a bastard–like a tough bastard all the time.

Your voice
is tough.

My voice
is tough, the way I deliver my shit is tough and I can be tough, but that’s
not who I am at all times. I think probably a lot of people don’t realize
that I’m not quite as, um–I’m kind of a relaxed cat. My rhymes
are one thing. The way that I kick my shit and perform is one thing, but I’m
not Mr. Angry all the time. People think I’m the God of Anger. That’s
what annoys me–people don’t even listen to lyrics these days. They
just hear my delivery.

Are you
mad at Rawkus? There’s that line on the album about how you’d rather
be raped by Nazis than sign a contract with them.

I believe
the term I used was "mouth-fucked." "Mouth-fucked by Nazis, unconscious…"
Hey, I just didn’t want to let them think they were completely off the
hook for, y’know, fuckin’ with me.

Do they
owe you money?

Oh yeah.

Did you
see any money from Funcrusher at all?

Oh, that’s
really none of your business. But they do owe us money and that’s our business.
But that’s not why–I’m just poking them a little. I think they
had a good thing going and they fucked it up. I think they lost clarity of vision.
I think if they were smart they would’ve thrown themselves into what was
pure about the label–why people were liking the label, which was that they
were putting out new hiphop music, and putting money behind it, and blowing
up music that maybe previously hadn’t had the opportunity to go through
those channels. I don’t think they realized what people liked about them.
I think they were just kinda happy that they were getting props.

But whatever.
My relationship with Rawkus was good until it wasn’t. When it started to
get bad, I left. It’s not a big deal. I just like to poke them in the ribs
a little bit. Now I feel like I’m following correctly in their footsteps
to an extent. I’m trying to create something that, in an alternate universe,
they could have created–[though] with much less money. I don’t have
the funding of Rupert Murdoch behind me. But I have the heart and the vision,
I think, to do something more powerful than they ended up doing. But who knows?
I’m not trying to say that Rawkus won’t do something good. I’m
just saying that I thought they represented something for a long time, and then
I found out that they didn’t. And I felt a little duped by it. Especially
considering that I’m so careful about who I work with. That’s why
I eventually stepped to them like, "Look, I see where you’re going
and where you want to go and I know where I’m going and where I’ve
always wanted to go, so let’s just call it a day. And walk away happy,
knowing that you got a connection to hiphop that you didn’t have before,
and I got some exposure that I didn’t have before, and it all worked out."
And all the rest of the technical stuff is just personal business.

You and
your label get a lot of press in Europe. Is your audience any different over

My audience
is just my audience. They’re all the same type of people, hungry for that
b-boy energy that we love so much… We get good press, but they also dis
the shit out of me. That’s what you got to love about Europe, or at least

In England
you’re big enough to be getting backlash.

Yeah, I
expected backlash for a long time. I got it, and I’ve even gone through
it a little bit. I think I might be coming out the other end. I think I might
actually be at the point now where people will want to listen to my shit again!
[sarcastically] Everyone should wait five years between records.

London is
funny. The press over there is hilarious. I love them to death, and at the same
time I fuckin’ despise them. They’ll be the first motherfuckers to
go to your show and spend half the fuckin’ article describing how you looked.
They’ll describe how you’re overweight or something. It’s like,
Motherfucker, have you brushed your teeth today? They’ve done that a few
times to me. It’s like, Okay, yes, I weigh 200 pounds, I’m 5-9–sue
me. What the fuck do you want? I’m not a fuckin’ model. Leave me alone.
Trust me: I get more ass than you.

I like London.

I definitely
appreciate it. It’s one of the few places I think I could move if I had
to go out of the country, which I may.

Are you
thinking about leaving the country because of the President or something?

Well, yeah.
Every year I have that month of panic where I start looking around. I went through
so much millennial panic when the clock was about to strike 2000. I was that
motherfucker who went and bought canned food and shit. I can’t go through
that again. At this point I’m like, Okay, fine, the world’s going
to end. I can write about it here and there from my perspective, but it’s
over and I can’t put that much energy into it anymore. I’ll never
be as afraid until bombs are straight-up going off outside of my crib. Which
they are, but, you know.

Your song
"Patriotism" is one of the most anti-American rap songs of all time.
Did 9/11 give you a sense of people who are more evil than our government?

I don’t
compare. I just get a sense that there’s evil out there. Serious evil,
and it’s busting through. It can’t be contained anymore by our little
paradigm of security. I don’t separate our government from a Middle Eastern
government or any fuckin’ government who’s killing, anyone who’s
oppressive. I’ll be honest with you–I love America. I’m not even
gonna front. Once you get a glimpse of some of the ways people live that we
just take for granted, it certainly is eye-opening. But we’re also at the
forefront of apocalypse technology. We’re bringing it to you live and direct: