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Beatnik rings up the former Def Jukie to ask about Ray Bradbury, books and whether his label still exists. He is not amused.
words Rob BoffardDrones Over Bklyn
Our interview with El-P did not go well.
Actually, that’s being charitable. It was a bloody disaster. And we’re quite sad about this, because we like El-P. He is ridiculously talented: a creative force of nature on the boards. His albums up to this point – in particular Fantastic Damage and I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead – are just brilliant. If you haven’t heard his music, it can come as a bit of a shock. It’s dense as mercury, black as pitch and as noisy as a cat being put through a wood chipper. That’s not a bad thing, by the way – we don’t wish any cats to be harmed, necessarily, but it does make great music. And say what you like about his h-hop, it sure is distinctive.
So we were looking forward to talking to him. Sure, he was being interviewed everywhere, but we would be different. We had carefully-thought-out questions about his new album, Cancer 4 Cure. We wanted to ask about his former label, Def Jux, his difficult relationship with former associate Vast Aire, the status of his group Company Flow and more. We would be different.
We weren’t. And if you ask El-P—nicely—he’ll just tell you we were bloody annoying.
Our problems started when we couldn’t connect. The telephone in El’s Brooklyn apartment wasn’t accepting our Skype call. When he did pick up—ten minutes later—he listened to our apology and brusquely informed us that he might have to hang up on us, as he had other interviews. Right: better skip the ice-breaking questions, then.
I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead was a critical smash. Was that something you were thinking of when you started making C4C? That it might be difficult to top?
Um, yeah. I try not to think about that shit when I’m making a record but yeah, of course.
OK. Can you elaborate?
I try not to let it. The production process is easiest enough on its own when you don’t think about the critical reaction to it.
Were you in New York when you made it?
Hmmm. This isn’t going to plan. We feel about as welcome as an IRS officer, who has just showed up on his doorstep wanting to ask impertinent questions about his finances.
We try a different tack: his association with Killer Mike, the Southern rapper who has become an unlikely muse. El produced every track on Mike’s R.A.P. Music, so this might lead to some fun stories.
How did you meet Killer Mike?
We met in Atlanta. I flew down there to make some music on a suggestion from someone at the Cartoon Network, and I…um, we just met at the studio down there and hit it off. Me and Mike just had a very similar perspective. It was a very cool and surprising thing.
Ah, that explains it! He’s high! He’s not answering properly because he’s stoned off his face! We’re talking about rap music, and he’s muttering about cartoons. Oh, El, you rascal.
Except, something’s not right here. No. We have to check.
Sorry, did you say Cartoon Network?
Yeah. Their label put out the R.A.P Music album.
Damn. He’s not high. We try to come up with a follow-up question, but we can’t think of anything that wouldn’t sound completely ridiculous and obvious. Right then, sod it, if he doesn’t want to talk about music, we’ll talk about something else. Something he might actually like: science fiction.
Ray Bradbury died yesterday. We know you’re quite a science fiction fan; were you a fan of his at all?
Any particular stories you enjoyed?
Um, yes, we can hear influences in your music from that particular story.
Sure.The Full Retard
At the back of our brain, a little voice bleats: why did you ask that? What influences? It’s a completely meaningless question! Quick, ask something else!
Why does science fiction attract you?
Well, I mean, you know…I dunno. Sociological fiction, but with everything cool like floating cars and lasers.
Any particular scifi you’ve been enjoying recently?
Um, no I don’t really…not for a while. I haven’t read any for a while.
Oh, OK. So what are you reading at the moment?
I’m not really reading at the moment.
Not at all?
No. Why do you think I’d be reading?
You struck us as someone who’d have a book on the go?
I do sometimes. But I’m not reading right now.
This is like to talking to one of those stupid boxing dolls. Every time you smack it, it just swings back up and socks you in the nose.
We’re a little confused about the status of Def Jux? We were under the impression it had shut down but we’ve seen signs that it’s still active?
Essentially it’s closed. It exists in name to some degree, we still use the website to do some pre-orders like we did for my record, but for the most part it’s shut down.
Why did you shut it down?
Shit man, I wasn’t fucking rich and I wasn’t having fun. It came down to that, and it was time to move on. I couldn’t think of many reasons to keep it open, and it just felt like it was time to move on.
Did the people working on the label agree?
They did, because it was really difficult to keep the label running. It was tough for everybody, but after a while it just seemed like the right thing to do.
But Def Jux was always viewed as one of the more successful indie labels in rap. You’re saying that wasn’t the case?
We had moments of success, highs and lows. It was an uphill battle. Sometimes we were doing really well, sometimes we weren’t. I tried to fight for it in the leaner times because I really wanted to do it, but after a while, in my mind I wasn’t really that interested in doing it anymore. I wanted to concentrate on music. So, I didn’t really have the drive and the fight to keep it going, to walk through the muck and the mire.
Would you do it again?
I don’t know. I don’t feel like that right now, but you never know.
He’s not just losing interest, he’s stopped trying to find it altogether. Back to his music.Stay Down
Your tracks are always amazingly dense. How do you even begin building something like Request Denied [the opening track on C4C]?
Lot of times, it’s as simple as that. Or bassline, something like that. But that song started with drums…
He starts to say something else, but the line breaks up, and his words tumble off into the ether.
Sorry, El, you broke up. Could you repeat that?
I said it started with drums! It evolved from there!
He’s annoyed. Oh dear. But it’s time to be stubborn. We’ll get a decent answer if we have to drag it out of him feet-first.
Is that how most of the tracks start? From a single instrument or idea?
Yeah, a lot of the time. You gotta start somewhere. Sometimes the music will radically change depending on what happens. Oftentimes it’ll start one way and completely end up a different way.
You’ve been touring a bit with Company Flow. Any chance of a record soon?
Maybe. I’m not really sure. It’s a possibility. We all had a good time doing the shows, and you know, we kind of decided that if we do any more shows, we’re gonna try and do new material for it. There are no plans right now but it’s something we’re interested in. Fucking around and seeing if it sounds good.
It’s hopeless. This isn’t an interview. It’s barely a conversation. And the scary thing is: we know how El must be feeling. Some stranger down the phone is asking odd and puzzling questions about his reading habits, a label he no longer runs and his opinion on a dead writer. No wonder he doesn’t want to talk.
We don’t have the heart to ask him about Vast Aire, who he recently had a very ugly beef with. We feel like if we do, he’ll just hang up.
Sorry if we asked you questions you’ve been asked a million times before.
It’s fine man, it’s fine. Peace.
He ends the call. We’re secretly a bit relieved. We may have comprehensively failed to interview El-P, but at least we don’t have to do it anymore.
Go check out Cancer 4 Cure. El might not be forthcoming in interviews, but he makes one mother of a rap record.