EL-P talks about past and future releases on Def Jux Records, his forthcoming album, backlash from the critics and lots more.
El-P is eyeing my pack of Embassy's. "Can I bum one of those?" he asks. I tell him sure, but warn him upon handing him the pack that they're the smaller cigarettes. "That's okay,' he responds, "I've got smaller lungs". It certainly seems that way when listening to his music. The man has a rapid fire flow that urgently engages itself over a chaotic and clattering sonic back drop. The Brooklyn, NY native has been putting out music since '93. Along side Mr. Len and Big Juss he created some of the most innovative and exciting Hip Hop music of the nineties under the name Company Flow. By the turn of the millennium, however, El-P unleashed his monster of a record label, Definitive Jux, on the world. The music released on the label was some of the most original, raw and defiantly independent music of any genre. Though often pigeon-holed unfairly, El-P is in fact an impressively versatile artist who's catalogue includes a truly diverse collection of work. Just last year he released a jazz album, 'High Water', with the Blue Series Continuum. He also recently composed the score for 'Bomb The System', a film about a young graffiti writer and he has been remixing songs for a handful of rock outfits, most notably Nine Inch Nails.
"I don't want to be a one trick pony" he says flatly. "I'm constantly trying not to be trapped in any kind of box." That doesn't seem too likely. One of El-P's strangest creations yet is just beginning to emerge from his basement. Central Services is the teaming up of El-P on production and Camu Tao (of SA Smash) singing. Singing? "Camu is a good singer," El-P tells me, "He's a weird singer. Central Services is basically me and Camu doing a lot of drugs in my basement. It started as a joke." A joke that has been developing quite an audience as well as interest from a handful of record labels.
Having done so much work with others in the last couple of years El-P has decided to spend his time focusing on his new album, one he hopes will be out early next year. While no single has been released, a mix CD cut by DJ Big Wiz for HHC magazine featured an exclusive sample of a new song off of the album, "Everything Must Go." I point out the song seems almost light hearted in comparison the dense and paranoid sounds of his last solo endeavor, 'Fantastic Damage'. It's almost as if he's having fun. "Yeah, Fantastic Damage wasn't exactly what I would call "fun". But remember 'Everything Must Go' is just one track."
That seems to be way Definitive Jux works: expect the unexpected. The year has seen an assault of new releases from the label. The Perceptionists, the deadly combination of Mr. Lif, Akrobatik and DJ Fakts One, released 'Black Dialogue', an album of thoughtful, political and straight up bouncing tracks. Aesop Rock returned to form with his mini album 'Fast Cars, Danger, Fire and Knives'. C-Rayz Walz exploded back onto the scene with his second opus, 'Year Of The Beast'. All of these records boasted tracks produced by El-P. With the upcoming Cage album, 'Hell's Winter', set to drop in September, it seems the Jukies have come back out swinging.
It feels like a natural reaction. The last couple of years saw a real critical backlash for the label. I ask El-P if he was trying to prove people wrong. "I was trying to prove myself right" El-P says, grinning, "You can't be a critical darling for 100% of the time. We released a string of records that people were completely blown away by. You had Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock, Rjd2, Mr. Lif and Murs.
It was crazy and everyone was like 'Def Jux is Jesus on vinyl!'. And, you know, we're not." It was an understandable feeling, however. Def Jux exploded on the scene at the turn of the millennium offering up raw, un-compromised Hip Hop to eager fans who had become increasingly bored and disillusioned with the current state of the music.
"It's a risk for a fan," El-P speculates, " You put your heart into something and you really hope those artists don't let you down. People felt like Def Jux had never let them down. Then we put out a record that people didn't like as much, or didn't get the critical acclaim others did, and people were like 'Fuck, they let me down all of a sudden'. "We're a record label. We're going to put out a lot of records. And we're going to put some out that don't become huge or that people don't connect with on the same level as they do with other records. I knew the backlash was going to happen. I'd rather be in a position to have a backlash than never be in that position at all. We were up in everyone's faces. Everyone was giving us probably too much praise."
I'm reminded of another crew that suffered a far greater backlash, the Wu-Tang Clan. In the early nineties the crew damn near ruled the world. But by the end of the decade they seemed to disappear behind the glitter and bling of all those god damn Hype Williams' videos. The crew survived, however, and individual members of the group remain icons to countless heads.
El-P recently collaborated with one of those individuals, none other than Ghostface on a track called 'Hide Ya Face'. "Working with Ghostface was a tick off the rap fantasy checkist." He says. I ask if we can expect more Wu-Tang/Def Jux collaborations in the future. "The Wu-Tang are actually cutting an album now with a bunch of independent cats" El-P tells me, " It's Aesop Rock, C-Rayz Walz and Del The Funkee Homosapien. It's funny because the Wu-Tang are looked at now as back packers, which is sad." It is. The Wu-Tang never did fully recover from it's back lash. As lesser artists began climbing further up the charts the Wu was increasingly ignored. The fact that crews and individuals are now sequestered off into ghettos of "backpacker", "mainstream', "gangsta" and, God forbid, "conscious rap" seems to leave the Hip Hop community fragmented and stagnant. It severely limits the creative potential of artists to express themselves in different ways.
A fan base that turns a cold shoulder to something unexpected is also a problem. The tepid reaction to the SA Smash album on Def Jux serves as a good example. "When we released the SA Smash record people were like, 'What the fuck are you doing?'", "El-P tells me, "But I love that record and I love SA Smash. That's why I do this." The voices are dying down. Def Jux have just released an arsenal of excellent material and seem to have plenty more on the way. After the hype and the hate Def Jux seems determined to stay and put out quality music that may or may not be to everyone's liking.
"It was all kind of an precipice: the precipice of whether or not we're going to exist. Are we going to be the biggest thing in the world or are we just going to evaporate? I think we got over the exciting phase, we got over the scary phase and now we're just a record label that puts music out. The best response to a backlash is to put out good music. I just spent the last year or so trying to put out really solid records. That's all I ever wanted to do."
Biggups to Dom for sortin the interview.