El-P interview: A Definitive Jux mastermind psychoanalysed

by Mark Pollard on January 6, 2009 · 9 comments

in Interviews

“I was born into chaos and rain and fire and strangeness and the city and action and stress.
As much as I’d love not to feel those things sometimes, I’m probably meant for that.”

El-P is intense. The way he talks is dense like his lyrics. His sentences build like truncated haikus, and steady punch you in the face with their matter-of-factness. The thing is, you can’t but deeply respect this intensity. It’s taken him from Company Flow on Rawkus Records in the 1990′s to his massive output as a producer and MC on his Definitive Jux record label.

El-P mixing desk

What are one or two events in your life that have been the most life-defining?
That’s a big question. The divorce of my parents when I was 7 and getting kicked out of high school for the second time when I was 15.

Are those two events connected?
I’m sure they are in some way.

At what age did you start getting perspective on your parents splitting up?
Well, my parents splitting up moved me to Brooklyn, which put me in a position of being raised by women, being raised by a single mum, and it dictated the direction of my life. It was a profound change from the way it was. It put me in the places I needed to be in order to become the person that I am, including all the fucked up years when I was angry and rebellious, which conveniently got me kicked out of every school I was ever in. And that led to me forcing myself to take music seriously.

Did you retreat into writing at a young age or was it something you found later?
I was always writing.

Even before the divorce?
Well, I was very young. I wasn’t writing novels. But I was always into the written word and the music as well.

Have you kept much of the stuff you wrote when you were young?
No. I don’t have much at all from when I was young. There are very few things that I have from when I was young. I think my mother might have some stuff. My sister’s a bit more on the archival tip than I was. I grew up assuming that the next thing was going to be my starting point. I really didn’t keep any of that shit.

I’d assume from your lyrics that there’s a pretty deep body of reading that you’ve done over the years. Is that correct?
Yes, that’s correct.

El-P closeup portrait 1

When you were going through that rebellious stage, were you delving into those books that have inspired you or did that happen a bit later?
I think it was all simultaneous. A lot of the books and authors I got into appealed to my sense of anger and injustice. I had an innate sense that there was something unjust happening at all times. When you’re young you have no idea why you think that so you just point at everything around you – school, parents. A lot of the books that led me to a lot of the ideas I hold now appealed to that Orwellian mindset. I think that anyone who’s kind of smart and kind of angry can latch onto those types of things pretty quickly. That’s just the early stages of developing a thought process, an opinion beyond the scope of the things around. I was always looking for an opinion that I could make sense of, that made more sense than what was getting told to me.

Was there one book that really lit up your life?
Oh yeah. I would say 1984. I came across it on my mother’s bookshelf. It was an amazing story but it opened up a door in terms of the ideas of power and abuse of power, and the relationship between the helpless and those in control, and that was something that was appealing to a kid like me who felt like he was powerless, who felt resentful to people who were in control. Even though it was mildly misguided, it was something I couldn’t get out of my head and it lent itself to my general attitude. So I don’t want to say that that book made me but it was a serious starting point.

In Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love) (listen, read lyrics), you talk about going back to something natural and living off the land. Do you aspire to a simpler life?
No, that was totally in character. That’s a very common delusion that people have and I was writing from the perspective of someone having a delusion of a Utopian life. Because right after that, I wrote, When Radon levels drop we walk the trails and talk and laugh. So it’s not some perfect world I’m describing. But, no, I think that’s ridiculous. I was born into chaos and rain and fire and strangeness and the city and action and stress. As much as I’d love not to feel those things sometimes, I’m probably meant for that.

When I listen to the music you make and the way you deliver it, I always get this image of an orator from an ancient civilisation.
Well, that’s not intended but if people pick up stuff like that it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. It’s just not intended. I mean, the time may change, the space may change, the reality may change, but tapping into certain archetypal feelings and emotions and existences, if done eloquently… Writing about pain and love and struggle in 2007 is no different to writing about it in Roman times. It’s the same struggle, it’s just that the names and faces change. But I’m really writing about what I see now, what I feel now. But what I see now isn’t something that’s unique to my world, my time. I’m just tapping into the human existence and the only way I can do that is to be as aware as I can of what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling. And assuming I’m not particularly unique as a human.

El-P feature closeup

What’s been the single biggest challenge over the past 5 years as this album has come together and as you move into the next phase?
For me, making a record is a big deal because it’s confronting who you are and trying to really figure that out: ‘Who am I at this time?’ The album is almost making a decision as to who you are because you’re putting this piece of work forward. In order to be real about it, I feel I need to understand something – an idea, who I am and therefore what I’m going to focus on. It’s not just music – that’s probably why I don’t make records every year. It’s exhausting for me. I take it very seriously – maybe not always in the context of the songs but in the context of the overall artwork. It’s all gotta be you. That’s kind of hard. It’s not easy to take stock of yourself especially when what you see is not always what you want to do be, and then to confront that, to be OK with that and use it in music. I’m not trying to make records about who I want to be. I’m trying to make records about who I am.

How hard are you on yourself through the writing process?
I’m very critical but at the same time I leave room for spontaneity. You have to have a balance. I’m critical like any good writer or artist is (not to say I’m necessarily a good one but I strive to be). I definitely take a lot of time to do what I do but sometimes songs just come. It really depends on inspiration and the moment. What was a challenge on this record for me was diving back into that world because I spent the last 5 years really working outside of myself and then to all of a sudden enter into this territory where it’s really isolating, you’re dipping back into your own mind. My mind can not be the most fun and entertaining place for me to go sometimes.

Was there a clear moment when you thought you had another album in you and the time was now?
Yeah, well I knew I had another album in me and I know I have another one in me yet still. It was just building and building. It just came to a boil. I felt like I was in the state and could make it happen. It wasn’t about my career. This is my life, this is my love and when it’s all said and done these things are the only things that are going to be left of me. So I have to heed the calling.

Why did you decide to be so public about putting I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (2007) together with the blog – even making commitments to timelines?
It was just spontaneous. I was just wondering around the internet one day and thinking, ‘How come all of these blogs are always the same thing? How come they’re always some guy putting a song up, describing what he does or doesn’t like about it?’ The blog seemed like it had just been taken over as an extension of the media, of the press, even though it was something more personal. I just thought to myself that it would be fun to do a journal that wasn’t like that, that was more an artistic offshoot of the creative process. And I just started doing it for fun really, and also to collect my thoughts. I thought it might be cool in this day and age as an interaction between the fans, for them to be let in on the whole process. When I released the record, people referred to the blog a lot because it explained little details of shit that they might not have gotten, especially with my music – it’s not necessarily the most direct type of writing. A lot of times I feel like people wanted to understand the motivation behind some of it so putting words and pictures up seems to have retroactively cleared some thoughts up for people about what I was doing.

Are you still using the same production gear as you were for Fantastic Damage‘?
I’m using that and more. It’s expanded.


Do you hunt much for gear?
There’s no piece of gear that’s going to make your record for you but I’m a musician, I’m a tech head and I love musical instruments so I’m always adding to my setup but I did plenty of that when I wasn’t writing for myself. One of the cool things about taking that break was getting new gear and working on it, testing it, finding out what I liked about it, working for other people. It was a testing ground for how I was going to produce my own record. By the time I got to my record I’d already figured a few techniques out that I wanted to employ.

Is there anything you surprised yourself with making your album, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead?
I think it’s always surprising just to be able to make a song. I feel like every time I make a song I’m really not sure I can do it when I start. There’s never a comfort zone for me. Making a song that I feel is a genuine song, that really works, I always feel like I’m flying by the seat of my pants. You can’t just manufacture that shit. So when I make a song that I feel really came together, writing-wise and production-wise, something that I can listen to and that will move me, that’s always a shock. It’s something that you don’t get used to.

The Dramatic Intro Machine – tell me about that.
I just had this fucking huge evil intro to this thing and I thought, ‘This is hilarious. A – this is incredibly pretentious, and B – I love it!’ I just said it. I felt like some mad scientist who was bringing in some huge robot that was built just to make this intro. I never want to be taking what I’m doing too seriously. You have to see the hilarity of the whole thing and simultaneously be able to stick your chest out and say, ‘I am serious.’ That’s just my slant. Some people who follow my music know there’s always that tongue-in-cheek perspective but that doesn’t mean that what I’m saying isn’t important to me. It just means that serious things aren’t always immune to hilarity.

- El-P interview conducted mid-2007. Unpublished until now.

More El-P:       Definitive Jux MySpace Last.FM YouTube

A video interview with El-P and Mr Len from the Stealth vault

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Universal Indie Records January 7, 2009 at 3:39 am

Good read. El-P I’ll admit to being a late follower of your music but in this day and age where I find most of the music coming out to be “shit”… your music is definitely inspirational in the fact that you do what you feel and don’t chase trends.

Much luck to you and yours in 2009!

2 nick sweepah January 7, 2009 at 12:38 pm

great read.
love it when someone’s not afraid to talk, and it seems el’s never short of a few words. “even when i say nothing it’s a beautiful use of negative space…” haha. i guess we’ll never see that, but that’s fine. i basically want to hear anything he has to say – el-p’s probably my greatest influence of recent years.

[ /end gushing ]

3 Michael Robinson January 7, 2009 at 6:13 pm


EL-P is the definite leader in the evolving Hip Hop world. I thought that his last LP was revolutionary. Musically intense. Lyrically complex. Honest. A timeless album. Congratulations to EL-P for all his success in the music business with Def Jux and his own creative career.

4 Michael Robinson January 7, 2009 at 6:18 pm

PS Anyone know if the sound like “errratttt”" (bad description I know) from the track Smitherens is sampled from Star Trek or McDonalds?

5 JR Moreau March 27, 2009 at 12:33 am

Nice to read a non-fanboy interview. One of the better interviews I’ve read with El-P. Great job.

6 charlie bucket September 8, 2009 at 2:35 pm

quality interview mark

7 connick December 5, 2009 at 3:08 am

@Michael Robinson

I thought that it was the Star Trek sound on that track too until I listened to it on my home stereo. In the car it sounds just like it, but when I hear it in surround sound at home it’s more punctuated. Instead of being a smooth upward note going from low to high it’s got a wierd warble to it.

So instead of “errrattt” it’s more like “erdle erdle erdle erdle attt”. We are so good at turning sounds into words, aren’t we. ;)

P.S. Hooray for El-P!

8 setrule January 21, 2011 at 10:48 am

Always loved his production … the soundtrack to the END

9 Fanon Che Wilkins May 14, 2012 at 6:07 pm

Very nice piece. I would have liked to have heard him talk about Hiphop in general–in terms of who inspires him etc. But overall, wonderful piece of work-I learned a lot.

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