Looking Back From Cancer 4 Cure: Q&A With El-P

Photo by Tim Saccenti

In the mid-to-late 90s, with his group Company Flow, Brooklyn’s El-P established a verbose style of rapping paired with dark, distorted beats that distinguished him not only from the conventional sounds of the day, but also from any form of experimentalism that had existed in hip-hop until that point. Samples were tweaked to unidentifiable extents and the rhymes packed intelligent references delivered in ferocious bursts of speech that became his signature as an MC.

What El-P saw and created in rap music were revolutionary elements that pushed the style further into abstraction while continuing to uphold the strength and bravado that MCs have maintained since the genre’s inception. It was these traits that he sought in other musicians when he founded the Definitive Jux label in 1999. In this collective, there was no softening, no heartfelt emotionality, and any doleful introspection resonated on cold concrete rather than warm earth. Each member stood apart in his own way, testing the bounds of what the lyrical format would allow, from Mr. Lif‘s hard-edged amalgamation of the old school flow to Aesop Rock’s gloomy compound cadences.

Following production for the albums of Def Jux artists, including the full load of beats on Cannibal Ox‘s The Cold Vein, El-P dropped his first solo record in 2002. Fantastic Damage was the worldview of El-P undiluted, an abrasive injection of intellectualism that instantly struck a chord with the followers of Def Jux and beyond. It would be five years before his next solo effort, and the quality of Fantastic Damage filled those years with anticipation. When I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead dropped in 2007, the listening world found the same El-P with the same informed, cynical outlook but a matured sense of production and lyricism. The rawness was still there, but the artist had grown.

Since that release, fans of El-P don’t await his albums for another revolution like the one he began with. They wait for evolved quality, the application of his sheer musical experience improving his work. Unlike artists who redefine themselves with every release, the picture El-P has painted since the beginning has been a deliberate and defined one that never requires an overhaul.

Next week, El-P will release his third solo album (not including 2004’s collaborative instrumental album High Water or the collection of B-sides from the same year, Collecting the Kid). Cancer 4 Cure comes after what has become the standard interval between such releases for him, and anticipation has grown to a fever pitch. Also released this month was R.A.P. Music, the Killer Mike album produced in its entirety by El-P.

We sat down with the musician at his Brooklyn home to find out about the process for both Cancer 4 Cure and R.A.P. Music, as well as some of the history of one of hip hop’s most fascinating careers.

The Creators Project: How long have you been working on this new record now?
El-P: Well, it’s scattered throughout the last four years, basically. Some of the music is as old as 2008. Some of the beginning of the music itself, but I did the bulk of the work in the last year and half, two years.

As far as that goes, generally, has the process for this one been the same as it was for the last two lyrical hip-hop albums?
Unfortunately, yes. For the most part, beyond the details of it, but the general process of taking a really long time to comb over and obsess over shit, yeah.

And where do you begin, generally? With the beats, the rhymes, or a concept?
It almost always starts with music. For me, that’s the easiest place to begin. And the music, often you try and kind of just work on something and the sound and an idea of the sound, and work on it until it just sparks inspiration for words. And that’s almost always how it works for me. I’m constantly writing things down, constantly writing words down, and ideas and sentences on little digital scraps of paper and what not. But really getting into writing songs and full verses, it really takes a piece of music to really move it, and move me, and put it into place.

And when you start with a beat, what’s the first building block? Is it sample, a drum sound?
I gotta say, it really matters, it really changes. Sometimes I’ll sit down and just work with drums and play some synths over it and even try to come up with a general bass line or something that may not even end up there by the time the song is done, but just something to get it moving. And a lot of times a bass line or a synth line and some drums are the easiest template to get your brain started. Sometimes it’s a sample or sometimes it’s me taking a sample and trying to manipulate it and change it and running it through outboard gear and putting effects on it, and seeing if I can create a different sample. And then seeing where that lands, and sort of placing that and putting it on a tempo, and coming up with a rhythmic pattern for it. Unfortunately, I wish I had more of a precise and predictable process because my process essentially kills me. It’s like I’m learning how to make music every time I sit down. Every time I sit down, I’m like, “Oh shit, how do I do this again? I don’t even remember.”

Photo by Tim Saccenti

And equipment-wise, what are you using right now?
Protools HD is the hub of what I do. It’s where I do all my editing and a lot of production at this point. I use a little bit of everything. I always have a little arsenal of synths and things, of analog synths and modern synths. On this record, I used a lot of different stuff. I used some Moog stuff, I used a Jupiter, I used a Chroma Polaris, which is this amazing synth that was at this studio that I had the pleasure of spending some time at in upstate New York. But also a lot of flat drums, piano, guitars, certainly samples of things scattered throughout, but mostly at this point small bits and pieces I like to frame. Shit, I have a theremin. I always have a different little arsenal. And I use plug-ins too, like Omnisphere. I had a lot of fun playing Maschine on this one. It’s a great program for drum patterns.

I have a bunch of outboard gear that I like to use. I like to collect pedals and things, harmonizers and filters. I have something called an Ebbe Und Flut. I’ve sort of built up an arsenal of things that I can manipulate sound with. I’m very much into having hard gear, outboard gear because I think that’s something that people kind of have strayed away from or just don’t have, just haven’t really incorporated into what they do. It’s not as mobile, it’s not as easy. Most people concentrate on learning how to manipulate sounds with a machine or a program. I like that random element of being able to throw music, throw it out and bring it back in, and have it be completely manipulated and changed depending on what you chained it together with. So I spend a lot of time on sound design. That’s a big part of what I do, and just trying to create tones and create noise that will change the way I use them once I have them.

Company Flow performing at The Creators Project: New York 2011

I think what you described is fairly unconventional as far as hip-hop production goes, which is generally nowadays, very software-centric. And that sort of distortion, or the balance of distortion, within a beat composition, is something you’ve had as far as Company Flow days. What was the equipment setup back then? Was it a lot simpler?
Yeah, it was a sampler. It was a turntable and an EPS 16, Ensoniq EPS sampler, which I still use up to this day. It’s probably the third one I’ve owned. But the distortion that came from the Company Flow shit is just me recording this shit hot. It was just taking very crappy sound quality and pushing it as loud as you possibly could to make that sound for whatever that’s worth.

As far as producing for the Def Jux dudes, was there a specific style you were trying to undertake for Aesop or for Lif and whoever else? Or was it just beats?
I think for a long time I was just doing what I did. And just trying to come up with what seemed to fit for everybody. Over the years, I sort of really thought of what it meant to produce for other people and how it needed to be not be about me and just me just doing what I do, but how it needed to be me helping someone craft a sound for them to tell their story, and that’s easier to do when you do a full record instead of one song. I’m getting less and less interested in just doing one song for people. I’m more interested in doing full records.

Hence the Killer Mike record
Yeah, Killer Mike, but Cannibal Ox was the first I did for anyone else. Obviously, I was allowed to and able to create a scope of a sound for that. The same thing for Mike. That’s really when you get to put thought into what you’re doing, or the bigger picture of what you’re doing. I find that when you produce for someone else, it’s great, it’s just out of context and it’s just going to be that one moment. The art of the album is what really interests me. Being able to relate different tracks, like track three to track seven, and track seven to track one, and that’s the thing that’s really exciting to me artistically, for me that’s the ultimate.

But I still love producing for other people even if it’s not a full record. I guess I’m just trying to answer the question of how I approach it. At this point I just try to make people sound as awesome as they possibly can sound. Beyond that, with Killer Mike the thing was, “Let me come up with something that’s a little more soulful, a little bit funkier than, and a little texturally different from what I’m going to be doing for my album.” I was doing two albums simultaneously essentially, and it was very important for me that they be very different sonically. I think I achieved that. So more thought goes into doing that type of thing, I think.

As far as the types of MCs you’re producing for now, Killer Mike is a mainstream-lauded MC. He’s a little bit more on the surface than the Def Jux MCs for example. Do you find that there’s not as many MCs doing as really abstract type of stuff anymore? What are you looking for in the MCs you produce for?
I’m not looking to produce for MCs I mean, I just take it as it comes. I just love rap music. Mike is such a wonderful voice. I always like working with people who have charisma and there’s something really awesome about working with someone who does have that sort of connection with people that’s a little bit more direct. That makes it interesting for me sometimes. Working with Killer Mike is amazing because he’s brilliant. He’s also very relatable, and it’s not better or worse than anything, anyone I’ve worked with before. It’s just a different thing. Because of that, it opens it up for me to be exciting, and to be like, “What’s some weird thing we can do here, but can simultaneously be really raw and kind of push things a little bit, but at the same time reach people, and have it be…”

The best thing you can possibly do is make a record that you feel like you are sort of pushing boundaries but at the same time, nobody is able to really put the thumbs down on it— and that’s something that’s really amazing and cool to achieve on the rare occasion that you achieve it. But Mike, I think, we might have hit on that a little bit. My records are different. I expect for the most part, even though a lot of people are finding my new stuff more accessible, for the most part, I expect to draw the same lines in a lot of ways. I’m a little bit more difficult to listen to in general than some other people because it’s a little bit more aggressive, maybe it’s a little bit more… I don’t know what it is, but I’m completely aware of it. Mike is different. Mike is a little bit more instantly relatable. A little bit more instantly understandable. For me, it’s exciting to play with that. To f**k with expectation a little bit in that way.

On that front, coming back to your rhyme content, it’s darker than what most people consider conventional. Do you feel like between the last album and this one, there’s been a change in your scope at all? What can we expect from this? Similar imagery, sci-fi influence, is that all still present?
I’m still me. I always will be. I’m not going to all of a sudden have a different personality. And when you listen to my records, you’re going to hear my personality. You’re going to hear what I care about, you’re going to hear the things that are frustrating to me, that I’m struggling with. Beyond that, I can make no promises. Except that, you will hear the most eloquent possible translation of where my mind is at and where it has been at, and the things that matter enough to me to put in song form.

“Stepfather Factory” from Fantastic Damage (2002)

But I think there is a difference on this record, like there is on every record that I do because there’s been time in between them. I grow and I change. There’s a disadvantage of putting a record out every five years, but that’s not one of them—that’s maybe an advantage because it allows you to have a natural progression by the time you come along to the next record. You’re never gonna hear some completely different off the wall shit from me that isn’t me, but you’re not going to hear the same thing either or you haven’t, because yeah, I’ve lived a little bit more. And I’ve thought about that, and that’s kind of what our job is. That’s what we do. We sit around more than anyone, and it shouldn’t be our job, it’s ridiculous that we get to do this. Since it’s ridiculous, then we should take it seriously because if we’re getting the opportunity to sit around and pontificate about shit that most regular people literally can only afford about 30 seconds a day to think then they have to go out and f**king work.

“Smithereens” from I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (2007)

I think it’s important that you really think about it, and really try and represent the translation of that, say the thing that other people don’t have the time or the wherewithal to say. And the only way to do that is by saying it for you. Only say the thing that matters to you, only saying something that matters to you. Don’t put anything down that you can’t back up. Even if you’re saying something f**ked up, at least let it be a pure thought, at least let it come from a really f**ked up place. So, it’s a really long, convoluted answer to your question, which is I don’t really know, you’re going to have to tell me but I do think that it should be a pretty close snapshot of who I am now or where my head was at when I made the record. And because it’s me and because I’ve lived a little bit and I’ve grown a little bit and I’ve changed a little bit, it should be different. It should come off a little different.

Speaking to that, there was one record you did that was vastly different from the other ones, and that was High Water. I remember when I heard it, it was around the time Shades of Blue was out as well, you know, Yesterday’s New Quintet. My question on that, where were you at when you were making High Water? What prompted that sort of departure from your regular sound?
I was approached by Matthew Shipp and the Blue Series Continuum guys. And my manager was like, “Would you be into doing this?” And I was like, “Man, I don’t know if I have the skill set to do this, I don’t know if I’m the right man for the job.” And after a long debate I was like, “Alright, I’ll do the song.” And they were like, “No, we want you do the whole album.” And I have a rule that if anything really terrifies me, if I think that I’m not up to the job, then I’ll usually say yes because why the f**k not? I mean, obviously they saw something in me and they thought I could pull it off and I didn’t. and I just threw caution to the wind and I just kind of figured out the best way for me to approach it. And, you know, my father’s a jazz musician, he’s on the record. So, that was a weird one-off sort of thing that happened. It was cool. I didn’t know what to do, but I came up with an idea and once that was in place, it was like, okay, let’s do this. It wasn’t something I sought out—I would never had sought that out.

And now you’re on Fat Possum. How did that all come about?
That came about because Fat Possum, you know, I had known those guys and I have worked with them a little bit in the past on little things, on a few remixes that they asked me to do here and there that never even came to light, but we kept in touch. And when I was looking for someone to put out the Camu Tao record, because I didn’t want to do it on Def Jux because I didn’t think the future of Def Jux was stable, I had already sort of made the decision in my heart that I wasn’t going to be doing it anymore, so record was very important to me, and I wanted to make sure that was the last Def Jux branded record, and that meant a lot to me.

Fat Possum came in and they loved the record. And that was important to me, I thought it was a brilliant record and I thought it was something that people should care about, and whoever I did it with should care, and they did. And that meant a lot to me. And because of that, even though the record, to some degree, was ignored, because of that, it kept my relationship with Fat Possum pretty open, and when it came time for me to start thinking about putting a record out, they were really aggressive— they really wanted to work with me. It just felt right. I really like them, I really think they have good taste in music, I think they’re good people. They’re a little crazy, a little weird, and I respect that.

Album cover art for Cancer 4 Cure

Jumping away from that a little bit, as far as thematics, we mentioned briefly the science fiction thing—is that an evolving process? I know you love Philip K. Dick and that imagery pops up in your music now and again. Is that an evolving thing, or is that something from your childhood that keeps coming back?
To be fair, I’m not into science fiction like I’m writing about fictional races in distant universes. That was never really what I was into, but yeah sure, it’s all informed by stuff I used to love as a kid.

Everything that you do artistically, I think, is informed by the shit you nerded out on as a kid. And that always stuck with me. But also, it got deeper. My intellect and the way that I viewed things was greatly changed and aided by certain things that I saw and authors that I read. The only connection I have to sci-fi, which is a word that gets thrown around a lot with me, but I can’t really just say f**k you on that because of course, sure Philip K. Dick was sci-fi and George Orwell wrote 1984, which is technically sci-fi. But for me, it’s part aesthetic, and everyone has the things they’re grounded in and the things that excited them and kind of always stick with them. I’m not trying to write sci-fi, I’m writing records about Brooklyn. I’m writing records about how I see things, and how I’m living now, and how I see life now. It has nothing to do with space.

On a sidenote, on I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, there’s a little more melodic vocalism coming from you. Is that something we’re going to hear on Cancer 4 Cure as well, singing?
Yeah, There’s a little more on this one for sure. I mean I kind of discovered my voice a little bit. I’m never going to just all out belt out a tune. But I look at it all like an instrument. You’d be a fool to ignore your own voice when you’re making a vocal record. Yeah, I play with it for sure, and I think that’s been fun for me. I’ve discovered that I can hold a note decently, but that’s not what I do. I just look at it in the ultimate scope of producing a record. It’s just something that’s there that kind of happens sometimes now. I just look at it like even playing a keyboard or anything. If it works there, then I have no problem using it. I’m not going to go little Orphan Annie on anybody, but you know.

Good to know.