El-P's Dystopian Hip-Hop Is No Sci-Fi Fantasy

Brooklyn-based rapper El-P has had a tumultuous last few years. After reaching the Billboard Top 100 in 2007 with I'll Sleep When You're Dead, he lost his friend and musical collaborator Camu Tao the next year. In 2010, he chose to close his label Definitive Jux, an indie rap cornerstone that included acts like Del Tha Funkee Homosapien and Aesop Rock.

However, 2012 will undoubtedly be his year. His new album, Cancer for Cure, which was five years in the making, signals his strong re-emergence into the multi-faceted rap conversation. Killer Mike's hard-hitting R.A.P. Music, which El produced, is also poised to be one of the top hip-hop records of the year.

Speaking with Up on the Sun, El discusses the big changes in his life and goes on a fiery screed about the true-to-life prevalence of techno-surveillance.

Up on the Sun: It's been five years since I'll Sleep When Your Dead. Are going to take as much time as you need to feel like something is completed?

El-P: Definitely. No question.

Are you somebody who feels okay being a perfectionist?

I don't know any other way. It's a pattern that I'm in. When I do my records, I'm trying to push myself and say everything the right way for me at the time. I'm okay with that. I can't probably do anymore five-year stretches, nor do I really want to, but it just worked out that way. The other fact is, I have a life and other things to do that don't involve my record, so it's hard for me to 100 percent break away and settle into it. When I do, I'm a little crazy. A song will change 30 times before I change anything.

I don't really write records until I'm inspired, until I have an idea of what I want to say. Sometimes it takes a lot of living before the words just come. I don't really like forcing it. I don't wanna make records that don't have heart behind them, that don't have an idea behind them.

Unless you're just fucking brilliant -- bleeding brilliance -- it's really hard to make super-inspired shit when you're trying to pump it out. I'm not particularly that brilliant.

-- El-P

That seems rare these days. I feel a lot of hip-hop artists are always striving to be putting something in front of their audience all the time. Do you feel like that can be diminishing?

Well that's kind of the nature of the beast. If it's what you do professionally, it's not easy to do for years. I'm lucky because I have production work to do. There are two different aspects of my career so I can step outside of myself and play in the background if it makes sense to do it. Unless you're just fucking brilliant -- bleeding brilliance -- it's really hard to make super-inspired shit when you're trying to pump it out. I'm not particularly that brilliant. [Laughs] It takes me longer to do something worthy of putting out.

Well, the new record is called Cancer for Cure. From what I understand, you lost someone recently from cancer.

I did. In 2008, I lost a friend and collaborator. But the name of the record isn't directly derived from that. The word "cancer" certainly had been kicking around my head.

How did that impact the record? Obviously something like that takes a long time to even make sense of. Cancer is a big lyrical motif on the record.

Yeah, definitely. It had a big effect on me as a person; therefore, it had an effect on my records. I really put myself in and try, and these records are me working through things and getting through all of the fucking dialogue that could be really toxic if held inside. These records are a form for me to howl at the moon a little bit so I don't have to do it in places like restaurants.

A lot of times, the album titles are a little bit nebulous even to me. I try to trust my instincts in terms of phrasing and words and sometimes they show up like symbols. Even for me, I'm still interpreting what it means.

"Drones over BKLYN" has a really heavy future dystopia vibe, a lot of destruction in the lyrics.

Have you read the news? There are civilian monitoring drones being deployed in major cities in America every week. It's not the future; it's the present. You have to pull back the veil a little bit and put on some fucking glasses to see through a different tint. We are living that dystopia. It has nothing to do with sci-fi or the future, it has to do with the truth of our society right now. And that's it. To some degree, I take issue with the idea, even though it's an understandable one, that this is some type of fantasy or non-reality. I'm writing songs about now. That's what inspires me. I might use metaphor or words to pull the levers or lead someone to think it's futuristic. Unfortunately I really wish it was. I wish I was a sci-fi writer and not a guy in Brooklyn reading the news.

That's interesting, because whenever I talk to friends about sci-fi authors, the conversation is always oriented to be, "Check out this author, he was totally right about this or that thing. That thing he wrote about totally ended up happening."

That's because sci-fi is a medium of logic, not fantasy. It's very easy to look and something and say, "This is going to happen." You don't have to be a genius to say this is the next piece of the puzzle. I was never into sci-fi, but I liked authors that viewed that medium as a way to talk about reality. Starting with people like Orwell. You can't call 1984 a sci-fi novel; it's a sociological mediation on totalitarianism. He just used the future as a mechanism, because that allows you to exaggerate reality. George Orwell had to put it into the future because he couldn't waste time trying to explain that the things around you are what he's talking about. Plus, everything's cooler with flying cars and lasers.

Everything's cooler with flying cars and lasers.

-- El-P

I'm curious about how people used to think about the future, and how it was full of flying cars and meals that come in a pill. But that's totally not what it ended up resembling at all.

Not yet. But look, instead of flying cars, we've got fucking police helicopters and drones. Your neighbor's not gonna have a flying car, but I guarantee your fucking police department will. Of course, it's just not gonna look like a flying car to you because it's going to come about so incrementally. You might not have a meal in a pill, but you certainly do have institutionalized meals being fed to your kids that are created in laboratories and stripped of any nutrients that are fed in a classist way to people. It doesn't matter what the specifics are. This isn't what my music is about, to be honest, but it's about being alive and reconciling with that, reconciling the real truth to be alive and live as a human.

You decided to put Definitive Jux on hold a couple years back. Now you've got your record out [via Fat Possum], and the Killer Mike record you produced coming out. Do you feel like you're just now starting to see the payoff of that decision?

I don't know. There's complications and downsides, and there's upsides. Yes, I do feel like it was the right decision for me and everyone involved. I'm enjoying the results of that decision for me personally to have space to focus on music. I couldn't ask for much more to get the chance to be doing my thing and people taking an interest in it. And it's not like it was unsuccessful. There were great successes and joys, and there were losses and tough times. But I'm at a point now where easing back and letting whatever happen is a new and exciting thing.

The reality is that I was never going to work or going to the office. I wasn't involved in the real technical stuff. I had already gotten myself where my job was to trying to make music happen, but at the same time it was my and responsibility to deal with anything that came out of it. I'm sure if I had become rich doing Def Jux, it might have been different. [Laughs] Like, "Hey, I made a million dollars! This is fucking great!" But it was a labor of love, and I lost all my money doing this shit, several times, and it was okay with me. You have to listen to your heart. It was a tough decision to make, but it feels in retrospect like a good decision.

El-P is scheduled to perform Monday, June 25, at Crescent Ballroom.
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