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.
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.