Interview by Adam McKibbin
Hopefully, El-P will be a gateway drug for rap haters (hot topic on the Metacritic forum this week: “Does rap suck or what?”). The 32-year-old rapper has been distracted from his own music in recent years by his other gig: running Definitive Jux, one of the most-trusted names in underground hip-hop (Aesop Rock, Cannibal Ox, Murs). With I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, he makes a triumphant return, sounding like he’s been bottling up a lot of shit for the years since 2002’s Fantastic Damage, and now he’s ready to unload. He’s a dominant personality, but also a team player—the record is well-served by verses by Aesop Rock and Cage, as well as appearances by hip-hop staples like Cat Power, Trent Reznor, The Mars Volta, and Yo La Tengo’s James McNew.
As El-P explains in this candid interview with The Red Alert, he set out to make an album documenting the human condition in modern times. The result is an inspired whirlwind of emotion and narrative, built on reliably premium beats and a Dennis Miller-like barrage of referenced pop culture and current events. There are some laughs, too, as when he asks for (and receives) The Dramatic Intro Machine on “Smithereens (Stop Cryin).” Mostly, though, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead hits hard and lingers long, as on the brilliantly dense and bruising “Tasmanian Pain Coaster,” the fiery, anti-war declaration of “Dear Sirs” and the dystopian fiction of “Habeas Corpus (Draconian Love).”
How hard is it to strike the balance between artist and businessman? Is it unavoidable that the captain has to sacrifice personally, artistically speaking, for the good of the crew?
Yeah, I think it is. It’s a different type of artistic existence. Somewhere along the line it stopped being all about me. Most artists exist in a world where it really is all about them all the time. That’s just not the way it is for me—but that’s something I’ve grown to love. I like the selflessness of being involved with other people. But, yeah, I’ve had to push my career, to a degree, to the side in order to work with those other people. That’s a choice. At the same time, you know, it’s become part of my existence, and I can’t imagine another way. I am incredibly excited to be doing my music again.
Does it affect your ability to be a fan, too? Even as a journalist, I find that it’s pretty rare that I’m doing completely no-strings-attached listening anymore.
Yeah, you know, people always ask me “What are you listening to right now? What’s your Top Five of the month?” It’s like, “Dude, I don’t fucking know.” (laughs) Once you’ve involved in the industry, it changes. You have an insider perspective—you’re a part of the machinery, to a degree, and it’s much harder to see it from the outside. One of the things I look forward to is touring, because that’s when I do my most hardcore music listening. That’s when I get to zone out and be a fan again, because you’ve got hours and hours of driving and I’ll just sit there and listen to my iPod for eight hours.
Do you burn out on music altogether sometimes?
Um…sure, sure. No doubt. And I burn out on myself, definitely. But then I stop and I fucking splash some water on my face and I try to remember that this isn’t that serious. This is something to enjoy and love, and it’s a ridiculous gift to be involved in this.
I think when you get to a point where you’re involved in something that centers around the creative—whether you’re a professional journalist who covers it or a musician involved in it—if you get to the point where you’re not even open to being moved anymore, then maybe you should stop. You’re not doing anyone any fucking good—and you’re just punishing yourself, because there’s nothing more painful than being involved with something you used to love, but don’t anymore. It’s kind of like hanging out with your ex-girlfriend. (laughs) You know? Move on. That’s kind of my attitude about it. There are a lot of journalists, even, who need to move the fuck on, and there damn sure are a lot of musicians. If I ever get to a point where I get that jaded or exhausted or am taking it all for granted, I just try to get inspired again, you know?
I spend a lot of time bouncing between progressive political circles and indie/underground music circles—and there’s a lot of bitching in both of those worlds that nobody is writing any protest music anymore, nobody is plugged in to all the things that are going on, and so forth. Obviously they haven’t heard a track like “Dear Sirs.” Do you think, though, that there aren’t enough musicians stepping up to that plate, or is that misguided criticism?
First of all, hip-hop is the only form of music that people are ever mad at for not being political. For some reason, rock music can completely exist outside of the pantheon of anything that’s happening at any given time.
But I think punk rock falls into that category with hip-hop, too, though.
Well, the criticism that gets leveled at hip-hop from all directions is that we’re not supposed to take ourselves too seriously, but, at the same time, we’re supposed to say serious things. We’re not supposed to be violent, but we’re not supposed to be soft—because if you listen to emo hip-hop, then that means you’re emo. We’re not supposed to be political, because if we’re political, then we’re the “political rapper.” (laughs)
To me, my answer to the whole thing is “Fuck all of you.” I’m just one fucking man, trudging through the muck and mire of everyday existence. I have no intention of writing political records, but if my job is the eloquent translation of the human experience and I have half a brain about me and I’m taking in my surroundings, you’re going to hear that in my music regardless of whether you consider me a political rapper—you’re going to hear it in a love story. My inspiration is these times, and that’s the canvas I paint everything on.
In this record, what I wanted to do was if there were politics, they had to come from the personal, and not from some bullshit geopolitical perspective that I have. Who needs to hear about that from me? I really don’t think that anybody needs to hear that El-P thinks that George Bush is an asshole. (laughs) I think it’s pedantic and annoying when people stand on a pedestal. What I would rather do is eloquently document the psychological state of someone who is alive right now. If you can listen to that and take something from it without it being shoved into your face, then I’m doing my job. If we’re not tuned into whatever it is—love, pain, frustration, joy—if we’re not putting these things in our music, then we’re not doing our job.
But I don’t think that the burden is naturally put on any genre of music to be political. I think the burden should be to matter. If we’re making music that doesn’t even matter to us, then we may as well be put up against the wall when the revolution starts and shot in the back of the head because we’re a fucking waste of resources, a bunch of assholes who walk around and don’t have jobs, you know what I mean? Our only job, the only thing anyone is asking is to think a little bit more about your existence, think a little bit more about the experiences you’re having, take a little bit more time to say something beautiful so you can translate it for us because we don’t have the fucking time. You know? That’s the only burden I feel.
It’s interesting, too, because when these people talk about the good old days when people were making protest music or whatever, they often mention people who didn’t even see themselves as political artists, like Bob Dylan. I’ve heard from a number of bands and rappers who essentially say “Hey, I think you’ll love my record because I hate George Bush.” Well, great, but your songs suck!
Yeah, exactly! Any asshole can pick up a pencil and put it to music. We need to be connected to the human spirit, not the human politics. At our best, maybe we can affect the collective consciousness. I personally am too smart to try to waste everyone’s time telling you things that you know more about.
To feel your album 100%, do you think the listener has to know New York, to have New York in their bones the way you do?
I look at it like this: do you feel that way when you watch Taxi Driver?
Sure, a little bit.
Then the answer is "Yes." When I watch Taxi Driver, that shit reminds me of my childhood, so I have an extra perspective on a film that was so native to New York. When I watch Boyz N The Hood, I think it’s a powerful movie, but I’m a little bit disconnected from the culture out there. I’m not making pop music, so my job is not to make everything for everyone. But that’s the minutiae. The way I figured out how to make a record that connects to the most people possible is to make a record with complete disregard for trying to connect to anyone else but myself. (laughs) Because I don’t think any of us are unique. We all understand pain, we all understand love, we all understand the human existence. The details may change, but the sentiment is the same.
In the early days of your career, what do you think paid off most for you? Because it isn’t always a given that talent is going to rise to the surface, and nowadays the industry is even more oversaturated.
It’s a combination of a complete, blind arrogance—don’t let anyone tell you that you suck, even if you suck—and ridiculous amounts of energy and overstated ambition. That’s it. If you have those things, just keep fucking going until you can’t. If it changes or you don’t like it anymore, move the fuck on. Until then, just write and be passionate and do the thing you believe in, period. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t.
More by this writer:
Clipse - Hell Hath No Fury
Tanya Morgan - Interview
The Coup - Pick A Bigger Weapon
Howard Zinn - Readings from Voices of A People's History... [DVD]