Words and photography: Jonny Coleman
I’m standing behind the Echoplex as Nick Thorburn and Despot are teaching folks how to shoot dice.
Zola Jesus soundchecks inside. Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire is putting some finishing touches on his ridiculous outfit (it’s Digital Underground meets fabulism). Killer Mike hibernates in the tour bus. El-P, the ringleader of the Into the Wild Tour, is fighting illness and trying not to smoke as the whole touring zoo tries to make up for some lost time on their day.
El-P’s Cancer for Cure, his third solo album proper, and his production for Killer Mike’s recent R.A.P. Music, have earned him pretty much unanimously glowing reviews, and his work with fresher faces like Danny Brown, eXquire, Das Racist, and Despot has thrust him into a figurehead-like position again. His bizarro-hip hop roadshow stops in LA for an evening, and we talk about the machinations of internal conflict, the pointlessness of elections, and scoring movies.
“Even the grime shit that Dizzee came out with…I feel like the UK’s always been on their shit.”
You’ve received some nice press and praise of late…was it an accident that the Mike album and your album came out within, like, two weeks of each other?
“It was sort of an accident. I didn’t know that would be the case. I thought my album was going to come out later. The label wanted to get it out before summer. The last time I put my own album out was in 2007. Things were different then. You needed a six month lead. The internet’s changed that.”
You rescheduled the European tour, right?
“We had to cancel some festivals. Some unexpected, hard stuff happened. Someone very close to us passed away, and now it’s happening in the fall.”
Are there any emcees in Europe who are on your radar?
“Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve been going out there since the Company Flow days. I’ve been lucky enough to tour out there and get some good love, and I’ve always been interested in the scene over there, as much as I could be.
How do you feel about Europe in general?
“America is obviously weird…until recently, we haven’t really even embraced anything that’s coming from anywhere else. Which is fucking ridiculous, when you consider there isn’t a language barrier in certain places. There’s no ignoring how dope…shit, even the grime shit that Dizzee came out with…I feel like the UK’s always been on their shit. It’s only in the last 10 years or so that the real character of UK rap has started to deservedly make its way over to America.
“When Portishead tells you, ‘we want Company Flow,’ you kind of have to say ‘yes.'”
“I always love it out there…it’s different. Even just the idea that music seems to be…you always had this feeling when you went over to the UK and Europe that music was judged a little differently out there, in a sense. It wasn’t as radio-driven. There’s certainly a pop radio mechanism out there. But then there’s me, this guy who for years and years was this underground artist with a cult following, someone who was reaching a particular group of people, could get serious love out there was always amazing to me. I couldn’t believe it. Years have gone by now, and I’m still getting the chance. I always love going over there. It’s been too long.”
Tell me about the Company Flow reunion.
“It was great, I gotta say.”
Obviously you want to keep it special. Did you say this is the last time you’ll get back together?
“After the second weekend of Coachella, we decided we didn’t want to do anymore of those reunion vibe shows in the future. It was great to do. It wasn’t something we really expected. We just kind of fell into it. It started at All Tomorrow’s Parties with Portishead curating it. When Portishead tells you, ‘we want Company Flow,’ you kind of have to say ‘yes.’
“That’s what started it, and it was the perfect excuse for us. It just seemed like enough time had passed where all the bullshit and history and things that kept us apart and not wanting to revisit it…wasn’t there anymore. Time really washed over it, and we had a great time. We are at the point know where we did that, and we’re all doing our solo things, because that was always our trajectory over the last decade.
We’re definitely at a point in our friendship where we’re thinking about doing some new music. Those guys are some of my oldest friends. As much as that can be complicated when you’re younger, when you get a little bit older, you don’t have all the same bullshit. Everyone’s kind of good doing what they’re doing. The chemistry was definitely there. We don’t know if the chemistry is still there musically, but we’re now at the place for the first time where we’re going to give it a try. We’ll see.”
Do you think there is any credence to the whole ‘Indie Rap’ is back idea?
“I’ve just been trying to do my thing this whole time.”
“It was about containing that voice in my head that was fucking terrified, and angry, and frustrated.”
Is it maybe that American and world culture are in crisis mode again – as they were around the millennium when your work was also getting a lot of attention? Are you frustrated still on an individual level?
“I think it’s pretty clear if you listen to my record that I’m definitely frustrated, confused, and scared on a lot of levels. I always kind of have been. These records are sort of my exorcism of those feelings to a degree. If I allowed myself to constantly feel what I’m putting on my record, I would just walk outside and start shooting people.
“Everyone has their own reasons for why they do what they do. For me, it was about containing that voice in my head that was fucking terrified, and angry, and frustrated. Most of all, I feel like my records have evolved into me trying to contain and eloquently translate what it feels like – that other aspect, that parallel person who isn’t necessarily coping too well.”
It feels like it’s not as willfully angry. It feels more focused, more coded, less obvious than before.
“There’s a subtlety that has come with age, probably. And my focus is a lot less just screaming at the world. It’s more of a nuanced glance at myself. Sometimes that comes out seeming like it’s pointed at the world, but it’s more of me trying to capture the conversation in my head. At this point, I don’t have any interest in politics or making specifically political records. But if you’re tuned into your environment, your own head….if you’re taking a snapshot of who you are, you have to take a snapshot of where you are. There’s no denying that there’s some fucking insane shit going on around us, and there always has been.
“I think that for me, especially with this record, the idea was more about confronting the internal battle. That’s what the Cancer for Cure thing was about. The idea that these struggles are really just struggles with ourselves. We contain the problem. The problem literally emanates from us. Even war is just a human psychological condition, in my opinion. It’s something that collectively emanates from our own psychological scape. As fractals or microcosms of that larger state, we as individuals are holding these wars inside of us, and they’re very hard to get a grip on. Getting a grip on the internal insanity and trying to reconcile it with all the very real and tangible emotions and trying to want to be alive and want to be sane.”
“There’s no denying that there’s some fucking insane shit going on around us, and there always has been.”
What do you think about the upcoming presidential election, the state of America?
“I don’t give a shit about the election. The election is something that people pay attention to every four years. It’s just white noise. It’s part of a larger struggle that’s been going on for a long time – which is that something is wrong with us, on a fundamental level with how we’ve set ourselves up. Instead of me thinking about these external factors, I’m trying to struggle with the fundamental task of trying to be sane in a world that doesn’t necessarily make too much sense.
“Even getting up and going to work is kind of crazy to me. As a writer, things like this feel more powerful than thinking about politics or elections. Politics or elections are a really easy example of how crazy we are. They are the televised Olympics of Crazy.
“We’re all kind of under the same hypnosis in society, so we’re all going to have similar attempts at breaking the hypnosis. A lot of that has to do with pointing out these fallacies. I’m inspired by some television, sure. I’m inspired by anything that has a strong perspective on life, manipulates it for the audience, and points out what’s wrong with this picture…and I feel like I do that in my work.”
I know you scored a film before, Bomb The System. Do you have the desire to score anything else in the future?
“Yeah, definitely, I’d love to. I feel like it will come. I’m hugely inspired by film music. When I was first collecting music, it was film scores. That’s a big reason why some of my stuff is so ‘moody’. I’ve released most of my music as instrumental albums. For me particularly, I’ve always loved film and film score, so it just seems natural that I’m going to give it a try.”
What’s the point of having a label right now?
Well, you have this album out on Fat Possum. It’s helpful to have someone standing behind it, right?
“Sure, I guess so. I just have no desire to run a label ever again.”