"Yep, just fuckin' shoot yourself, it's all over."
Once DiS tempers his harsh - but we pray comical - demand for imminent hari-kari by loading a fresh AAA into a Dictaphone, Def Jux CEO extraordinaire El-P tells tales about the trials of keeping one of the most consistent underground hip-hop record labels on the planet afloat while he ups the ante on his own solo career and – what's this? – whispers the potential of a white label Company Flow comeback?
It's no big secret that you've had a few squabbles with the label your breakthrough Company Flow album was originally released on. [A beef with Rawkus dating back almost a decade, recently reprised and since put to bed again; EL-P explains the scenario himself here.] We wouldn't want to stoke any embers, but…
"I'll tell you now, there's not one question that you would ask me about Rawkus that hasn't already been addressed somewhere else…"
…I wanted to ask you about where that experience fits in relation to the principles you built your own label on. As an exercise in taking control of your career, was the founding of Def Jux a retaliation of sorts, in the aftermath of sour dealings with Rawkus or did you always intend to strike out on your own?
"Well, we put out all of the original Company Flow stuff ourselves on a label me and Bigg Jus created, called Official Recordings. So, for us, we were already independently doing our records, before we hooked up with Rawkus and, actually, the Company Flow/Rawkus deal was an imprint, an Official Recordings/Rawkus thing. But ultimately Official Recordings got swallowed up because Rawkus was the bigger label, the more experienced label, they were the label.
"But it was always on the cards for me. The way I'd looked at the Rawkus deal was that it was an expansion of our record label and we were going to take the promotional money and push ourselves up to a level where we could get into more homes and make a bigger impact. Our plan, always, was to do it ourselves and that's the truth. There are things that went down in Rawkus that I learned from, which solidified my original belief: that I really had an idea of how to do this. But all the minutia and bullshit details of that, they're in the past. It's an experience of life, you know; but you try – instead of spending ten years sitting around and contemplating a time you got your ass beat - to stand up, you fucking brush yourself off, you walk forward and you're a little bit stronger because of it. That's the way I grew up anyway."
Understood. To talk more about how Def Jux went on to take its form, you put your own solo career on hold while you took a guest role in almost every release put out by the roster to begin with. Do you still feel a strong sense of duty in that respect?
"I like producing for other people, but it was something that I did a lot of in the beginning simply because it was about getting shit off the ground. I'm definitely not interested in a record label where every record is like me and my sound. We've gotten to the point where it's cool; you've got people that really have their own sound and perspective, that's what's interesting to me about having a label. It's all I ever wanted to do. I had all these friends and people that I thought would be great to get out there with some exposure, just to balance shit out. It wasn't like: 'This is better music, this is the way it should be done’. It was: 'This isn't the same old shit you're hearing all the time'. That was important, but I'm at the point now where I'm very serious about just putting my music out and putting more of my music out."
Would you say you're up on an ideal set of tracks now, as far as managing your solo career versus overseeing the label's activities goes?
"I think I've got a good start, man. I feel like this record (I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead – review here) was a really important one for me; I busted my ass and tried to make it the best I was capable of. This is who I am really, the artist is who I am and the rest of this shit is all sort of incidental, to a degree.
“There are two things that I love about being in the music business: I love making the record and I love performing the record, and the rest of it can basically blow me. And it does, on a regular basis. All I've ever tried to do is have some sort of control over the spirit of the way that I operate in this shit and it hasn't always been with the smartest decisions but they've always been genuine decisions.
"But with me? Yeah, I think I'm on a good path, man, I do, I feel energised again. I spent five years bubbling up with ideas, influence and experience and now I have so much of it pouring out of me that I feel ready to jump into another record, so I definitely have no interest in waiting around for another five years."
Suddenly it doesn't feel so premature to ask what your thoughts are on the next record. Are you looking to get into that quickly?
"Yes, I am. I'm going to release an EP, I think, first quarter next year, that'll probably be related to the album in some way and I'll probably have some remixes, as well as about four or five new songs."
In terms of the way your pursuit of a solo career can impact on the mechanics of the label, what happens back at HQ whenever you decide to change hats for a minute? Do you tend to handle things like A&R? Is there somebody there to pick up the slack if you go off on a sabbatical?
"It's always been me, there's no formula to it, man, and it's just gut instinct, a feeling. There have been different ways that this shit has happened, and almost every time [Def Jux signs artists] that I've gotten to know. We're gonna be opening up the way that I do A&R a little bit, and doing a few records with some people you might not necessarily associate with Def Jux directly. But I'm not in a rush; I didn't create a record label, I created music and I've tried to create a mechanism to get the music out. It wasn't as though I was like: 'Oh, you know what my fantasy is? I want to own a record label’. No, my fantasy is to make music and so the music came and the record label had to exist. So, I'm not running around desperately scrambling to test artists out; I would rather put out two really good records a year than ten mediocre records."
Touring the land, as you are, in an often unstable kind of climate where an artist and/or album's momentum can be pretty mercilessly punctured by critical backlash almost immediately after they've blown up, your latest album and career in general is one that seems to have had some sort of supernatural immunity to that cycle. From what you've observed since I'll Sleep When You're Dead appeared earlier in the year, do you still see the crowds swelling, the word spreading, and all that positive stuff?
"You know, it seems that way, yeah. I think that's just the case with independent records in general, there's always kind of a slower burn.
“We're not all about the first week sales. I do what I do man, my shit is not easy to people all the time. I think there are people who follow what I do and really like it, and then there are people who take a minute to let it set in. I just there's a certain kind of person that's really into it, who likes the sound and is accustomed to it and takes an interest. I don't want to have any delusions that I'm making music that is instantly full on likeable to everybody. To some people, they just think it’s garbage from the beginning."
Speaking as a listener, thinking back to the way I first took in your debut Fantastic Damage; I was stuck, half-pissed, waiting on a tow to take me 160 miles home in a broken down car, surrounded by a bunch of unfamiliar mountains in the Arizonan desert heat. I'd say the album magnified those conditions and I don't imagine I'll ever forget the experience. Given that your music's not too easy, do you place any kind of importance on the environment somebody chooses to initially listen to one of your albums in?
"I think that, when you're trapped somewhere and you happen to listen to my music like that, then it's really the full experience. I think – since I'm not in the pop pantheon and that world – I design records that, really, you won't really get the full impact of the music until you've listened to the shit all the way through and realise that there's things happening over the scope of the record that have relation to each other. I've never been in the singles market, it's never been about that for me; I've always tried to craft whole pictures and I think that's probably my preferred way. I prefer you listen to it, trapped in your car, drunk."
DiS has caught a few of your gigs this year, where it has been pretty easy to see that this band dynamic you've integrated into the live experience is serving you very well. Is this the show you're bringing with you when you come back here this October?
"Yeah, yeah, I am. I'm bringing the noise back. It has really worked out. I mean, those dudes are good friends of mine, they work with me and play stuff on my records. I try to bring something else to the live show. I always liked the fact that when you went to a rock show, you didn't always get exactly what was on the record; there were some surprise elements, there were some things that would happen that couldn't be duplicated or were just about being there at that show.
“Although I still like doing hip-hop shows with just a DJ and a hype man - that shit is fun to me, it's just raw – but I've also had great fun bringing out a keyboardist, kind of flipping it and having something unique happen. I think our show reaches a level of intensity that people really seem to react to."
In terms of the rock shows you might see these days, when you witness a band like The Mars Volta (Omar and Cedric cameo on I'll Sleep When You're Dead), can you feed off of that stuff? Is it the sheer spectacle of that kind of improvisational prowess that makes you want to ‘flip it’?
"I love Volta, those motherfuckers are insanely talented. I'm friends with those dudes, I'll go to their shows and it's true - I've gone to their shows at the same club, two nights in a row, and they'll be playing the same song but there's shit happening in those songs that's changing night to night. We're certainly not that, they're basically like a progressive rock band, like Yes or something. Yeah, we're not nearly as talented."
When you cast an eye over days gone by – along with the Rawkus issue, I'm sure this is another you're occasionally interrogated over…
…thinking about Funcrusher Plus's cemented position as something of a touchstone for futuristic hip-hop; it seems that what you had there with Bigg Jus and Mr. Len was an untouchable kind of synergy – the kind of creative savvy that a lot of rap crews and bands making their way these days can only envy. You knew this was coming: Do you ever consider resurrecting Company Flow?
"I'll tell you man, that synergy was very real and it came out of our friendship, where we were in our heads at the time; sitting around for ten hours a day joking with each other and that's why it was the way it was. I'm still cool with those dudes; we've talked a lot recently and hung out a bunch this summer and there has been some talk - some light-hearted talk - about the possibility of doing some music again in the future. I kind of like the way that we went out though, you know? I felt like we went out in a good way and, I tell you, the only way that, in my opinion, you'll ever hear a new Company Flow album is if you happen to go to your local vinyl store and see some weird double vinyl clear fucking album with like no name on it.
"I really don't think that I will ever go out, promote and full-on do another Company Flow record, but the music? Doing the music? That's something that, if it does happen, you won't even know until you buy the shit from your store. You're not gonna hear it from me, it'll just show up one day. I think that's the only way to do it, because when you're in a situation where you had a group, you dissolved it, it was on good terms and you kind of went somewhere else, no matter how much you wanna go back sometimes in your head, you might want to recreate something, no matter what – it sounds corny, doesn't it – every time you see a group get back together you kind of have this feeling like they did it because they had no choice, like, 'Alright, well, fuck it, lets get back together again, I guess it was a good thing'. I don't feel that way; I feel I've had great success doing what I'm doing so if I did do the music I wouldn't want it to come off like I'm trying to pimp it or trying to make myself more famous. I would do it like I came into the game, with an eight-song EP on double vinyl; I probably wouldn't even put the words Company Flow on it and - who knows? - maybe that will happen. Maybe that'll show up in the stores in the next year or couple of years. It's possible, but right not that's not what I'm doing."
To be honest, when [debut Cannibal Ox album] The Cold Vein suddenly appeared, I thought I was listening to the new Company Flow…
"Right, right, well in a way that was, kind of; they were born out of that, it was the first record I had produced since Company Flow's Little Johnny From the Hospitul album, I guess. I was sort of the unofficial third member of that group, and it was so soon after my Company Flow days that all of that energy got channelled into that record. I looked at them like they reminded me a shit-load of me and Jus and I kind of mentored them in that way to a degree…it had that vibe."
Back in the here and now, having stuck to your creative guns for so long with Def Jux, are you happy with your footing?
"We're here still (laughs). We're making good records and I feel really proud of the artists that I've worked with, but I'm never happy, we're never where I think we should be. But, I'm a pretty patient dude, and I think that we're one of just a handful of collectives out here that have been making real progress and breaking through into different areas that, when we were first starting out, didn't even think was possible. I think we've proven ourselves, hopefully, to be genuine cats, we've been pretty consistent and that's really all you can do. If it all ends tomorrow, if it all fucking falls, I wanna go down standing. That's all there is to it for me."
El-P’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is out now on Def Jux. Catch El-P on his DiS-sponsored UK tour:
1 Leeds Faversham
2 Manchester Roadhouse
3 Brighton Digital
4 London Scala
5 Glasgow King Tut’s