To mark the release of New York hip hop veteran, innovator and impressario El-P’s second solo album, and first solo effort in nearly five years, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, the Metabunker re-presents an in-depth interview yours truly conducted with El-P and fellow innovator and Def Jukie Aesop Rock in El-P’s home/studio back in the winter of 2003, originally used for an article in the Danish weekly newspaper Weekendavisen and published in edited form and translated into Danish at Rapspot. This, however, is the works – word for word, part I of III (here are part II and part III).
Some background: El-Ps civilian name is Jamie Meline, he was born in 1974 in Brooklyn, where he also grew up and continues to live. His first single was released in 1993, but it was only with the EP Funcrusher, which he recorded and released along with Mr Len and Big Jus under the name Company Flow in 1996, that he put himself on the map as an innovative hip hop musician. In 1997 the group rereleased the a beefed-up version of the record and it quickly attained status as one of the most significant records of the then emerging independent scene in hip hop, and is today considered a classic.
Company Flow disbanded in in 1999 and around the same time El-P announced his break with what had been one of the seminal labels of independent hip hop up till then, Rawkus, and started ihs own company Definitive Jux. His first major project was the production of the debut album of the MC duo Cannibal Ox, the now classic The Cold Vein (2001). Its menacing and cacaphonous urban sound established him as one of the most sophisticated and innovative producers in hip hop. The following year he released his first solo album Fantastic Damage – an intesenly personal hardcore-manifesto of unprecedented sensibility in hip hop. Both as a producer, songwriter and MC El-P remains one of the prime exponents of intelligent hardcore hip hop.
These last few years, he has primarily concentrated on building his label, which has grown steadily and more or less become as establishment as can be in independent hip hop, with an impressive back catalogue that includes several classic recordings, but which is perhaps also starting to show signs of fatigue. However, El-P’s own records, the jazz collaboration High Water (2004) and the compilation Collecting the Kid (2004) and now I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, all show that he is continuing to develop as an artist.
Aesop Rock’s civilian name is Ian Mathias Bavitz, he was born in 1976 and grew up in Long Island. During the late 90s, he gained a good deal of attention in the New York underground through his live performances and grass roots-distributed CD-Rs, Music for Earthworms and Appleseed. This led to the highly ambitious but somewhat incoherent debut album Float (2000). In 2001 he released the thoroughly focused album Labor Days on Def Jux, immediately followed by the strongly conceived and executed EP Daylight (2002). And in 2003 – shortly after this interview was conducted – his second, more abrasive album Bazooka Tooth came up. Mostly produced by himself, it showcased how much he had grown as a beatmaker while maintaing his impeccable skills on the mic. In 2005 he released the EP Fast Cars, Danger, Fire and Knives, which continued what he had started on Bazooka Tooth, both thematically and in terms of the sound and was accompanied by a booklet containing the lyrics from almost all of his official solo releases – a thoroughly unique and poetic body of work in hip hop on its own terms, and classic material when performed by a master MC.
Wivel: I’d like to start by asking about your backgrounds – where are you from, how did you first get into hip hop?
El-P: I’m from New York City; I spent the majority of my life in Brooklyn, and the earlier part of my life in Manhattan. I guess I just discovered hip hop from being human in New York City in the early eighties – just walking around, seeing people in the street, the way they were dressing, seeing the graffiti on the walls, hearing music on the radio, and having friends who were putting me up on music – it was what was going on for young people in the city, it was the music. It wasn’t like I had to go very far to discover it. And then it was seeing rap videos eventually, after a while they started coming out with videos and that was even more exciting, because now you’d see what they look like, and then you started going to shows. It was just the way one gets into any kind of music.
Wivel: So it was already very prevalent in the early 80s?
El-P: Very, very prevalent…
Aesop Rock: It was brand new and it was an alternative to anything that had been out there till then.
Wivel [to Aesop Rock]: Where are you from?
Aesop Rock: I’m from Long Island, New York and I live in Brooklyn now, lived here for years. My liking of hip hop is probably the same as El-P’s [chuckles].
Wivel: The reason I’m asking is that today you see more and more people coming out doing Hip hop that are not from the traditional, inner-city, african-american/latino background. Obviously, none of you quite fit into that, perhaps clichéd mould of where Hip hop comes from.
El-P: It’s not clichéd – it’s just traditional.
Wivel: Well, some would argue that hip hop was universal from the beginning…
El-P: Well, all right, but it was certainly fuckin’ started by blacks and latinos, here in New York. I feel like I’m one notch down from being part of that traditional background. Clearly, racially, I’m not black or latino, but where I grew up has made me feel very connected to the New York roots and scene, and I feel very lucky that I got that perspective. I think it was because I grew up here, that I discovered it in ways that are more natural and that have given me a richer perspective on how to carry myself in the world, the culture and the music world. I feel like I’m lucky because I have that perspective – there are a lot of kids that come out now who just love the music, but don’t ever have the connection to the deeper aspects of it; they don’t get to touch and feel until, maybe, when they get much older, and also sometimes they design their careers so they never have to touch and feel anything other than their own, insulated…
Aesop Rock: They end up touching and feeling, because they have to go out of their way to do it, they decide that now they’re going to do it, as opposed to growing up with it as part of their natural environment.
El-P: But yes, of course, music is universal and hip hop definitely has proven to be something that cannot be contained by geography, and that’s a good thing.
Wivel: So it was immediately accessible to you as a kid? You were in a mixed neighbourhood…
El-P: Yes, I was in a mixed neighbourhood, I was in Brooklyn, you know? No, it wasn’t immediately accessible, but I discovered it, it became my identity as a teenager. I got into it the way you really get into something as a teenager. It became the way that I dressed, the way that I spoke, the people I hung out with – it was like a fuckin’ hobby, it was fun, it was what got me open.
Wivel: And this is the early 80s we’re talking about?
El-P: Yeah, I’m 28, I just turned 28, I started listening to the music in ‘84-’85. Aesop started listening to it in ’98… [laughter] I’m just kidding’.
Wivel: Did you always see yourself as musicians, or did you ever contemplate doing other things?
Aesop Rock: I played the piano, I played the bass, I played a few instruments growing up… but I was rhyming before I got a sampler, but I felt knew enough about music to get into it and eventually get good at it. When I started to actually produce stuff is when I started to feel more like a musician. When I was rhyming, I didn’t… well, I guess you’re a musician, but at the same time… uh, you’d grow up and you’d write verses, you’d try to write the fattest twenty bars you possibly could and it didn’t matter whether it was a song or not: If you wrote a song later, it could just be fitted into that song, or it couldn’t; at that point everything was interchangeable.
El-P: My whole first album was like that [laughter].
Aesop Rock: Once you start producing and once you… uh, I know this is going to sound stupid, but once you start getting older, you start wanting more, you start structuring your songs… I have the desire, at least, to be labelled a musician, at least by myself, and I don’t feel comfortable doing that, unless I’m actually doing a certain amount of creating…
Wivel: But being a vocalist is, in itself, being a musician…
El-P: But Aes is the full package… [laughter]
Aesop Rock: Yeah, it is, I guess, but a lot of vocalists don’t have anything to do with their songs.
El-P: I feel the same way. Although Aes went to school for art, I didn’t go to school [chuckles], I didn’t really go to college, I went to musical engineering school, so by the time I was 16, I was there, and wanted to be a musician. My father was a musician and I was playing piano for years when I was young, and I would pick up different instruments, like horns and…
Wivel: He was a jazz musician, right? You mention it on one of your songs…
El-P: Yes… I was never particularly gifted at any one instrument, although I probably had a decent amount of musical sense, and he helped build that. I was working at becoming at hip hop musician from a very young age – it happened simultaneously with me learning how to rhyme. Anything I could get my hands on, be it a little fuckin’ synthesizer that had no sequencer and no drums [laughs], or whatever, I always attempted to do something with it. And by the time I really started getting serious, I did have some shit at my disposal to try and learn how to put things together, so to me the evolution of my rhyme style, my skills as a vocalist, were very connected to my skills as a producer – it evolved simultaneously [El-P’s cat comes up meowing, he picks it up, the noise abates].
I decided at an early age that that was what I wanted to do, mostly because I was in a situation where I had to make that decision. I’d gotten kicked out of two high schools and was forced to evaluate my life; I had to come up with a plan, essentially. Before I was just doing it and I really did like doing it, and I probably would have kept doing it, but there’s nothing that says that I would have ended up necessarily becoming a professional, until I became a professional [chuckles].
Wivel: So getting kicked out of high school made it for you…
El-P: Yeah, after that it was on. I hadn’t been doing what I was supposed to be doing on the other path, all my time was taken up with music, and I didn’t like anything else. I was a musician and a writer, and I didn’t like high school, I didn’t feel like I was part of it. I felt I had more purpose doing music… once you figure out what you want to do, you’re fucked if you’re in high school. So I was lucky, because I had to make the decision and my mother supported it. So by the time I was 16, I decided to become a professional.
Wivel: And you went to musical engineering school after that.
El-P: Yeah, for two years, that was part of the deal with my mother: “you have to be learning, you either learn what you want to learn or you learn what everyone else learns,” so I chose the former as opposed to the latter. By the time I got to college, which I did do a year of, I was around my age group again and I had been around people in engineering school who were much older than me, people who were driven and knew what they wanted to do. It was a whole new world to me, it was amazing. So when I got to college, I would look around and say to myself: “I’m not one of these people”. College is, for many people, another 4-year buffer for them to figure out what they want to do, and there’s almost no point in going there if you already know what you want to do, unless you have to have a college degree to do it… which you certainly don’t for the more creative fields.
Wivel [to Aesop Rock]: You went to art school?
Aesop Rock: Yeah, I went right to college for painting after high school and have a degree in painting, but I don’t really paint much anymore. I was doing music and painting at the same time and I can’t say that my mom was happy with either one [Wivel chuckles], because it’s a shot in the dark whether you’ll be successful or not. At that point I didn’t think I was going to live off music or take it up as a profession. I was trying to do both, to shop around my painting and I was also making people listen to my music, and I think people were catching on to the music a lot faster, so it just seemed like more of a possibility and it started to grow. And as it grew, I didn’t have time to do both anymore – I had to pick one and follow that. I started thinking, “this shit might actually work, I actually do have shot at this,” I was still young enough to give it a try and started to focus all my energy on the music. But I never thought I’d end up having it as my job or my main source of income – basically any arts-related field is usually something you do because you like it, without thinking of how you’re going to make a living. The whole time I was doing painting, I was thinking “am I fuckin’ gonna graduate and just be a painter? It doesn’t happen like that.” And with music it was the same thing; I’ve been doing it all my life, but I never really thought I’d be accepted as the next shit, but I gradually saw the possibilities there… [smug] and now I’m the shit! [laughter].
Wivel: So you’ve basically dropped painting?
Aesop Rock: Yeah, I scribble here and there, I try to keep a book of empty pages around to fuck around with, but I’m not…
El-P: Aes is going to do my next album cover [Wivel laughs]… he’s good, Aesop Rock is a good painter.
THE PAD AND THE PEN
Wivel: You obviously both focus a lot on your writing. Was that something you already did at an early stage or did it come along later? What I mean is, your lyrics are quite different from the usual hip hop fare, in terms of themes, as well as emotion.
Aesop Rock: In the beginning it’s all shit-talkin,’ it’s about who can brag in the most funny and creative way. You try to think of how to say that you’re dope in a new way, and that’s how it starts… I’ve never fuckin’ pursued creative writing outside of writing rap songs.
Wivel: You never wrote poetry or stuff like that?
Aesop Rock: No, I don’t really read and I don’t write poetry, I never took a creative writing class or any of that shit. It was something that I just developed in my own time while listening to music. Painting, on the other hand, was something I actively pursued; I took classes for it, and I sought professional advice on it. With writing I never took anything, besides your basic English classes in school, and I only wrote for rap songs.
Wivel: I guess what I’m trying to get at here is where it might come from… do you have any sort of artistic background, did your family encourage you? …you just said you never read much…
Aesop Rock: No, no [mumbles, chuckles]
El-P: I read a lot, in that sense, I went through a different evolution. I was very, very literate, I was very much into reading and writing, and come from a family of writers to some extent, my mother is a writer. I was always that kid, I would always have a fuckin’ book in my hand, always. Before I thought of myself as a future musician, I thought of myself as a writer. That would have been my alternate path, had I gone left instead of right as a kid.
And that very much rubbed off on my style as I started writing lyrics. I think I’m lucky to have had that, because it did give me a little bit of a slant. I wasn’t consciously letting it affect my lyrics, but after a while I started to realize that people thought my rhyme style was completely different. I never saw it, it was just the way that I wrote, but one thing I always leaned on, sort of my ‘secret weapon, was my literary sense – I had read a lot and had a lot of great concepts stuck in my head from a lot of great writers who were much smarter than me [chuckles]. It’s like weaponry, and I use that in my style as an influence… and at the same time, I was this machine of pop-culture reference [chuckles], the fuckin’ American TV-generation and all that.
Wivel: What would be your formative influences in terms of writing?
El-P: The shit that always really got me was dystopian, historical fiction, like George Orwell’s 1984…
Wivel: Yeah, you quote him on your album [on “Accidents Happen”]
El-P: … yeah, and stuff like Don Delillo, White Noise, and Philip K. Dick, who is my favourite author of all time. He’s the one I’ve read the most books by… probably because he’s the one that has written the most books [Wivel laughs]. The shit that got me was that which brought that dark, satirical perspective on things – the idea of seeing the world through a fish-eye lens. That’s really the kind of art I drifted towards in terms of literature, movies, and all that. So that’s where I come from, I kind of elected myself to that school of thought.
Wivel: It’s obvious, listening to your music…
El-P: Right, but I was never into science fiction, as such, which is a mistake made by a lot of people writing about my music. I think it’s a mistake they make because they don’t actually read science fiction themselves, they don’t actually know what it is, and how what I’m talking about is different. I was never into future civilizations and spaceships and all that [laughs], I’m more into exaggerations and metaphors of current culture…
Wivel: Slanted reality…
El-P: Yeah, seeing things through a magnifying glass, exaggerations of what’s relevant now. Blablabla…
Wivel [to Aesop Rock]: What about you, where does your writing come from, would you say?
Aesop Rock: I think it was the one thing I had that was completely mine; I didn’t have anyone, a teacher, telling me whether I was right or wrong. I did it on my own; it was my little thing no one could ever touch, because no one really taught me how to do it directly, in terms of form and such. I definitely was a TV and movie guy, anything that was based in a time, realm or setting other than the here and now pretty much attracted me [chuckles], starting with The Star Wars Trilogy, which is kind of the basis of anyone in our generation [chuckles].
El-P: Yeah, our DNA is, like, one-third Star Wars [laughter]… and then, of course, the Robocop series [more laughter].
Aesop Rock: Anything that was out there – from future stuff to medieval, dragon-times type stuff.
El-P: I was never into the fantasy stuff, I just couldn’t…
Aesop Rock: I liked it – actually, the only books I ever really read were, like, The Lord of the Rings books [laughs].
El-P [to Aesop Rock]: The reason you never read is because motherfuckers never put you up on the hot shit, probably…
Aesop Rock: Yeah, I dunno, even the stuff I was supposed to read for school, I never really read… I read Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird and all that, but…
El-P: I was always weird, because I loved it, all the classics…
Aesop Rock: I don’t know why I never caught on and I still never catch on… [to El-P] you, if anyone, puts me up on books, and I try to read them, but for some reason it never… actually, sometimes I do get hooked, once every year or two I’ll get a book and think this is really cool and I’ll finish it and think “I’m glad I did that, I should do that more”, but for some reason it never… it’s probably just because I’m lazy, it’s easier to just click on the TV and see what the fuck’s on. I’d rather just see it, than read about it, it is probably just being lazy, ultimately; I’d rather just sit in a chair and soak it in as it plays in front of me, as opposed to…
Wivel: It’s more effort to pick up a book… [Aesop Rock laughs].
Go to Definitive Jux for more info on the artists and I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, and check this interview with El-P from the New York Times which also links to the video for the single “Smithereens”. Also, Adult Swim has the video up for “Flyentology”, featuring Trent Reznor. Check El-P’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead blog here. The top photo is from the Def Jux show at the Roskilde Festival in 2003 and was taken by Rasmus Dengsø, the other, shitty ones were taken in El-P’s home by yours truly.