A lot has changed since El-P made his mid-Nineties debut as a member of the progressive New York rap trio Company Flow and launched his seminal record label, Definitive Jux, galvanizing hip-hop’s underground scene. Nearly two decades later, the term “underground” is more nebulous than ever, while unshackled independent rap thrives. Def Jux lays dormant, and the hip-hop landscape has morphed into an open expanse of new videos and mixtapes that seemingly surface by the hour.
But instead of resting on his legacy, El-P has stayed consistently inventive. He’s in the midst of releasing two albums this month – R.A.P. Music, a collaborative LP with Atlanta’s Killer Mike, and Cancer for Cure, his first solo full-length in five years – both of which contain some of his most uncompromising, intricate work yet. Ahead of this week’s release of C4C on Fat Possum, El-P talked to Rolling Stone about crafting his new album, signing with a rock-centric Southern label, working with Killer Mike and more.
Looking at the album title, the first thing I thought of was [El-P’s friend and Def Jux artist] Camu Tao’s death in 2008 from lung cancer. Did his passing influence this record?
I like to think it’s not a direct result, but the reality is that there’s no question the word “cancer” has been knocking around in my head for a couple years. Camu was a huge inspiration on this record, mostly because he had a huge effect on my life and who I am. Camu’s passing got me thinking a lot about mortality and conversely about living and wanting to be alive, so it affected me very deeply. I started writing [the record] when he passed, but that’s not what the record’s really about. But it’s in there, it’s in its DNA for sure.
You started writing the last track on the record in 2008. Have you been working on the album constantly over the last few years?
It wasn’t constant at all. I started it in around ’08, just writing here and there and making some music for it, or just sort of making music for what I thought would be my music. It was scattered. I’d say that the bulk of the work got done in the last year and a half, but there are things as old as 2008 on it. I have no fucking idea why it’s taken me five years. I think the fact of the matter is, I’m on some sort of weird internal clock and these records always end up coming together when they need to come together for me.
I’m not that prolific in terms of making my own music. I really only put stuff out when I have something to say and I feel like I’ve got a direction and I’ve got an idea – and that can even take two, two-and-a-half years to flesh out. I’m really pretty ridiculous about how much I work on my music, and I don’t look at it as necessarily a good quality. I look at it as a side effect of my apparent insanity. It is what it is, man. I’ve been getting my life in a direction that I think is in a good place and [ready] to even do my own music.
What inspired you to get to that place of readiness?
It was more that I actually got the time to work on the record. It just came together in the last year-and-a-half or two years because it was time to do it. I just knew it was time to do it. I took the time to sort of stop answering the phone and really go for it. The only other outside gigs that I took were the Killer Mike record, and I did a megamix [2010’s Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixxx3], an instrumental album that was sort of just a little side project. But it really was just about timing. And also, Fat Possum stepped up to the plate over a year ago and signed me, and I figured eventually they might want the record. [Laughs]
Odd Future offshoot Mellowhype’s album is the only other hip-hop record in recent memory to come out on Fat Possum. What was it about them that really clicked with you?
A couple things. First of all, we were looking for a partner to put out the Camu record [2010’s posthumous King of Hearts was a joint release by Def Jux and Fat Possum]. I had done a little bit of work with them before in the past, a few little remixes and things, none of which actually ever came out. When we were looking for a partner for the Camu record, they really got Camu. They really got the record and they looked at it the way I looked at it. They saw it being a beautiful piece of music, and that was the type of label that I wanted to work with for that record.
When it came time to do my record, I had all these plans in my head of shopping around and trying to get on all of the places that you might think might be obvious for someone like me. But I didn’t even do it because [Fat Possum] just came in, and they were just so passionate about doing it. I’m at the point of my life where I’m sort of just going with shit. You can’t really ask for anything more than a good nuts-and-bolts record label packed with people who are really serious about music and do it because they love it, and also know how to sell records. It wasn’t my first instinct, but then when I sat down and thought about it, it just made total sense to me in some way. I feel pretty good about it to this day.
You said you’re not that prolific, but you’ve been pretty active over the past couple years, particularly working with Das Racist and [Mr. Muthafuckin’] eXquire. How did you originally connect with them?
I became friends with the Das Racist dudes before anything really big happened for them. We had mutual friends. I wasn’t really listening to them because I thought like everyone else at the time that they were just the Pizza Hut/Taco Bell guys. [Laughs] It was just like this song that I looked at as being a little silly and gimmicky and didn’t really mean anything to me. But I listened to more of their music and I realized I was wrong about them. I kind of went out of my way to meet them and hang out with them because I really liked what they were doing, and we just became friends. With eXquire it was a similar thing. I had no idea that he actually had used a bunch of my music on his mixtape [2011’s Lost in Translation]. I didn’t know. I first heard the “Huzzah” song and I was like, “I like that. That’s cool.” I saw the video and I thought it was good hip-hop. I hit him up like, “Hey man, I think that’s good,” and it just turned out that he was a fan of my shit.
But since I got into this business and this scene, my instinct in coming out of the Nineties was that there was a real community of people who were really all trying to do stuff at the same time but with no particular direction. There was no business until it started to unhatch with labels like Rawkus and stuff like that. I come from a perspective that musicians should be supportive of each other in their scene and should basically reach out if they like something. So that’s how these friendships started and it’s been cool. Obviously the last couple years, I’ve been popping up more and more and it’s kind of reached a little bit of a fever pitch at this point. But I guess when I talk about being prolific, I mean more like the fact that I’m not constantly making El-P songs, you know? My records are a little intense to make, as they are to listen to. It’s a real commitment for me and I have to be inspired to do it, period. And that inspiration can come in bursts, and then eventually it just happens and you just get in some sort of zone. That’s kind of what happened over the last year-and-a-half.
You worked with Cat Power and Trent Reznor on your last record, 2007’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. This time you have Interpol frontman Paul Banks and the Unicorns and Islands frontman Nick Diamonds on here. How’d you connect with them?
Nick [Diamonds] and Paul Banks are huge hip-hop heads and friends of mine. It was a no-brainer. Cat Power was an acquaintance of mine, someone who I knew and would bump into and talk to about new music. And Trent Reznor was someone that I had worked with a little bit. I had done a remix for him and gone to a show, met him and kind of just kept in touch. But for the most part, I just kind of do what’s around, what’s natural. I really don’t believe in going too far out of your way to hunt down somebody to do a song. I’m a genuine fan of everybody that I’ve gotten to collaborate with, so it’s a cool thing.
When I talked to Killer Mike about R.A.P. Music, he said you guys didn’t really know each other before the collaboration. What was it like getting started on that record?
Honestly, it was immediately just explosive – like, immediately amazing – which is why I ended up doing a whole record. I flew down to Atlanta to work with him and do a few songs. I was a fan and I knew his stuff. I liked the idea, and I was like, “Yeah, fuck it. I’ll come down and do this.” But the idea originally was only to do a couple songs because I was really focusing on my record and I wasn’t really trying to distract myself from that too much. But I went down there and … Every once in a while you forget this can happen, but sometimes you just meet somebody who you’ve felt like you’ve known all your life. That’s how me and Mike felt with each other. After a day of working together, we were friends, really friends. We connected so much on what we would want out of our record and our influences and the things that got us excited about music. And we’re the same age. There was just a really amazing connection and friendship that just was very there. All we had to do was just show up.
After a week of working with him, I went back [to New York]. We [had done] a couple songs and I was like, “Great.” They hit me up like, “Will you do the whole record?” and I said, “No, because I gotta do my record.” And then they said, “Alright. Well, but what about this idea … how about you do the whole record?” And I said, “No,” again and they basically harassed me for a couple of days. Then I said, “You know what? Fuck it,” because in my mind, it was a rare experience. Sometimes something just blows your ear or expectations away, and that’s how I felt every time working with Mike – that everything we did, every moment just working with him and seeing and hearing what was happening far exceeded my original expectations. I just couldn’t ignore that.
Do you see yourself doing more full album collaborations in the future?
Yeah, absolutely. Certainly with Mike, no question about it. And I’m doing a record with Nick [Diamonds]. We’re doing a project together, a full project. When it works, it’s one of the enjoyable kinds of records that you can make. Producing a song here and there for people is good, but I think the real art and the thing that I’m really into and the thing that I really am drawn to is the art of the album, the long form.
Is the Nick Diamonds record going to be hip-hop?
No, he’s gonna sing and I’m going to produce and we’re going to produce together. There’s not going to be any rapping on it. I’ve never done an album with a singer, and Nick is a great friend of mine. We’ve already gotten some songs done and I really like the way they’re coming out. So yeah, that’s something that we’re pretty serious about.
Do you have any idea when that will surface?
Well, I haven’t gotten the chance to work on it beyond about two or three songs yet, so probably next year.
I noticed you tweeted that you were writing some guests verses for some features. What’s on your plate beyond Nick Diamonds?
There’s a couple of things happening that I can’t really quite talk about yet. I’m just kind of working on a couple things for a couple friends of mine. I just did something for A-Trak. I’ve collected a bunch of things that I told people I would do after the album haze. [Laughs] But right now, the future’s open. I’m kind of just having fun with this record and I’m really excited to go out and play shows. I’m definitely going to do this album with Nick, and me and Killer Mike are definitely going to do another record together. In fact, we’re probably going to do a project with me and him both rapping together. Beyond that, I gotta just keep it open.
Even with all you’ve accomplished, you seem to be getting as much attention now as ever, and you’re even producing tracks with T.I. You’re still connecting with people today.
Thank you, man. That means a lot to me. I’m feeling pretty lucky right now. When you get to a point in your career where you have been around for a while, especially in hip-hop, it’s pretty easy to become sort of irrelevant. [Laughs] And I feel very lucky that that’s not seeming to be the case right now. I don’t really have any expectations; I’m just pretty damn glad to be a part of it and to be inspired by music. I put myself up there in the top tier of biggest hip-hop fans in the world, and for me, all I ever wanted to do is work and to get the chance to try and make something great if I could. So yeah, I’m in a good place with that and I’m excited about it. I definitely do not take that shit for granted.