El-P’s Life Advice: Be Wrong, Stop Beefing, and Sample Freely
"Songs are not about being right; and art is not a fact-finding mission."
Leading “independent as fuck” space-junkmen Company Flow, managing the mighty Definitive Jux label, and releasing three bloodletting solo records, producer-MC El-P has remained underground hip-hop’s premier monopoly buster and chaos technician. His latest, Cancer for Cure (Fat Possum), is his most intense album yet, matching stuttering drum pileups and polysyllabic cluster bombs against Reznor-ready confessionals and humid droid noise. So, after nearly 20 years in the indie-rap hustle, he surely has some words of wisdom, right? He laughs, “You might as well hang up the phone right now, buddy.”
I think it’s important to let yourself be fucked up.
It’s important in art to let yourself be wrong and to let yourself be confused and not even apologize for it. I’m wrong on every record that I make. But I’m wrong in life. Show me the guy who’s not wrong and I don’t really want to talk to him. Songs are not about being right; and art is not a fact-finding mission.
I don’t do beef anymore. I’m a vegetarian.
At this point in my life, anyone can say damn near anything about me and I’m not engaging. Beef is a young dude’s game. You’re angrier. You have something to say about everything. Every little encounter or relationship can be met with self-righteousness, indignation, and fury. But how do you handle beef when you’re feeling like that’s something that you want to fuck with? Mercilessly. Kill everything in the room so that they walk away limping. If you’re going to do it, then you should actually try and wound to kill.
Writing a song about your love life is a little bit tricky.
If you’re really being honest about how you feel, someone might take offense. I think the only way to do it is just pretend people don’t exist beyond your mind, beyond the song. That’s just because the song has to happen, the song has to be there, the song has to exist. I remember I wrote [2009’s] “How to Serve Man” and I got a few phone calls off that one. “Hi, I love that song. That was awesome….Obviously, it’s not about me, so it’s awesome.” Of course it’s not about you, but it is.
Don’t count on a record label to be your bank. Don’t count on a record label to be your psychologist or be your mom and dad.
The thing you need from a record label isn’t anything else but people who are passionate about what you do. That’s it. The rest of it you need to essentially take into your own hands as much as you can. Don’t wait for your record label to expose you, don’t wait for your record label to come with ideas as to how to make you something to talk about. I just want someone who knows what their job is and really genuinely loves what I do.
Fuck it. Sample. Go for it. What the fuck?
Is it wise? Shit, our world is careening headlong into a fiery pit of devastation. Is that wise? Sampling is an amazing art form that can yield results that no live recording can ever yield. Period. I would find it really difficult to tell anybody not to sample, the same way that I would find it difficult to tell people not to use the color red if someone made that illegal. People can probably tell me not to smoke weed. I still do that shit. If you find the genuine thrill of doing it, if you think you’re gonna bring something new to the table, then go for it, man. And figure out the rest afterward. Shit, you don’t think there’s a part of me that wants to make Paul’s Boutique 2?
I don’t want to be the dude who jumps at money.
You turn things down because you need to be in control of who you are. I turned something down today. I got a call for a last-minute show at some awards thing tomorrow night for some ridiculous amount of money for a couple songs and I turned it down. Of course, if someone offers you 50 grand to do a show tomorrow, do the goddamn show. But being afraid to turn shit down is being afraid. I’m not big with fear.
Sometimes you have to give up something you love.
And at a certain point I realized I wasn’t going to be doing anybody any favors by [running Definitive Jux] anymore. There was a point where I had to look at myself and be like, “What is it that I’m doing this for? Is it because I think it’s what I want to do? Or am I addicted to being this guy? Am I power-tripping?” Once I realized I wasn’t sure about that answer, I realized the only right thing for me to do was to step away. I was building something brick by brick. And every year it would get bigger and there was a wall. And finally when I laid the last brick, I looked around and I kind of felt like I had built a prison cell. Fuck, maybe I should’ve had an architect work this thing out beforehand.