El-P Interview: Lucy in the sky with dizzle

Listen to Kembrew’s Top Ten Picks for the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival, July 19-21, Union Park, Chicago

1. Björk
2. The Breeders
3. El-P and Killer Mike
4. Low
5. M.I.A.
6. Phosphorescent
7. R. Kelly
8. Swans
9. Wire
10. Woods

Last year, Killer Mike and El-P steamrolled their musical competition with their respective albums R.A.P. Music and Cancer 4 Cure. Both artists have garnered plenty of attention over the years—Killer Mike made his initial splash on Outkast’s 2000 album, Stankonia, and El-P began in the early 1990s with the late, great Company Flow. But in 2012, their profiles skyrocketed. The outstanding Cancer 4 Cure further developed the producer and MC’s singularly dark, claustrophobic musical vision, but El’s production work on R.A.P. Music was the knockout punch. Although he only did one guest verse on that Killer Mike album, it was most definitely collaboratively conceived and executed. Run the Jewels, which was released as a free download on June 26, further extends the duo’s winning streak. I spoke with El about the album and a supporting tour that will bring them to Gabe’s on July 18, as well as Pitchfork Music Festival on July 21.

Download the album

El-P -- Collage by Brendan Wells
Collage by Brendan Wells

Little Village: How was working on Run the Jewels different than working with Mike on R.A.P. Music?

El-P: It was much more of a loose vibe. R.A.P. Music was fun too, but Mike also really wanted to make a statement with that. With Run the Jewels, we kind of let whatever happen, happen. The vibe was a hell of a lot more loose.

LV: Tell me more about the album.

EP: It’s an homage to all the great groups we love. We came up on EPMD and Run-DMC, and even Red and Meth [Redman and Method Man]. With those two, you had two MCs who are monsters in their own right and they came together to make something incredible. Even with group projects today, most of the time it just sounds like a bunch of people waiting to take center stage. Doing a genuine group is different because you’re working out how you play off each other and all that. Doing this record with Mike, we were pushing each other to say the illest shit and kept bouncing ideas off each other. I think we really nailed it. When you listen to this record, it’s not some phoned-in shit.

LV: Was most of it done together in the studio, or did you send tracks back and forth?

EP: It was done in the studio, together. I can’t work like that, sending tracks back and forth. Me and Mike, we did R.A.P. Music in the same room, and that’s how we make all our records together. There’s a vibe between us that’s very special and very integral to the way we work, and that can’t be mailed in. So basically, we went into a studio in upstate New York and took a lot of psychedelic drugs and smoked a lot of weed and just fuckin’ did it.

LV: Run the Jewels sounds like even more of a headphones album than your previous productions. The songs are pretty trippy.

EP: The record is really a psychedelic record. It is. The songs we put out there [in advance of the release] are things that we thought would get people excited in general, but when you get deeper into the record you’ll hear that a lot of it was written under the influence of psychedelics [laughs]

LV: Why did you two decide to give it away for free when, obviously, it cost money to make it—with studio time and everything else.

EP: Yeah, it costs money, but there’s more than one way to skin a cat these days, you know? Let me put it to you this way. Mike and I had a great year, last year, and we were in a position to fund this record. It just felt natural. We didn’t want to ask a label for money and all that goes into that, waiting to schedule a record, that process. Why not invest in ourselves and put something out into the world that is great, and see what comes back to us? It’s a little bit of a risk, but then it’s a risk to do anything. More than anything else, it felt right. Fuck it. We’re not here to compete on an industry level, so we just wanted to put a record out that says none of that matters. We wanted to put out a record that can compete artistically, and on that merit alone. Who cares what we sold the first week? I’ve been in the industry a long time and I’ve done it every which way, and I’m not convinced that doing it the traditional way is really the best way anymore.

LV: What’s the format for the tour? How are you dividing up your sets when you come to Iowa City?

EP: It’s a fuckin’ extravaganza. We’re putting on a big show. Besides Despot and Kool A.D., me and Mike are doing separate sets and then we’re combining to do a full Run the Jewels set. It’s hopefully gonna give everything people want. Me and Mike want to feed our own individual fans, but also give them something new.

LV: And what about the Pitchfork appearance? You two are billed separately. Are you doing collaborative sets too?

EP: We’re figuring that out right now [laughs]. We’re playing our own sets, but we’ll each definitely be up in each others’ sets as well.

LV: Do you have another album planned for the near future? Are you working on anything?

EP: I have nothing planned for the future. Right now I’m just letting the universe decide. As a policy, I am not going to try to control what the next thing is. Philosophically, if you put your best foot forward, something good is going to happen. I’ve spent a lot of years trying to plan and figure things out, but I found that the second I stopped worrying about that was the second I became happy and started making more music.

Kembrew McLeod’s two-year-old son Alasdair recently schooled him about dancing: “You have to let the beat drop, and then you start dancing!”

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