Interview: El-P talks sampling and making peace with his musical life of crime

El-P will perform with Killer Mike as Run the Jewels this weekend in Des Moines. -- illustration by Lev Cantoral
El-P will perform with Killer Mike as Run the Jewels this weekend in Des Moines. — illustration by Lev Cantoral

Run the Jewels

Pitchfork Music Festival (Red Stage) — Sunday, July 19 at 7:25 p.m.

“I have nothing planned for the future. Right now I’m just letting the universe decide,” Run the Jewels’ MC and producer El-P told me last time I spoke with him, just before he and Killer Mike released their first album in 2013. “As a policy, I am not going to try to control what the next thing is. 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.”

It turns out this was the best advice El-P could have given himself, because what followed was a runaway success. He and Killer Mike had each garnered heaps of critical praise over the years, but when they teamed up for Run the Jewels (RTJ), their profiles skyrocketed. Among other things, Marvel Comics recently published RTJ homages on the cover of three different comic titles (including Howard the Duck # 2), and this summer they will play a string of festivals, including 80/35 Music Festival in Des Moines on Saturday, July 11 and Pitchfork Music Festival’s closing night on Sunday, July 19.

I first got to know El-P over a decade ago, back when he was running the influential indie label Definitive Jux, and he later provided the soundtrack for Copyright Criminals (the PBS documentary about sampling that I made with Benjamin Franzen). This gave me some insight into how El-P creates his singular musical vision—usually through a combination of computer software, studio hardware and keyboards that mutilate samples beyond recognition.

“You’re running through effects, chopping shit up and placing it and rearranging it so that it just is not recognizable,” said El-P, who gave me a demonstration of his technique while in his Brooklyn studio. “Okay, here’s the most obvious, this is the most rudimentary ‘Sound Changing 101.’” Hunched over his keyboard, he explained, “You sample a sound, this is the root key [hits a key to the far right of the keyboard], and then you play it down here [lower on the keyboard scale], hence, slowing the sound down, distorting the sound and making it unrecognizable.”

El-P continued, detailing how he makes new songs from a combination of found sounds and those he generates in the studio. “I use fragments, fragments of music. Things that I can bend and twist at will, things that I can shape and connect into my own forms and pieces, that, frankly, are just unrecognizable. If you are using a horn to distort and play as a bass line, you know, and then EQ-ing it so that it has bass and it just has a different sound to it—you know, how is anyone going to be able to recognize that?”

While discussing how the threat of copyright infringement has pushed him to be even more radical in the way he transforms his sound sources, El-P smiled mischievously and said, “If you can catch me, then I didn’t do my job. Straight up, it’s my fault.” With that in mind, El-P approaches sampling differently today than when he started out in the 1990s with his first group, Company Flow.

“Now I’m sampling because I like the way something sounds,” El-P said, “and I’m going to take that piece and I’m going to run it through about 30 different experiments to see what comes out of it, and usually what comes out of it is completely different than what I liked the initial sample for.”

While producing the backing tracks for RTJ1 and RTJ2—along with a planned RTJ3 album!—El-P collaged sounds in much the same way he has done in his solo work. But with Killer Mike, the process was much more collaborative. “Doing a genuine group is different because you’re working out how you play off each other and all that,” he said. “There’s a vibe between us that’s very special and very integral to the way we work.”

Much of El-P’s desire to transform samples is rooted in his experimental streak, but it also stems from the headaches caused by the sample clearance system. He attributes the problems with sample licensing to the obscure intermediaries who control many copyrights. “It’s usually not the people who created the music,” El-P said. “It’s not. It’s usually someone else who owns the music, who swallowed the shit up, you know, who bought them and a million other groups in some merger.”

“I have cleared samples,” he continued, “but attempting to do the right thing and attempting to clear samples for me always ended up with me fuckin’ being even more disgusted than before.” He then recounted a story about asking permission to use a bass line, and the publisher coming back with a figure that was the entire budget for the whole album.

“It was like, ‘Guess what asshole, fuck you. I’m not giving you any publishing. I’m not giving you any money. Fuck your sample.’” He added, “The thing that pisses me off is that sampling still exists, it just only exists for motherfuckers who can afford it. That’s the fucked up part. And I don’t really know what to say about that except that it’s pretty sad, you know.”

For a solution to this sampling versus copyright quagmire, El-P provides a musician’s perspective. “So if there was a give and take, publishers could make money, and we could actually pay for it without feeling like we’re getting ripped off. But they’re too fuckin’ greedy.” He then waxes philosophical.

“Hip-hop music, it’s fuckin’ criminal music, man. It is. Period,” El-P said, though he also empathizes with those who don’t want their music to be sampled. “I understand. I care about my music just as much as anyone else,” adding quickly, “The only problem is that there are specific times when I’ve just wanted to fuckin’ snatch eight bars of someone else’s record and put some drums under it, ‘cause that’s hip hop. That’s some raw hip-hop shit right there.”

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