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Cover Story: EL-P

Written by Daniel Clarke on March 23, 2009

There are some moments, some instances in life that just seem to stick with you. I was only thirteen when someone handed me a cassette from a group called Company Flow.

Back then I was only a novice hip hop admirer. Having cut my teeth on the early workings of Public Enemy, the Notorious B.I.G. and (god forbid) Vanilla Ice, I was at least familiar with the notion of ‘east coast’ rap, having absorbed the work of Eric B and Rakim, and I definitely dug everybody’s favourite Jews, The Beastie Boys.

But when I listened to this particular tape, I was overcome. I was taken under by the stripped down minimalist beat production and overwhelming lyricism, the cunning linguistics and fight-night-tight flow. I wondered who these guys were. This was before Google, Myspace and cable internet, so finding out meant a train ride to the city to visit to the only hip hop store I knew of in the whole of Sydney.

The two members of this group, I discovered, were El-P and Big Jus.

Twelve years later and I’m sitting at Brighton Bar, Oxford Street, enjoying a cold beer after seeing El-P in concert for the first time. I glance over to the adjacent table and, as if it were a normal occurrence, I see him sipping a beer, catching up with his old buddy Danger Mouse. Thankfully
I am, for lack of a better term, really really drunk.

How often is it that you are sitting in a bar next to two of the raddest producers in hip hop? Really not that often, I’d imagine; for some people, never. The confidence of alcohol, the social lubricant of the land mammal, gives me the courage to wander over.

‘Hello Mister El-P…, or is it just El-P?’ Silence: obviously not the greatest way to start a conversation. We exchange some polite introductions, and Mr. El-P invites me to sit down for a chat.

Thinking back to those early days of commercial hip hop, I ask him how the scene has changed over the years.

“Everything changes. So do I. If it didn’t I’d shoot myself.”

He’s in an optimistic mood then.

Having read volumes on his life and work, I’d read somewhere that he was expelled from a few high schools. I ask him whether that had anything to do with his determination not to eat industry shit (again, for lack of a better term.)

“That was well before I had any clue as to any industry.”

Confrontational! I always like a challenge.

I inquire, ever so gently, as to why he was expelled, wondering whether there were any good stories: like punching a teacher?

“Just general juvenile delinquency and resentment of authority,” he tells me sipping his beer with a mixture of disdain and pity. “I also had, and still do have an amazing inability to do things I deem stupid or boring… weed and beer didn’t help much, either.”

Stupid or boring: I hope that this isn’t one of those things.

I decide to work back a bit, ask him about the hallowed Company Flow days. Always having a strong determination to stay in control of his music, I ask him what it was like dealing with the industry at such an early age.

“I never gave a fuck. I just wanted to make my music without anyone telling me anything.”

I’m starting to like his attitude. The album High Water saw El-p collaborate with The Blue Series Continuum, a jazz band. I ask how that challenged him as a musician.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” he says with a self deprecating laugh, glancing into the amber pit of his schooner. “I had to figure out a way to involve myself with free jazz musicians and actually contribute to what was being created from the jump. I brought in a bunch of music and had them just go off to it. Afterwards I took what they did and created completely new songs out of them. It was hard, but great fun.”

O.K: he seems to be opening up a little.

I bring up his latest record, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, specifically the opening sample about falling in space.

I ask where that came from, and what made him want to use it to start off the album.

“It’s from a David Lynch movie called Fire Walk With Me. It felt appropriate, the idea of plunging in to a reality that you can’t stop.”

I’m a sucker for grand narratives, so I ask whether there was an underpinning theme to the album.

“I guess if anything its about trying to cope with being powerless.”

That’s something I can relate to, especially in the company of such a prolific artist.

The new album contains some of the most interesting and genre bending collaborations I’ve ever heard, so I ask how they came about. Did he jam with the artists, or were they more midnight strokes of genius?

“Mostly the midnight effect: usually it was having a song and feeling like it could use another element.”

I’m starting to slur my words a little, so I graciously take my leave. However, before I stagger away I check to see what’s on the horizon.

“Cage, Camu Tao (r.i.p.), Chin Chin all have new stuff coming up and I’ve just started on my new album.”

“Expect soul crushing mayhem” he adds, as I turn back, tripping over a table in the process.

There are some moments in life that just seem to stick with you.

‘I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead’ is out now, go grab a copy and get ready to bust a nut.

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