As a jazz musician always looking for cutting-edge, exciting, and thoughtful collaborators to expand my concept of music with, I was instantly struck by rapper and producer El-P, aka Jaime Meline, when I met him last year. A mature artist who has been rewriting the script of what other people thought had already been written, El-P creates futuristic landscapes at once seamless and disjointed, brutal and beautiful, deeply rooted in his love of the hip-hop tradition but original and completely his own. He combines intense lyricism with powerful sonic production, joining a mid-‘80s lo-fi old-school aesthetic with a 21st-century musician’s progressive sense of innovation. These same qualities are what I strive for on my own recordings, albeit in jazz.
The other quality I feel close to in El-P is his spirit as a renegade. We have both generated our own path—in the mid–’90s El-P developed a strong reputation with the groundbreaking trio Company Flow. He later collaborated with Harlem rappers Cannibal Ox and went on to start his own label, Definitive Jux. As for me, I have recently been acting as artistic curator of the Blue Series on Thirsty Ear. Each label in its respective idiom is the state of the art.
I have been branching off from jazz proper and delving into so-called dj and hip-hop culture, resulting in this year’s Thirsty Ear release Equilibrium, which has been one of my most critically acclaimed CDs. On hearing El-P’s 2002 album Fantastic Damage, I knew he was an artist I had to work with. We signed him to a one-off with the Blue Series and later this fall will release a CD of myself and some of the other Blue Series jazz players interacting with El-P’s masterful beats and landscapes.
Matthew Shipp How does the creative process work for you? Do you conceive in wholes, visual images, beats, words? I know inspiration is not a science—when and how it happens is different for everybody—but can you give us any insights?
El-P I’m trying to figure that out right now ’cause I’m trying to do everything, you know? I’m working on our collaboration primarily, and I’m trying to start writing again and I’m thinking about my next album. So I really haven’t figured that one out yet. When I sit down to do something it’s usually either because I have an emotion or an idea—it definitely starts with music, first of all, for me—and I have a mood or something intangible that I want to create or hear. And I kind of fuck around until I feel it start to come out. Or I have absolutely no clue what I’m doing and I just sit down and mechanically try to work off of whatever little chops I have, like an exercise, until something pops up. When I was younger it was much more about the fact that someone else’s record was dope and I had to beat it. When I heard something that I thought was really potent, I would sit there and try to outdo it or interpret it in my version.
MS What, like a Public Enemy album or something?
El-P Whatever it may be. For me, when I first started it was really about awesome rap shit. It was literally just learning other people’s music, learning other people’s rhymes. I would recite their rhymes and eventually I started to put my name into their rhymes, and then I started to write my own version of their rhymes with their cadence. It’s like slowly learning the rules so that you can apply them yourself, and you don’t feel like you’re just plagiarizing. It really does vary in terms of what sparks me. Sometimes it’s nothing. The most frustrating thing is when you really do have a clear idea of what you’re trying to do but for whatever reason just can’t accomplish it.
MS Can’t get that idea, but you might get something else.
El-P Exactly, all of a sudden you get something else. I am like a failed wannabe version of the rapper EPMD, you know, all my life. (laughter) Everyone always looked at my rhymes and my style and my production like it was so weird, or it was so different. For a long time I was like, “What are you talking about? It’s like EPMD.” Eventually I had to accept the reality that whatever is being filtered through my head is coming out differently.
MS That’s interesting, because to me the mistakes you make become the blueprint for your own language. That’s the starting point.
El-P I agree, the stumbling around in the dark ends up being like a signature—in some ways there are mistakes that only you can make and repeat. (laughter) Or it’s natural for you to be demented in some way, and people may find that interesting. The weird thing is that you never know for sure how you came up with something. When people ask, “How did you do what you did?” you don’t really want to tell them, “Um, I have no idea, I think it was just a mistake, I think I pressed the wrong button and I liked it.”
MS In jazz one of the big problems that a lot of young players have is that they want to be authentic, and that’s a difficulty because when you push yourself within the realm, when you think you’re authentic, is when it’s just dead.
El-P Well, there’s no authenticity without tradition. In hip-hop it’s the same thing. I spent so many years working on just the craft of attempting to be able to do even rudimentary shit.
MS Rapping or producing?
El-P Both. But really, rhyming first. A lot of people come right out of the box and they’re already trying to break the rules, rules they don’t even know. Philosophically, how are you going to break a rule you didn’t learn? You can’t fool the other people in your genre, the people who really did study, the people who really did do whatever training is necessary for themselves.
MS Yeah, they know exactly where you’re coming from.
El-P Which is why I respect you guys so much and why I was so amazed while working with you. It was clear to me that you couldn’t do what you do without completely knowing the basics backward and forward.
MS There are a lot of misconceptions about free jazz. I’m glad that you’re intelligent enough to see that. (laughter) This leads me to my next question. Your debut solo album, Fantastic Damage, released last May on your label Definitive Jux, is a dynamite CD, but it must be a lot different conceiving of a CD like that, in which sounds are generated in large part from electronic sampling, from working with live jazz musicians like myself and William Parker. What in the hell possessed you to want to work with a bunch of crazy Lower East Side modern jazz players, and are you conscious of trying to get a completely different narrative going from CD to CD, both content-wise and production-wise?
El-P Well, I mean, shit, I was wondering what possessed you guys to hire a hack like me.
MS Well, we could talk about that later, but anyway . . .
El-P To tell you honestly, I didn’t know exactly why I wanted to do it at the time. I had to discover that. First and foremost, I wanted to do it because it scared the shit out of me. (laughter) And when I get offered the chance to be involved with something that scares me, I usually do it, because I’m trying to learn, I’m trying to understand music as much as I can, to become a better musician in general and work in different capacities. The other thing is, I think it’s rare that someone like me, from hip-hop or the hip-hop production world, gets to work with live musicians. And I enjoy doing things that aren’t about me. For so long in my life it was just me attempting, straining, bleeding, crying to make my own music. And then as I started to make music for other people, they were asking me to do for them what I do for myself, and that was easy. Eventually I started to produce other people’s albums, and that’s when I realized what I wanted to be as a producer, or what a producer should be: somebody who could work with and understand somebody else’s ideas and vibe, and create and help nurture something that isn’t necessarily inherently me, my thing, my idea—all those things that I strive for as an artist when I put a piece of my own music out. I’m like a sponge, I want to soak up as much experience as possible and be able to work in as many scenarios as possible. It’s fun, it’s a challenge. Of course, the other thing is that it was a surprise and a compliment that you guys were stepping to me, it was kind of out of nowhere for me. I felt like maybe it’s not crazy, maybe it’s not insane. And I’m sure one of the biggest reasons I wanted to do it was the fact that my father is a jazz musician. In some way this is a vehicle for me to connect to him, regardless of whether or not it’s a direct connection.
MS I think it’s a beautiful idea. I’m into being a conduit for that.
As a jazz musician, I am interested in any relationship that you have with Herbie Hancock’s music. He was a big inspiration to me. He let me know that you can retain your essence as a jazz player but modernize yourself by dealing with technology and modern beats, which is why we brought you in to work with us, because we see you as the cutting edge of that idea, maybe the best practitioner as far as being a producer.
El-P Thank you. I actually got the chance to talk to Herbie Hancock, to interview him. It was an insane conversation, a great conversation. I was very inspired by him, and the angle that I took was exactly what you’re getting at now, which was that Herbie Hancock is a part of hip-hop. He nonchalantly spawned me with “Rockit.” Among other records, “Rockit” was a big deal to me, a big influence for me. And I didn’t know he was a jazz musician.
MS Oh, you didn’t?
El-P No, no! But you gotta think, at the time, I was just listening to the radio and pop music. “Rockit” came on MTV in the early ’80s, right when MTV had just popped off. I retroactively discovered Herbie Hancock’s other music, and that was what blew me away. I became a hip-hop producer because of songs like Rockit, and I was talking to him about the fact that in today’s intellectual climate, everybody is so interested in definition and trying to compartmentalize musicians within whatever genre—it’s not even hip-hop anymore, now you’ve got like 18 different subgenres, according to the brainiacs that sit back smoking their pipes or do their graduate theses on it. But I thought it was funny and interesting—and we spoke about this a lot—that Herbie Hancock probably couldn’t come out with that song now and have it be considered a hip-hop song. He would just never get the credibility, whereas when he came out with “Rockit,” there were no defined hip-hop musicians—there were djs, there were rappers, it was wide open. Everyone was taking influence from everything—Afrika Bambaataa was taking influence from all these records. It was surreal to me to be talking to a jazz musician who essentially had made one of the first big hit hip-hop records, an instrumental record, that in a lot of ways inspired me, the son of a jazz musician, to become a hip-hop musician. Then to retroactively discover jazz and eventually be working on an album with jazz musicians—
MS Yeah, it’s kind of funny.
El-P It’s actually really cool, because it confirms my belief that music is connected and bigger and more malleable and more open than some people would give it credit for.
MS I’ve made certain decisions in my own career because of a perceived conservatism and sterility that I see in jazz; that’s why I enjoy working with innovators like you from other idioms. But even though I am a big hip-hop fan, it seems to me that the hip-hop establishment can be very conservative, as much as or maybe even more than the jazz establishment. How do you deal with that reality?
El-P I deal with it by not giving a flying fuck. (laughter) I deal with it by being completely comfortable in the knowledge that most people who have this conservative idea of what hip-hop is know much less about it than I do. The people I associate with, people like Anti-Pop Consortium, who have the history, the most perspective, who really know about music, who are straight-up street cats, who can tell you anything about any type of music, the people I know who are really there, the fans of hip-hop music as it emerged, those are the first motherfuckers to go off, the first people to go left. It’s only the cats who got into hip-hop in the ’90s who think that there are rules. It’s funny. My point of reference is probably ten years previous to their point of reference, and they couldn’t even imagine what that is. My point of reference is Melle Mel, Art of Noise, Devo, Run-D. M. C., and Herbie Hancock—they don’t want to fuck with my perspective. And to tell you the truth, I feel that it makes me dangerous.
And I feel that all these motherfuckers are little kittens waiting to be stepped on by their own design. They are only going to survive, they are not going to be able to affect anything. That’s pathetic. Some of the conservatism is finance, man. Corporations are bean counters. They’re not trying to roll the dice on your inner vision. They want whatever the last kid who sold a million did, they want that again. Know what I’m saying?
El-P So one cat will come out with one style and one beat that is amazing and new and excites everybody and blows up because it should blow up. And for the next three years every one of his mediocre peers comes out with their version. That’s the natural progression of music. Hip-hop is probably the quickest moving form of music in terms of style, because it’s about style.
When I grew up, graffiti artists and b-boys, cats I was trying to learn about the culture from, told me that it’s all about style. You have to have your own style. And it’s always about advancing on your style. So it’s essentially a competition. There’s no style advancement in the mainstream. It’s very incremental. So I deal with it by remaining outside that paragon. I refuse to buy into anybody’s idea of what a real hip-hop record is or what a real rapper is, because I just don’t think they know what the fuck they’re talking about. (laughter) I sleep really well at night. I’m pretty confident in my own experience, and I am very aware of who I am and always have been.
MS Amen. We were talking earlier about discipline and about learning craft, and you mentioned martial arts. I have always admired Bruce Lee, especially because he was very utilitarian. It wasn’t about style. If he took something from fencing or from traditional Chinese kung-fu, that was cool. Whatever worked would go into the pot and would be synthesized in this seamless web. Do you see yourself operating in or creating a musical universe that’s maybe not hip-hop—it’s just whatever it is?
El-P No, to be honest with you, I’m making hip-hop. That’s the point I want to make. I think that as soon as someone starts to make some inroads—and there’s some interesting new things in hip-hop music—the intuition for the entire critical community, and even the fans, is to start throwing the credit to other forms of music. But they should be a little bit more respectful because hip-hop music is everything. And I am very conscious of that. Everything that I have ever done is trying to capture the raw essence of what I fell in love with about hip-hop music. And also having fun seeing where I can go.
MS The reason I ask that question is that I consider myself a free jazz player no matter where the music goes: it’s the essence, my DNA, where I’m coming from. But one thing I really love about free jazz, the thing that drew me to it, is that it is a melting pot of many things. Theoretically, anything can happen within it. Theoretically.
El-P Well, hip-hop is just that. Hip-hop is the most proudly referential music there is. Hip-hop music started from taking four to eight bars of other people’s music and repeating it over and over so that it became ours. So yes, I believe anything can and should happen within that spectrum. And I do think that there are some pillars, some rules, some things that you need to stick to. But those are based on my personal preferences or my personal experiences or what I grew up loving or what I later fell in love with.
MS These are fucked-up times we’re living in. We have a complete moron for president who is destabilizing the whole world. Culture is such an ambiguous word and can mean so many different things. How do you see yourself fitting into modern culture, however you define culture?
El-P I’m probably the perfect bastard child of American culture. I grew up in New York City and I used to think that New York was a microcosm of America until I traveled America and realized to my surprise and horror that America is on some other shit. But I have an adopted culture. I come from a single-parent household, and hip-hop was my culture. We moved between Manhattan and Brooklyn depending on what the rent was like. You know what I mean. So I didn’t have one block or one neighborhood that I could claim. And I didn’t have a big culturally rich family. But New York is a culture in and of itself, man. You grow up in New York and you become deranged and possibly interesting, possibly really annoying. (laughter)
MS Or a combination thereof.
El-P Yeah, which might describe me. But hip-hop became my community as a kid, as a teenager. It was an amazing thing to discover. At first it was just taking the trains and seeing the graffiti and hearing the music out of radios and seeing cats break-dancing on the street. But once I became a teenager and started to find people who were as obsessed with it as I was on an artistic level, it really became my community, my culture. Adopted as it is, but you know. So I’m definitely a child of the ’80s. I’m definitely a child of television and peanut butter and nuclear arsenals.
MS How much do anger and confusion enter the equation for you as a catalyst? And as you get older, is there some alchemy that transmutes these emotions into anything else?
El-P How dare you write that question down on a piece of paper? (laughter) You should be ashamed of yourself.
MS You’re right, I should. This is from around midnight last night; I thought, I gotta have something to say.
El-P I’m going to attempt to answer that, just as a point of pride. Just to pretend that I can answer that. Anger and confusion are big in the equation. At least in the current projects that I’ve been doing because of how fucked-up I’ve been over the past five years, and especially the last couple of years. I don’t think that it’s always necessary to have anger and confusion to make good music or to be a good artist, but it certainly helps me.
MS It helps me too. If I wasn’t mad at anybody I don’t even know how I’d make music.
El-P And that’s the weird thing with musicians. You realize that we’re all the same. A lot of us are just fucked or are bipolar or had rough times or were rebels for no reason as kids. There’s this strain in us that is confused and is reaching for something, I think. At least most of the time. And let’s be realistic, the second somebody loses touch with that strain in them, that’s the second they start becoming uninteresting. I think it’s important to have one foot in hell at all times. And at the same time to be able to recognize what that is. As I got older I started to recognize the difference between being in hell and thinking about hell.
MS I’m in my mid-forties, so I definitely did my apprenticeship in hell. I’m looking to at least get the hose on and make it a little cooler in there.
El-P No doubt. I’ll bring some ice over. The musicians I end up respecting always had that strain to them, and I don’t think it’s something that we really chose. I grew up in New York City, man; I don’t know how to make a song about pretty beaches and happy things and love because I don’t live near a beach and I’ve only been in love once and I got my heart broken. And beyond that there’s a kid on my corner with a gat and a dimebag and there’s a fucking plane headed for my building. So you know I don’t really feel that it’s my responsibility to make anyone feel good with my music. You know what I mean?
MS I like that.
El-P I just don’t give a fuck. I think everyone is trying to make music to make everyone feel good. There’s enough feel-good music out there, and a lot of people are good at that, but I’m not one of them, so I’m not gonna waste your time. I’m gonna rip you a new asshole with my music because there’s a relevance to that perspective. And that just happens to be what I’m good at, for better or for worse. And in terms of an alchemy, I think I understand what you’re saying: the music’s a little more focused now, or it’s changing. When I was a kid I was such an anger-machine rebel. I was too smart for my emotions; they were too volatile and my mind was racing too fast and I was looking everywhere for a fight, be it intellectual or physical. And that sort of anger and intellectual sparring that was instinctual for me became channeled into rapping. I was always sharp with my tongue. Now I’m 28 and the music has evolved and become something else. And I’m glad about that. I definitely am. I enjoy that changing within me because I get to keep my edge and at the same time I get to keep creating.
MS Well that’s what it comes down to. You’ve carved out quite a niche for yourself both as an artist and as a businessperson. Where do you see El-P going in the future? I’m sure it’s not with the Celine Dion collaboration I heard about.
El-P I’m hoping for complete expatriatism. (laughter) I’m thinking Costa Rica. Or just megalomaniacal power and money.
MS I have nothing against world domination.
—Matthew Shipp is a pianist who combines free jazz and modern classical music. He became known in the early ’90’s for his work with the David S. Ware Quartet and went on to headline his own shows—often with Ware bassist William Parker—and record duets with a range of musicians, from the legendary Roscoe Mitchell to violinist Mat Maneri. Shipp curates the Thirsty Ear label’s Blue Series, which has released a number of Shipp’s own recordings, including his critically acclaimed latest release, Equilibrium.