As a producer and rapper for Company Flow, El-P helped transform Rawkus Records into a major force in underground hip-hop. Following Rawkus' demise and the breakup of Company Flow, El-P reinvented himself as a critically acclaimed solo artist, innovative producer, and label head. El-P's Definitive Jux went on to develop a sizable cult following, thanks to buzzed-about releases from iconoclasts like Cannibal Ox, moody beatsmith RJD2, socially conscious fantasist Mr. Lif, West Coast smartass Murs, arty wordsmith Aesop Rock, underground legend Cage, and El-P himself.
Artists continue to seek out El-P's incendiary, distinctive production, and he's also branched out into film with his atmospheric score for 2002's Bomb The System. After finishing his eagerly anticipated second solo album, I'll Sleep When You're Dead, El-P spoke with The A.V. Club about his mustache, Diddy, Def Jam, longevity, dealing with major-label suitors, and RJD2's departure from the label.
The A.V. Club: According to your blog, it looks like you're growing a majestic new moustache.
El-P: No, that's long-gone. I haven't touched that blog since I finished I'll Sleep When You're Dead. That moustache was just there because I didn't have time to shave it off. [It represented] my everyday failure.
AVC: Did you get treated differently when you had a moustache?
EP: You do. You're not really prepared for that. I couldn't really put it into words. There's a certain kind of vibe. It's empowering. You get to a point where being creepy starts to feel powerful.
AVC: Is the actual process of making an album pleasurable to you?
EP: You know what, man? Honestly? I think I would have to say no. I think that it was not particularly pleasant. There were moments of clarity and there were moments of pleasure, but I'm a pretty intense person, and when I throw myself into a project, it's like… I can't say it's not enjoyable in any way, but it's definitely intense. And I don't know if intense is fun, you know? I put myself through the wringer. That's just how I work. Of course, there are moments of silliness and fun throughout the whole thing, but when I do a record, especially when I do my records, I definitely hole up and fucking lose my mind. When you're losing your mind, there's moments when it's really kind of fun, but still, you know it's insanity.
AVC: Do you think hip-hop is a dying art form?
EP: Uh, no. I don't. It's kind of like saying, "That's like saying rock is a dying art form…" to me. I've always made that clear in terms of how I view it. I think that people have been claiming hip-hop as being dead since the moment it started. I think there are people—and I can be included in that category sometimes—that get frustrated with what's going on at the time musically, feeling like maybe the industry has handcuffed itself, or trained its artists to do or think about music in a way that classically hasn't led to the greatest records in hip-hop. I think that it goes through lulls and phases, but no, I don't think hip-hop is a dying art form. I think it's impossible for hip-hop to be a dying art form. It's like punk died, I suppose you could say. There are all the offsprings of people who are influenced by punk. It sounds completely different—but it's still rock 'n' roll. When hip-hop came on the scene, it was the last legitimate creation of a new genre. So I do not think that hip-hop is dying. I just think that there need to be a lot of really good records.
AVC: It could be argued that major-label hip-hop is dying, that it's becoming too unwieldy and expensive to be profitable.
EP: Sure. I think there's a future for different ideas. I think that what's happening now is that some of the ideas that have been out there, that have been fueling the popular records and the bigger records that have been getting the push from the major labels, I think that they're operating off of ideas that have already expired. Especially in hip-hop, because hip-hop is always moving. It's always looking for the next style; it's always trying to one-up the last person. I think that somewhere along the line, capital and music always clash. I think that there are ideas that are on their last legs. Basically, people are pretty much done with certain statements. They've pretty much been done to death, been done well, even. But I think the music industry as a whole is going to have to face itself pretty hard soon. I don't think it has anything to do with the musicians. There's a responsibility as a musician to do the music that you want to hear. But nobody's going to be able to spend as much money on the music as they used to. I think that goes across the board.
Rap music needs a few new heroes. There are a few popping up and there. That needs to expand into a bigger idea. At the end of the day, it's just fucking music. And as long as motherfuckers are into it, I don't really see how it could evaporate. It's very possible that the major labels are not going to be as supportive of it any more. It doesn't seem to be making for incredible pop music any more, and it doesn't seem to be, for the stuff being churned out by the major labels, making for particularly significant cultural pieces either. So I just concentrate on doing what I do, and working with the people I work with, because I think that those guys are trying to do that.
AVC: Who outside of the Def Jux camp gives you hope for hip-hop's future?
EP: There are a lot of dudes. At this point, it would be hard to say. At this point, my relationship to the music has changed. I like songs, because people aren't delivering me full albums that I really think are masterpieces any more. But as much as people might get annoyed by Kanye West, that dude has made a huge impact in a positive way. And I think Kanye was an interesting personality to jump onto the scene. He completely stuck his chest out and challenged people in a way that people didn't like. Also, he did self-produced albums that had whole visions to them. And that's a big element too. The crews that are going to be self-produced are going to make the great albums, as opposed to making these mix-tapes, these compilations—"Me over this guy, me over this guy." It sounds good individually, but the art of the record is something that is lost. You can equate it to R&B, to a degree. It gets to the point where it's just vocalists and producers coming in and piecing things together. When you start to get hip-hop records by motherfuckers who literally aren't even writing their rhymes or producing the music, then you have to look at it and say, "What is this?" because this is our shit, a point of pride for us—that we were creative, that this wasn't a construct. There are a lot of guys here and there, but to be honest, I really just turn myself inward. Maybe I don't care as much because I see people around me every day that are passionate about making music.
AVC: There's a real one-size-fits-all quality to a lot of these major-label albums. Diddy and Nas are worlds apart, but they basically seem to be operating from the same blueprint in terms of making an album with the same people.
EP: Except that Nas is a fucking legitimate poet and needs to be revered. I don't think there's anybody who's particularly interested in Diddy's album, though. Not to sound like "that guy," but I don't think there's anyone interested in the type of album that someone like Puffy's making. Even if there's good moments on it, it just comes off as disingenuous.
AVC: You were with Rawkus from the beginning. Where did things start to go wrong?
EP: Well, I've spoken about this so many times, but I think that if I had to boil it down, my business relationship with them wasn't good. We had internal dealings and business dealings that were shady and that I couldn't take. And I think that probably exemplifies a bigger problem, a bigger issue. I don't really know, man. I had so much business between it, and I had such a strong opinion on it for so long… What's the point of kicking them when they're down? I think that every record label has its trials and tribulations, its ups and downs. The only thing you can do is hope to recognize what it is that makes you great, and to try and continue to capture it. I think Rawkus played the game a little too hard. I think they got a little too excited and tried to get with the big boys a little too quick. Spend big-boy money, and they weren't sitting at the big table. And that sort of trickled down into everything, to the insecurity of what they were putting out, to the A&R decisions that they made, to finding people and not putting their records out, spending a shitload of money…
There are a whole bunch of reasons why a label doesn't work. I don't think it's any… I've owned a record label now for six, seven years. It's hard. It's fucking hard. And it's fucking hard to stay afloat. And really, the best thing that you can do is try and be aware of what people love about you and stick to it not because you're afraid of anything, but just understand the idea. And move forward with that in mind. It's also important to have a really straight-up operation. And a lot of record labels don't have their shit together, and they don't have the philosophy behind the way they do business together. With me, I'm going to have a label where no one is ever cheated, ever. And in order to do that, everything has to be completely transparent, and we have to be a fucking operation that can answer a question at any given time. Quite frankly, the behind-the-scenes story with Rawkus was that pretty much everybody who ever dealt with Rawkus felt like they got money stolen from them, or cheated out of them, at some point.
AVC: Def Jux seems to have picked up where Rawkus left off.
EP: To a degree. I definitely left Rawkus with an idea that I was holding onto what was the right departure point, to do a label and be involved with art and taking responsibility of people's careers. The fact of the matter is that it really just boils down to the record. Who the fuck cares about the label? It really doesn't matter, and no one would even give a fuck if the records weren't great. And when Def Jux is putting out records that people are responding to, we feel it. When we're putting out records that people are responding to, it's amazing. And it's obviously what we shoot for every time. It's a tricky balancing act. But as long as it's sort of a righteous idea, then you're good to go. Who the fuck knows if Def Jux is going to be around in five years? Who knows if any independent record label is going to be around?
AVC: Was naming your label Def Jux a deliberate provocation?
EP: No, no, no. If anything, it was an honor. It was respect. Def Jam is the reason why I started a label. Seeing Krush Groove when I was, whatever I was, 10, I don't know, in the theater. I skipped school four days in a row to watch Krush Groove. All my heroes up on the screen, and then seeing that it was a record label, and then the mechanisms behind it. No, no, no, it definitely wasn't that. In fact, the whole time, it was Definitive Jux, and we just started calling it "Def Jux" as a nickname. It just was snappier. And we thought it was kind of cool. We thought it was a send-up to that, you know? They, on the other hand, didn't think it was too funny.
AVC: Their lawyers in particular probably didn't think it was terribly funny.
EP: Yeah, but I think that those cats kind of… They know. I've been up in Def Jam, and I've met all those dudes, and they know that it wasn't disrespect. But they did send a cease-and-desist letter to me, and I was like, "All right, fuck it." No big deal. It's not about the name. It's about what we do.
AVC: Wouldn't the first amendment cover naming your label Def Jux?
EP: Of course. When you get into trademark infringement and you get into David versus Goliath, Goliath tends to have a bigger pocketbook. I always joke about it: "I always wanted to do a deal with Russell Simmons, and now I've got my signature on a piece of paper with his."
AVC: It just happens to be a cease-and-desist instead of a contract.
EP: It was just one of those situations. When they hit us with that, we were surprised, but kind of amused. We didn't even have an office. We were sharing a friend of ours' office and paying $300 a month for rent. Maybe we thought for a second, "We can fight this." But then we thought, "What's the fucking point?" If some independent hip-hop label came out with a name like Def Jux, I would probably be annoyed, because of how much work I put into what I've done.
AVC: So you wouldn't be happy with my new label, Def Jaxxx.
EP: I'd be happy with it, but you'd be hearing from my people. You've got to suffer the way I have.
AVC: It seems like a lot of rap labels, especially independent rap labels, have their moment in the sun and then disappear. Why do you think Definitive Jux has managed to stay around for so long?
EP: We haven't been completely immune. The first couple of years, we released record after record after record that everyone was loving. And then we had a period where people were like, "Why did you release this record?" And all of a sudden it was like, "Def Jux isn't doing it anymore." But I think that that faded pretty quickly when people started realizing that it didn't signify the end of an era, it just was a moment of transition. We've managed to stick around because a) we're a fucking good operation, and b) we've got some great fucking artists. Period. And those peoples' voices are vital. And people really love them. And we've continued to be pretty damn consistent in finding those voices and putting them out. I think that's really it, man. We could be gone tomorrow, and it only boils down to the music. The fact of the matter is, if you're not putting out stuff that people are feeling, then your record label doesn't mean a goddamn thing.
But I think what probably really saved our asses is that we've been forward-thinking and one step ahead of the curve. Me and my partner are very adamant about understanding the industry and trying to prepare for where it's going and the way it's changing, and being on top of business and technology, and how to handle the intricacies of all that. A lot of record labels are groups of guys who put a record out, and they sell to a distributor, and some of them get lucky, and the records are powerful, and they kind of blow up. And that's what happened to us. But then you're faced with the idea of either being a group of guys who just put a couple records out, or really learning your business and becoming an operation. Because if you don't, then you are fucked. You will sink, and you won't have any money, and you won't have your books balanced, and you won't be paying people correctly, and you won't have your operation together. And I think Def Jux is—I would say pretty confidently that we are the tightest operation in our little part of the music world. No matter what's happening at the time, and no matter what the record is at the time, we've fucking sweated blood and tears to become that way. Because we don't have any intention of falling through the cracks due to a clerical error.
AVC: Have you been approached by majors looking to buy Def Jux?
EP: Every single year of our existence. And I've been approached by major labels every single year of my existence as an artist. Since 1996. And the reason why people do it is, there comes a point where you just hit a fucking ceiling. Where the artists want to be bigger, they want to get more money, where you have to take the next step, where you have to get… People don't want to be at a label and be stagnant. Most people aren't happy about being consistent and staying at the same place for years. People want forward progress and motion. As you get bigger, your staff gets bigger, and your costs get bigger. Most independent labels hit a point where it's like, "Holy shit. We're not going to be able to afford next year." You know? "Everything's been going great, but we've got to pay such-and-such this amount of money, where we started out paying no money to anybody up front. Now we've got to pay 50 Gs to this person. And then we've got to give him a video, and then we've got to spend $3 or $4 on marketing per unit, and then we gotta…" So it's very easy to panic and to get into that situation.
That's when the majors come in. They smell blood, and they say, "Well, hey. Here's a couple million dollars, we're taking it." You know, that's fucking something. And we've definitely been approached often by that. And I'm certainly not the type of person to rule out something like that in the future. But, that being said, I've always believed that if you cannot do it, then you should not do it. And only when it comes to the point where you've literally dug yourself into a hole, where it's sink or swim, is that viable to me. We've worked hard at being smart about other revenue streams and generating other types of business so that there's money coming in, so that we don't have to do that. But it's tough, man. And every label knows it. And the worst part is that if you become part of a major—all these independent labels become farm teams for your corporate parent. Basically, you do all the work for years, blowing up an artist—you discover them, blow them up, you build their fan base. And then you put a half million dollars in the artist's pocket over the course of three years or something, and then that artist is like, "Okay, now I'm here. Now I want more. I want to be bigger." And you're either going to be able to accommodate them, you're going to be able to figure out how to take that step with them, or you're going to lose them.
AVC: What's the status with RJD2? Is he still on Def Jux?
EP: No, RJ signed on to XL Recordings. The fact of the matter is, RJ took a huge musical departure from what he did with Def Jux. And when we were talking to him about doing the next album, we really hadn't understood how far he had gone, or what he was trying to do. But when I finally heard the music and discovered that he was pretty much trying to depart from hip-hop, and depart from instrumental records, and become a singer, I was kind of like, "You know what, man? Definitely. Do your thing. Because it definitely won't fit into the criteria of what we do, and we wouldn't be able to push you into the scene in the way that you want to be pushed." It made perfect sense with him.
At first, it was like, "Oh, shit. No, man. We don't want to lose you." But at the end of the day, I respect these dudes. And I respect RJ, because he was like, "I just don't think you guys are the label for this." And I was like, "Fuck you. Of course we're the label for this." And then he played me the music, and I was like, "Oh, right. We're not the label for this." It wouldn't make sense to put out RJ's new stuff, because it's just not the culture that we've cultivated.
AVC: That's another way rap labels go astray—they lose their original identity. They branch out in ways that aren't necessarily conducive to longevity.
EP: Well, I think branching out is cool, but I think that you have to branch out in a way that makes some sort of organic sense. I would love to put out a rock record eventually, but it would have to somehow philosophically make sense for me. But I think that we're the type of label that could eventually step into that arena, because we do have such a diverse audience. At the end of the day, we're not there right now. That's not what we do right now, and that's not what people are looking for from us.
AVC: Why wasn't Vast Aire's solo album released through Def Jux?
EP: We offered it to him, but at the time he thought he wanted to branch out, do something with another label. I think that he thought it would be a good move for him, that he would be a big fish in a little pond. And I think that his manager at the time just thought it would be better to separate the Cannibal Ox stuff and the Vast Aire stuff. Basically, "I'm going to do it this way." I think it was him testing the waters on the business side. We were the first label he'd ever done business with. And then, when they did business with us, we weren't the operation that we are now. We were just people putting a record out. We didn't have accountants and business managers and lawyers and blah, blah, blah.
AVC: You were smaller.
EP: We were a lot smaller, and we were a lot less organized. He and his manager thought it would be a good idea.
AVC: It seems like one of the reasons Def Jux has been successful is because you don't really follow trends. Have you ever contemplated starting up a Def Jux South? Going where the money is?
EP: I can tell you, quite honestly, that I've never contemplated it. And I've contemplated a lot of things. But, no. Simply because that's ridiculous.
AVC: This new album of yours is not going to be all about hyphy?
EP: You know what, man? I'm a fan of some of the hyphy stuff. Hyphy has been going on a lot longer than the press has been recognizing it. Hyphy is just Bay Area music. I've been a fan of E-40 for fucking years. But, no, we're not doing hyphy music. It's not for any other reason than it's just not the sound we do, and it's not the pool of artists that we're fucking with right now.
AVC: Def Jux had battles with Esoteric and Sole. When something like that happens, do you ever wonder if you're giving them free publicity and doing them more good than harm?
EP: I know it! [Laughs.] Here, you're referencing the battle with me and Sole, which was in what, '98? Which any even casual observer would say that I slaughtered him. But you know, man, look… None of that shit… It's just fun, it's all fair games. At the end of the day, there is a culture to hip-hop and rap and being an MC that can't be ignored, and every once in a while, somebody's going to try and pull your skirt. And if you're so out of touch, then you have to decide: Am I the dude who completely ignores this? At this point now, yes I am. But at that point, when those cats was happening to tap on my shoulder, I guess I'm just cocky enough to say, "You know what? Okay, I'll play."
AVC: Who are five mainstream rappers that you respect?
EP: That I respect? Jay-Z, Nas, Redman, Ghostface, OutKast, Eminem, should I go on? There's tons. I don't draw those lines, I really don't. Within that criteria of mine, I don't give a fuck if you're independent or major or anything like that. A good rapper is a good rapper, a good album is a good album. I don't think anyone is inherently good. There's just as much, if not more, independent music that sucks. The press loves to get caught up in the minutiae of that. They like to draw lines and they like to take sides. And they like to switch sides. To me, whatever the fucking case, if you like the fucking album, then like the album.