[Interview] El-P: Back In The Flow

El-P RubyHornet Interview

photo by Timothy Saccenti

Not many acts can have the impact on Hip Hop that Company Flow has had, with such a little amount of released work.  The group, comprised of El-P, Mr. Len, and Bigg Jus, released just one official full-length: the groundbreaking Funcrusher Plus, which was released in 1997 via Rawkus Records.  The album would go onto be an integral and influential one that sat next to other important releases from Rawkus Records, including projects from Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Pharoahe Monch and a slew of other LPs, EPs, and 12-inches that bore the infamous mark of the Razorblade.  But the success of the group was short-lived, and they broke up not too long after dropping the album, touring the coasts, and venturing out to Europe.

Since the breakup of Company Flow, El-P, Len and Bigg Jus have done their own things. El-P most notably started and ran the label Def Jux, released a slew of successful solo albums, and also helped the careers of Aesop Rock, Cage, and others.  While there were rumblings of Company Flow teaming up again throughout the years, nothing ever materialized.  But now, more than a decade removed from the factors that caused their split, the group is back in action. Over the last couple years they have done spot dates, and will perform as a featured act at this year’s Coachella Music Festival.

“A lot of time has gone, and we’ve all grown up a lot,” El-P tells me via phone about reconnecting as Company Flow.  “We’ve kind of all become who we are.  A lot of the stuff that was tough back then with being in a group, being young, and not knowing what the fuck we were doing, a lot of that stuff is kind of gone and all that’s left is us having fun and being together on stage again, rocking these songs.”

Before heading out to Coachella, El-P, Mr. Len, and Bigg Jus will take the stage at the Metro, for what will be their first ever Company Flow performance in Chicago.  Prior to hitting the Windy City, I caught up with El-P to talk about their upcoming performance, the impact of the Rawkus era, as well as his forthcoming solo album and working with Killer Mike.  It turns out that getting back to together with Company Flow is just the tip of the iceberg for El-P, who’s enjoying one of the busiest and most productive times in his career.  Guess. Who’s. Back.

El-P RubyHornet Interview

RubyHornet: I guess I was kind of surprised, they’re saying this is Company Flow’s first time performing in Chicago. Is that right?

El-P:  Yeah.  We thought about it. ‘Did we ever perform in Chicago?’ And I think the answer was no. We’re almost 100% sure that this is the first time. When we put out Funcrusher, we really did not tour extensively. We did some West Coast dates. We did some East Coast dates of course, but you’d’ be surprised with how little we actually toured.  I think the biggest tour we did was in Europe for like 6 weeks and we broke up after that.

RubyHornet: The Europe tour is not that surprising considering how big that style of Hip Hop is there, but I was surprised because a lot of Chicago heads really fuck with Company Flow and that whole Rawkus time period was a big influence.

El-P:  I know. I always get amazing love in Chicago. I’ve done a ton of solo shows in Chicago.  We wanted to do a show before we went out to Coachella and Chicago was the one. I was like, ‘let’s do Chicago.’ I just always wanted to do it. I just thought it would be a good vibe, I love the Chicago audience and it’s always fun. I thought it would be special.

RubyHornet:  If I’m correct, it’s been about 20 years since you guys started the group.

Company Flow:  Close to that. The official first single that I ever released was in 1993, and that was “Juvenile Technique”.  That was me and Len before Jus officially joined the group. But, you know, so yeah, technically it was started in ’93.

RubyHornet:  What place does the group hold for you guys? It seems like you may all have a different feeling about it now, or get something different out of doing these performances and being part of Company Flow right now.

El-P:  I can’t speak for everyone, but I think to some degree it was a special time for all of us. It was the first sort of, it was our entry into the world of rap that we wanted so bad to be a part of and were such fans of.  It was a big deal to us. The Company Flow thing was absolutely the foundation of all of our careers.  So, I think that there was a long time of us sort of talking about doing some stuff again, but everyone was a little bit hesitant or busy with their own thing. And then it just sort of happened, and when we did it everyone was like, ‘oh shit. this is fun.’  And the amazing thing is just how much energy we were getting from fans. I think in that respect we all kind of look at it in the same way.  It’s kind of an awesome thing.  A lot of time has gone, and we’ve all grown up a lot. We’ve kind of all become who we are.  A lot of the stuff that was tough back then with being in a group, being young, and not knowing what the fuck we were doing, a lot of that stuff is kind of gone and all that’s left is us having fun and being together on stage again, rocking these songs.

RubyHornet: I definitely thought that could be the case. Just to piggyback off what you were saying about that being a special and interesting time for you, for a generation of music fans, myself included, that time and early Rawkus period is really important for us. I think sometimes it gets romanticized or maybe we look back at it with rose colored glasses on everything.  With you being on the inside of that, what sticks out to you about that time? Do you think back on that time and what it meant for Hip Hop as it stands now?

El-P:  Sometimes, you know. Sometimes I do. For the most part I try to just be in the now, and look forward. But when you’re doing this type of stuff, it does bring up those kind of thoughts.  Rose colored glasses or not, I really do think it was a special time and I think it was a unique time.  It was it’s own little important part of Hip Hop history. If it hadn’t happened, a lot of people wouldn’t be around, and a lot of people wouldn’t be thinking about music the way they are now.  I think at the time, everyone in the scene felt there was this amazing creative energy. Everyone was just trying to be the illest. Company Flow’s perspective was ‘fuck show business.  Fuck being famous. Fuck all of that shit.  Let’s just get grimy. Let’s just do the most fucked up shit we could do,’ because that’s just what entertained us.  And I think that’s important. If that time didn’t exist, things might be a little bit different. Who knows how they’d be different.  It’s a great thing to have existed because it’s a reference point. There’s something else out there that happened, that wasn’t what we’re seeing now. To this day people still take some energy and some inspiration from that.

El-P RubyHornet Interview

RubyHornet:  Your last album, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead was released in 2007, and your new one, Cancer for Cure comes out in May. Have you been “working” on it for 5 years? When did the process of you going, ‘ok, I’m going to make another rap project?’

El-P:  Well I’m always working on music. I’m always kind of working on stuff. I would say there were some pieces of music that started 5 years ago that ended up somehow making it onto the record. The majority of the record got done in the last two years.  I was in a little bit of a transitional period and trying to figure out what I wanted to do and what I wanted to work on. I’m not working on these records for the whole 5 years. I actually have a bunch of other things that I usually get involved in that kind of delays things. And to be real man, you have to make money.  When I make my records it’s like, ‘Ok, I’m gonna sit down and I’m gonna shut everything out and I’m not gonna make any dough, and I’m gonna finish my record.’  Life permitting, I’ve kind of got them done as fast as I could. And I’m also really, really particular. I take my time with the records. Even when I get started and full on going, it normally takes me more time than your average artist to do this shit.

RubyHornet: I read in a Pitchfork interview that the album process kind of started with a tragedy, but you ended up making an album about wanting to live.  When did that shift happen, when did the feelings of positiveness come back for you?

El-P:  I don’t think it’s really about positivity in the typical sense. You know my music, you’re rarely gonna hear me be like, ‘yeah!  Shit is sweet!’  I don’t think me saying it was about wanting to live meant it was about positivity. Moreso, it’s like, once I step back from it and I realize what I was writing about, cause this shit just kind of comes, and I realized that despite that on the surface I seem like the type of dude that has a negative perspective, or a pessimistic perspective, I don’t really feel that way.  I think that I’m trying to create an idea or illustrate a thought pattern, just because there’s darkness that I see and think about, it doesn’t mean I’ve given into it. I think the record is ultimately about not giving into it. For the most part I’m struggling with that darkness throughout the record. When I say it’s about wanting to live, I just say that because that’s how I feel. When you get hit with death, sometimes as horrible as it is, one of the things that can come out of it is a reaffirmation of how much you don’t want to go, and I think that’s what happened with me.

RubyHornet:   You also have an album coming out with Killer Mike, which I’ve heard some of and read about. I just think that the timing for that is great right now.  Killer Mike is a voice that Hip Hop and society in general really needs right now. What attracted you to do this whole project with him? Had you had a relationship prior to this? What do you hope comes from R.A.P. Music?

El-P:  I’m just a fan of his. I knew his music, he knew my music. We didn’t know everything of each others music, but we were aware of it.  When we got into the same room and just started working, we just clicked so hard and became good friends and the music that was coming was so dope and so fun to make that for me it was a no brainer. Originally I wasn’t going to do the whole record. We got in the same room for a week and afterwards he stepped to me like, ‘yo, I want you to do the whole record.’  I was trying to work on my album, and I was kind of freaked out about the idea, but I was like, ‘you know what, fuck it. Let’s do it.’  Because I just feel like Mike is a genuine motherfucker. The shit that comes out of his mouth is really refreshing as a Hip Hop fan and as a man to me.

To hear someone who is frank and funny and a little bit dangerous for all the right reasons, that’s what attracted me to it.  Really it was just hearing what he had to say and getting to know him as a person, and loving the friendship that we had grown. Sometimes you meet someone and you’re like, ‘I’ve known this dude all my life.’  That’s how it happened with me and Mike. It was just really fun. We felt like kids again making rap records for all the right reasons. We felt like ‘fuck the world, fuck everyone’s idea of what anyone should do. We’re just gonna make a record that appeals to us.’  I think that in my expiernce when you do that, when you say, ‘we’re just gonna make a record that appeals to us,’ you really are actually making a record that does appeal to everyone.  If you’re a real Hip Hop fan, all real Hip Hop fans at their core, fell in love with the music for the same reasons.

RubyHornet:   That outlook that you just talked about, even though there’s some darkness in the music, it still reflects how much you care about the issues and see the positivity in life. You’re able to pick out the bad shit that needs to be fixed. It seems like Mike might have a similar outlook.

El-P:  Absolutely. No question. Mike is a little bit more outwardly an optimist, and I’m a little more outwardly a cynic, but we still, at our core, share the fact that we give a shit. Sometimes giving a shit is painful. Sometimes giving a shit makes you hurt. I think that’s a lot of time what happens in my writing, and that’s what I focus on because I got to get it out of me.  Mike has a little bit of a different approach, but intellectually, philosophically, we really share a lot of ideas. It was easy.

RubyHornet:  I noticed today that you put out the tracklist for the album and you have eXquire and Danny Brown on a song together.  Did that kick off from eXquire’s “Huzzah” record?

El-P:  Me and eX just became friends.  When eX put out his mixtape, I didn’t even know him but he used a bunch of beats I had done on the mixtape… I saw his first “Huzzah” video and I reached out to him like ‘yo, I think that shit is dope.” I didn’t even know he was a fan. I had no idea that he knew my shit. And it just turned out that he was, and we just became friends. Then Danny Brown, we sort of met around a similar time. Danny’s always been vocal about how the Def Jux era was an influence on him, so, we all sort of just became cool with each other and I just thought it was a good pairing. I just wanted to work with them.

RubyHornet:  The reason I ask is because younger artists, people coming out right now talk about their influences and we get El-P and Company Flow a lot amongst a certain class of artists. I’m wondering if you see that, and if you feel like an OG status these days.  Does it bug you out to get those responses?

El-P:  It’s just flattering you know. I always feel like I’m still young. I feel like the new cat, but obviously at this point I’ve been around, so to some degree I’ve been forced to feel the OG thing a little bit, but it’s really not the way I think of myself. I guess I just have my head in the sand, cause I’m always just trying to make a great record.  And that kind of keeps me in check. I don’t walk around thinking I’m the shit. I just think it’s dope that people are being direct and vocal about it, cause I do the same thing. I shout out my influences. I have a lot of love and open love for the people that got me inspired to do music. If I’m a part of that for anybody, I consider that a big honor.

Company Flow will perform at the Metro on April 12th.

Alexander Fruchter

Original co-founder of RubyHornet. President of Closed Sessions

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