The bass starts in your eardrums, a deafening but not piercing rumble that then travels down your throat and slowly coils itself around your vocal chords, thick like dubstep molasses. Next it sinks into your chest, heavy like regret on prom night. It speeds up, reverberating through your insides. Your ribs rattle. Your heart shudders. No, you're not having an anxiety attack. Welcome to another Wednesday night at Low End Theory.
Except it's not just another night at the intimate downtown L.A. club. Tonight Low End resident DJs Gaslamp Killer, Daddy Kev, D-Styles and Nobody are joined by Brooklyn-based avant-rapper, producer, and former Definitive Jux label head El-P as he celebrates the release of his latest album Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixxx3 with a rare, all-instrumental set alongside electro-wiz Nick Hook of Cubic Zirconia.
Joints are lit, PBR tall cans are chugged, and for the next several hours fans will hang from the outdoor stairway and crush against the stage. They will be throttled by that heart-shuddering bass and get high off of every frenetic turn of a knob, every push of a button, every wrist-flicking twist of the ones and twos.
Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixxx3, released August 3 on Gold Dust, is El-P's first album out since announcing plans to put Def Jux on hiatus in February of this year, and his first major instrumental foray since 2004's jazz effort High Water and Company Flow's Little Johnny From the Hospital in 1999. This month El-P will also release King of Hearts on August 17, the long awaited first (and final) album by the late Camu Tao, plus a free download of the previously unreleased Camu Tao/El-P Central Services EP, Forever Frozen In Television Time.
L.A. Weekly caught up with El-P during his recent stay in Los Angeles to chat about who mysteriously deleted his vocals on Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixxx3 (it was Colonel Mustard in the ballroom with a candlestick), the pain and joy in celebrating Camu Tao through his music, life after Def Jux, and… of course… kittens.
L.A. Weekly: This month you're releasing Camu's King of Hearts, Central Services, and Megamixxx3. You pulled all three together simultaneously but it seems like any one of those on their own would've been all encompassing.
El-P: Yeah, shit feels exciting. Central Services was easier to put together because essentially it's been mixed since 2005. I did a few tweaks on it but really it's just exactly what we did then, so no real altering. The Camu album has been a long time coming, but it's been done longer than you might think. I wanted to put it out on Def Jux a year ago but because we started to realize that we didn't know exactly what the future of the label was, I didn't want to put that record out in…
In unsure waters?
El-P: Exactly. It's all coming together now but it's been hectic and pretty daunting. There was a period of time where I was overwhelmed by everything that was in front of me and that I knew needed to happen. I feel good about the fact that it's all coming together. Obviously the Camu record — personally, for me — was a bit of a holy mission to do. I've never had anything that felt as important. I've done plenty of records but this was a different animal.
With the Camu album, there's so much attention on it, so many people he touched — all the guys from Jux, friends, family, fans. There's so much more…
I was going to say “anticipation” but pressure for you, yeah.
El-P: I hope there's anticipation. I'm really happy that it's starting to feel that way. There was a long time when I felt like this record is just gonna fall through the cracks because nobody's paying attention. There was a moment where I felt really freaked out, like, damn, no one's going to give a fuck about Camu even after his death. I'm not talking about the hardcore fans or the people that knew him, but just the press and the people that don't have any emotional connection to Camu. When we first started to campaign and get it out there, it seemed like no one's gonna care. And that was a really horrifying thought. Slowly it feels like at the very least there's attention and people are looking at it. That's what he deserves, and actually more than that. For me, I decided I would be happy if he just got his say, got his shine, you know? Whatever happens, happens. The record itself is a crazy record.
Like you've said, if people are expecting King of Hearts to be rap record, it's not.
El-P: Yeah. I've already seen a few reviews. One review, that very specifically reviewed it as though they thought it was going to be a rap record, just shit all over it because it's not. [King of Hearts] is ahead of it's time, it's different, it's going to be a polarizing record no matter what. To me the point was always that it can't just languish in the ether. His music can't not have been there. It has to not just disappear. And I know Camu would stand behind his music and he would take it on the chest. He knew the shit that he was making was going to be divisive. It's not a safe record. Ultimately I think that King of Hearts will go down in history as something more interesting than that. I feel really good that it can be out there, that his family can be represented, his fiance can be represented, and his heart can be represented.
I feel a hell of a lot better now than I did six months ago, now that it's happening. It's hard to know what to do with a record like this. It's hard to know how to do it the right way. This is the only way that I could figure out how to do it honorably and present it the right way. But look, it's not about me. I took on a responsibility when I signed Camu to a record label and I have to fulfill what I believe is the correct obligation to that. It doesn't really matter to me what anybody thinks. There's no way anyone could ever convince me that this is the wrong thing to do. It's not about anything other than Camu. It has nothing to do with me. I'm just trying to facilitate in the best way possible. That's all.
I would never question the love for Camu that people have. I know who was really close to Camu and I would never question their love for him. And I would be shocked if anyone questioned my love for Camu as well. I would never do that. Emotions run high because no one knows what to do when they lose a friend. Six months down the line, a year down the line, two years down the line, you're still feeling the reverberations. You're still going through it. You're still processing it. You still don't know how to react. The one year anniversary of Camu's death was very difficult for everybody that knew him. It was very sad and emotional and bitter and angry. The two year mark was the first time I was able to say, “This album is coming out. This is happening.” It was a whole different feeling and I think it's starting to heal a little bit.
Well, getting the music out there helps a lot with healing.
El-P: Yeah, it makes it more about life than it does with death. Camu lived and now there's a chance to show people that he was alive. I can't say putting the record together was 100% a pleasure because it was emotional at times. For the most part, yeah, it felt amazing because I love the music so much. But there were definitely moments where it was overwhelming. I think that I held off on finishing it for a while because I couldn't quite deal with it. I wasn't quite ready, in my head.
It's also the kind of album that deserves the time that it needs.
So, getting to Megamixxx3, why are there no vocals on it?
El-P: [Laughs] I'm telling you, man, there were vocals when I handed it in and I don't know what the fuck happened at mastering or whatever. Somehow they're all gone.
El-P: Yeah. It's fucked up. Now I'm just pretending that it was supposed to be an instrumental.
Right. And the album was supposed to be called Kittens but they went and fucked that up too.
El-P: Yep. Kittens might still be on the horizon. I'm not sure. I'm going to work kittens into the next album somehow.
I'm down with kittens.
El-P: Everyone's down with kittens. That's the point. [Laughs] What better way to get everyone to love you than to call your record Kittens?
In all seriousness, you've got an instrumental past, though. You put out [Little Johnny From the Hospital], you did the jazz album. You're not just an emcee or rapper, you are a musician.
El-P: Yeah. It's really hard for a musician or an artist to explain why they're doing what they're doing. It's like, man, I don't fuckin' know. I'm crazy. I'm a musician. I don't have any logic. It's emotional. You want me to know what I'm doing, but really I don't. You want me to understand and make you understand, but there's a disconnect sometimes. The real intentions of an artist are kind of simple. We just want to create something. There's nothing particularly intellectual about it. I just thought it would be cool to make an instrumental album.
I think that if there's an artist that can honestly sit down, without being spoon fed responses by their label, and explain what an album all means, that kind of ruins the whole point of it. Listeners should be able to personalize their experience with music and really make it their own.
El-P: Right. It's funny because I was talking with Gaslamp Killer, who's a great dude, and the conversation turned to press and doing interviews. We were saying that it's interesting because we're sort of forced to engage in these conversations about what we do. It makes us, almost for the first time really, actually think about what our motivation is and what we're trying to do. I don't think about this shit until I have to explain it to somebody. And then I'm just on the spot, thinking about it. It's weird. It's not necessarily natural. Sometimes I learn a lot from a good interview. Because in a good interview someone will actually ask questions that maybe needed to be asked that you hadn't thought about. It almost completes the experience, sometimes. Other times it can completely ruin the experience. Most of the time in your head you don't really have much more to say than, “I just wanted to do it.” When I do a lyrical album, I'm pretty verbose. There's not a whole hell of a lot of shit I'm not saying. So it's funny when I do get questions like, “Why is the album an instrumental?” That's such a fundamental basic question. Like, “Man, I don't fuckin' know. It just is. Do you like it?”
We were joking earlier but have people really asked you that question, seriously?
El-P: All the time. That's every interview: “Why did you do an instrumental?”
Have they not looked at your catalog?
El-P: Well, that's it. That's all it is. Point being, I don't know [laughs].
I know why. It's because you're taking a vow of silence for the next 30 years like some spiritual guru and you've decided there's nothing left to say.
El-P: All jokes aside, you're actually right in some ways. At least in the sense that right now I really need to make music but I don't have anything to say quite yet. I really don't. It's been a weird period of time and I don't really know what I want to say yet. I don't really know who I am yet, now. When I make record where I am saying something it's because I've thought about it and because I have something I have to say. Or that the words have found their way into my mind. That's why it takes me a long time to make rap records; I really need to know what the fuck I'm about when I do those records. In a perfect world no one would over analyze everything but, you know, sometimes words are not appropriate. There's something so pure about music, too, isn't there? When you're doing instrumental music, there's no dividing line. You don't have to agree with what I'm saying. You don't have to agree with my voice or my ideas or the way I present them. That's something that I really love about instrumental music and a reason why I wanted to go back there again. There's no pretense.
The other day I was watching this YouTube video of Stevie Wonder at 19 years old, killing it on a drum solo. It was amazing and really moving. People think of him as a singer and a piano/keyboard player primarily, but I'd never seen him play drums. Maybe it's just pop culture these days, and I'm not going to make any grand generalizations, but it seems younger generations often forget there's music you can listen to that doesn't have words, but still speaks to you.
El-P: Absolutely. It's being communicated to you but it's not so heavy handed. It's open to interpretation. And that's the beauty of it. It's all about feeling. I think that there are probably a lot of people who can connect to the music that I do more than they can connect to my lyrics. I feel lucky that I can do both and that people are open to it.
The one cool thing about Megamixxx3 is that it's almost got a cinematic vibe to it. One song takes you to the next for a reason. The sequence is there for a reason. It's not just a random assortment of songs. There's an ebb and flow.
El-P: Yeah, yeah. There's an arc to it. That's great. I'm glad that comes through because I spent a lot of time trying to make it that way. I feel pretty strongly about albums as an art form. That kind of flies in the face of the modern digital age in the sense that nowadays everything seems to be taken apart and divided and posted up in individual pieces. People don't really look for full album experiences the way they used to. But my argument with that was always the simplest argument — you don't go and watch a film and watch scenes out of order, you know what I mean? You don't just watch the love scene and the chase scene. There's a reason why the love scene is good is because you felt the tension of the relationship before the love scene.
It sounds pretentious but I've always loved trying to make a full record. It's such a challenge to make a full record relate to itself, as opposed to it just being a collection of songs. I like the idea that you present something with a piece of music or a picture and that the audience is complicit in the completion of what that music means or what that picture means. A lot of it is just emotional. That's why I think instrumental music in a lot of ways connects and enraptures an audience, because their imagination is at work overtime. When I do a record like I'll Sleep When You're Dead, I'm really telling you, I'm laying it out for you. Every song is my idea and you're not going to escape that song without my idea primarily in your head. But a record like this, it's not complete until you've felt something about it. No one's going to know, ever, what it means. Except you. It's cool.
I'm a big fan of albums I can put on repeat.
El-P: Yeah, me too. I do the same thing, to this day. I run albums. I really almost never put my iPod on shuffle. I just have albums.
So what's up next for you?
El-P: After this I'm hopping into a couple of things. First, my follow up album to I'll Sleep When You're Dead, which is the next rap album. I'm going to go full force on that when I get home. And I'm working with Wilder Zoby on his solo record. We went away to Kentucky, where he's from, for a month earlier this year and worked on a bunch of music. “Contagious,” which is on Megamixxx3, is a version of a full song that I have with him. I love him so much and his music and the Chin Chin guys and they didn't really get the love that I had hoped they would get when we released their record [on Def Jux]. People are reacting very well to that song on Megamixxx3, probably in a lot of ways because it specifically sticks out. I'm excited about helping him with that. But yeah, just really doing that and working on my record and seeing what else comes my way. I feel hopeful and excited about music right now. I haven't felt this way in a long time. There was a point where I almost resented the fact that I knew exactly how the next couple years were going to play out. At this point in my life it's kind of great to be like, oh shit, I don't know what the fuck is gonna happen [laughs]. And that's ok. It's like I don't know what's going to happen in a cool way. And that itself implies hope to me.
I always swore that I wouldn't become crushed by routine or by expectation, that I wouldn't succumb to all of the things that I think turn people in our society into unhappy individuals. The daily grind syndrome, you know what I mean? Like, only trying to get to the next paycheck syndrome. I don't know where the next paycheck is, and I'm not really sweatin' it. I feel like as long as I'm doing what I want to do, that seems to be the only thing I can ever count on in my life. If I'm true to whatever the fuck I want to be doing and if I'm passionate about it, good things will happen.