Over the course of that half-decade, the producer, MC and label head was busy—running Definitive Jux records, producing a jazz album, a movie soundtrack, breakthrough discs for Cage and Mr. Lif. But, he says, I'll Sleep When You're Dead, which hit the streets in March, is the best work he's ever done. Of course it is. “Isn't that the idea?” he asks. To always be better than you were? As arguably the reigning monarch of independent hip-hop, El-P must have felt his crown bearing down on him when he set out to make this disc. The pressure, he says, comes entirely from himself. "I don't include the criticism or the praise when I'm making my record," he says. "It's dangerous to do so. It's just me and the music.”
"Apocalyptic," by the way, is El-P's least-favorite adjective used to describe his work. Still, it's apt. Cold, jagged terrain with pockets of angry steam make up the world El-P creates. He's bringing that weird space with him to all his shows for this tour, enlisting the help of a lighting director, set designer, makeup and theatrics. "I don't feel like I ever really gave a great show before," he says. "I gave a competent performance. This is a real show."
What prompted you to start Def Jux?
Mostly I just wanted to make music that I love for the people that I love and found interesting, and to create the type of label that I would want to sign to myself. Really, it was just about wanting be involved in music in a way where I didn't have to deal with people that I didn't agree with or respect.
There seems to be an overarching flow on this disc. How were you able to achieve that while working on it sporadically over five years?
I just tried really hard to have that. You're constantly jotting ideas down and preparing, but I pay a lot of attention to the arc of the album. That's maybe one of the reasons why it takes me longer than your average person. I'm obsessed with that. I want the records to feel like there's a beginning, middle and an end—even if it's not a literal one, at least an abstract one, an emotional one.
It's not something I'm hearing in a lot of albums these days. Why is that so important to you?
I don't know. Why isn't it important to other people? That's the real question. It's like the difference between a well-put-together film and a film with a few good scenes in it that doesn't end correctly.
No. I would have if it had been badly done or heavy-handed. The most flak I got from it were people's reactions when they found out who was going to be on the album before they heard the album. And I would probably think the same thing if I saw that list of names on a piece of paper. Like, "Oh, Jesus Christ. Here he goes. Here's his crossover attempt." Obviously, anyone that listens to that record can tell it's certainly not my crossover attempt.
As a label head, what do you think about downloading music? Do you download music yourself?
I don't download music that much. I'm satisfied with iTunes, to be honest. I don't have the same hardcore objection to downloading the rest of the industry has. I think it's just simple economics. A lot of kids can't afford to buy crappy records.
Good music and great artists or artists that kids feel are reputable, music that's well-thought-out and packaged beautifully—that's something people want to support. The days of you tricking someone into buying an album because you've got one good song on it are over. It's funny to watch the major labels panic. It never occurred to them that maybe the music they're putting out sucks.