Wivel: How about musically? What are your influences both within and outside of hip hop? Do you see yourselves as coming out of a specific tradition of hip hop, for example?
El-P: Yeah, definitely.
Wivel [to El-P]: I would guess Public Enemy were important to you.
El-P: Yeah, Public Enemy, and before that it was the Fat Boys, Run DMC, BDP Audio Two, and Slick Rick, and the whole Def Jam roster, Big Daddy Kane, the whole Juice Crew, that whole shit, that’s where I come from. I actually feel that I’m probably more traditional than most cats, because the music of that era just rubbed off on me, EPMD, the hardcore stuff. The only difference between that and myself is that when I actually tried to make that shit, it just came out wrong. It came out distorted.
Wivel: When you started doing it, it probably wasn’t possible to do it in that way anymore.
El-P: Nah, you do what you’re capable of and I never spent a lot of time trying to do facsimiles of other people’s shit, I just took the influence and tried to make something that gave me the same vibe. That gave me the same vibe, that was my creation. I always felt that that was what you were supposed to do. Your influences are supposed to lie heavily inside your music, but you’re not supposed to make the same music that your influences made, I don’t believe in being retro, I don’t believe in nostalgia : you don’t have to be nostalgic if it affected you already, it’s just there; you’re supposed to contribute, not to replicate, and I think that that’s the big difference between me and the way a lot of other people think. They think there’s this one sound, that there are the classic moments that happened in this music and that they’re the legitimate ones. I don’t feel that way, because I’ve had the chance to talk to the musicians who actually made that stuff and they don’t feel that way. Anyhow, in the 80s, I was simultaneously influenced by Run DMC and fuckin’ Devo [chuckles], I was literally listening to Art of Noise and LL Cool J at the same time. All of that shit is kind of meshed up in my head.
Wivel: But is there some of this stuff that you see yourself as having a particular affinity towards? Especially today, when you look at your music…
El-P: Yeah, I always went a little bit more towards the raw, heavy drum patterns and the kind of dramatic sound : I was much less on that smooth, jazzy vibe, because by the time that trend in production rolled around in hip hop, it was something like ten years after I had started listening to hip hop. It didn’t really affect me, in fact I look at it as one of the darkest periods of hip hop production [laughter]… like that little jazzy rimshot, everyone discovered jazz records and shit. I’m much more into the fuckin’… The basis of my production would be the [BDP] Criminal Minded album, the [Marley Marl] In Control Vol. 1 album, every EPMD record and the first two Public Enemy records. If you want to trace back my production style, you could easily go and just reference those. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered more music, often retroactively, things like progressive rock… if you’re a musician, you’ll always be discovering new stuff that you’ll get into.
Wivel [to Aesop Rock]: How about you?
Aesop Rock: Well, he just cited every hip hop influence I could imagine, and that stuff was just given. But in the 80s I would also listen to things like punk rock : The Dead Kennedys and that kind of aggressive, abrasive stuff. My older brother was a music buff and would listen to so much different shit, and he would put me onto stuff. So while hip hop was what I was about, I would definitely take, not so much the style of music, but the vibe of other kinds of music and let that influence me. When I started producing, I was doing hip hop, but due to my brother I have a foundation in a lot of different stuff.
Wivel: I would have guessed industrial would also be…
Aesop Rock: My brother ended up listening to a lot of it.
El-P: I was never into any of that shit, I was never into rock, I didn’t get into rock until I became a hip hop-producer; I didn’t get into rock until around five years ago. I was into a lot of pop music, like Michael Jackson and Prince and the Police, shit like that. The punk scene was kind of happening in New York at the same time as the hip hop scene… well, I guess it was kind of the torturous tail end of the punk scene… and I had friends who were into it, but I wasn’t. And I was never into industrial, I never even knew any of that shit. My quote-unquote “industrial sound” comes from the albums I’ve referenced.
Aesop Rock: I ended up hearing all that shit because of my brother, things like Ministry. Actually he liked hip hop too, he put me onto BDP when I was really young.
Wivel: How about in terms of MCing? Your rhyming technique, your flows? Do you see yourselves following somebody there?
Aesop Rock: Like I said, in the beginning you just want to tell people how dope you are : it’s punchlines and bragging. Now, to a degree, it’s still that : you try to find new ways to say it. But also, as you grow older, things like thermo-nuclear war set in [Wivel laughs], things like family-issues and friendship-issues set in a little more. Life in general, from outside your little bubble of rap music, starts affecting you, and you realize you can write about something different.
El-P: When I came in, I felt like I was following the traditional B-Boy-punchline battle-rap shit, that was what my style was. Literally, the way I started writing was writing out other rappers’ rhymes and then I started changing them, putting my name in there, then I started writing rhymes them from scratch in someone’s style, like LL Cool J’s style. Then it just started to be fun, I started to have some skill in terms of flowing and shit, and I started to figure out different things, and one day, around ’94, it just clicked : I had a bit of an epiphany. Usually it just starts with one or two verses, where you feel like you’re on to something that could be yours. I used to battle a lot, I’d go to friend’s houses and basements, and parties and shit, and we’d get on mics and just battle cats. And it got a point where I was just slaying motherfuckers, because I was packing in twice as many words [chuckles] as other cats, so I had twice as much time to say shit. That’s how my style got formed, but it’s constantly changing. In terms of influence, I’d say cats like Ultramag, Organized Konfusion, EPMD, Kool G Rap…
Wivel: Yeah, Pharoahe Monche makes sense…
El-P: Yeah, Pharoahe was definitely one of the cats that were doing what I wished I was doing at a certain point; when he came out it sort of proved to me that it can be done. But if you ask Pharoahe, I’m sure he’s just as… he’ll probably say, you know, ‘Kool G Rap’ or fuckin’ Big Daddy Kane : anyone who comes with a unique style, a different style, a next style, will almost always have the direct classic influence. It’s like if you’re a martial arts expert : you’ve got to learn all the basic stances and shit, before you can go somewhere else. Otherwise, you might do something new, that just doesn’t sound dope, because you don’t have the building blocks to understand where you are, so you can leave the place.
INDEPENDENT AS FUCK!
Wivel: It seems to me that hip hop in the mid-90s was stagnating, and then, all of a sudden, things started happening : your stuff came out and a bunch of other people came out with their stuff… and it was all about syncopated beats and messing around with the bars, not necessarily rhyming, etc. I don’t know whether you’d agree with that assessment, but I wondered whether you could describe the atmosphere of that time.
El-P: I put my first record out in ’93, but that doesn’t really feel like the beginning of my career. The beginning feels like ’96, when we put out the Funcrusher EP, and, yeah, at the time we all felt that shit was kind of stagnant and that nothing was popping : it was the beginning, rough stages of the mega-commercialization of Hip Hop…
Aesop Rock: And a lot of the foundation groups were slowly starting to hit the end of their careers [chuckles]…
El-P: It was a pretty ill time, and we just made this record in our house and put it out, and all of a sudden, it was like fuckin’ on fire and cats were talking about it all around the world. We had no idea it was going to be like that : we thought we’d made a good record, but we didn’t think…
Wivel: You put it out yourselves?
El-P: Yeah, yeah. I suppose we came at the right place at the right time with the right attitude in terms of what people needed at the time, because we were those people, we were the typical hip hop kids, we were very connected to that energy and totally separate from what the industry was. It was really just about being fans of music, so we got lucky, because our sentiment happened to tap into a lot of people’s sentiments. It was a pretty ill time, because it was all undefined, there was no independent hip hop industry, no one was there; no one had taken it and moulded it.
Wivel: It evolved very quickly after that, though.
El-P: Yeah, it started to evolve pretty quickly, but I think that it’s just now really hitting its stride. At the time, nobody was aware what it even was, and we came out talking about it, we peeped it as a kind of philosophy… of course, it had already been done in indie rock, but we kind of came to it on our own, we didn’t study that stuff or anything…
Wivel: It seems like a pretty similar evolution…
El-P: Yeah, yeah, but, you know, there are only so many good ideas floating around out there; it’s only a matter of time before motherfuckers figure something like that out. But, yeah, it was pretty exciting at the time. We put this thing out and then it turned into the full-length album, distributed through Rawkus : it just kept snowballing, we kept getting more press and more and more people were peeping our shit. The impression was that this was the really raw hip hop shit that people had been missing. If we’d dropped that album now, it would have been called backpacker music, but at the time, we were straight up… in some strange and pretty direct way, [sighs] as much as I kind of feel weird about this, Company Flow really did create that sort of subgenre. It wasn’t our intention, we were just creating our music, and there were some negative effects to it [laughs] : to us period. To us coming out. There was a lot of imitation and misconstruing of our ideas by people who were taking it too far and really didn’t know what they were talking about.
Wivel: There seems to be a lot of weirdness for wierdness’ sake nowadays…
El-P: Right, and if you really peep our shit, you’ll see that we weren’t really on that. First of all, we were from fuckin’ New York and we considered ourselves to be B-Boys; we didn’t consider ourselves to be fuckin’ abstract-poetry… none of that shit. We were just: ‘We got the illest weaponry. You cannot step to us with words, ‘cos we got more words than you and we’ll put them together in ways that you haven’t even figured out’ : that was our vibe. And whatever it has turned into now, I figure is irrelevant.
Wivel [to Aesop Rock]: What was your first record? Music for Earthworms?
Aesop Rock: Yeah, I mean… oh God kill me… My first piece of vinyl was in ’98…
El-P: Was that Float?
Aesop Rock: Yeah, I had been asked previously by a couple of labels whether I would like to put out something, but I shied away from it, because I didn’t really want to get into it, I’d heard all those industry nightmares and just wanted to do my thing.
Wivel: Your style and the themes you work with seem pretty fully formed already on Music for Earthworms, but there’s obviously a lot of backstory previous to that.
Aesop Rock: Yeah, there is. Music for Earthworms was really just the second thing I did, that I was going to sell, it wasn’t a vinyl obviously, it was a CD-R; it wasn’t an album or anything. It was just something I did after years of rhyming; so many of my friends had prompted me to do something like that: ‘You should be heard, you’re pretty good’. It wasn’t like there was a moment when I just felt ready to prove myself, I just did it. So Music for Earthworms was just something I could sell out of my bag at shows.
Wivel: And Appleseed was the same kind of thing, I presume?
Aesop Rock: Same kind of thing.
Wivel: That compilation seems very complete to me, you’ve got your style down; it’s there.
Aesop Rock: Music for Earthworms was just a bunch of songs and I didn’t produce any of it. I was working with a producer that I didn’t really see eye to eye with, but we kind of ran with the same cats and just ended up doing it : so some people regard it as my first release, but it actually only sold, you know, a couple of hundred [chuckles]…
Wivel: Yeah, I don’t have the original either…
Aesop Rock: I actually don’t have it either [Wivel laughs], I think I sold around 300 copies of it, and I think that, through the course of selling those, the artwork changed three times [chuckles], I was like ‘This time, I can’t find the artwork that I photocopied the first time around, so I gotta do some new stuff’ : it was just such a bullshit release [Wivel laughs]. Now people are kind of like: ‘When are you going to re-release it?’, and I’m just, like: ‘Ahh, I dunno, I don’t care about that fuckin’… It’s actually funny, every single interview I’ve ever done; that shit comes up [laughs].
Wivel: Appleseed seems more like an actual project to me.
Aesop Rock: Yeah, that was when I first got my own digital 8-track, which I’d bought with what little I’d earned off Earthworms and through working. So I could actually do it all myself, the way I wanted to do it.
Wivel: So you produced the whole thing yourself?
Aesop Rock: Yeah, except for one song, which Blockhead did…
Wivel: So your real debut was Float.
Aesop Rock: Yeah, that was my [with pseudo-affected voice] industry debut. Honestly, the reason I did that was that the label [Mush] actually gave me a contract that was 3 pages long, which made me think that here I could actually put something out that would get a little distribution and all that, without the usual stress of ‘the business’, without anybody telling me what the fuck I had to do on the album. The guy was like: ‘Here’s a small contract, do an album and I’ll put it out,’ It couldn’t really be easier than that, so I did it.
Wivel: The album seems very ambitious. How did you conceive of it, prior to starting?
Aesop Rock: I was just, like: Give me the date when I’ve got to have this finished and I’m going to put as many fuckin’ songs on it as I can [chuckles]. My only idea was that since this was going to be my first album, I was going to come in with as many songs as possible, and I just overstuffed it.
Wivel: There’re a lot of songs on that album…
Aesop Rock: Yeah, there’re too many, and now I’m, like ‘What the fuck was I thinking?’ But this was the first time that I’d actually have my record in a store in California, you know?
Wivel: It seems like you want to achieve a lot with that record.
Aesop Rock: I just didn’t want to stop : I literally put everything I did during that time on that record, there was no filtering process, no evaluation of what was better than what, so instead of doing an album with 14 songs, I was like: ‘Fuck, I’ll put on 20 songs!’ [Wivel laughs]. Now you look at it, and, God, there’s a lot of bullshit on it [laughter].
Go to Definitive Jux for more info on the artists and I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, and check this interview with El-P from the New York Times which also links to the video for the single “Smithereens”. Also, Adult Swim has the video up for “Flyentology”, featuring Trent Reznor. Oh, and the legendary Chuck D recently interviewed El-P on the air – listen to it here. Last but not least, check El-P’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead blog here. The top photo is from the Def Jux show at the Roskilde Festival in 2003 and was taken by Rasmus Dengsø, the other, shitty one – of RJD2, Aesop Rock and El-P at that very same festival – was taken by yours truly. Covers to the Company Flow “Blind”/”A Tragedy of War in III Parts”/”8 Steps (Lost Mix)” 12″, Aesop Rock’s Appleseed, Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus, Aesop Rock’s Music for Earthworms and his Float.