Wivel: Well, live and learn, I suppose… Maybe we should talk about the evolution of Def Jux. [To El-P] How did it get started?
El-P: Def Jux was the name of my production company for a long time, and at a certain point, around ’98, we [Company Flow] were basically not happy with Rawkus and we wanted to leave them. Company Flow was kind of up in the air, because Jus was pretty much out of the group already. We were in this contract with Rawkus that we were attempting to get out of and were just stalled. So I just decided that I was going to do what I’d always wanted to do, and I felt that I’d achieved that small bit of industry pull that it was going to take to accomplish something like that. So, I stepped to my manager at the time, Amici Lusigue : who was also going through a transitional period, because the partners in his company were going in different directions and he was going to strike out on his own : and told him what I was doing and invited him into it.
So we started preparing it and went around to find out who might be interested in setting us up, and Caroline was interested, so we basically just took the next couple of years getting out of the Rawkus deal, breaking up Company Flow, and recording new music. I stepped to Vordul [Megalah] and Vast [Aire] who formed Can Ox and started working on their stuff. And it got rolling. I was lucky, because there were a lot of people who were into it, because they knew that I was going to make something pop off : Mr. Lif, Can Ox, Aesop, RJD2, all these artist cats that I had connections with either directly or through friends. The first record we put out was Mr. Lif’s Enter the Colossus EP, and then we did the Def Jux Presents Vol. 1 where we put on the last Company Flow songs to kind of introduce Cannibal Ox [who were also on it], because their record was the next project I was doing, it was kind of ‘out with old, in with the new’. I guess we just kind of played it right; we got lucky in the sense that the music we put out just clicked with people. I look at it as the second time that I, through circumstance, had a plan that came through at the right place and at the right time. I’m lucky.
Wivel: Did you go into it with some kind of specific artistic vision?
El-P: It’s all connected to me, and how I view the industry. If you’ve listened to my music and read my interviews, you know what I’m about and that’s why cats got down with me : they knew what I was about. People look at me and see that, not only have I not compromised what I do artistically at all, but I’ve also managed to make a career out of it. That’s what it’s all about for me; it’s about being able to do the shit that you want to do and to have a real, mature stake in it : to handle your shit. And also, to be around the people that you like and have fun. That’s the life we’re aiming for.
Wivel: Do you see a potential problem in growing too big and not being able to maintain quality control, because of logistics?
El-P: There is no possibility of there not being any quality control, because I’m the only one that greenlights any record. I tell motherfuckers what we’re putting out. If people perceive one record as not being as good as another record, that’s their taste, but for me it’s all about what I like, and I like a bunch of different things.
Wivel: I was just thinking of the problems of controlling something single-handedly, if a company grows big.
El-P: Yeah, but we’re really not big [laughs]. We’re a small, well-run label. We’re on point. We will be big, it will go there, probably; that’s where it’s headed naturally. But one thing I won’t do is to make leaps when I’m not ready for it. That’s where a lot of labels make a mistake, they make that big leap and think they’re big time and all of a sudden they can’t even afford to keep open, and then they fall off : it’s usually the year after they decide that they’re huge and get a humongous office and hire 30 people, and then the next day, they’re, like ‘oops!’ So what I want to do for the next three years is just to release really good music and take incremental steps…
Aesop Rock: Then you’ll start coming out with the bad music [laughter].
El-P: …incremental steps to grow. For example, this year we’re doing videos for everybody. That’s a step it took us two years to make and now in our third year, we’re doing videos, because now we can do that, we can spend that money, cautiously. Cats that get down with me, or with any label, want to feel growth, they want to feel like their career is going somewhere. With me they already know that they’re not fuckin’ with a label that’s going to be able to hit them with big money, all we can do is offer 50% when the money rolls in, and you’re going to own your shit.
I know that if I’m with a label, I don’t want to feel that I’m just stuck in the same place. If I’m giving my piece of work to somebody, I want to know that they’re pushing it somewhere, and that’s what we do : we believe in artists’ development, and we believe that artists shouldn’t blow up before their third record, you know, so by the time you blow up, it’s because you’ve done so much work and your fan base is so big : you’ve been consistent, you can’t really fall off: that’s the independent way of blowing up. The rest of the world might not even realize it, but you’re selling 200.000 copies independently every time you come out, because you’ve got a strong fan base. And you’re chilling; you don’t have to dance like a fuckin’ monkey or anything like that.
Wivel [to Aesop Rock]: What’s your perspective on it?
Aesop Rock: On Def Jux?
Aesop Rock [to El-P]: Why don’t you leave the room? [Laughter]. I like it. It came at a time when I needed it to come; it came through Cannibal Ox who became my connection to El-P. They knew I wasn’t really psyched with how everything went down with the Float record. I really have no complaints, I can see the fan base growing steadily with the amount of stuff that we put out, I can see that people who think that there’s a specific sound around Def Jux is pretty consistently going to have their wig blown by the shit we put out, because we’re really all over the place. At the same time, we’ve all paid our dues and are already dope. I feel comfortable, I recognize the vision behind it, and I think that that’s more important than any bumps that I might experience in the first six months or year, so I’m down for the cause. And there really hasn’t been any bumps, and when I speak of Def Jux the company, I’m really talking about my friends : it’s kind of funny to step back and recognize that I’m part of a company : the biggest indie hip hop label, or whatever the world perceives it to be.
Wivel: It seems to be a general trend to hip hop that things happen in groups of people : around crews and labels, and such.
Aesop Rock: I actually think it’s kind of rare nowadays to have a label that appears as a crew and is pretty successful at the same time, the exceptions being Roc-A-Fella and Wu-Tang…
Wivel: I’m thinking more in terms of innovation, I think that there’re several clusters at the moment: the Quannum collective, Anticon, you guys…
El-P: People like to identify with something bigger than just putting a record out and making money. People recognize that there’s something deeper than that, something more personal. People look at us and see that this is not some pyramid scheme or some corporate plot; we’re all connected as musicians and friends and we all take the Ls to do it : everybody working at Def Jux feels connected to it; nobody’s getting shat on. At the end of the day, this is something to grow with, and that resonates for people. There’s strength in numbers, it’s a rare situation and it’s a powerful thing. Music is more important to kids than businesses, no one gives a fuck about business, and no one should. I think that a lot of kids feel disenfranchised with music, especially with hip hop music. Mainstream hip hop, a lot of times, isn’t really connected with their reality : there’s so much talk about money and business and other things that you might not give a fuck about as a kid.
When we step on stage, a lot of times, we all perform together, we’re all different types of artists, we all have different styles and shit and we’re all different races and backgrounds, and we’re all friends. It’s almost like an anomaly, you know: ‘How can that be? There’s only supposed to be two things : you’re either hardcore ghetto or hardcore suburban’. None of the cats on our label are suburban, but who the fuck cares? At the end of the day, it’s a label with a spirit created by musicians, and musicians recognize music : we’re all musicians and thus have a different perspective, we all come from the same love and from the same grimy background. It resonates and I’m glad it does : it’s what people were hoping Rawkus was, the only difference is, we literally are that, as opposed to lucking into it.
I believe that that’s a winning solution: As long as you have people doing what they love doing, and doing it with love and good intent, then how can you lose? As long as you have some sort of business structure that supports that, then you can’t lose, it’s just a matter of time. There’s no one who can stop it except us. Period.
Wivel [To El-P]: Could you perhaps elaborate on your interest in the dystopian and the way it’s expressed in your music : the lines “You’re not promised tomorrow” seems to me to be one of the central passages on your album [Fantastic Damage]. Are you really that pessimistic?
El-P: Well, I thought that my record had a lot of hope on it. You’re quoting the song “Tuned Mass Damper” : that’s not hopeless, that is reality. That song is about hope. It’s about the fact that shit is raw, shit is hard : you’re not promised tomorrow, but you’ve got to live the right way, you got to say the things that you got to say, when they need to be said, you’ve got to be courageous in your friendships and relationships. Am I pessimistic? I fuckin’ live across the street from where the World Trade Center was : yeah I’m fuckin’ pessimistic, you’ve got to be a fuckin’ asshole not to be pessimistic, straight up. Who isn’t pessimistic?
Wivel: I think Aesop seems less pessimistic than you.
El-P: You haven’t heard his new record yet [laughter]. Just because Aesop did the song “Daylight” doesn’t mean he’s fuckin’ Mister Rogers [laughs].
Wivel: Well, he did “Shovel” as well…
Aesop Rock: Those are hope songs : you can be a pessimist, and still do songs about what you want [laughs].
El-P: Humanity is involved. My record was an attempt to do something very human. You have fallibility, nervousness and confusion, but that’s not hopeless to me : that’s just real.
Aesop Rock: It’s reality, but in the back of their heads, everyone wants everything to be OK. In the final evaluation, we’re probably going to die in a couple of years.
El-P: Exactly, if I didn’t have hope, I’d fuckin’ straight up kill myself.
Aesop Rock: There’s almost comfort in the fact that we’re all going to die. Now I don’t have to worry about that, because that’s almost a definite.
Wivel: The one thing we can be sure of.
Aesop Rock: Exactly. So are all my songs going to be about that? Well some are, but there’s always going to be that one that’s like: ‘Keep your chin up, ‘cos what the fuck you gonna do?’
El-P: Exactly, keep your fuckin’ chin up and be positive, but at the same time, don’t fuckin’ hand me a bucket of shit and tell me it’s turkey [Aesop Rock laughs]. I try to do records that are honest to life, I don’t propose any solutions.
Wivel: A recurrent theme in your music is abuse : to me, it’s probably where your stuff becomes most powerful. What are you drawing on there?
El-P: That shit’s just something I had to write about. Period. I had the experience of a stepfather coming into my family, mistreating my mother. It is a big part of me, and you’re the sum of your parts. It’s part of my personality, it has to do with my relationship with women… you know, I’ve been through the looking glass and I’ve seen the darkness, I’ve seen the extremes of what can go down. But, honestly, you’re probably not going to hear about that again from me : I feel like I did it; it needed to be two songs, the first one had to be the actual experience [“Last Good Sleep”], while the other [“Stepfather Factory”] had to be a little bit colder and satirical and analytical of the situation. That’s it for me, I think.
Wivel: You also have it on “Constellation Funk”.
El-P: Yeah, something else happened to my little sister that I won’t talk about. I had to exercise all that on this album. I think that this album is probably more personal than any other album will be for me. I think the next albums will be a little bit more disconnected from all that. I felt like, since this was my first solo-album, I had to really throw myself into it, much harder than I’d ever done with any music : to establish and let people know who I was and to work out some things that I hadn’t worked out. I feel kind of like those topics are done for me, I feel like I’ve done some serious exploration of myself and said the things that I needed to say to the people in my life on this record.
Wivel [to Aesop Rock]: Your latest record [Labor Days] seems more accessible than your earlier stuff, but is still very complex. Do you see being opaque as being a problem?
Aesop Rock: I don’t see it as a problem, some people like it, others hate it. I don’t try to cater to anyone other than me, and I think that that’s true with almost everyone on this labels : and the labels you mentioned as well, Quannum and all that : the prime directive is to be happy with the music you’re doing… what was the question again?
Wivel: Well, your lyrics seem pretty unorthodox, even though you mentioned that you’re not interested in poetry, they seem put together like poems, they have that same atmosphere of ambiguity and opacity that a lot of poetry has : you know, the tradition in hip hop is to be very clear about what you’re saying…
Aesop Rock: Yeah, being very immediate… actually I think that I am immediate, it’s just that what’s immediate in my life is pretty cryptic, and I really think that that’s more real than people who make their stuff more accessible : that stuff’s not really realistic to me. Life isn’t that easy, and people really don’t see it the same way. So, if my shit’s considered cryptic, then it can’t really get more real. It’s what’s in my head, and I do my best to transfer what’s in my head to my music. It being strange and hard to figure out, is only a fraction of how strange it is in my head, and of how reality is. You can say: ‘Johnny got shot on the block’, or you can try to decipher the actual feeling behind that, and figure out a way of saying it, which is true to what that really means.
To a degree, rap is also more immediate because there’re more lyrics in it than in any other form of music. Rock songs, for the most part, don’t have as many lyrics : it’ll be a couple of bars of singing, which you can stretch out… whereas in rap music a verse is 20 or 24 bars and you’re saying a lot of shit in that time : if you have three verses, you’re saying as much as several rock songs. In my opinion it takes at least that much : it takes more, but you have to confine it to a listenable length : to actually describe what goes down in life.
And I find that the people that actually do identify with my stuff : although I have less fans than pop musicians : identify with it on a more realistic level. The people who are actually willing to take it, listen to it and decipher it, will end up with a feeling that I maybe hit the melon on the head a little more than someone who just brushes over a topic. So, is my shit a little more challenging than a pop musician’s? Yeah, but I also think that it probably carries more with it and that it’s more rewarding if you’re willing to give me the time of day.
Wivel: It’s just that there’re so many different ways of doing that : somebody like Slug [of Atmosphere] is doing stuff that in some ways is analogous to yours, but he does it in a very clear fashion : you immediately get what he’s saying. Anyway, what I guess I’m saying is that hip hop today is really expanding its possibilities, encompassing a much broader range of themes than it has traditionally. Is that something you’d recognize and that you’d see yourself as being part of?
Aesop Rock: Yeah, but at the same time, it’s not opening up on the level of the masses. Pop-rap is created for the masses, which is why I like it, and why a 38-year old white woman buys Jay-Z’s album [chuckles]. It’s created so everyone can grab it : from the ghetto to the birds, millions of people in the US alone : and I love it. I can’t do that, it’s just not me. I just do it the way that I have to do it, knowing it’s not going to attract as many fans as Jay-Z or Eminem or the other big stars. But that’s OK, I know it’s abrasive to a degree : the records require the listener to donate something, it actually takes energy to listen to them.
Wivel: Like with a book [chuckles].
Aesop Rock: Yeah… not that I’d know [laughter].
Wivel: I had to say it… I wanted to ask you some questions along the lines of what I’ve just asked El-P. I think I’ll put some impressions of your lyrics before you and let you respond to those.
Aesop Rock: Aiight.
Wivel: You, obviously also have a lot of recurrent themes in your lyrics : themes that go back to your first releases. Religion is a constant.
Aesop Rock: Yeah, religion is there, probably because I was raised catholic, but in reality it’s just a big question mark for me. I’m supposed to have this somewhat blind hope in something that’s just one faith amongst thousands out there. I was raised with this one faith, but was sort of this outside-of-the-box thinker, instead of just settling with that. I would speculate why this faith would be the right one, because it never spoke directly to me, the way my mother, father and extended family seemed to have experienced. It’s a big question mark, which forces me into pessimism, and I don’t actually believe that there’s life after death, I don’t believe that we’ll all go to a fluffy-land of munchkins; do I hope that there is a fluffy-land of munchkins? Yes, but if you ask me what I think is truly going to happen, I think you die and that’s it.
Maybe, sometime in my life, some religion will knock on my door and show me the way, and that would be nice, because people who are deeply involved in religion seem a lot more at peace with themselves and their lives : they have someone to talk to, a reason to have hope, something which you can never get enough of. I bring it up a lot in my songs because I’m kind of waiting… maybe if God is listening to my records, he can show me.
Wivel: Well, that’s why I see more hopefulness in your music than El-P’s, and also, you actually talk about changing things. Icarus is a recurrent character and he’s all about aiming high in life, about human ambition… he gets burnt in the process, but…
Aesop Rock: Yeah, Icarus was kind of a numbskull for doing what he did [laughter]. There’s an overall pessimism based on the world as it is today, as we said, The Apocalypse is inevitable, most likely sooner than later. So any kind of hope that comes in is going to be on a day-to-day basis : take into consideration that you’re going to die and find comfort in it, find that today can be cool; you can be with your family and friends, you can make a fresh beat. Basically, find some fuckin’ shred of hope while you can [chuckles]. I think that the songs that I do that are considered to be hopeful : “Daylight”, “No Regrets”…
Wivel: Yeah, “No Regrets” is all about seizing the moment.
Aesop Rock: Yeah, ‘seize the moment’, exactly. Because we’re all going to die [laughs] : but are you going to sit around and be a crybaby about it, or are you going to take what you have and do something with it. And you don’t know how long you’ll have : a week? A year? Ten years? : so you’ve got to do it now. But, as far as overall hope for humanity goes, I have none [laughs].
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 yours truly. Covers to the Company Flow “End to End Burners” 12″, Cannibal Ox’ The Cold Vein and “The F Word” 12″, El-P’s Fantastic Damage, and Aesop Rock’s Labor Days and Daylight.