Published May 23, 2012Influenced by the Bomb Squad, El-P's dense layering of synths, sound effects and funky drums results in dark, futuristic beats (think more Blade Runner than Star Trek) that are claustrophobic and given a sense of urgency by the often up-tempo production. On Cancer For Cure, songs like "The Full Retard," "Drones over BKLYN" and "Tougher Colder Killer" might even have a chance to get played in the more progressive dance clubs. Cancer For Cure is El-P's most accessible album yet, and with the right push it could be his breakthrough release.
It's been five years since your last album and five more since your solo debut. What takes so long between records?
It's all based on ancient astrological charts. I have to do them every five years; it's a promise I made to an old voodoo priestess I met when I was 12. I don't know, man. Sometimes I wish someone would explain it to me, too, but I don't know. And it sucks because every time I put an album out I have to answer the same fucking question. And it's a legitimate question. I don't know; it just kind of happens. It's really weird and I'm always like, "Never again!" And it happens every time, and every time I look in the mirror I'm like, "Oh!"
Are you working on the album the whole time or does it take a while for the idea to gestate and then you start working on it?
Yeah, pretty much the latter. It takes me a minute to really get into the process; I'm always working on music. A lot of times I'm just enjoying different things and producing for different people or just not even really doing anything and just sort of living and thinking. By the time it all sort of comes together, magically, I look around and it's been five fucking years. I really wish it was something I understood myself.
The title of the new album, Cancer For Cure, conveys a pretty negative vibe, but what does it actually mean?
How could you possibly get a negative vibe off that [laughs]? Yeah, of course it feels negative at first, that was something I struggled with, but it wasn't supposed to be negative. And you know what, neither are my albums; I don't look at my albums as negative albums. Maybe documentations of struggle that may contain negative moments or stressful moments, but the idea just came, the words came to me . I was trying to figure out what it meant to me over a period of two years and I kept trying on different titles and different themes, but those words just kept coming back to me. I'm sure to some degree it had something to do with my friend passing from cancer, but nothing so direct or crass. I just think the word has been floating around in my head a bit. It's a taboo word; it's a hard word to put out there and I considered not putting it out there because it evokes a response that's not necessarily positive. But the fact is, I have to be true to the words that come to me. For me, it started to take shape in its meaning and I started to feel like I understood what it was. I've read that cancer, to some degree, is always occurring in our body, or at least the beginning of it, the inception of it, and essentially it is something we are fighting all the time. Our immune system is in a battle with it and keeping it at bay, whatever factors lead to that in different scenarios. It got me thinking about the idea that the struggles we perceive as external are really internal, and it got me thinking about the idea that maybe we contain all of our issues ― they're emanating from within. In fact, we're in a battle with ourselves for our souls, for our minds ― that we can become the cancer for our own cures. And beyond that, there was another meaning that came to me that felt like something that made sense, which is that there is an idea in a certain sector of society that people like you and me are a problem. People like you and me are an issue ― that there are too many people, too many of a certain class of persons, being useless feeders, something that needs to be cured. An issue that boils down to the idea that it would all be better if there were less people, or if there were less of a certain kind of people, the kind of person that is in the circle of folks that have their hand on the glove. In that idea, for me, it's that reversal in a different way, which is that, if they're the cure than I'm the cancer. I'm willing to be part of the cancer, so fuck you.
Your music is dark and the lyrics depict a dystopian world, but a ray of light seems to shine through. Is there a positive ray shining through on this album or is it all struggle with no solution?
Well, there's definitely no solution, let me tell you that much. But I'm making records about struggle in a lot of ways: struggles internally, struggles externally. There's always that ray of sunshine hovering over any struggle. No struggle is worth even mentioning if there wasn't the potential outcome of peace, you know, happiness. That is what I'm searching for, and this sort of exaggerated character of myself that I put on these records when I write, which is what writers do, these records are not stories about someone who has lost all hope, but someone who is a romantic, and that's how I feel. I'm not a pessimist; I may be a cynic, to some degree, but I'm not a pessimist because I still believe in the human spirit, and I believe in the human heart, and I believe in people. I'm angry and I'm disappointed sometimes, and I'm confused, and I don't necessarily know what to do with myself because I'm very aware and tuned into a lot of the things that are malignant that are being thrown around. So that lends itself to some dark moments and to some dark conversations in my music, for sure, but I'm not doing it for some sick desire to share pain with the rest of the world. I wouldn't just put it out there if I didn't think there was a reason. Sometimes you can explain more about possibilities by not saying it directly. I just can't make records where I say, "Wouldn't it all be awesome if we all were just peaceful?" It's just not the tone and the way that I think. The way that I write seems negative, but it's coming from the perspective of somebody whose heart is broken sometimes because he really does have the hope and desire, just like anybody else, to be happy and to live, to be in love, whatever it may be. I just try and put a full human perspective out there and I don't look at music as something that should be a caricature. It's not about something you want to be, in my mind. I don't write from the perspective of trying to present myself as someone that I want to be; I try and present myself as someone that I am, which is flawed and confused and stressed out a lot. And this is just internal dialogue, but I'm not a miserable guy. I just think there's beauty in the eloquence and telling of the struggle because people can relate to it. And the reason it matters is not because it's great to hear about pain or it's great to hear about struggle, but because the struggle implies the opposite existing as well. There would be no struggle if there weren't something beautiful to be had. And I did try to give a ray of hope, to a degree. I didn't want this album to close with it feeling like one major downer.
Do you see your writing as a way to purge your feelings, sort of like a diary?
No question. Absolutely. If I didn't write this shit then I would be probably the most miserable motherfucker. I need to walk around being okay. I found this outlet and isn't that what all artists are doing? Isn't that kind of the point, to a degree? We're trying to connect with beauty and we're trying to expel pain. And I don't really see the point in doing it if it's not that.
A recurring subject throughout your music is domestic violence. There's Company Flow's "The Last Good Sleep" and "Stepfather Factory" from your solo debut, and now you add "For My Neighbors Upstairs" to the list. Could you speak on the importance of this topic to you?
It's something that had a profound effect on me, as a person, as a kid. It's something that I think lingers, for me. Every once in a while it comes back and inspires thought for me, that's all. I have my personal history in my family and in my life that leads me to write songs like that. And this is not just some random, cold interest in that. This is something that is generated from my life and having firsthand experience, in one way or another. It's always a part of my DNA; it's always there and it can get triggered by outside stimulus. Beyond that, it's really about writing a song. You're inspired by the things that mean something to you and sometimes the things that mean something to you are ingrained in you and are lurking beneath the surface no matter what you do. That particular subject does come up a little bit in my music because it was such a big deal to me. Shit, at least I'm not writing a hundred songs about how I love a girl.
Your music is quintessentially NYC in more ways than just local references. Would your sound change if you relocated?
At this point I could live on a fucking island in Fiji and still write about things that are inspired by New York because this is where I lived all my life. It's just familiarity and it's ingrained in me; I'm a New Yorker through and through. It doesn't define me beyond that; I don't even really try. You emanate what you are, and this is the environment that I've been in all my life. I am a part of it and it's a part of me, and I'm inspired by it because it's where I've lived all my life. If I were to live somewhere else, it wouldn't change because I've lived my entire life up to 37 years old in New York City. I'm chock full of New York at this point.
In 2010, you put Def Jux on hiatus. What was the bidding war like for your next album and why did you opt for Fat Possum?
Actually, Fat Possum came in before anyone and ended the bidding war before it even happened. I had planned on running around and shopping my record to different labels and I had this list of grand plans and things, but Fat Possum came into the picture. I had just come off working with them putting out the Camu Tao record, which I had put together posthumously. I liked them and I liked the fact they put out the Camu record and they love the Camu record. I became cool with them and I like the way that they operated. When it came time to do the record, I had still been in contact with them, as a friend, just talking, and they were just like, "You know, we really want to do it." They made a great offer and made a great commitment to working with me and I was like, "Fuck it, why not?" I really couldn't see a reason why not. I just went with my gut on it. I like what they do. They're music people; I think that they love music and they have good taste. I'm also at the point now where I don't really give a shit; I just want to work with people who are excited about the music and who are capable. I don't need to go to any of the places that people assume would be the place a guy like me would go. This is what I was thinking: "I need to go with somebody who gets me and who really wants to get down." That's what Fat Possum brought to the table and it's been great.
Is there less pressure now that you don't have to deal with all the label stuff once you release the record?
Yeah, to a degree. I'm certainly more relaxed than I used to be, no doubt. And that was one of the reasons why I needed to do it this way: that shit wasn't enjoyable to me. It ultimately ended up not being what I wanted to do and it was taking up too much of my time and mind. So I'm enjoying it; I'm not mad. I like playing the role. My job is to make the best record I can make and just put myself out there and try and be great, if I can. It's kind of awesome because now I can be like, "Now what are you going to do?" And it's a great feeling. I can always point at them and blame it all on them if I'm feeling like an asshole.
When you were doing Def Jux, you had many Def Jux artists on your albums. Is there anyone you're looking forward to working with on Fat Possum?
I'm not really in that headspace right now, to be honest. They have a great roster; I'm hopefully going to be working with a few different people, and they brought it up. Right now, I couldn't tell you. I'm just focussed on this shit and getting out and do the tour. In the future, I would not be surprised if that happens.
With Cancer For Cure, some of the guests might come as a surprise for an El-P album. Why did you work with these people?
I liked them as people and I like them as musicians. And they were kind of around at different times when I was doing it. It all happened naturally. Everyone on the record is someone I'm friends with and that I think are great and that I just heard on the record ― nothing more than that. And at this point in my career I can't keep doing the same thing over and over; it's nice to branch out and throw people a few curve balls. Beyond that, I don't really have any contrivances when it comes to doing this. There are plenty of times I've done stuff with people that I ended up not putting on the record because it didn't work for the song. I'm a slave to the song itself. If the song works that way, if something great comes out of it, then I'll put it on. I don't have an agenda with that stuff.
Do you have any criteria for what you want when collaborating?
It really depends on the song. For example, someone like Cage is a great storyteller. It made sense to have him on I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, to have him on "Habeas Corpses," to have him inhabit a character because he's great at that. He was someone who really made sense to do that with. With Killer Mike on this record, who obviously I've just worked really closely with for a while, it made sense to have him come in because I needed someone to go back and forth on it, to come with some brutal, hilarious, savage rap shit. It really just depends on the vibe of the song and sometimes that changes depending on who I'm working with.
You mentioned working with Killer Mike on his new album. That collab came out of leftfield for many people. How did that partnership happen?
We got connected through the Cartoon Network. I had worked with them a bunch over the last five years and Mike had, too, both of us separately, and they connected us. They were putting Mike's record out and they stepped to both of us and asked if we'd be interested in working with each other and we both said yes. When we got together and we started doing music, we immediately hit it off, both as people and musically. We were having so much fun that it went from what I thought was going to be just a few songs to a whole album just because we were like, "This is great!"
How close was the collaboration process?
We worked very closely. He came to Brooklyn for three months and worked side-by-side with me in my studio. We made this album in the same room.
A nice change of pace from the current Internet collaboration.
That's exactly what we thought and that's exactly what we wanted to do. Fuck sending beats back and forth. In fact, there were months we weren't working; it took about a year-and-half for the record to be done after we decided to do it because it was intermittent. I'd go down there and he'd come here, but we never really worked on it when we weren't in the same room. We both felt that was important and that you could tangibly hear the difference with an album that was physically created in different time zones. We wanted to make the type of record that we would have made when we were 19 and do it in a way that we would make it when we were 19: just friends in a room making a record. We just knew that was an experience that we wanted, and I couldn't be happier with the outcome.
Bigg Jus also just dropped an album. Any chance you might hook up for some shared tour dates to co-promote releases?
We hadn't really talked about that. We just did a bunch of Company Flow dates and I already had tours and stuff set up, but that could be possible.
Will there be a Co-Flow reunion album?
Maybe. I don't know yet. We rediscovered on tour that we enjoy being around each other and we like performing with each other, and that was a great experience. So, we're not closed off to that. For us, we always go with our hearts and go with the music. We've pretty much dedicated ourselves to make time to get in the studio, as friends, and make some music just to see how it feels, to see how it sounds. Whether or not we end up putting it out, it will really be whether or not we think it's something we want to put out ― like, if we like it. We're not going to decide to do Company Flow and then try and make music because it's some fucking moneymaking idea. For us, we've had such a great legacy and I feel like we've done it justice, and I feel like these reunion shows were really good. All three of us, none of us are interested in spoiling that feeling or cheapening it. Anything that does happen will be just because we've got some hot shit on our hands. And if not, then that's fine, too.
Other than touring for this record, anything else planned for the near future?
A couple of things are coming down the pipeline, but I can't really talk about them. I am working on a full-length with Nick Diamonds. We've got a group together where we're both producing and he's singing. Tentatively, the group are called Stepson, but it might change. We're considering the name Large Marge but we're not sure. Either way, that's definitely something that's going to come together this year and come out at the end of the year or early next year. And beyond that, I'm really just dedicating this year, for the most part, to touring.
Read a review of Cancer For Cure here.