El-P on Prince, his mother, and full-band rap shows as "dusted out Phish concerts"

El-P on Prince, his mother, and full-band rap shows as "dusted out Phish concerts"
Photo by Timothy Saccenti

Independent hip-hop trailblazer El-P is currently riding his career's highest critical wave. With his new album Cancer4Cure, as well as producing the new Killer Mike album R.A.P. Music, and a well-received performance on Late Show With David Letterman, things are coming together for the Brooklyn native (born Jamie Meline) like never before.

Gimmie Noise spoke with El-P shortly before he embarked on his Into the Wild tour, which brings him to Minneapolis on Thursday, July 5.

Congrats on your new album Cancer4Cure. On this tour, you've been playing the entire album front-to-back. What inspired this decision?

I hadn't done it before. It was just something that I thought would be a cool, a nice switch and, for me, would keep it interesting. I think that this record really has an arch to it and performs well. We tried it at the release show and it really went well. And afterwards, I came out and did classic stuff from my catalog, but I think I'm going to stick with that format.

Did you write any of the new album with the live show in mind?

Not particularly. But, I think I made a record that has a lot of energy to it and has a big build-up, and then there's some breathing room. I don't really craft records thinking too much about performing them.

You're set to tour with Killer Mike. With you being so closely identified with the New York underground sound and Mike's Atlanta Dungeon Family lineage, how has it been combining your performances?

To be honest, I'm not even sure yet. But, being on stage with Killer Mike and doing our songs together has been electric. With our fanbases, if there's a separation of the two, I think there's also a blending of those lines, a bleed-though in our audience. We're giving people a chance to get into both things and they've been working really well.

Your first time touring with live instrumentation additions was in support of your last album I'll Sleep When You're Dead...

It was the first time I had toured with any type of band, but I'm not doing a full band. I'm at the point where I like bringing people to hear my music and then we kind of enhance it. It's something you're not going to hear on the record, it's something special. I got to the point where I was jealous that I could go to a rock show and they could do something that wasn't going to appear on the record with the music they had made. I felt that really needs to be something we do as well. A lot of times, as a rapper, the typical rapper shit we all know is you play your record, you rap over it, have a DJ do some cuts and maybe slip some other people's beats under your shit, but for the most part you're doing a slightly less polished version of your record.

Was it a challenge transitioning into rehearsing with live instrumentation?

Maybe when I first started. The people that I'm rolling with are actually good friends of mine who actually play on the records, but when I first started doing it, it was a little challenging. But I'm not not playing my music, so we really just had to pick the parts out that would enhance the sound. I don't think I, unless I made a record with a band, would ever play a tour or a show with a band where I wasn't also playing my music because that's my craft. It's what I'd been working on for years, why wouldn't I want to play that in the club? Also, I never really liked that whole "Hey, go see your favorite rapper because he's got an album you like and he's playing with some jam band." I'm not going to your show to hear all your crazy 808s replaced with a live drum sets, I'm going to your show to hear your music. It turns into a dusted out Phish concert.

Do you remember your first show in Minneapolis?

I couldn't tell you when the first show was but I've always loved Minneapolis. I've got a lot of great allies out there, and it's always been a great hip-hop town. I do remember playing First Avenue for the first time and being blown away because Purple Rain was such a big part of my childhood. That was such a formative film and so huge for me in terms of my influence. I remember searching so hard for that hallway after Prince stormed off stage after Purple Rain, and I was traumatized going "what the fuck? The hallway's not here." That was the first club that meant anything to be as a kid, and it took me until my 20s for me to even go there.


One show you played in Minneapolis that people still talk about is in fall 2001 when you and Atmosphere played the first major hip-hop show in the city after 9/11. Do you remember anything from that night?

Vaguely, not that well. I remember, if I'm not mistaking, [Slug] did his version of "Darling Nikki." It's pretty great performing with that guy in that city, that's for sure. Doing First Ave is always something I look forward to.

At the New York release show for I'll Sleep When You're Dead, I vividly remember you pointing out your mother in the balcony as she gave you a standing ovation. With your music sometimes being of such a personal nature, has she always supported it?

Oh, absolutely. She's been the biggest supporter of my music since I was a teenager. I was kicked out of high school twice and went through a bit of a rough patch. She was the first to say to me "What the fuck do you want to do? Because this shit isn't working." She said either to become the guy that can do this and fit into this structure, or say "fuck these people" and create your own structure. She really put it to me like that and I was like "Well, I wanna be a rapper. I wanna make music. I wanna produce" at 16-years-old and she let me do that. She let me go to music engineering school instead of high school for the last two years and she really supported me from day one, no question. She's my idol, she's been through a Hell of a lot, and she did it on her own raising three kids. She's a tough lady.

Cancer4Cure survived a publicized 2009 harddrive crash. Other records you were working on around that time, which were reported as close to being finished, included the Weathermen album. Are there any plans for that project to see the light of day?

No, there aren't any plans right now. The thing with something like that is that everyone is their own solo artist and has their own trajectory for their career. I certainly have taken the last few years to really just pull in and like really try to focus on my own shit specifically. That's just kind of what I needed to do.

Finally, you've been incredibly prolific. With so much stuff out there, what's one piece of work you're particularly proud of that you wish more of your fanbase knew about?

I really enjoyed scoring the Bomb the System film, and I don't know how many people have seen that film. That was a great experience. And, I really thought that people slept on the Mr. Lif Mo' Mega record. I feel that that didn't get the shine that it deserved at the time, but I think that's worth checking out again. That's one of my favorite records that I've been involved in.

El-P performs at the Fine Line Music Cafe on Thursday, July 5 with Killer Mike, Despot and Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire.
18+, $20, 8 p.m.

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