The Last Laugh: An Interview with Backpack Rap Icon El-P

Killer Mike is a husky, black Atlanta MC who’s been reppin’ for the inner city since debuting with Outkast in ’00. El-P is a not-so-husky, white Brooklyn producer/MC who’s been loved in alternative hip hop circles since coming out with Company Flow in ’96. To the naked eye, linking these two strangers for a project might seem a bit odd. But to the creative minds at Cartoon Network’s Williams Street Records, the move made perfect sense. And after hearing the new-found friends’ spirited joint effort, R.A.P. Music, you’ll most definitely agree. I caught up with El-P, the project’s sole producer, to talk R.A.P., rap in general and all the rapping he’s doing on his fifth solo CD, Cancer4Cure.

What was the experience like with Mike?

I mean, I went down to Atlanta for a week, basically, to meet Mike and to get in the studio and just to see, kind of like, what our vibe was and to see what we came up with. And when I went down there, I wasn’t committing there. I wasn’t down to do the whole album because I was making my record, and they wanted me to come down there. I was like, “All right, look, I’ll come down. I like Mike’s shit. I’m gonna come down and fuck with him. I’ll do some shit, but I can’t do the whole record. You know, I’ll do as much as I can. I’ll do like 3-4 cuts or something, you know?” And I went down there and honestly, man, after the first day, the shit that had popped off, just like the vibe between us was just so amazing and we got in there the first day and he did his “Big Beast” verse. Basically, I had that beat and he did that verse and he did “Untitled.” It all just popped out of his head. I’ll put it to you this way: The vibe was so good with us that Mike basically didn’t write more than a few words down for this whole album. And I watched him. I watched it all just come out of his head. And I thought that that was just how he works. I thought that that was literally just how he did it and I was impressed. I was telling people like, “Yo, this dude is ill.” And he told me later, like, “I’ve never done that.” He was just like the music just moved him. And it was just special, man. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s weird that you just bump into something with someone that you don’t know and you feel like you’ve known them forever. All of a sudden, it was just happening. It was just so easy and it just felt so good that I was like, “Fuck it. I’m doing the whole album.” I mean, they asked me to do it and I was like, “Yeah.” But it was pretty clear from the beginning that we had something special.  There was just like an energy there from the first moment we went in the studio.

Now, with this experience with a brilliant Atlanta MC, has this opened the door for other southern artists to work with you?

Well, the thing is that, for me, the door had always been opened. I’m a fan of music. I’m a lifelong fan of rap music, so I didn’t have any regional rules. I was already listening to T.I. I was already listening to Jeezy. I was already listening to Mike and Outkast. I grew up on Geto Boys and Scarface, if you can consider that southern. Bun B and Underground Kings and the like. I am well in love with rap music, period. So, I respect those rappers. I respect great songwriters, To me, it’s been open. I think that, maybe, this record is bridging or maybe knocking down some sort of perceived division, you know what I mean? I think the artists themselves, people like me and Mike, we’re never closed off. We listen to everything. I think that there has been [division] in the past, and I think that these lines are starting to erode now. Hip hop is in a good place where, maybe, a record like this can even help seal the deal. A lot of those lines and those perceived divisions and the way that people think about music don’t exist really. Maybe a record like this can help point that out, you know? I think it could, man. I think when we were doing this record, we were excited about that too. We knew that to a degree. We knew, all right, there’re going to be people on both, fans of mine, fans of Mike’s, just outside people looking in who are going to be kind of shocked that we are doing this record together. The only difference is that me and Mike felt like it was the most natural thing in the world. And that’s how I feel about music in general. I think a lot of the perceived separations, eventually, they disappear, man. You make a good song and that’s it. And that’s how I feel about it. That is my genuine feeling about it. So, yeah, to answer your question, I’m open. I love working with people. I love working with people that are genuine in their craft and it doesn’t matter where they’re from.

What else is on tap for you in 2012?

I mean, you know, me and Mike are both releasing our albums one week from each other, and then we’re going on tour. We’re hitting the road. It’s gonna be me, Killer Mike, Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire and Despot. We’re gonna hit North America hard. Then we’re going out to Europe. You know, so just a lot of touring. And then me and Mike are talking about getting right back into the studio again, really. That’s our next shit. We kind of have a different idea of what we want to do for the next one. We might even do a record with me and Mike both rapping together.

What aspect of your project, Cancer4Cure, are you most proud of?

Hey, man, I mean, look, every time I put a record out, it’s everything that I am at the time. And I think that’s why it takes me a long time to put the records out. I just try to put something raw, and funky and heartfelt out and just throw it out there and just try to make a genuine piece of art, man. And as far as what anyone takes it as, I feel that is kind of out of my hands. My job is just to do the best that I can. Because I have a production career and I do other things, [recording is] not always my primary source. I take my time with my records and just kind of throw convention to the wind and I just try to make something that I think is the best that I can do at the time, you know? So, I don’t really have any hopes or expectations. I just hope that it talks to people or gives them a feeling that they’re looking for. I’m proud of it. I think that, at this point, it’s kind of in fate’s hands, you know?

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