“The shit I put out there is not exactly the most obviously laid out,” El-P admits, so the Brooklyn-born-and-raised rapper and producer always stays open to fans interpretations of his music. Unfortunately, Hive’s ears weren’t astute enough for a line on “True Story,” a track from his latest album, Cancer for Cure. We thought we heard a line referencing De La Soul’s “Oodles of O’s,” and we pressed him to explain. Turns out El-P was actually rapping, “Unos and Os — like ones and zeros.” But Hive’s reading didn’t bother him. “We really fucked ourselves with that detour,” he laughs. That line may have a one-way interpretation, but the rest of Cancer for Cure is wide open: El’s beats are dominating and provocative — for this project they’re all rattling hi-hats and brutal bass tones — while his unrelenting verses reward astute listening.
Hive’s goof isn’t the first time someone’s misinterpreted El’s words, or even the persona he puts out to the world. So we decided to pick his brain about said lyrics, music writers resting on their laurels, and why his production is always labeled as “dystopian” (spoiler: it has something to do with the ‘resting on their laurels’ bit).
The reviews for Cancer for Cure have been largely positive, but have you read anything strange about it?
I’m not sure I read anything noticeably strange. To be fair, I make it a policy not to read everything written about my records, because it’s mildly unhealthy to get caught up in that. You put a piece of music out and it’s not in your hands any more, and that’s cool with me.
Is it slightly surreal reading someone else’s interpretation of your own thoughts and ideas?
Yeah, it can be surreal. Sometimes things are not 100% on, but how could they be? People are making guesses about what my intentions are conceptually. A lot of them are pretty close — some of them not so much — but the shit that I put out there is not exactly the most obviously laid out. It’s open for interpretation, the way that I do my rhymes and the way that I create songs, so it’s going to evoke imagery. For the most part, hopefully if I do my job then people are in the ballpark and get the general vibe; if they don’t, then to some degree that’s my fault.
Do you ever hear about fans getting a completely different meaning behind your songs?
I’m sure I have, absolutely. Sometimes you get something out of someone else’s reaction to your song that you didn’t even know is there. I’ve even had experiences where I’ve been like, “Oh, that’s kinda true.” It’s rang true even if I wasn’t particularly thinking that. The way I look at it, not to be pretentious, but if you were to take an abstract painting and 50 people stand in front of it, whatever your intentions were to some degree they’re going to be interpreted differently.
Before the album was released, you tweeted something along the lines of how you could make a beat out of church organ and the sound of a cat’s bell and it would still be called “dystopian.” Why do people always use that word to refer to your music?
Sometimes there are buzz words that are put out there in the writing community that writers share. It’s often an easy way to describe something, so you kinda catch on to a couple of labels that seem to fit. I’ve definitely without demerit gotten a few “dystopians,” because that exists in my music in certain songs, but to me it’s entertaining because every once in a while someone will describe something as ‘dystopian’ and to me it just sounded so different to that. That’s when you start to feel like maybe you guys are resting a little on your laurels here; maybe you should come up with a few more descriptions … But that being said I can’t front: My shit sounds pretty goddamn dystopian.
What are your favorite other clichés that your music usually attracts?
To some degree there’s always been a little bit of a misinterpretation of who I am. For a long time, probably because of the scene and the label Definitive Jux and the way that people perceived us, as it was nerdy or somehow not tough shit, and that never really rang true for me. That’s really not who I was — I’m just a New Yorker. This is not to say it’s a big deal to me, but I always felt like there was a little bit of a one-sided perspective from some people, like they had it and that always gave them an excuse to not actually peep [the music]. But that’s fading a little bit. I’m certainly not walking around feeling misunderstood. But I’m only saying this shit because you’re asking me these questions.
Going back to the album, did it take you a long time to sequence it?
On and off, for about a month. I was doing it right up until the end. That’s always a weird process, always an interesting process. I do it right up until the end, even in mastering I moved a few things around. It takes a minute. I kinda obsess over that shit.
Are there any runs of songs on the album that you’re particularly proud of?
Yeah, the first four songs I knew were the first four songs and the last song I knew was the last song. Everything else I wasn’t sure of. It took me a little longer to figure out the record. The weird thing for me is the last song on my record ["$ Vic/FTL (Me And You)"] was the first song I wrote and originally it was going to be the opener to the album. Then I made the other one that ended up being the opener ["Request Denied"] and it had such crazy energy and I couldn’t figure out where to put it, so I switched them. I didn’t want the album to start with the tone that the last song had — I wanted it to be something a little more energetic. For me, [the last song] has to feel as though it’s the end of the movie. Whatever you’ve done on that record, whatever the listener has gone through to get to the end of the record, there has to be some sort of payoff at that point, even if it’s abstract. I look to make some sort of conclusion, even if it’s vague.
Were there any songs that you were on the fence about including on the album?
“Sign Here” I wasn’t 100% on, not because I didn’t love the song but because I thought that song was probably the most ripe for misinterpretation. At the end of the day though, I thought “fuck that” and did it anyway. Same as on the last album I questioned putting “The Overly Dramatic Truth” on the record because I was like, “This is a little intense, this is a little too personal, I’m not too sure anyone’s going to like it.” But at the end of the day you put it out. When writing songs, especially if they’re kinda semi-true to you, a lot of people hide behind whatever their idea of themselves is in the record, and every now and then you might make a song that exposes something a little too much about you and there’s a part that doesn’t want yourself to be exposed. It’s important to do it anyway, because that’s the art form.
“The Full Retard” uses a Camu Tao line from “When You’re Going Down” as the hook. When did you decide to use that particular line of his?
As soon as he did the song. It was just my favorite fuckin’ line. It was so smart and obvious that no one had ever said it: “You should pump that shit like they do in the future.” Camu loved it; he loved it when I was making a beat with him. I had ten other beats under that shit that changed, and the only thing that remained the same was Camu’s shit. That was one of the first little hooks that I did for the record.
Is the album title, Cancer for Cure, inspired by what Camu Tao went through?
[Pauses.] Well, no. It really wasn’t a direct thing or directed at Camu, but I’m sure that because of the work that was floating around in my head for obvious reasons, it wouldn’t surprise me that there’s some connection. But it’s not as literal or obvious as some people would assume.
On “Tougher Colder” you say “no star 69,” right?
[Raps:] “The blocked number, no star 69/ Call, breathe heavy at your little sis.” Yeah, I was just coming up with what I thought would be the worst thing you could be, like the most annoying thing you could possibly be is a blocked number calling me and breathing heavily at my little sister.
What’s the creepiest anonymous call you’ve ever received?
Man, I hadn’t had an anonymous call in a long time. The age of the anonymous call is kinda over a bit. I don’t even pick up the phone if it says blocked.
Did you ever receive any strange calls from fans?
Yeah, a long time ago. In the ’90s, like 1996, some kids called Breeze Brewin from the Juggaknots over and over again really late at night and he would talk about my lyrics and Breeze didn’t have any idea who he was. He was talking about Satan. Breeze hit me up like, “Did you give some crazy kid my number?” I was like, “No, what are the hell are you talking about?” He told me, “This kid keeps calling me high or something and asking me if you are putting subliminal messages about Satan in your music.”
Did Breeze ever answer on your behalf?
[Laughs.] I don’t know. I’m assuming he probably hung up pretty quickly.
“Tougher Colder” also features Killer Mike, whose album you recently produced. When did you first hear his music?
Just like everyone else, through Outkast basically. The first time was, “The Whole World.” And then I started getting up a little bit later — I probably lost a bit of what he was doing for a while — and then I was getting familiar with him again and not even knowing he was the same guy from the Pledge series, which I liked. I was like, “This dude has a powerful voice and kinda reminds me of Ice Cube.”
Were you listening to other Southern hip-hop at the time?
Man, I listened to all that shit; I grew up on that shit, like Outkast, UGK … I was up on the same stuff that people from the East Coast were up on, maybe a little bit more though, so definitely. I’m just a fan.
Do you think at the height of the Def Jux era some of your fans didn’t want to believe that you’d listen to Southern rap?
I don’t really know. If that’s the case it didn’t matter, and doesn’t matter to me. I like what I like and I never, yeah… So I wouldn’t give a shit what anybody wants me to like.
I interviewed Killer Mike the other day and he said he really wanted some of the productions that ended up on your album but he wouldn’t name names. Can you remember which songs he wanted?
Ah, man, I got to ask Mike that! I forget which ones he was flipping out over! He definitely said that he wanted a few, but they were spoken for. Mike really wants to go even further and keep going and experimenting. The two albums sound pretty different. Part of that is the Killer Mike album was made in a shorter amount of time and was more of a vibe that we had and came together relatively quickly. But my album? That was more me obsessing over my shit for a couple of years.
Cancer For Cure is out now via Fat Possum, stream it via Spotify: