El-P Explains How Def Jux Turned Into A Bubble That Didn’t Represent Him (Video)
In an exhaustive interview with Hot97’s Ebro and Peter Rosenberg, Run The Jewels shared a ton of details about their career as a unit, while El-P and Killer Mike each also spent time sharing their unique, individual experiences as veterans in Hip Hop. For more than an hour, the interview covers everything from Mike’s libertarian grandfather to El P’s feelings about “Mumble Rap,” but for a significant portion of the discussion, El-P divulges details about his time with Company Flow, as well as his Definitive Jux label and its eventual dissolution.
At one point in his career, he admits he “wasn’t certain anymore what I was doing,” (20:02) a sentiment he attributes to personal struggles in life and loss. But it isn’t until the 27:00 mark that the conversation begins to go into detail about Company Flow, Def Jux and the culture they seemed to inspire, which Rosenberg describes as appearing to be “too weird, White boy, offbeatish.” El-P agrees with him to a degree, saying “It did become that. It almost became homogeneous. It almost became that we created a thing that separated us a little bit,” he says. Ebro asks if he would coin it as “alternative, backpack, underground,” to which El replies “I would accept all of those bullshit terms, but I would never coin them [as such].”
For El, being a White MC and producer from Brooklyn raised on albums from the likes of Public Enemy, his foray into the underground scene as the leader of Def Jux brought with it some frustrating experiences. “I think people understand now, but I was never just a kid who grew up in New York City. The reason why my shit sounds like some of the shit that you like is because I grew up on the exact same records,” he explains at the 27:45 mark. Rosenberg asks him to explain what influenced him to sound “weirder,” which El seems to dismiss slightly. Rather than putting emphasis on being “weird,” El says the fertile scene out of which he (and fellow Def Jux members) grew placed importance on being different. “We took that ethos because we had a crowd and we had a scene that wasn’t based on money. There were no independent labels yet that were making money collectively off of stuff that was bubbling on the underground. It was just a radio show and open mics….so you had this community of people getting up, trying to make their mark, trying to dazzle everybody. And so everybody went crazy.”
However, once a premium was placed on individuality and style in Rap music, it became easier for fans of different styles to separate themselves from one another, creating what El calls “splintered” audiences. “This is what I think happened with Def Jux, in all honesty,” he begins at the 32:03 mark. “When Company Flow came out, we went right in The Source. Premier played us right on Hot 97. They played our video right on BET. We had our shit in high rotation on Rap City,” seemingly suggesting the same wouldn’t be true were they to come out today. That’s because, he says, “Outlets that were paying attention to Rap music hadn’t splintered yet. It was just Black outlets that were paying attention to Rap music, and White outlets that were paying attention to Rock music. What happened was, White people started paying attention to Rap music. The way they started paying attention to it was through people like Def Jux. But what happened was, it splintered.”
Expanding on the point (and referring back to the earlier comment about Company Flow being “weird”), El says the audience began to become splintered, and that “reflected on people like Rosenberg who was probably looking at that shit and feeling like maybe it didn’t rep him, even though maybe the music might have fucking been dope if he had listened to it, but he’s looking at this shit in a magazine and seeing the type of people that are paying attention to it, and it doesn’t speak to him.” However, for El P personally, he was “always the same dude. It was the audience who came to us, but that wasn’t my background,” he says of the White fanbase he and his cohorts began to gather in swarms. “That wasn’t how I came up in the city. I cut my teeth in the scene when there were no fucking White people.” In conclusion he says “despite the fact that I was proud of what Def Jux was doing, despite the fact that I did believe in the artists that were on it, I still always had a tinge of regret or something about it where I felt it was becoming too much of a pocket. It was becoming too much of a bubble, and that doesn’t represent me.”
Beyond the immense success the two share as one of Rap music’s most boisterous, innovative duos, El-P and Killer Mike share a deep seated appreciation for Ice Cube’s album Amerikkka’s Most Wanted. In fact, the two were introduced by a mutual friend in part because he knew they would be mutually inspired by that LP. At the time, Mike had a desire to make his own version of that LP. “He said let’s do your Amerikkka’s Most Wanted,” Mike says of that mutual friend (Adult Swim creative director Jason DeMarco) around the 17:00 mark. “Exactly,” El chimes in. It was Mike who told him he wanted to do his own version of Amerikkka, and once Mike heard what El had come up with production wise, he knew it was a perfect fit. “It was dark, East Coasty Hip-Hop, so it was like what I’d always wanted. I felt like I’d always been searching for that, musically and couldn’t find it, which is why people kept misunderstanding who I was.”It’s then that Rosenberg comments on Mike’s use of the phrase “dark East Coasty,” which he says “ironically, is Amerikkka’s Most Wanted.” “That’s what we connected over,” says El.
Several minutes later, at the 22:19 mark, El continues to discuss the importance of that album in the forging of RTJ, saying that he and Mike spent hours discussing music upon first meeting. “What we found was the Amerikkka’s Most Wanted thing. That was the first thing. We talked about when Ice Cube left N.W.A. – I mean, you guys know, how unexpected that was at the time.” He goes on to explain the gravity of Cube’s decision to not only leave the seminal West Coast group he had helped form, but to set out on his own and enlist the help of East Coast production team, The Bomb Squad. “It was incredible, and it blew everybody away, and it changed Hip-Hop in a lot of ways,” says El. “We knew that, and we knew that it affected us, so it made sense. We’re literally a month apart in age, so we grew up in the same time. We grew up in different places, but at the same time and listening to the same records.”
Elsewhere in the interview, Killer Mike comments on why he thinks four years of Donald Trump won’t be that hard to undo (“talk to your Black friends more”), why the appreciation of style is so important for critics of today’s Rap to remember, why both MCs once questioned whether they wanted to continue to making Rap music, why El-P is the “best rapping producer in the world,” and much more.