El Da Sensei: El Producto

No longer on a major, no longer selling six-figures, El Da Sensei will not quit. The New Jersey native takes sabbaticals, but constantly hones new fans with a successful solo career. With an entirely new objective, his just-released, The Unusual shows El rhyming over faster beats, with easily digestible messages.

With AllHipHop.com, El Da Sensei touches on his artistic changes. He sheds light on the youth in his neighborhood, production legend T-Ray, and El’s feeling about a remake of The Warriors. It’s always great to back-track with El Da Sensei…

AllHipHop.com: Allegedly, you felt Relax, Release, and Relate was too intimate, and you wanted to take it back a notch. Why?

El Da Sensei: The speed of the record was the difference I wanted to make. I felt that [Relax, Release, Relate] was slower, more melodic. I wanted to get different [producers] to do it – bring back the force, the aggression, the drive. That wasn’t there for me on the last one.

AllHipHop.com: So it was more of a musical thing than a lyrical thing?

El Da Sensei: The music makes me express myself a little better – I think that’s with everybody. When you listen to the beats like “Crowd Pleasa”, which Illmind did, when I got that beat, I was sittin’ with it for weeks like, “Damn. What the hell am I gonna do with this?” It was ridiculous. I knew that I before I touched it, I had to step up my game.

AllHipHop.com: With Fat Beats putting the record out, were you your own A&R so to speak?

El Da Sensei: I would say so. Most of the album was done before we got the deal done. Gettin’ with certain dudes, like Saukrates, I just know his music. I wanted to definitely have a taste of that. I called him and said, “Yo, I wanna f**k with you on some music. I know your work. I got all your records – Kardinal Official s**t, Choclair s**t, I know what you do.” So I met with him at New York at a studio. It just so happened Redman was there, and I hadn’t seen him in a couple years. When he saw me there it was, “Hey, what’s up?” He almost looked surprised like, “What you here for?” Sauk gave me four tracks, I did two, and put out one. He came to Jersey, and he came to the studio session. He liked it. If everybody likes it, that’s what matters.

AllHipHop.com: You’ve been labeled a “headphone rapper.” To me, that means somebody who’s more inclined to rock your mind than rock a beat. How will that perception change with this album’s different approach?

El Da Sensei: I hope it’s somethin’ that everybody want. ‘Cause we don’t have enough of it, right now. I don’t mind bringin’ that. At least with the success Kanye and Common had, people don’t realize that when you listen to their music – that’s what you really want. That’s why they do good. Everybody’s headphoned up right now, it just depends what they put in it.

AllHipHop.com: You were part of the “Best of the Underground Tour” a decade ago. Your two guests are O.C. and Sean Price, both underground veterans. Was that intentional, to feature two prominent voices from yesteryear and today?

El Da Sensei: It wasn’t a set up thing. But I have a list of people that I want to work with, that I haven’t yet. I’m trying to complete it. Me and [O.C.] did a song that never really came out. I told him, “Let’s do another one.” We already in the same family as far as Next-Mil [Records], so that was automatic. Sean, I had always talked to him since tourin’ with him when [Heltah Skeltah’s] first album came out. It was a lot more people I want to work with, but I’ll have a lot more chances from this record, I hope.

AllHipHop.com: On the song with Sean Price, “No Matter”, it’s very fun and lighthearted. But it also carries the message of two veterans who seek a check just like everybody wants one. As a 13 year vet, how hard is it to earn a living off of Hip-Hop without making a record, yearly?

El Da Sensei: That’s the whole thing about it. You have to keep yourself busy. Even taking that little break I took when me and Tame [as The Artifacts] broke up – once ’98 rolled around, I was sitting in my house like, “I can’t be like this no more. This is not just about one person.” I started goin’ out and hookin’ up with people. That’s when me and Matt Fingaz from GuessWhyld [Productions] hooked up. Opportunities for me now are a lot more than when I first tried to re-establish myself as a solo artist. Without touring, without going overseas, I won’t be able to do what I have to do. Going overseas five or six times a year is much better than stayin’ in the States.

AllHipHop.com: In the song, “Course of My Life”, you make reference to doing meet-and-greet functions. How helpful are things like that, or speaking on panels?

El Da Sensei: You gotta understand – the people in the business when I started, they still in the business now. So I think they have a lot more respect for me to still be tryin’ to do it. We have listening parties just for the DJ’s. We order some pizza. If you wanna smoke, smoke. Open the window. They appreciate these things, ‘cause it’s a party for them. Also, we also have parties for the writers. We had an open forum where everybody critiqued on what they liked and what they didn’t.

AllHipHop.com: How do you feel to have a writer critique your work like that?

El Da Sensei: If they don’t do that, I’m not gonna know if I’m doin’ the right thing. What you write and [publish] is what some people [use to] decide as to whether to buy it or not buy it.

AllHopHop.com: Let’s talk about “Course of My Life” some more. It’s a very honest track – a great way to the end the record. Why did you end it on a different note like that?

El Da Sensei: It was actually the first song I recorded for the whole album. People ask me everyday that live in Jersey, that don’t even live in the world we live in, “How you still doin’ it?” They don’t understand, I’m really doin’ it, for real! But it’s on a different level. For me, to keep doin’ that, I’m tryin’ to talk to people who don’t know me to like [my music].

AllHipHop.com: You’ve got another song, “Gun Blast”. You’re passing down an opinion on the generation ten years behind yours. What prompted you to write that?

El Da Sensei: I live in East Orange, New Jersey. Out here, it’s just lil’ young dudes and they Blooded out. On my block, right here on Amhurst Street is a road blocks, ‘cause last year, they shut the whole block down. It was too crazy. They slingin’, they wylin’, and they killin’ people. Two of my cars got broken into since I been out here, so I know, personally. I didn’t want to make a song to be preachy, but I wanted to show them what I see. A lot of cats I know either just came home from jail – the older dudes, are gettin’ killed by the younger dudes by the younger dudes who are like, “Yo, I don’t care who you are, I know who you was in the past. I was a little kid. I ain’t know you like that. Bang.” I done seen it. With that song, if you see where I’m comin’ from, you’d understand why a lot of cats my age might look at you like, “Calm down.”

AllHipHop.com: Do these young street dudes on your block, who maybe want to rap, have any idea that they live in the vicinity of a successful MC?

El Da Sensei: I have one producer on my album, Nomadic. He’s not too far from me in age, but he’s never done anything [in Hip-Hop]. I told him, for all the times he gave me a beat-tape and I told him, “Keep hittin’ me, eventually, somebody gonna like something.” [That finally came]. Everything I do, is good for [him] now. Every producer we ever worked with – Buckwild, Shawn J. Period, everybody went on to do somethin’ good after workin’ with [The Artifacts]. I try to pass it on.

AllHipHop.com: Between this interview, I revisited Between a Rock and a Hard Place – truly a classic album. It was on Atlantic Records, and I was surprised to see it only sold 200,000 copies. I think there’s a similarity to what happened to Little Brother this year with This Minstrel Show, another Atlantic Records slept-on underground classic…

El Da Sensei: [laughs] Everybody got a vision on what they might think’ll happen. It don’t mean that [it’ll come true]. When you messin’ with a label like Atlantic, you messin’ with different music – it’s not just a Hip-Hop label. Everybody that might be workin’ there aren’t as Hip-Hop as maybe the group is. It’s not their fault. I always felt like we were thrown against the wall to see if it would stick. That was with a lot of majors then too – Warner, Priority, Def Jam with Onyx, and Redman, and Meth. It makes me sad that there’s no Hip-Hop groups out anymore. Every year, they get erased like the ozone layer.

AllHipHop.com: MF DOOM is the success story. Elektra could never work KMD. Now, he’s in his upper 30’s, killin’ it through working with Madlib and The Cartoon Network.

El Da Sensei: Everybody won’t be able to do it. That’s something he been doing for years now. That’s a character that he made up for himself to get back in the game. It worked for him. Nobody should do it [either]. That’s his thing. He’s eating with that.

AllHipHop.com: Speaking of elusive figures, T-Ray produced the first Artifacts album. Another classic finale is “Whassup Now Mothafu-ka?” How did he come to pilot the production of The Artifacts first album?

El Da Sensei: Well, when we got signed to Big Beat, he was already workin’ with Shawn J. Period and that group Down South. He came to the studio, played a few beats. We’d go to his crib every weekend, and just make beats. “Dynamite Soul”, “Wrong Side of Da Tracks” – we just pulled that record out, and did it. We knew Chubb Rock, 3rd Bass, N-Tyce, had used it, but f**k it. [Evil Dee] had used the drums for “How Many MC’s” too. We just put it together. “Whassup Now Mothafu-ka?” me and T-Ray did. Tame didn’t come to his crib that day. [Later on, Tame heard it, and we argued about it]. That’s why, we’re so angry at the beginning of the track. We were listening to G Rap’s “On the Run” before recording it.

AllHipHop.com: How do you feel about battle DJ’s using it so often today?

El Da Sensei: Mista Sinista killed it! When I first heard it, I was like, “How’d he get that out of that

AllHipHop.com: So many people associate you as a graf writer. That said, how do you feel about The Warriors video game?

El Da Sensei: Actually, like one time. I been meanin’ to get it. But I’m stuck on Dark Watch/ It’s crazy! It’s somethin’ you get into, I tell you that! [laughs] I liked stompin’ dudes and body-slammin’.

AllHipHop.com: It’s pretty authentic too.

El Da Sensei: Absolutely. If they…I hope nobody don’t ever, ever try to do that movie again.

AllHipHop.com: Tony Scott, of Top Gun fame is already in production. Heartbreaking.

El Da Sensei: Aww! No, man! You can’t replace James Remar [“Ajax”] like that! James did the damn thing.

Related Stories