El-P: Insomniac Olympics

It’s taken El-P four long years to complete his latest album, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. In between scoring the soundtrack to the film “Bomb the System,” making his High Water Jazz record, producing with rock groups such as the Mars Volta and working with Nine Inch Nails front man Trent Reznor, as well as working extensively on both Cage and Mr. Lif’s latest releases, El-P hasn’t had much time to devote to himself.

But El-Producto has made a living bucking the system, challenging the very essence of how hip-hop music should sound and the way an artist should approach the track. And I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, an album that packs so much punch in such a short time span, is nothing short of a few musical surprises and lyrical imagery.

El-P sat down with AllHipHop.com to discuss his latest release, what he did different, why he’s getting down with rockers such as the Mars Volta and Trent Reznor, and what he’s trying to accomplish with I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead.

AllHipHop.com: What was the meaning behind the title to your album I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead?

El-P: Essentially, it was a play on words. I tried to make it a play on New York City and it being the city that “never sleeps.” If I were having a conversation with New York, “I’ll sleep when you’re dead” is what New York would whisper to me. I feel like sometimes I’m a rat in a maze, running to escape my own death and that New York City is attempting to be my murderer.

AllHipHop.com: You’ve mentioned you made I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead a “tighter” album, something more compressed than 2002’s Fantastic Damage. What were your reasons for the shift in approach to the new album?

El-P: Every time you make a record you try to approach it a little different. I’m not the kind of person that wants to make the same record over and over again. And as much as I loved Fantastic Damage, it was literally me putting every song on there that I’d made. And I felt the style and direction of Fantastic Damage was a lot of ranting. I would rant and rant until I would figure out what I wanted to say. With this, I wanted to make something epic; something that was a real journey. I wanted you to put on headphones and be transported for an hour. I looked at it as challenge. I mean, how do I as a producer go through changes in the album and still keep it short? It was artistic for me this time around. And I really tried to make a record where people would be swept away but not exhausted.

AllHipHop.com: How, specifically, would you say you’ve improved both as a lyricist and as a producer from your last album?

El-P: One of the reasons it took me so long was I intentionally threw myself into other projects. I did the [score for the] Bomb the System film, the High Water Jazz record, and I worked on both Mr. Lif [Mo’ Mega] and Cage’s [Hell’s Winter] albums. I’m greedy like that. But I’m also a sponge. I’m looking for experiences as a producer to figure out different ways to approach music. And if I fall flat on my face in the process, I can apply that experience to my record. I have the ability to improve on my weaponry as a producer. Hip-Hop producers are some of the most well-versed people in music; they amass huge collections of records. But when they sit down, they come up with the same beats. I try to look for something different. I might be listening to 1970s Pop Rock. But what am I getting from it? I’m constantly searching and moving forward to improve on my craft. And writing is the same way. I really tried to make it a tight album. I buckled down and cut the fat with my writing. I’m getting closer to the artist I want to be. And that’s why I make these records.

AllHipHop.com: How do you go about putting together a song? What specifically goes into it?

El-P: If I could tell you, I would be making these records so much quicker. If I had a formula, all of the records would be much simpler to make. Every time I sit down to make music I feel like I’m a newborn again; a child. I don’t have a real formula. For me, it’s always about inspiration and the moments for me. Sometimes it’s inspiration from other people, maybe a word, or something I did that day.

AllHipHop.com: How did you decide which of your material would make I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead?

El-P: I really narrowed it down. I had five or six songs that didn’t make it. And I really looked for music that I felt fit in this abstract story-art I was trying to make. It was trimming the fat, but in some sense that meant trimming whole songs. I’d ask myself, “Does this song need to exist? Does it need to be presented in the context of this record?” I want to make records that have a story to them; a beginning, middle and end. I think it’s important to not throw everything someone made onto the album. I came up in an era where it took 10 years for people to hear my music. Just because I came up with the song doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good. I don’t try to force it.

AllHipHop.com: What didn’t make the cut?

El-P: There were songs that I started, wrote to, and things I had structured that I didn’t gravitate toward finishing. There were five or six unfinished tracks. With the new album, I put a lot of energy into these songs. Some of the music took two years to make. You’ve got to be choosy sometimes. I really like to take my time when I’m working on something. And I’ve got to go with my gut when choosing what to work on. There were songs that were left behind.

AllHipHop.com: Will any of those unfinished cuts ever be completed?

El-P: I might revisit those tracks that aren’t finished. They might end up on a random mixtape. I might even go back to them, take parts and create whole new songs. I like having those abilities in my arsenal. It’s like having a scrap book or journal. You might have incomplete thoughts about something and you don’t have the time to develop or remember them. But with a scrap book or journal you can go back and look.

AllHipHop.com: How did collaborations with the Mars Volta and Trent Reznor come about?

El-P: For some reason, I’ve gained an audience in the Rock world. I did a couple of remixes for Trent Reznor. I’ve done a bunch of things recently that don’t fit into the normal head of what I do. Guys like Reznor or the Mars Volta might look at me and say, “This cat isn’t in my world.” But at least they know my stuff and reach out to me. Outside of my normal production work and Hip-Hop, I will sometimes do other types of music quicker than Hip-Hop music. I’m doing Hip-Hop 24/7. If you’re going to pull me from working on my music, and the people I get down with, then it has to be something I can’t find, something that’s weird and outside the spectrum of what I do.

But with Reznor and the Mars Volta, I was making songs, and at certain points, usually toward the end, I thought it would be cool to have guys like Mars or Reznor sing here. I had already been working with them. The songs I had originally made existed before as themselves; they were complete songs before Mars and Reznor got on them. It wasn’t about a rap/Rock crossover record. It was just an extension of my Hip-Hop ethics and my sampling. For me, it made sense that I would do it. I’d never do it for the purposes of just collaborating. It wasn’t like I was creating something for Trent to get on. I just thought Trent would sound ill on it.

AllHipHop.com: Where does Mr. Dibbs fit in with the new album and what was your decision to include him in the production aspects?

El-P: He’s a fan. He actually has one of the most active subconsciouses of anyone I know. He kind of sleep walks, and has this reoccurring character that comes out; Captain Sandy Bacon. Every time he sleep walks, Captain Sandy Bacon comes out. Dib will put his arm up like a periscope, and with his eyes closed, will move his arm around like it’s scoping the room. He’ll say things like, “I’m Captain Sandy Bacon and you’re going to walk the plank.” But he’ll be asleep. Dib is just insane. But he’s also someone I met who I think is an amazing DJ. He’s a musician and a very creative cat. I like collaborating with DJs. I’ve always been a fan. They add something to what I do. I had him add scratches to the record. He’s my right-hand man. And he’s holding down the fort now as my official DJ.

AllHipHop.com: What are you most happy about with the new album?

El-P: I’m most happy about the fact that in all of this f**ked up, twisted and demented demonstration this album represents true grit, my s**tty of Brooklyn [sic]. There is not one lie or fabrication on the album. I put everything I had into it for better or for worse.

AllHipHop.com: What should people expect with the new album?

El-P: I’m in an interesting position. My fans expect nothing less than completely reworking and challenging everything people think about it is what I do. The one thing my fans expect from me is to not do exactly what I did last time. Though, there are other people who want nothing but what they heard last time. I know my fans are some freaky motherf**kers who hold me to a different standard. They expect that I don’t bulls**t. That I really go all out and that I make something to the best of my ability. All results aside, when you hear this record, my fans will know the motherf**ker who made it put everything into it and didn’t mess around.

AllHipHop.com: There are a couple of reviews that compare you to Public Enemy’s former production team The Bomb Squad. What does that mean to you?

El-P: Basically, it means I’m noisy. Of course I’m hugely influenced by the Bomb Squad. When you listen to my album, you’re hearing the sirens, car alarms and babies screaming; the noises I hear everyday walking through Brooklyn. I just incorporated it into my music. I leave it to others for gentle or soft music. That’s not what I do. My music is an emergency vehicle barreling down the street … and I might hit your child. And I’ve kind of accepted that.

AllHipHop.com: There is a picture of Puffy and you on your blog. And you also mentioned you handed him a copy of your album. Is there any chance of an El-P/Puffy collaboration?

El-P: Who the f**k knows? I would suspect that would never happen. I thought that was a great moment and pretty hilarious. Puffy is a nice guy. We were basically in Brooklyn rehearsing. Puffy was there every day in the same studio. And we’d been wondering all week why all these people were hanging around the studio. And it finally dawned on us that Puffy was there. We made a decision that we weren’t going to leave without getting a picture with us. At the end of the week, we asked him, and he was cool about it. He was a very nice guy.

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