El-P Doesn’t Want You Prank Calling His Sister

Photo courtesy of Biz 3

“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.

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