In 1992, rapper/producer El-P founded the dissonant and innovative group Company Flow. They used words too big to fit between the bars of their verses and spent a lot of time incorporating elements of Philip K. Dick’s dystopian science fiction wherever they could. They also claimed to be “independent as fuck.” This was a daring move at a time when the hip-hop industry was mostly dominated by major labels. After the group disbanded, El-P founded the experimental rap label Definitive Jux in 1999. It was a hub for rap’s outsiders for 11 years, until he closed its doors last year to focus on his own career. Now, artists who would have found themselves at home on the label are adrift, left to define their own idiosyncratic personalities without a built-in support network, much like El-P in the early ’90s. He might have been ahead of the curve before, but a new generation of rappers, raised on Def Jux and armed with the internet are catching up. El-P welcomes their arrival.
New York was the center of the rap world for so long, and then it wasn’t. Are we experiencing a shift? New York got its due for so fucking long that it needed to go elsewhere for a while. It’s a really cool time. I’m excited to do music again. I feel like I have a new lease on it. I think that coming out of that Def Jux thing, I didn’t know what the result would be, but I knew that I felt in my own gut that it was not time to do that anymore, and that it had maybe outworn its usefulness for anybody. If it were five years ago, these dudes like Das Racist and Danny Brown [who is from Detroit] and Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire, they’d be on Def Jux. There’s part of me—not all of me—that feels like in some way Def Jux needed to die in order for music like this stuff to happen, in the sense that when you have something that happens to represent all of that to people, it can be dismissed in one stroke. Someone can be like, I’m over Def Jux, but it’s a lot harder to ignore individuals than it is to ignore what’s perceived as a movement.
Why do you think rappers from all over are adopting Company Flow’s “independent as fuck” ethos? At the time, it was a crazy thing to say. Like, Oh those wacky kids, they don’t give a shit about anyone! That [mentality] has become really pervasive throughout the industry and has become necessary. For the first time in a long while, I’m not an authority. I don’t want to be an authority. I don’t want to be the representation of anything. I don’t want to represent a scene. I don’t want to represent an idea. Ideas change, you know? I’m having a really good time just being a rapper and a producer. That’s all I’m offering, and it seems like all signs are pointing to that being the correct decision. I’m fucking a lot happier, I’ll tell you that much.
Does the public embrace of that DIY ethic open the door for weirder dudes to get mainstream attention? It’s hard to tell. I think people are just vibing off characters again. For a long time everyone started coming from the left and the right into the center, becoming this hum of two or three different signifiers. You’ve got this type of dude and this type of dude, and they’re all competing for the gangster, the hustler or the artist. Maybe I’m simplifying it. I just think people are hungry again for some surprises.
Now that you’re focusing on your own career, do you feel you’re better able to facilitate that kind of innovation? I’ve spent ten years trying to nail down this idea, and then I had to lose it to actually do it. I can point to the things I’m doing now and say, This is what I mean. It’s not a front to anybody, and it’s not a fuck you to anybody. That’s a big part of it, too. Maybe I spent too much time saying, “fuck you.” I don’t think it’s necessary all the time.
It seems like everyone is saying “fuck you” right now. There are certain institutions that need to be told “fuck you.” That’s not what I’m talking about. Growing up, I felt instinctively that the way I wanted to be involved in music was by contributing and not just by doing a reasonable facsimile of it. I always wanted to be somebody who could be looked at as genuinely contributing, even if it’s not your thing. I mean, look, I’m not the center of anything.My relationship to what’s going on is really simple. I’m excited. I like seeing people do well. Instead of asking for help, I gave help, and that was really fulfilling for a long time. That never changed in me, but now I’m free to do it without pretense, without any other reason than it’s just satisfying.