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El-P Explains What Makes His New York Special

The Run the Jewels producer talks growing up in N.Y.C., processing America’s pain with Killer Mike, and how his listening habits have evolved over the years.

July 21, 2016

El-P, one half of rap duo Run the Jewels with Killer Mike, recently announced a collaboration with Sonos via a video in which he talks about his soundtrack to New York City. On Tuesday, El-P was at the opening of the new Sonos flagship store in SoHo, and spent most of his time in one of the building's seven listening rooms playing demos for anyone who walked in. Dressed in head-to-toe black, he kept on a cool pair of matching black Ray Bans even in the dim lighting. He later joked it was to hide his raging hangover from watching the Republican National Convention the night before. Before lunch, he took a few minutes out to chat candidly about his childhood, the beauty of hip-hop, and what’s next for Run the Jewels.

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In the video you made with Sonos you mentioned you were an "angry child" and that music helped you when you were younger. What were the experiences that shaped you to become the musician you are?

I think any teenager, any single parent household teenager growing up in New York City, will probably go through tumultuous years. I definitely did. It all sort of righted itself once I definitively got on the path of being a musician, or like following that directly. You know, I was kicked out of high school, and I was just acting up, basically. And it was quickly obvious that it was mostly just about the fact that I wasn't doing what I wanted to do. So I ended up going to musical engineering school instead of finishing high school. All of a sudden I was happy and I was like, "Oh shit, I'm actually in the field I want to be in." And quickly I started utilizing writing as a way to get all this shit out and as a way to focus myself. I always liked the idea that you can put something in you onto a canvas or a piece of paper and have it exist there and not inside you. It's a way to control things. Similar to the way the city is constantly making noise and there's a siren in the distance or someone yelling or a dog barks or a car stops, and it all sort of ends up in my music. I think it's this weird way of trying to control the chaos.

In a way, it's like your music is painting a landscape of New York. Can you detail what your New York looks like?

You know, I'm not even sure any more. My New York, the one I identify with as a kid, has greatly changed. And I'm sure the people who were adults when I was a kid probably felt the same way. New York is just an energy. There's a beauty to the way it's laid out, the architecture, the way the planning is. It's huge but you really do get to experience more than your own existence here. It's kinda hard to isolate yourself from different types of people, different types of ideas or communities. One block is one way and the other block is the next and you walk through multiple economic realities and multiple ideas in terms of design and approach to living. I think growing up here as a kid you're used to being bombarded constantly by all these things and it all sort of turns into one thing. And it's all a little weird when you travel elsewhere and you realize that's not the way it is in the rest of the world. And that's a cool aspect and I really like that.

“New York is just an energy.”

So how did hip-hop fit into that when you were growing up — was it a medium to express that energy?

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I mean, that was just what I liked. Just as a kid it was just the shit that I liked. I was its fan, and that's what was happening at the time. And I was listening to Run DMC and I was listening to the Fat Boys and The Clash and Prince and LL Cool J. So for me it just made sense. And when I was growing up here, people were actually walking around with boom boxes like the cliche you hear about New York that doesn't actually exist anymore. So it was just coming out of everywhere and it was rare, there wasn't that much of it. So when you heard it, it was like this amazing thing. It's not like it is now; you knew if a new record came out. It was like you felt it in the universe, like, "Oh shit, a new rap record is out." So it just got me as a kid and it was something I did for fun. It's not like I was like, "I gotta find a way to express my angst." I was like 10 years old like, "This shit sounds great!"

You touch on some political issues with Killer Mike for Run the Jewels.

We also try and make dick jokes. As much as we can.

Can you speak on the recent events in America: the gun violence and police brutality? How has that affected you and your community of music makers?

It's tough sometimes; it's emotional. Me and Mike are very close and we've been just as wrapped up as everybody else with what's been going on. And it's been interesting to be confronted with it so obviously. These are issues that have been plaguing our country for a long time and it seems to be coming to a boiling point. I don't know what to say except that I think there are bad men in charge. And I think they're gonna have to get out one way or another. I don't think our generation is having it. They aren't the sentiments that we grew up with. This is not the dream that we have. I don't think that our generation is ultimately going to allow it or we're gonna be crushed by the iron boot, honestly. And if it has to be like this, then we're in for a big fight. It's a little dark but that's how I feel about it.

“You know, me and Mike, for us, Run the Jewels is about a friendship. Even us just joking around, we feel it is — in these times — somewhat of a healing gesture.”

A lot of people see music, especially hip-hop, as a way to channel a lot of that energy and anger. How important is hip-hop as an art form at containing these messages?

I think that a lot of people look towards rap music, hip-hop music, to say something. And that's cool, I get it. But how come people don't look to pop music or rock music? I think it's because rap music is traditionally the voice of minority communities. That's where it comes from and those are traditionally the people that even care to say something about the condition of what they're going through. No one else seems to give a fuck. But it shouldn't be. People should be free to make whatever music they want and for oppression to not have to play a factor in their creative process. But, oppression is here and it does and I think that it's everyone's choice on how they want to deal with that. You know, me and Mike, for us, Run the Jewels is about a friendship. Even us just joking around, we feel it is — in these times — somewhat of a healing gesture. You've got a black guy and a white guy who are friends, who are making stuff together. Sometimes we will say things that reflect all of this bullshit, and sometimes we'll just joke around with each other because it's about humanity.

How have your listening habits evolved over the years? What do you look for in a track today that you might not have when you were younger?

It shifts, especially because I'm a producer. I tune into different things at different times. Sometimes I'm really caught by a rhythm section and I sort of seek that out, and then I'll have these long periods of times where I really seek out records that have heavy rhythm sections, heavy drums, heavy bass. And then I'll drift away from that and then I'll kind of go for something melodic. When you do music for a living, you're kind of constantly searching through it and listening to it and letting it wash over you a bit. Cause you have to. Not only because it's what you love but because you're searching for something and there's inspiration out there. The best way to make some thing is to devour that art form. It's easy to think sometimes for professionals, once they start doing the thing they love as a kid, to stop loving it as a kid because it's a job now. It's easy to get into that trap so I just try to make sure that I use music recreationally.

Finally, what can we look forward to from Run the Jewels?

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We're doing Run the Jewels 3 right now. We're seeing the light at the end of the tunnel with the album. We're hoping to get it out this year; probably won't be this year but we're working constantly on it. And that's really all I'm thinking about right now, honestly. Once that's done, I don't know, I'll be 72 and I will have to just reconsider everything, I'm sure.