Elzhi Discusses Illmatic, ELmatic And "Verbal Intercourse Pt. 2"
Exclusive: Detroit's native son chats about his respect for Nasir Jones, his work on Elmatic, and if "Verbal Intercourse Pt. 2" put Slum Village in his crosshairs.
While the chapter of Elzhi's legacy within Slum Village came to a close in 2010, his work as a one-man act has yet to be written. However, this next frontier for the Detroit native is hardly a new path. Even before his inclusion on S.V.’s 2002 release Trinity (Past, Present & Future), Elzhi has steadily been padding his solo musical catalog, most recently with his widely-acclaimed debut album The Preface in 2008.
Now, 2011 brings the emcee’s journey to fruition with ELmatic, a remake of Nas’ 1994 Illmatic. True, other rappers may have done their own take on the groundbreaking album that turned Nasir Jones into a lyrical icon, but none have taken the route Elzhi does. With a live band at his mercy (in Will Sessions) and Midwest metaphors that find him at the top of his craft, Elzhi is hopeful his homage will give fans a reinvigorated love for Hip Hop.
Gearing up for the release of his much-anticipated project, Elzhi spoke with DX at length about the process behind its creation and why he felt no pressure remaking a classic album in 2011. Elzhi also explains what it’s like to be recognized for his skills, and whether or not the record “Verbal Intercourse Pt. 2” was in fact a diss toward his former recording partners.
HipHopDX: I hope I’m not stepping on any toes, but I gotta say it feels good to know we’ll be getting a real project from Elzhi this month and not something dipped in controversy like Villa Manifesto.
Elzhi: [Laughs], that’s what up man. It feels good to bring another project out; it’s been a few years. I just want to thank everybody that’s been holding me down through the years and anticipating the project.
DX: Yeah, ELmatic has been a project in the making for some time now. When you and DJ House Shoes initially bounced around the idea about two to three years ago, was there a certain direction you wanted to take this project? And if so, how has that idea changed from what fans will be receiving on May 10th?
Elzhi: The first initial idea to create the ELmatic project was to actually just rap to the instrumentals. And then what changed that was people coming out with their own tributes to Illmatic. So I was thinking we could twist it. So the next idea I had was to take certain producers that I respected and have them flip the beats to the samples that were on the original Illmatic, and flip them in a way where they were different. The only person that came with a beat to the table was Khrysis, so Khrysis was the only guy that had a beat for that particular project I was trying to do. I ended up recording “Detroit State Of Mind” to it, so it ended up being a remix for the ELmatic project. The next idea I had was to do it live, so I hooked up with Will Sessions and Will Sessions liked the idea and we just went into the studio and knocked it out.
DX: You mention Will Sessions, they’re a band out of Detroit that have worked with Black Milk, Guilty Simpson, and I know you’ve performed with them a bit. Tell me about their work with you, it seems like you guys have a really good chemistry from what you’ve put out so far.
Elzhi: With this particular project ELmatic, we both wanted to keep the essence of what Illmatic was about. So that was our focus the whole time, just keeping the focus of Illmatic as far as like the essence of it but creating a new twist to it. So we just went into the studio, got on the same page and everything ended up coming out spectacular.
DX: I enjoyed hearing those subtle, revised references you used on “Detroit State Of Mind.” Instead of E&J and Moët it’s Rosé; instead of ‘base heads selling broken amps’ it’s ‘crack heads slanging HDTV’s.’ Can we expect to hear similar undertones throughout ELmatic?
Elzhi: Yes. And that was another thing; I didn’t want to actually have the same kind of styles, but I did want to touch on certain lines and flip ‘em. I mean you’re gonna hear all types of undertones; you’re going to hear concepts being flipped. There’s a lot of stuff on there.
DX: For yourself, what do you remember from that April day in ‘94 when Illmatic dropped? Was there a certain buzz around D-Town at the time?
Elzhi: You know what, I can’t say if there was a buzz around D-Town, but I remember Nas going off on “Live At The Barbeque” on the Main Source album [Breaking Atoms]. And from there was I checking for him. Then he had the Zebrahead “Halftime” video that I had saw. So when I first got up on him, you know I got up on Nas through “Rap City” and all that, but when I first bought a Nas recording, it was “It Ain’t Hard To Tell,” and it was the cassette single. Without even hearing it I just bought it because I knew what kind of skills he had. Then when I popped it in he blew me away with me thinking what kind of level it would be on. And then when I got the album, I mean man, it was just classic. It just made me want to write better rhymes and inspired me to be a better emcee.
DX: Did you have a favorite cut off the album? Was there one that just particularly stuck out to you where you were like, “Man, that’s my joint”?
Elzhi: To me, that album was a straight-through banger. “Detroit State Of Mind” was one, and “Life’s A Bitch” was one. And “Represent” if I had to pick. But all of them were crazy to me.
DX: You’ve said before that ELmatic will be a way to provide new Hip Hop fans a way to discover Illmatic, as well as paying homage to Nas. But if I could play devil’s advocate real quick, what would you say to someone who feels interpolating another artists’ work, especially one of such great merit, is not progressive?
Elzhi: I mean, let’s just say somebody thought The Preface was a classic. And they came up on The Preface, so they decided to remake The Preface. I wouldn’t be upset about that at all. I would look at it like it was a tribute, and he was paying homage. But the thing is if you’re going to do something like this you gotta make sure you’re bringing it in your own way, because it’s such a classic album that you wanna make sure you’re giving it justice with your remake. When I approached ELmatic I made sure I put my little spin and my twist on what I do so the people that listen to me would appreciate it. But at the same time, if people didn’t hear me and all they know is Illmatic, when they hear the project they might end up looking at it like a totally different project, like a whole different album. I wanted to stay true with the references of Nas as far as like how I start off certain verses or the way I threw in “It’s like that, you know it’s like that” on “Halftime.” I wanted to make sure I had stuff that was familiar to them so they could get into it too. So I mean, it’s all about just doing justice to the project when you remake it.
DX: When you were in the studio was there any pressure you felt that maybe this had to be, well, not better than Illmatic but on par with it, otherwise people might feel let down?
Elzhi: There wasn’t any pressure in the studio. I’m basically coming from the point of view of anybody that liked Illmatic; I just so happen to rap. So I came from a fan’s point of view of like, okay, let me write the rhyme like this or let me flip the concept like this so people can appreciate it. But I never felt like I was in competition with the original album.
DX: You said you were planning on hitting the road following the release of ELmatic. Has a tour scheduled been finalized that fans can look forward to?
Elzhi: Naw, not yet. But as soon as we know we’re going to put it up on my website, which is Elzhi.com. So if you wanna know anything about tour dates or download the mixtape, you can get it from there. Anything that you want to know about me, you can get it from that spot.
DX: Alright. Now, from Witness My Growth to The Leftovers Unmixedtape, you’ve given out a lot of free music to the fans, and ELmatic will be the same. However, I’ve seen many comments on Twitter of people saying they’ll purchase your mixtape if it comes to that. What was decision behind putting this out for free?
Elzhi: For one, the reason why I wanted to put it out for free was because it originally did start off as a mixtape. For two, even though you have certain genres of music like jazz and R&B that do remakes, this is like the first remake that I know about in Hip Hop as far as how we approached it. But even though it sounds like a whole album, I still wanted to give people it for free as well because it was a remake. Like I say, a lot of people have been waiting on the project for like three years and anticipating it and even when I was gonna stop and just leave it alone, I would go online and just see people talking about it. I thought about those people, and I’m like, okay, I gotta give this out for free for that too.
DX: Taking it back a bit, on the process behind The Preface, do you feel like that came out the way you wanted it to? I know you spoke about reaching out to certain people during that three week period but they were unavailable.
Elzhi: As an artist you’re gonna always feel like, ‘Okay, I could have did this better, I could have mixed that better, I could have said that better.’ Speaking for me, I know that’s how I am. The Preface, that was a three week and a half span where we created it and finished it and I took the best beats at the time from Black Milk that was available to me. I don’t have any regrets on it, I think it’s a great piece of work. Like I said as an artist you always look back on things you feel like you could have did, like a certain line you wanted to say over, but I’m proud of that work.
DX: Now with ELmatic, you obviously had more time to work on it. Do you feel like this time around you had a better ability to fine tune your project?
Elzhi: Well it took three years to actually get this out to the people, but in this form of ELmatic, with the live musicians, with Will Sessions playing and all that, it only took like a month and a half to get that together. We were really diligent about it. Like every day we were staying up on it, Sam from Will Sessions was hitting me up and tweaking certain things. I feel like this is gonna be an elevation and a step up from The Preface, but that’s what I try to do every time I do a project or album. I try to outdo my last album or just recreate myself within the album to give people something new and fresh.
DX: You have Royce Da 5’9’’ on ELmatic, which I believe is the only featured verse on the project. I can already expect that to be the best cut seeing as how joint records like “Deadly Medley” and “Glow” were amazing.
Elzhi: Good looking, man. Yeah man, Royce came through and blessed it. He’s on “Life’s A Bitch” for those that don’t know, as well as Stokely [Williams] from Mint Condition. It’s definitely an incredible piece of work. Like I love all the records on ELmatic, but that’s definitely a standout right there. I think people are really gonna appreciate it.
DX: And plus you have The Chocolate Boy Wonder himself Pete Rock on there as well. I’m guessing he’s doing drops or breaks, what’s his involvement on the project?
Elzhi: He’s just a presence on the project, just letting people know he put his stamp of approval on the project, and he came through and showed me some love.
DX: I gotta ask this because it was sort of a talking point when it first came out. On “Verbal Intercourse Pt. 2,” you’re cautiously giving advice to aspiring artists as well as touching on the break-up between you and Slum Village. Some people thought it was initially a diss. Would that be true?
Elzhi: Naw, it’s not really a diss. I mean, if it was a diss I would have went way harder than that. It was just giving people my personal position and giving people my personal story of what I went through. And giving them an example of letting them know you need to watch the company you keep and also you need to watch your back in the music industry. And that you should go about handling those certain things properly. It was just a personal story of what I’ve been through.
DX: I’m sure it’s likely crossed your mind in the past year or so, but when you look back, and where you are right now, would it be fair to say that working as a solo artist will benefit you in the long run?
Elzhi: I don’t know, I can’t say man. But I’ll say that what I did with Slum Village, as far as the legacy of Slum Village, I’m all for the legacy, I’m all for reppin’ J Dilla, Baatin and what they represented. And as far as being a part of the legacy, I wouldn’t take that back for nothing. It was something that I truly appreciated, and I still do. I mean, I’m sitting up there with Dilla and Teezy. But I mean, I heard a lot of people saying that me being in the group might have held me back and I guess I don’t want people looking at it like that because my music is infinite, my mind state is infinite and I’m gonna keep elevating every time I do something. So, I feel like it was just a part of my journey to get to where I need to be, and I definitely plan on being a big solo artist. That was just a part of my story to get me to where I’m at right now. That’s how I look at it.
DX: Have you spoken with T3 since that conflict from last year?
DX: Okay, so your next project after ELmatic is your sophomore album The Feed. How far along have you gotten on that?
Elzhi: Well I’m always recording music, so I got an infinite amount of pieces but like I say I’m trying to make [The Feed] better than ELmatic. I got music in the vaults but I’m still looking for the right tracks, I still want the right concepts to be able to put together as a collective to call it an album. I’m in like the beginning stages right now.
DX: You’ve said before that possible producers for that album will be Mad Lib, 9th Wonder, Khrysis and obviously Black Milk. Is that still the case? Has anybody else been added to that line-up?
Elzhi: I talk to The Alchemist a lot, so I know Alchemist is down to put something on the album. I spoke with Phonte, and Phonte said he’s got my back on the feature side, so slowly but surely the album is coming together. But I don’t wanna rush it, I wanna make sure I got all the proper pieces and make sure it’s worthy for the fans to hear.
DX: You talk about paying homage to artists who did their thing back in the day, but I gotta say at this point you’re a veteran and I know there are probably artists out there that look to you the same way that you looked to Nas. I was just talking to Kid Vishis, Royce’s brother last week, and he was saying that one of the collaborations he’d really like to go down was between you and him.
Elzhi: That’s what up. Kid Vishis is my man too. And that’s a blessing, you know what I’m saying. It’s a blessing that people are opening their ears to me like that. It trips me out because this music stuff comes first. Like, if I was working at a regular job, I’d still be in the studio recording. The music, that’s what really comes firsts, and that’s what kind of bugs me out when certain people I respect in the game and been respecting for years, like Large Professor and Inspectah Deck, even Jazzy Jeff, just people reaching out to me and telling me that they like what I do, that shit is a blessing and I appreciate it. It’s like, that’s why I do music. Music is therapy and I write music when I want to get something off my chest. But in the end, I write it because I love it. And for people to look at that and appreciate that, I mean, that’s worth more than gold right there.