Elucid “I never sang in a choir. I never did any of that. I just wanted to be around the equipment.”

Photo: David Evan McDowell

I was also surprised to not see Brother Hall’s name anywhere in the credits. I was going to ask what he’s been up to lately, but obviously he lives here — he let me in — so was there any particular reason he didn’t produce anything on here?

Well, he did “Skinny Luther.” Brother Hall is me and him. We did a bunch of other songs that are more in the vein of “Skinny Luther,” and that doesn’t really fit the album. “Skinny Luther” is just a bonus track. “Wake Up Dead Man” closes the vinyl. He [also] did the drums on “Lest They Forget.” When I started really getting into the production on this record, I was just like, “I don’t need many hands in this, let me just do this.” But there is an EP coming, a Brother Hall EP all along the vibes of “Skinny Luther.”

I wanted to ask you about a few samples that I thought maybe I caught, but I don’t know. Is “If You Say So” a further slowed down version of Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” which you rapped over on Smash & Grab?

Nah, that’s an old gospel record: The Rance Allen Group.

Alright, if I got that one wrong, there’s no way I got this other one right, but are the drums on “A 1000 Faces” from Robbie Robertson?

Mm-mm, another gospel record: Andraé Crouch. Gospel dudes have all the best musicians.

You used to record in the back of the church. Were you involved in gospel music as a child?

No, I was never a player. I never sang in a choir. I never did any of that. I just wanted to be around the equipment.

You once told me you mostly listen to music via mixes. What were you talking about?

You know, the internet, Soundcloud, YouTube, just shuffle culture. I’ll put on [for example] Leaders of the New School’s T.I.M.E. album, get through an hour of that, the next hour might be Boogiemonsters, then go to another weird rap album. It’s just constant. I’ll go on Soundcloud, follow some weird European Blackest Ever Black record label or the L.I.E.S. group, who makes some of the best techno in New York City right now, and they’ll just play a two-hour mix they did in Berlin [of] crazy techno shit, and I’ll have no idea what I just heard, but it was really fucking cool. That’s the kind of shit that I’m into. I don’t really care sometimes what I’m listening to, but rather what am I getting out of it? Do I feel this?

That’s cool too, because if you wanted to stretch the idea, it’s kind of like the way you’re living right now. You’re not taking possession of the music. You see what I’m saying?

Sure, it’s not mine. I like that feeling a lot. I’ve done mixes like Osage before.

Right, before For Madmen Only, you released The Kingdom. You’ve got the Bird Eat Snake / The Love Offering and were on The Underbelly with Concrete Sound System.

Yeah, and people act like it’s a new thing, but I’ve always done them. I haven’t played The Underbelly joint in a long time.

I hadn’t heard it until I was preparing for this interview.

Weird shit, but really cool. At that time, I’d never done anything like that. If I was working with anyone on stage, it’d be traditional like a DJ. Here’s a motherfucker with drum machines, computers, weird toys that they built in their fucking workshop — it was wild, yo — live dubbing, old vintage space echo machines.

What can you tell me about Osage, as well as these other mixes, specifically regarding your approach to writing and sequencing them vs. your albums?

It’s done quick and fast. That record was done during that fake blizzard we had when everything shut down for three or four days. I just woke up one morning: can’t go nowhere, train’s shut down, nothing’s happening in East New York, probably went and had a bodega sandwich for breakfast, came back, drank a bunch of coffee, made the beats first. Literally, how you hear Osage is how the beats were made, one after the other. When I sit down and make beats, I make a batch and string them to each other. And that’s what happened. Later on, I just sat down, had some raps and that was it, a real simple process. And once I had enough raps, it was like, “Let’s fill it out. Hmmm, woods would sound dope here.”

There’s also the poetry reading.

Funny enough, the poem we did was by Warsan Shire, who’s responsible for the Lemonade shit, but I was onto Warsan Shire way back. In the MySpace era, she hit me up like, “Yo, I love ‘Cut You Down.’” It was fucking weird. She was like 17 years old.

Are you serious?

I swear to you. If I could pull up my MySpace page right now, I would.

What about the equipment used for your mixes vs. the album? Is it the same stuff?

Same shit: I got a little mixing board, a bullshit drum machine, that synth you saw upstairs; it all goes into this motherfucker [the interface], this goes into here [the computer], it records everything, I listen to it here [the monitors].

What’s your sampler like?

It’s like an 80s sampler. I can only play with one sound at a time.

Five-second loops?

The thing maybe has only 20 seconds, but I have a bank of 10 different sounds that I toggle through, and everything really gets built in Garage Band, just one sound at a time. So [if] I’m doing drums, alright, here’s a kick drum: “dum … dum-dum … dum … dum-dum” for three minutes. Let’s go back: add a snare, add a hi-hat, add samples. It’s very textured. That’s why the album sounds the way it does. Nothing was quantized. Everything was off tempo, you know what I mean? Shit’s off but on, because it’s all just human.

Despite having done tracks like “Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone” and earlier, “Mozambique,” (by Steel Tipped Dove) and “B.E.T.,” I was really surprised by the post-punk vibes on Save Yourself. I guess Osage threw me a curveball, because I was expecting to hear more of this dubbed out sound and then it had faster tempos than I expected. What was your first exposure to punk like?

I [was] grown, in my early 20s. There was this Albanian kid from the Bronx, and he played in a band. They played a bunch of bullshit places, but they got a chance to play CBGBs right before it closed. That guy introduced me to punk, and we’d be in the back of a weird fucking bar in the Bronx. I’m the only black dude there in a bar full of Albanian hardcore and punk dudes, and it was fucking nuts! Beer everywhere, tattoos, the boots, some people had the hair, and loud fucking music, people fighting, moshpits: that was all new to me.

How did you come to the realization that it connected with the funk music you used to hear your father play?

Just listening to it more, getting into bands like Public Image Limited. It’s funny, when you mention the dub shit with the post-punk shit, all those dudes had reggae basses. I could hear the bass lines were so thick and heavy. Just having a record player — that’s another part [of my recording process] — you’ll slow everything down just because you have the option. It sounds very funky, and you could chop some things. The tone is already there.

When I played the album for a friend of mine, he was really feeling it, but then he was very disturbed by the noise at the beginning of “If You Say So.” I think he might’ve thought there was something wrong with the audio file, which reminded me of how I felt the first time I saw you perform live, with Concrete Sound System.

That’s where I got that shit from, man.

So what’s your attraction to noise and what was the significance of including that sound where you included it on the album?

I think it’s funny to fuck with people. You hear me kind of chuckling in the background. That happened by accident at first. It was a computer glitch. I was recording vocals, and then the vocals stopped recording, but it had this [noise] and sounded really ill. It reminded me of Atari Teenage Riot, digital hardcore, and I was like, “Hmmm I could use that.” Then one day I was going through the songs and thought this would sound cool opening the song just to kind of fuck with people, but it also goes back to something that I talk about with a lot of people: music fans today, in New York City or wherever, it’s passive. People will come to your show and [just stand there], and it’s so wack. People won’t even bob their heads.

I love when I’m doing my little stupid two-step at a show and somebody looks at me like, “Why are you bumping into me?”

Right, get involved, bob your head, do a two-step, shout, whatever, you know? Don’t fucking stand there like, “Entertain me.” I think maybe because it’s New York City and half the people at shows are artists [or are] trying to be artists, they think they’re better at what you do.

That shouldn’t preclude it. If anything, that should make people more supportive.

Yeah, you should understand what I’m trying to do up here. So it’s part of that, and it’s just like, it’s too comfortable in here. Let’s make it a little uncomfortable. I like those tones and those sounds, and they’ve been in my music. I owe [Cult Favorite producer] A.M. Breakups credit for that. He was one of the first people to hear me messing around and say I could make something out of it. Save Yourself displays it the most, but in the future you’ll definitely hear a lot more of that.

Were you thinking about the idea of comfort when you decided to place it at the start of a song that comes right after the Ta-Nehisi Coates sample?

It all just made perfect sense. In the sound of that Ta-Nehisi Coates piece, the music underneath is already kind of noisy itself. He’s talking about income inequality, wealth inequality, and it’s sliding into “If You Say So,” which is largely about gentrification. It’s just social tumult.

So, don’t get comfortable.

A lot of shit’s changing, you know what I mean? You can’t afford to be comfortable.

Talk a little bit, if you would, about the influence of free jazz on your music.

[Noise and free jazz are] so, so close, and people don’t really see that connection. It’s obvious to me though when I hear it. Politically, when you look at free jazz and look at the years when a lot of those [seminal] records came out, it’s the Civil Rights movement, post-Civil Rights movement. And think about the artists making those records: these are Afrocentric black folk in the ghettos. Bed Stuy was actually a recognized national center for one political movement in New York, and also for jazz music. Even today, spots like Weeksville Heritage Center [and] a place called The East that’s no longer there anymore; there were tons of free-jazz albums made there with political intentions, just reflecting the unrest that was happening in this country and this city, so free jazz and politics have always been linked up. In a way, when I’m talking about certain things like gentrification, or anytime I go into something a little political, it kind of matches the sound. In this record, the free jazz and the noise are definitely big influences. “Wake Up Dead Man” was some jazz shit.

And no he didn’t take a selfie” is one of my favorite lines on this album. That’s kind of the opposite effect of what I was saying about turning a phrase from physical to metaphysical. Here, you’re talking about a skeleton, a fucking pirate, I don’t know, some crazy shit and then, “no he didn’t take a selfie.”

I mean, that’s a story about the slave trade. Here’s another Beyonce connection: In Lemonade, there are repeated references to Oshun and this movie called Daughters of the Dust. It was done in 1991 by this woman, Julie Dash, and I was into that shit way back. There’s a Julie Dash interview we actually used for the song “Marooned” on Armand Hammer’s Half Measures. The story is a myth, but it’s a great fucking myth to me. She’s talking about these slaves who were so [of the mindset that] “You’re not going to do this to us,” that they jumped overboard the ships, and they sank to the bottom of the ocean and developed gills and learned to breathe underwater and were communing with Mermaids; this whole Afrofuturist sort of a thing. Drexciya, the Afrofuturist techno group from Detroit, based their whole shit around this mythology, just black folks that jumped off the ship and continued living, but underwater. We fucking mutated. Saying, “Slaveship suicide jumper with eight fingers / and no he didn’t take a selfie,” I’m thinking about old shit and new shit at the same time.

This morning I got the announcement about the new Lessondary album, so I was happy to see that you’re on several of the tracks. For someone such as myself who’s not familiar with the crew, which Lessondary projects would you include if you were to make a select discography?

You should definitely check out Tanya Morgan’s Sunlighting [and] Spec Boogie aka Rob Cave’s Introspective. It’s cool to see this actually happen. We’ve been recording over the past seven or eight years, probably even longer, and it’s just been compiled. We’re going to link up later this month in Philly and shoot three videos, take a bunch of photos. All these guys were on the internet early, and that’s how a lot of them met. I met Von Pea and was kind of put into this network of cats. [They] showed me how to put music online [and] actually make money online for real. Do you know Tanya Morgan’s story?

They met online through OkayPlayer, right?

Yeah, making records through file exchange on AIM and getting Questlove’s thumbs up and backing.

I wanted to ask about a couple other influences. I think it was before our Armand Hammer interview that you told me you had gone through a period of listening to a lot of Tragedy Khadafi. And then recently I saw you Tweet, “If yall can rap like Crunchy Black, I can rap like 60 Second Assassin.” So talk about those artists.

60 Second Assassin’s flow was so wild, you’d just be like, “What the fuck, that didn’t rhyme!” Cats want to talk about swag and personality-driven rhymes — that dude had it. Him and ODB had it. No one touched them. And that thing about Crunchy Black, everyone’s doing that triplet [flow]. I hated Three Six Mafia. I still don’t like those guys. I was always a Wu-Tang kid, but yeah, 60 Second Assassin’s the man.

Tragedy Khadafi? Forget it, man. “T.O.N.Y.” is a Capone-N-Noreaga song, but everyone knows Tragedy put those guys together. He’s the brains behind that. An original rap futurist, he might’ve been the first rapper I heard mention the internet and definitely the first rapper I heard talk about the Matrix.

Thug Matrix.

Straight up. Again, Hotep, There was always this conscious angle to it, which at the time was still conspiracy, but now it’s here. He and C-N-N were rapping about the Iran Contra crisis, and people wanted to deny it forever, but in the past two years the CIA’s been like, “Yeah, we did it.” He was on it.

So what were you listening to in terms of rap during the making of Save Yourself?

I don’t remember listening to a lot of rap. I remember To Pimp A Butterfly came out. I dug that for a little while. A Future record came out, Dirty Sprite 2. I was into that.

The people at Tiny Mix Tapes love them some Future.

I wrote “Wake Up Dead Man” the night I heard Dirty Spite 2.

Wow, I guess I’ve got to reevaluate Future.

Yo, I’m telling you, give it a go, man. Future’s great. He’s the saddest robot ever. It’s so interesting to me how he can be 1) so blatant with his drug use; 2) so honest about “I’m so sad, I hate where I’m at with life,” and have it be a pop song. How does that work? How does someone rap with such negativity and be the star of the show, and perform it with a smile?

Before we end this, I wanted to ask about a few of my favorite older songs of yours: “Mollywhop,” “Together,” “Biltmore,” “Don’t Drink the Water,” and the Armand Hammer track “Cloisters.” What can you share about any of those?

I haven’t heard all of them in a while. “Cloisters” is one of my favorite Armand Hammer songs. We’ve never performed it live, and it’s got a cool Pattie Smith vocal sample that I did. Messiah Musik did that beat. “Together” I really loved. That was my first time writing double-time, triple-time kind of bars. The “Biltmore” was a dancehall reggae club in Flatbush in the 80s and 90s. I remember that Small Pro gave me that beat and I just styled on it. “Don’t Drink the Water”: How relevant is that? Obama’s actually drinking the water in Flint, saying it’s safe if you’re over 6 years old. Why over 6 years old? I guess it’s because your body’s still developing. I don’t know. That one came from this movie Gasland. Again, the Gods were right: they been poisoning the fucking water and no one knew it. We think Flint, but that shit is so much more widespread than what’s reported.

Well, it also veers into nutso conspiracy shit, the whole fluoride thing. Fluoride is for your fucking teeth, man. They’re not killing you with fluoride. There are so many easier ways to kill you than with fluoride.

That’s the thing with these conspiracy theories. It starts making up these irrational answers.

And it’s much like religion in that same way, when you start to go down that path of, “OK, now I can connect this!”

Right, everything starts to connect. Sense from nonsense, I’m interested in.

What about “Mollywhop”?

No knock no knock, Mollywhop a nigga head again.” I kind of ran with a Gil Scott Heron thing from, “No knock on my brother’s head/ No knock on my sister’s head.” I’ve got to listen to that one again. I don’t really listen to my music once it’s out.

What about when you’re making records? Do you not go back and listen to your older records for reference, like “What did I do here?”

Uhn-uhn, I think it’s really weird for me to do that.

Do you listen to them a lot while you make them then?

That’s the reason why I can’t listen to it after. It’s constantly on loop. To write a song, a beat might be on a loop for three hours. It plays 200 fucking times and then I go in to record. I guess for the record, it was really a quick recording: one or two takes max, finished.

But it was written over a period of years, right?

In a sense. When I split from my girlfriend, months went by, not a song was written, nothing. Time accumulates. The record itself was actually put together really quickly. “Can’t Keep It To Myself,” “Blame the Devil,” “No Grand Agenda” and “Son Still Shine” were the only records done on Save Yourself before I moved that August. Everything else was done in the year’s time, and there were more tracks that we just didn’t put out, so it was put together pretty quickly. I think I recorded something like 25, 26 songs and we nailed it down to [18].

I heard a Charlie Parker quote; he was like, “If you’re doing it more than two times, you’re now doing a whole different song. You’ve lost whatever inspiration you had when you wrote it. You should just quit, just leave it.” That shit’s pretty powerful to me. There is something about going in, knowing what you want to do and just really fucking doing it, just being honest and trusting in that attempt that it was real, it was honest, and that was the feeling you were trying to connect with.

So far, is 2016 a year that asks questions or a year that gives answers?

2016 has been giving a lot of answers. 2016 has unveiled things that were thought about and questioned in 2015, and now it’s a reality. On the love angle, leaving my ex, meeting someone in September and just like, “We want to do this, we want to do that,” and it happened. We’re going to South Africa. We’re in love. I wasn’t looking for that, but it’s happened already. I quit a job I hated, [I landed a new job that’s more aligned with my long-term goals] and I love it. That shit was thought about, was meditated upon, and it’s happening right now, so that’s cool. Who knows what the rest of 2016 holds?

Anything else you want to share about Save Yourself that we haven’t touched on here?

I want people to enjoy the record in its fullness. Like I made Osage to be listened to in one sitting, I wish people devoted 43, 44 minutes to just sit down with Save Yourself, because it kind of loops up too, the arc of it. Just give it some attention. I’m really proud of this record.

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