Star Detroit emcee Elzhi tackles his own nostalgia and creates an ear-bending homage to Nas' Illmatic
Published: June 1, 2011
About three years ago, four guys from Detroit were passing a blunt around a Berlin hotel room in ceremonial fashion.
Dez Andres (Humberto Hernandez), Phat Kat (Ronnie Cash), HouseShoes (Michael Buchanan) and Elzhi (Jason Powers) — Detroit hip-hop hierarchy — tour regularly abroad. As do Guilty Simpson, Black Milk and anyone else within one-degree of the late-great producer J Dilla in that camp. But the latter guys were not in the room that night.
The DJ and producer HouseShoes drew deep off the weed wrap. Seconds later, a cumulonimbus of smoke escaped from his mouth. He looked at Elzhi, handed him the smokestack, and said something to the effect of "Man, I just had a crazy thought. Check it: What if you redid Nas' Illmatic but called it Elmatic. Get it? Illmatic. Elmatic. Elzhi. That'd be dope."
Was this a kind of stoned brilliance? Or a fleeting idea that dissipated with the smoke that produced it?
The idea lingered in Elzhi's head: Illmatic, Nas' life-changing 1994 debut, was the record that compelled him to forge a path as rapper.
Like, if you will, a painter attempting a Van Gogh stroke for stroke but with a different color palette, when Elzhi got back to Detroit, he started to rewrite a record that The Source, Time, Rolling Stone and Spin all hailed as an instantaneous classic — and one that has stood the test of time.
Working on lyrics when he could, one-time Slum Village man Elzhi tapped Sam Beaubien, who leads the funk and jazz outfit Will Sessions, to rework the beats organically, with live instruments. He did not want to make a cover record.
See, covers are taboo in rap. While note-for-note renditions and creative reinterpretations of other artists' work is common practice in jazz, folk and rock 'n' roll, it's oddly looked down upon in hip hop. A rapper might get called out as a "biter" for "biting another rapper's shit" or, depending on the degree of misogynistic homophobia or eroticism, "riding another rapper's dick."
Elmatic, made in just six weeks, is not a cover record.
It's some sort of a meta-tribute. The beats and choruses are nostalgically familiar but sound fresh. Some of Elzhi's rhymes allude to Nas', and he plays with his distinct syncopation, but, lyrically, Elzhi's verses are original, personal and local.
... Out here with the dealers pumpin'/ the killers dumpin'/ dead bodies in Lake Michigan/ they shake fishermen/ pimps turn into pastors to fake bishops in the churches ...
Released on May 10, by the time this story hits the streets, Elmatic will be have downloaded, entirely for free, on more than 100,000 hard drives around the world.
Having just landed back in Detroit from yet another European excursion, and just hours from his first-ever live rehearsal with Will Sessions, Elzhi sat down to unwrap Elmatic:
Metro Times: Nas' 1994 debut Illmatic was an instant classic. Where were you when it came out?
Elzhi: I was a young boy who was way into hip-hop. I was listening to Rakim, Organized Confusion, Big Daddy Kane, you name it. But Illmatic was the first album that touched me and made me want to take this music thing to the next level. I first heard Nas on the Main Source album [Breaking Atoms, 1991] that had "Live at the Barbecue" on it. I thought that song was dope. Then I saw the Zebrahead soundtrack had the "Halftime" joint on it, so I checked for that and thought it was really dope too. One day, I was up at the mall, at a store called TapeWorld, and spotted the Nas single for "It Ain't Hard to Tell." Bought it immediately. I took it back to the crib, popped it in and there it was, some of the best rap I'd ever heard. Nas is a poet, a true lyricist. When the full record came out, I had it immediately.
MT: Had you started rapping by then?
Elzhi: Man, I've been rapping since the age of 8. The first rap I wrote was inspired by my cousin, Chris Bud. He made this demo tape rapping over "Doowutchyalike" [Digital Underground, 1989]. It was fresh. I knew I wanted to do that. So, yeah, by the time Illmatic dropped, I was penning my own verses.
MT: What were you rapping about at 8 years old? Were you emulating what you were hearing on the radio and from your cousin? Struggles of elementary school?
Elzhi: I was influenced by the people I was around, the things I saw going on around me, the things I'd see my cousins do and talk about. I'd write raps about what I'd see and hear about going on in the neighborhood, kind of following NWA and Ice Cube's style.
MT: Storytelling. There's a lot of that on Illmatic too. Do you have a favorite track?
Elzhi: One of my favorite songs has always been "Life's a Bitch." I love that sample from the Gap Band's "Yearning for Your Love." I thought AZ killed it on the guest appearance too. And the song felt good. Even though they weren't rapping about things that were necessarily good — I mean, it's almost depressing — the song's still got a good vibe. I can ride with it.
MT: In turn, is your rendition, with Royce da 5'9 playing the role of AZ, your favorite cut off of Elmatic?
Elzhi: Honestly, my favorite from Elmatic is changing every day. But, yeah, the Royce joint has that same vibe to it. I guess you could say that "Life's a Bitch" and "Detroit State of Mind" are both up at the top right now.
MT: Looking at these records side-by-side, the musical likeness is obvious, but there are topical similarities as well. Both deal with the alluring and ugly sides of sex and drugs, as well as street violence and the struggles of being a full-time artist. There's 17 years between these records, but we're hearing about the same issues. What gives?
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