Star Detroit emcee Elzhi tackles his own nostalgia and creates an ear-bending homage to Nas' Illmatic
Published: June 1, 2011
Elzhi: My take is that there's nothing new under the sun. How things are in the streets in Detroit are the same now as they were in the early '90s, man.
MT: From Belgium to London to Italy, it seems that European hip-hop fans can't get enough of what's happening on the streets of Detroit, eh?
Elzhi: I think they recognize what's going on here, musically and otherwise. J Dilla put a stamp on things over there. His influence is simply incredible. Cats are inspired to make beats that sound like Dilla, cats throw tributes to Dilla all the time, from Miami to Paris. People are connecting with that Motown sound. What we're doing in Detroit right now is a rebirth of that sound in hip-hop form. We're speaking about the struggles of coming up in everyday, working-class life. They can connect with that.
MT: Well, they're connecting with Elmatic. There are different stories about how the project was born ...
Elzhi: Yeah. [laughs] I actually remember. Somehow. It was three years ago. We were in the hotel room in Berlin. It was me, Phat Kat, DJ Dez and DJ HouseShoes. HouseShoes passes me the blunt and ...
MT: Once the smoke cleared, when did you decide to make the idea real?
Elzhi: As soon as we got back to the states. The first track I got going was "Genesis," and shortly after that I had rhymes ready for "The World is Yours." Then I went on tour with Black Milk for a while. When I came back, I worked on a couple more joints. It went on like that for a little bit. This is all right after my record The Preface came out.
MT: If you had put out another record after The Preface, with all original beats, we could only compare it to your past records. But Elmatic comes with the added pressure of having to honor the original. Did you feel any extra pressure?
Elzhi: You know, I really didn't. I wasn't trying to outdo the original. I came into this project as a fan first. Elmatic is me paying an homage. I wasn't worried about backlash, because I feel that the record we made has our own spins and twists. When people hear it, they get it. It's an Elzhi record and a Nas tribute.
MT: The reviews have been good, but there are haters, right?
Elzhi: There's always going to be haters, man. In this business, you just can't escape that.
MT: The record premiered on rap magazine XXL's website and has been available for download on your homepage. How do you gauge the success of a record you've been working on for three years and released for free on the Web?
Elzhi: Well, the concept for the record is three years old, but when Will Sessions and I got into the studio to record the album, it only took a month and a half to finish. As far as its success, that's all due to people like Jae Barber and the JAE B group who've gotten it out there for everybody to hear. The last I checked, over a week ago, we had over 90,000 downloads.
MT: When you usually make a record, I'm guessing you audition beats from various producers and compile enough for an album, right? But with Elmatic you tapped multi-instrumentalist and producer Sam Beaubien and his band Will Sessions to re-create and rework the Illmatic beats. Was the process insanely different for this record?
Elzhi: It's only a little different. Will Sessions used instruments but recorded them separately and pieced it all together like a hip-hop record. What was most different for me was that I was involved in the process of making the music. Normally, I might get a beat CD or I'll go to the studio to hear someone's beats. Working with Sam, he'd play me a track or a part of the track that he was working on and I might be like, "I like it, but I think it might be missing a little something right there." We'd discuss it a little bit and he'd add a touch of something. And we'd listen to it again. In this process, I actually felt like I was part of making the music. I liked that.
MT: What was the biggest obstacle in making this record?
Elzhi: I wanted to keep the project under wraps for as long as I could and I wanted to keep it a secret that I was working with Will Sessions to do the live instruments. I didn't want that out there until we put it out because everybody who thought I was doing this project — or eventually heard I was doing this project — was thinking I was going to rap over instrumentals. I didn't want to lose the surprise that we remade the record. That secret was hard to keep.
MT: You have some live shows coming up with Will Sessions, re-creating Elmatic live. Is performing with a live band new to you? If not, do you prefer it over the classic emcee-DJ combo?
Elzhi: I performed with live bands with Slum Village and I just got back from playing with a live band overseas at a Dilla tribute with Phat Kat, Frank n Dank and Illa J. Here's what I think: Both the live band and the DJ are great options for any rapper to have. A lot of rappers don't even have a DJ. But I think you can do more with a live band. You can change up certain songs, improvise and take it to the next level. Of course, if you have a band and a DJ, you got it all.
MT: Would you revisit the live-music model to making a record?
Elzhi: I would definitely revisit the idea, but I think it'd have to be done in a totally different, only because I always want each one of my albums to be totally separate from anything else I've done. The next is always new.
MT: Is there a next record on the horizon?
Elzhi: I'm in the beginning stages of getting songs together for a record I'm planning on putting that out later this year. I'm really going to try and make it a masterpiece. That's the goal. That's what I'm going for. That's all I can really say. Whoever's hip to my music, whoever's out there that likes what I do, I'm going to try to give them my masterpiece.
> Email Travis R. Wright