Words by Paul Thompson.
If you’re wondering where Elzhi has been, wonder no more. The underground legend has been locked away in Los Angeles, putting the finishing touches on his next record—and this time, he wants the fans involved.
For the follow-up to 2008’s The Preface (and 2011’s acclaimed ELmatic mixtape), El and his burgeoning indie label Glow 365 have tapped into Kickstarter to help finalize the album and a tour in its support. There’s a little over a week in the campaign; to read a list of prizes and donate, click here.
I hopped on the phone with the Detroit native to talk about the new record, his hometown, and Quentin Tarantino.
Great to have you, El. Can you talk a little about Glow 365 and how the Kickstarter campaign came to be?
Glow 365 is the label that me and my partner Jae Barber—who’s also my manager—put together. It’s our independent label. We looked at Kickstarter as being an outlet to get the word out there that we’re putting out an album, as well as getting the fans involved who want to hear some authentic music that’s not watered down, and give them an experience and allow them to be a part of something that we feel is a great movement.
How’s the fan reaction been so far?
Man, the support has been incredible. We appreciate everybody who’s becoming a part of it. Their voice is being heard. They’re spreading the word across the internet, so we couldn’t ask for anything more.
Some of the incentives are crazy: studio visits, shoutouts on the album, and a lot more. How did you guys come up with all of those?
We were just thinking [about] what would get us excited if we wanted to be a part of something. We were just thinking ‘what would we appreciate if Prince had a Kickstarter?’
Obviously, the upside of doing it independently is that you retain all your creative control. But was there ever a point in your career when you felt signing to a major was the way to go?
Yeah, but that was many years ago. The internet has worked wonders with artists such as myself. It’s been proven that artists who want to put out their own music can make their own movement. They don’t need a major. I’ve been seeing that happen for at least four or five years now, and ever since I’ve seen it happen I’ve always wanted to have my own. When I got with Jae Barber, that’s what we used to talk about all the time, and now we’re making it happen.
How do you see Glow 365 changing as time goes on?
First, we have to get my project out there, and then there are a lot of other things we’ve got to handle after that. But then, you know, sky’s the limit. I definitely want to help out some of my Detroit brothers and people out there who have talent. Because now, in Detroit, we don’t have any majors and there’s not that many independents out there, either. So I would love to sign somebody out there who has talent, but there’s a lot that needs to be done before we do that.
Detroit is always in the news now. You’re someone who’s really in tune with the communities and the people who actually live there. How is Detroit different now from, say, ten years ago?
It’s just gotten worse, man. As far as the police stations, you know, they close at a certain time. Somebody might break in your house and you call the cops and they don’t get there for three hours or whatever. It’s just messed up all around. And it’s been messed up for a minute, but it’s just got worse. That’s all I can say about that.
Looking forward at the new album—how would you describe the direction? How does it feel?
Let me just put it this way, dawg: I’m real excited about the project. It just feels good. Every song, I look at it like a chapter in a book. The book is the album, but each song lays its own part. I’m not saying that it’s a concept album like that, but every song has its place. I’m extremely excited.
While you’re making this record, what are you listening to? What inspires you creatively?
All types of things, man. I’m at the museums checking out art pieces. I’m at the movie theatre looking at Tarantino flicks. I’m playing GTA. Even going back to, like, Paid In Full, J Dilla—as well as some of my previous recordings. On top of that, I’m listening to thousands of beats, being really picky with what I choose. There’s a lot that goes into the making of the new album for me.
[As for older rap,] one of my favorite records is [Ice Cube’s] Death Certificate. Don’t get me wrong, Amerikkka’s Most Wanted is dope, but the way he put Death Certificate together is crazy. That’s an incredible concept album. That’s definitely one of my favorites.
I think that Tarantino comparison is pretty apt; as a rapper, you’re also an artist who takes forms or content that traditionalists might write off as lowbrow, but you make something incisive and real. What’s your favorite Tarantino flick?
I mean, Pulp Fiction is a classic. I loved Django, but you know Reservoir Dogs is sick. He’s just got mad flicks I love. It’s the way they’re shot, the dialogue, and how he puts his own spin on different genres. I like how Tim Burton works, too. He’s the man. He definitely captures my imagination and makes me want to take me writing to a whole other level.
On the note of putting your spin on other genres, if you take a record like The Preface, you’re covering a lot of different bases: personal songs, love songs, conceptual tracks, even songs based entirely on wordplay. What dictates your direction on each song?
Sometimes I might just be enjoying life, doing my thing, and something will just pop in my head. If that happens, I try to find a beat to match that concept. Other times, I listen to what the beat is telling me. When I wrote “D.E.M.O.N.S.”, I listened to the beat [by Black Milk] and it told me to write that. So I laid that and had Black Milk come in and listen to it, and he was buggin’. I’m like ‘what you buggin’ for?’ And he pulled out the jacket of the record he sampled and it had a demon on the cover. So I just listen to what the beat say.
That’s crazy, to think there’s something so universal just in the instrumental. That kind of intangible appeal is important though—you might not even hit top 40 radio in America, but you can go play sold out shows in Europe.
Ah, man, I love Europe. Shoutout to Europe. They’ve been holding me down for real—ever since Welcome To Detroit. We plan on going back. I can’t say when, but it’ll definitely be in the new year.
Speaking of Dilla, do you have any memories of him that the fans may be missing out on?
He was just a cool dude. He was the first person to give me a check to do what I love. That says it all—he took someone like me, from the D trying to get on, and he saw that I had talent, put me on a record, and paid me for it. That just says a lot about his character. On top of that, he was the coolest dude ever. For those reading this who don’t know, he was one of the best ever on the beats.
How’s it different writing entirely original material from writing Elmatic, where you were fitting your rhymes within the framework of the Nas songs?
It’s not really all that different. You’ve got to get into your zone and find your rhythm. Wherever your focus is at, everything will follow. If you’re focused on something and you’ve got yourself going, you can direct yourself wherever. When I did Elmatic, it was like ‘I’m trying to pay homage, to make sure I do the album justice’. It wasn’t really hard. And now, I’m just focusing on making great songs. It’s all about where your focus is.
One other thing about Elmatic—I talked to Masta Ace last week, and he singled out that record as one of his favorites from the last decade.
Ah, man, Masta Ace? That’s mad dope. With me, man, that means a lot. I came up off of Ace and the whole Juice Crew. For him to give me that nod, that’s big to me.
When can we expect the album?
We’re looking to drop it some time in April.
Help make that happen by contributing here.