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?
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.
MT: It'd be great if that record could come out on some badass Detroit rap record label, right? Oh, wait ... we don't have one. All this talent and no Detroit-based outlet. What gives?
Elzhi: It would take strong sense of unity and understanding of people knowing how to play their position. Everybody wants to be the man. But you can't have total unity and want to be the man at the same time.
MT: So Detroit rap's more competitive than it is collaborative?
Elzhi: In a way, yeah. I'm not saying hip-hop artists in Detroit don't collaborate, they do. Elmatic is collaboration. The problem is that everyone wants to be the man. And they want to become the man before someone else can. And not everyone is going to be the man. There's a lot of unresolved problems in the Detroit hip-hop community because of that. If people would stop looking out only for themselves and would come together as a whole, then we could move as a unit. That'd be a real force. Serious.
MT: You take more than a few jabs at the recording industry on Elmatic. Where's that relationship at right now?
Elzhi: I'll say this: I think everything happens for a reason. Things I might've looked at as being negative are actually things that helped bring about positive outcomes. That's the way I'm looking at that relationship right now. I'm feeling great. No frustrations, nothing. I feel at ease. I feel that there's been a rebirth.
MT: Illmatic, in large part, is a testament to New York City. Elmatic feels distinctly Detroit. Was that intentional?
Elzhi: Nah, that's just something I can't escape. Detroit's where I'm from. Even if I leave Michigan, I rep Michigan. When I'm not in Detroit, I'm repping Detroit. When I slip a Detroit reference into a verse, that's just coming out naturally. That's just me, man.
MT: You rap about some pretty personal stuff on this record. Death, cancer, personal letdowns. Is there anything too private to rap about?
Elzhi: I don't really think there is, but check this out: I had a concept for a song called "Black Cloud." I was writing this song recently. The concept for the song is that everywhere I go there's this black cloud following me around. It follows me into the gym, it's in the shower with me — it's crazy. The day after I wrote the song was one of the worst days I ever had. Words are powerful things. If very real emotions are behind the words, I think they can manifest things. So, if there's something I won't rap about or don't address, it's only because I don't underestimate the power of those words.
MT: Is there a spiritual connection there?
Elzhi: I'm moved to rap about something that happened to me, I'm going to rap about it because music is therapy. It's all about getting all those negative and stressful things out of your body and mind. You put that personal stuff down on paper, then you put it on a track, and when you play the track back, that's the medicine.
Download Elmatic and track Elzhi's summer schedule at elzhi.com.