From his smooth, razor-sharp verses with Slum Village, Elzhi quickly established himself as an MC in the realest sense (and think about how many MCs can be smooth and razor-sharp at the same time – I’ll wait). Whether he’s dropping game to a lady or reminding you why his wit and wordplay is in another realm, Elzhi’s stayed Elzhi as he transitioned away from Slum to establish himself as a solo artist. When he reinvented Nas’s classic Illmatic as Elmatic, Elzhi proved to still be on the innovative tip, as he not only flipped songs that would be frightening to most, but he added a live band just to show off a little.
In 2016, Elzhi is still that same dude. Bars for days with that smooth-like-butter flow, but the artistic growth continues. With Lead Poison, an album that unfortunately took on a double-meaning once the Flint water crisis hit, Elzhi is an open book. From his battles with depression to his love life, nothing is off limits in what is his most personal album to date. I caught up with the Detroit legend to talk about the album, mental health and hip-hop, and much more.
Congratulations on Lead Poison dropping. Before we get into the album, in looking at the album title and how it plays off of the water crisis in Flint, as well as the presidential primaries, has this shown you anything new about human nature or confirmed what you already knew?
Learning about that upset me. Just knowing that it was people in power that knew that that was going on and just let it happen and just knowing that people are in those living conditions to where they’re getting sick and catching rashes and just not being able to bathe in clean water and drink clean water, I mean, that’s horrible. My heart goes out to those people and my prayers go out to them as well.
Have you been following the presidential primaries?
I don’t really get off into politics like that. But yeah, to be honest with you, I didn’t know that that was happening (Flint), especially around the time when I titled my album Lead Poison. Lead Poison came from a whole different definition. But when I heard the news, it was just tragic. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing or hearing. And somebody needs to be punished behind it, I feel.
Probably Rick Snyder, first and foremost, and probably the ball would roll down from there.
Even though you’re not from Flint, I assumed you were referencing the water crisis in the title.
What happened was we started gearing up for the campaign for the record, so we was talking about making the hashtag LeadPoison and then it kind of dawned on me. That’s when I started reading and getting up on the information that was happening in Flint. There was a bunch of different outlets speaking on lead poison and it just dawned on me. I don’t want people to get the wrong idea and I kind of felt like if I thought that, then other people might think that as well so I was trying to prepare myself when it came to interviews if somebody got it misconstrued. I really wanted to tell my story and talk about what was going on with me.
The album itself is a really complete presentation and it’s a rollercoaster of emotions. How much time and energy went into the sequencing of the album? Was that an intentional effect?
Well, it took a while because I wanted to have a perfect balance when I was telling my stories. I didn’t want it to be just dark. I wanted it to be playful with how I came across on the records. Picking the beats that I felt were right for the album, I wanted them to sound whimsical because I’m a huge fan of Tim Burton and I like how he tells his stories where they have, like, a deeper meaning than what you see on TV with the effects and the characters or whatever.
I kind of wanted to be playful in that way and as far as sequencing the record, I had a lot of inspiration from The Great Adventures of Slick Rick. I consider that to be a loose concept album and that was kind of my blueprint for how I put together the sequence and everyting of this album.
That’s awesome. This album took some time to get done, over a year to get everything perfect. At what point did you know Lead Poison was done?
When I basically said all that I could. When I basically got everything out of me. That’s when I knew it was finished. Like I say, it’s a lot of songs on the cutting room floor that is very dark. You know, I didn’t know how to be playful with the material. It took a while to get to that, but when I got to it, I was able to continue with the momentum and the consistency with keeping it at that pace and at that vibe. But it really was a lot of experimenting along the way.
It sounds like there’s a lot that didn’t make the album.
Yeah. There’s a bunch of tracks out there that didn’t make the album that’s on my hard drive. There’s a bunch of them.
Would you ever throw those out by themselves like Kendrick’s untitled unmastered?
I did something kind of like that with a project I did, Witness My Growth. I feel like if there was a demand for it like people were hitting him up for the material, then maybe. But who knows? They might surface. But as far as right now, I don’t have any intention of putting it out.
One element that really stands out on the album is your dialogue around your depression, which doesn’t happen much in music or society in general. How important was it to address depression in your music?
It was very important. I felt like I owed it to people who enjoy listening to my music that consider themselves fans of my music to know where I’m at in that moment in time in my life. I felt like it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t share that with them because I try to be as real as possible with everything that I write. That was one thing. But then, you know, me getting it out was an outlet for me. Writing was a way for me to take that out of my system and turn it into medicine for me. It helped me out in that way.
But then it’s great that it’s also opening up the dialogue for others to come out and talk about issues that they’re facing and at any time that you can talk about it or push it out through an outlet, it’s a great thing. You don’t ever want to bottle that energy or emotions inside of you because that’s when it becomes poison. Just opening up the dialogue and people feeling…when I did it, I just did it, but a lot of people consider me brave in stepping forward and talking about these things, but I’m just happy that people are joining in and maybe it can help somebody out.
Ron Artest has also done a lot of work for mental health dialogue. Do you see the discussion gathering more momentum and becoming more mainstream to where artists address mental health issues more?
I’m not sure. I know certain artists like Kendrick Lamar, Blu, there’s certain artists out there that actually put out material where they talk about going through different things and tackling issues or struggles. As far as the majority of artists that’s out there, I think because hip-hop is such a competitive genre of music, I think they focus more on talking about their triumphs and, you know, their capabilities or whatever, and that’s cool too.
I would want people to only talk about it if it was in their heart to do it and it was genuine. Like I say, man, you have a bunch of people that talk about that and you have people such as myself and a few others that talk about what we talk about but I feel like hip-hop should always have a balance in that way.
“Alienated” is a great listen, especially how you address insecurities and show who you are. Did you ever have second thoughts about releasing a song like that or worry that you were releasing too much of yourself to the listener?
Nah. I mean, at first I was like, and that was part of the hold up as far as putting together this album, because I was conflicted about sharing what I was going through because, you know, I just went through something that was traumatic for me and I didn’t want anybody to think that I was defeated. I just didn’t…if anything, I just wanted to come out and rise like the phoenix.
But once I started writing the music, you know, once again it was like it was me trying to find that balance. It was a lot of dark material that I was writing before I got to that point of writing about “Alienated,” but by that time, I was just committed to the fact of just pouring out what I needed to get out of me and then the record was done and it didn’t really matter who thought what about the track as far as if people thought I was vulnerable or whatever and looked at it like it was a bad thing. It was really just me getting that out and sharing a moment in my life that really happened.
You mentioned the competitive nature of hip-hop and “Egocentric” certainly fits that. How important was it to have a song like that on Lead Poison? Did it provide a balance that you were looking for?
I think it does serve as a balance. But you know, around that time, I had to keep my ego in check. The whole record is like real life issues. That was just me trying to be creative in how I wrote the song. But yeah, I had to keep my ego in check so it was very important for me to put that on there because one minute your ego can build you up and then tear you down the next minute. It’s very important to keep it in check.
“Misright” reminded me of some of GZA’s classic songs with the wordplay. How does a song like “Misright” come together?
Oh, man. It’s just one of those things, man, where you just kind of get into that zone and you let the music…I mean, every time I write I let the music tell me what to write. I don’t ever want to write against what the vibe is telling me to do. The topic of that was trying to find the right one and going out on these dates and clearly hanging out with somebody I shouldn’t be with so, you know, when you start talking about the behavior of these people, it started with Miss Chevious and you start thinking about playing with those words because the kind of artist I am and the kind of writer I am, I love to flip words and use words. It was just realizing instead of using names, I could talk about them by using these words.
Do you expect fans to get everything you say? Are you ever impressed when fans decode something?
Yeah, yeah. I get real stoked about it because I know that they’re listening. And nah, I’m not really worried or feel some kind of way if somebody don’t get it the first time or the second time. I think that’s cool when it comes to making albums. I mean, it’s cool if somebody gets a song for the first time. That’s cool. But it’s great when they love songs and there’s so much in one song that you can’t get everything the first time you hear it. And then it’s like the twentieth or thirtieth time that you’re finding something new that you didn’t peep out the fifteenth time you listened to it. I think it’s dope. Those are jewels. I think it keeps the album fresh and it adds longevity to it. But I definitely love when people crack the code or really listen to what I’m saying and really fully get it and understand it and show me that they did because it means they’re listening and that’s all I could ask for, that somebody’s listening and giving it a chance.
It varies. Sometimes I’ll write early in the morning when I wake up or write late at night or in the afternoon, just kind of walking around and trying to find pockets of energy. It could just come. It could just hit me. I could be walking somewhere and I might see a billboard or a picture of something and that might spark an idea and the next thing you know, I’m writing. I don’t really have a schedule or anything, but with me writing in my head, I can write at any time. It’s not like I carry a notebook around or be in my phone all the time. I just kind of write on the spot in my head and sometimes it’s fifteen minutes or it might be an hour. It varies.
Do you do a lot of revision once you finish a verse?
That varies too. Sometimes I’ll keep it how it is the first time. Sometimes I will go back and edit it and make it to where I feel like it’s perfect because sometimes I might just write just to write and then from there, I’ll touch up lines or take certain lines out and keep others in and add on to it. I’m always doing that.
You mentioned how fluid your writing process is. Is there a general time or place where you feel the creativity flows best?
It’s changed up because when I was working on the album, the late nights was perfect for me. For whatever reason, I was able to be in tune with my zone around that time. But now, early in the morning is great for me. I just, you know, take it how I can. I love the music so much that I might go to bed early just to wake up early to write.
Looking back, J Dilla was somebody who was so influential in your career. How do you remember him today?
Like I did when he was alive – legendary. We was rocking with Dilla in Detroit before the world knew who Dilla was. I was banging songs like “Mountaintop” and “Ooh Wee” and various other songs that I feel like the world don’t know about that they did, that Slum did, before Volume One came out. Where I’m from, everybody looked at Dilla like a legend and it’s the same today. Legendary status, like I mean, his influence on the game, I mean, you can just look at various interviews on YouTube and see the likes of Pharrell and Dr. Dre and Havoc and you name it, you could see a bunch of people talking about Dilla. His influence on the game was widespread and it still is.
Do you ever see yourself reinventing The Breakfast Club or ever wanting to be a part of another group again, or do you think the solo journey is what’s right for you right now?
Yeah, at this point in my life. I can’t say what I would feel like a few years from now, but as far as right now, man, there’s so much I want to do on the solo tip that I’m comfortable where I’m at right now.
Do you ever see yourself flipping another record the way you did with Illmatic when you made Elmatic?
Not right now. I mean, who knows in the future. But not right now. My focus is on putting out more albums, EPs, and mixtapes of original music.
What did it mean to you to have so many fans invest in your Kickstarter when you first announced this?
Man, it’s a blessing because I’m doing this by myself along with my manager. We got our own label, Glow365 and it’s just a blessing to have people get behind the music and support it. And I can’t thank them enough.
What does success look like for Lead Poison to you?
The fact that it’s out right now is a success for me. I mean, I can’t ask for anything more. If it gets bigger than that, then it’s great, But me finding an outlet for the problems that I’ve had and becoming better from it, that’s success in itself and if it helps somebody out, then that’s success for me as well. But anything else that comes along with it is just a bonus.