Not just anybody can approach a classic like Nas’ Illmatic. Not saying that Elzhi wouldn’t be just the right person to do so: he has earned his stripes as a veteran of the Detroit Hip Hop scene. As member of the indie institution Slum Village Elzhi has celebrated his greatest musical achievements until he left the group in 2010 due to a raging conflict between the former label and his new management. Which couldn’t put a stop to his productivity: His re-interpretation Elmatic alongside the band Will Sessions has been one of the most celebrated releases this year. Enough of a reason to embark on a extensive tour through Germany during which we were able to talk to Elzhi about his latest body of work.
What did Illmatic mean to you when it first came out?
Elzhi: It made me wanna step my game up as far as like creativity, concept and writing ability. Not only did the album have great production but Nas was very visual when it came down to explaining things and his surroundings. It just made me want to be that visual and paint pictures with my words.
Most people embraced your mixtape Elmatic. Some also said Illmatic is an untouchable album…
Elzhi: One of the biggest compliments I get is from people that tell me: »When I first heard what you are doing, I thought you can’t touch that. But when I listened to it I noticed that it was better than I thought.« That’s somebody coming with a previous notion before they even heard it. I guess people that just stick to this opinion never actually put their ear to the project.
When you thought about how to deliver your interpretation did you talk to Nas in advance?
Elzhi: Nah. I’m paying hommage. I never heard of anybody ask for permission to pay hommage. Another thing is: I didn’t even come up with the concept. My DJ, House Shoes, came up with this. He’s well respected in Detroit for helping acts get on, from Slum Village to Fat Cat as well as myself. I thought that it made sense because of how I felt about the album. And there’s a lot of cats in the industry that feel the same way. Kanye West, Game, Jay Electronica, you name it.
»I knew when I put it out there that it was gonna be new to people. But in that same respect it would get people talking and create an energy.« Did you get any feedback from Nas or anybody involved with the record?
Elzhi: Yeah, we sent him a copy personally. From what I was told everybody is loving it over there. I talk to Pete Rock all the time, he’s like one of my closest friends in the industry. I haven’t talked to Premo yet and I haven’t talked to Large Professor. But I hear he’s a fan of it and I recently saw something on Youtube where Premo was listening to it and gave his approval on it.
How did you end up doing the project with Will Sessions?
Elzhi: They play Funk music for like three hours at this event they do every month called »Motor City Funk Night« at the » The Majestic« in Detroit. They also play during the Detroit Electronic Music Festival and they’ve performed with Guilty Simpson, Fat Cat as well as myself. So when I thought about doing a live instrumentation for Elmatic, those were the dudes that I thought about first. I decided to go live because others had rapped over the instrumentals. And I called up the leader of the band, Sam. I gave him the idea, he thought it was great. Two or three weeks later we was at the studio doing our thing.
How was the recording process? Did you exchange ideas working on the music?
Elzhi: I let them start it off first. The first joint they played was Detroit State of Mind. I thought it was crazy. I gave them the idea to make the bassline change up in the middle of the verses. They did it, hit me up and sent it to me through email and that was even more crazy. It made me feel like I was part of the production side of things even though I don’t play an instrument. I gave my thoughts and we tried it out.
Was bringing back the »Golden Era« another one of your intentions?
Elzhi: When I heard House Shoes say that I should do Elmatic everything just popped off. A light bulb burst and it was just like »Wow, that was one of my favorite albums that helped me become a better MC and I know a lot of young people might not be up to it.« Another thing is: Hip Hop is not used to covers. There’s covers in every genre. I knew when I put it out there that it was gonna be new to people. But in that same respect it would get people talking and create an energy.
Do think there’s people out there who discovered Illmatic through Elmatic?
Elzhi: I know somebody personally. This young cat who is like 18 and has never heard Illmatic. And the only reason why he wanted to hear it was through Elmatic. There’s probably a lot of people that are the same way. That’s an accomplishment for me.
You are working on your new album right now. You are said to be collaborating with an »exciting roster of producers«. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Elzhi: No (laughs). I’m still in the stages of forming an album. I don’t wanna put something out there prematurely and none of the cuts make the album. I’m back and forth between LA and Detroit. Being in LA is a great move. That’s where entertainment is at and it allows me to connect with folks who I wouldn’t normally connect with. Honestly, I’m just listening to beats at the moment. Nothing else. I’m focussing on making sure to have something announced by the top of the year. There’s a lot of labels that are looking at me right now, from indies to majors. I can’t say if my next project is gonna be an album or a mixtape. I have to see what my situation is in as far as my deal goes.