Brother El - The King of 43rd
I found that not only was he a unique and compelling MC, but he also produces all of his own music and successfully self-released his debut album on his own label, The Beat Bank. El came up in the streets of South Chicago, but he blends those inherent street-wise textures with intellectual theories and creative goals developed as a student of Anthropology at Loyola University. Loyola is also where he first made a lasting impact on Chicago hip-hop by creating the first hip-hop show at the school's prevalent radio station WLUW. El founded the show to help local artists. 30 minutes of instrumentals started each show because 'hip-hop cats are always trying to freestyle, so we help them. They can tape the show and practice over the first thirty minutes...' Then 30 minutes of Chicago hip-hop is featured at the end of the show.
The only thing that has in any way stopped this young hip-hop producer is the very thing that makes him so interesting. His innovations bridge categories, and when it comes to marketing hip-hop sometimes it's best to be able to put 'artist a' into 'slot b' and then go sell a million copies. El's compositions render any traditional marketing formula obsolete. Making Brother El's road even more difficult is his unmistakable autonomy and determination to do everything on his own terms.
After many more long conversations with Mr. El, I wanted to share his ideas and goals with others. So the following is an excerpt from a conversation/interview we had, one cold January morning. He had just completed his fantastic new album All Dressed Up With No Place To Go and as the title alludes, he's currently figuring out what to do with it. It's worth noting that when I arrived at his house at 10:30 AM, El sounded a bit tired. The first thing I asked is if I woke him... he set me straight, "no I haven't been to sleep yet..."
Better Propaganda's Justin Sinkovich talks to Brother El
Better Propaganda: So you did everything to release your debut album right?
Brother El: We did everything man, see, it's funny because the reason I first knew we would like each other is because you and I both believe in knowing how to do everything.
BP: the question becomes though, can you actually physical do it all with the time you have? Luckily you don't sleep much.
E: I respect a person that can do it all, not necessarily want to, but can. The fact that if I can't do certain things, I can't write an affective letter, I'm not good at selling my own product, that could really set me back. I wouldn't be in the same place that I am, not necessarily that I'm in a great place but as far as finishing projects and getting it out to the world. I've set goals so I can surpass them and that's because I did most of it myself, myself and Charles Cain. We did everything. Right now Charles has a different life he has to deal with right now, taking care of his family, totally understandable. Everything I do I'm going to include him because he was down from day one.
BP: How do you envision the next record going down, as far as what you're going to do with it? It seems that you're going to put it out yourself.
E: If the distribution works out the way I want, I'm going to go full force with that, myself and some people, a publicist, and some people who will work with me and what I have in hopes of a greater pay-off. I don't necessarily want to work with people who are just now getting into it, because we're a little bit more advanced than that, but I want to work with people who know what the game is, who see the potential in the project, and get in where they fit in and feel like they can be a part of it. I want to be able to pass the baton and they can take it to the next level. The plan is to go with a distribution company and give them a list of instructions, the plan is to have more leeway that average, where they just get the product and try to sell it. I'm want to make it a little more complicated than that, there is no such thing as a standard deal. I'm trying to stick with that and do something a little more non-traditional and that's what's been holding me up a little bit more. A lot of people will take the album, press up some copies and put it in some stores.
Everything I have done has led up to this point. I've dealt with all of these people who have made it to the next level, I didn't go that route the first time. But it seems like it's heading that way this time, where I will use some of those connections for the new record.
BP: It seems like you've built a foundation and now you're poised to jump off from there. What do think from you DJ'ing college radio, you said some bigger labels that aren't sure how to market your records. Who do you think your music talks to? In your own mind since you've had to market your own records, who are going to buy the next record, do you think?
E: I feel like each audience can get something different from it and it's all up to the individual. Someone who listens to top 40 could enjoy the record if they got it, they just don't have it. I didn't particularly make it so that this guy has to be a hip dude to listen to brother el, I didn't make it like that.
Really I made the record to be interactive. So I made certain things open so it could grab you and so you can be a part of it and add your own piece to it. It's a weird concept, and not many people grasp it. I left it open so that you can add shit with your brain; add things that really aren't there. I'm not going to say exactly how I did it or I'll be giving my secrets away [laughter]. I did that so people can be a part of it. I don't want it to be a one-sided thing where you just receive, and the next level of that is some of the topics. But it goes further than that into the structure of how I designed the songs.
BP: so what you're telling me is that you have some structure where you want people to add their own interpretation?
E: Yeah, put their own stamp in it. That's one of the main reasons why I don't talk about anything like that. If someone is going to be involved with it, there has to be a message that we can be proud to be a part of. I'm not going put out something about slapping up bitches so you can be proud of being a part of slapping up bitches, that's not what I'm trying to do. I did lean heavy toward preaching though. Nobody wants to be told, everyone has their own understanding of how this world works.
BP: the song on the new album 'American Heritage', where did that song come from?
E: It started my graphic designer Andre cabonbon is in a band called American heritage, he designed the first album. I gave him what I wanted and he put his own twist on it, real fresh. American Heritage was putting together a CD, and I said let me give you a little intro or something. I started thinking of the structure and conversation I had with this guy and it became American Heritage. It was instrumental so I started thinking about words, and about the band and what they saw in American Heritage. I saw something totally different from what they said and what they were doing. I didn't say anything because I didn't want to kill the song; I just wanted to make it breathe. They had an interesting concept, saying they were basically a collage of what's going on in America.
BP: I've heard a rock band called American Heritage, heavy and mathy, we used to rehearse next to each other and then we played a show together once.
E: Yeah, that's the one.
BP: That's really weird, that's the first thing that came to my mind was that band when I heard the song, that's why I asked… That's interesting that you're working with those guys, that seems 180 from what you do.
E: That's Brother El, I'm really not stuck up on style. It's all about music, I'm working with hip-hop right now, and I love hip-hop. But I'm really about music. People don't allow you the space to go from this genre to this genre; people don't think you're affective like that.
Back to American Heritage, I started thinking about this guy's art style, and how he superimposes images to make one thing look like something it's really not. Those are straight-up weeds on the cover of the debut album. They look like flowers, but they are straight up weeds. That's the beauty of it; those are all God's things. And that was the whole concept of the first album 'through cracks of concrete' from something rough becomes something beautiful.
BP: so using the weeds tie into the title?
E: Normally flowers don't grow through the cracks, weeds grow through the cracks. But it's beautiful in it's own right as a living thing, it can be appreciated in the aesthetic of life. I leave my interpretations open to interpretations though, I don't' want to lead you too much because that takes away your attachment to the song. And then again, it's art so really what you think is as good as what I think. What I say isn't necessarily right. We both use language and the way you interpret these words could be right as well. And just because I come up with that, doesn't qualify me more. People think because they come up with something.
E: The greatest inspiration comes from when I'm outside. I writing the best songs when I'm writing, I think it's the adrenaline. I'll go for a nice long walk and come up with what I think are the most marvelous ideas.
BP: there's a lot of that imagery in your records, it's a reoccurring theme.
E: you mean taking a walk?
BP: you seem to talk a lot about this neighborhood and what's going on around it.
E: I just like to be out. I appreciate nature, not more than anyone else. I'm not a naturalist. I do believe there are certain things we can do, I do believe in if you put out negative energy it will come back to you. So I'm very careful in the way I do things, especially with music and the way I do business.