Black EL first got attention as a new wave of hip hop coming out of Boston a few years back. Sharing his work through sound cloud, there was a sense of DIY freedom in his tracks. Songs like Olde English 800, a delicious ode to teen life, developed into song like El El Cool Che and Getaway. His tracks continue to authentic, autobiographical and have a sensitivity that feels really fresh. Often working with producer Durkin, and now based in NYC, Black El this is hip hop at its most melodic, laid back and addictive.
How did you come up with the name Black El?
I was 14 when I came up with it and it originally was Black ELement claiming I was the 6th Element of hip hop. You have to understand though that this was the time of Outkast, The Roots, Mos Def, so black consciousness in rap was at a premium and I strived to be that whether it was through my words or my Pan-African wristband i used to rock.
I shortened it to just Black EL after college and I honestly was too lazy to come up with a new name because everyone was already calling me “EL”. All the name ideas I had sounded like old AIM screen names, but in retrospect I would of been way ahead of the name trend, but I digress. The name is one I’ve grown into over time, and was one of the rare times where teenage me got something right...so cheers to puberty.
What motivates you to make music?
I’ve always been someone who just has to express myself, and when I don’t I get severely depressed. Having ideas trapped in your own brain and suffocating under your own self doubt is the worst feeling for me. I truly don’t give a fuck about other people hearing or seeing my work, it’s about the initial release of leading my idea out of the maze that is my head.
I had about a year and a half where I just wasn’t making any music right after moving to NYC, because nothing felt right every time I laid something down. I was frustrated, became insecure with my voice and completely felt lost for awhile. Then began switching gears to learning animation, drawing and exploring other avenues of art. A lot of my close friends kept asking me “what’s going on with the music?”, “you stop making music?” and I always told them I’ll never stop I just didn’t have anything to say at the time. Now I finally feel like I’ve climbed out of that hole and am just having fun again.
You started in Boston - what was the scene like then when you emerged?
Honestly the early Boston music days were pretty trash until 2012, and that’s when the younger generation started coming up (Cousin Stizz, Michael Christmas). I did a lot of shows in Boston with Durkin from 2009 to 2011 and people were just hella weird. Artists had this “crab in the bucket” mentality, and everyone just wanted to collaborate without building any real working relationship or friendship. It was a tough era mentally to navigate, but it did give me a lot of personal insight.
After 2012, it set the foundation for where Boston music is right now which is a great place. The younger generation got it right, they uplifted each other and everyone is just experimenting doing different things without fear. Boston has a lot of talent, and the crazier thing is that I can go on Soundcloud right now and find some kid in Roxbury who I never heard of whose making something dope. The scene has come a long, long way and it’s evolved in a way a lot of people thought it never could.
How did you start making music?
I actually started out writing science fiction when I was 12 which flipped into poetry then into DJing finally rapping. I started using Magix Music Maker and Fruity Loops with this really shitty mic I bought from Guitar Center. It was a whole era of me just having fun and making music in my room in my parents house. I remember studying 3Stacks’ lyrics in the OutKast lyric books and just trying to understand his rhyme schemes.
My mom actually got me one turntable for Christmas because she thought paying for two was ridiculous...she held me down that Christmas though. I really sucked at scratching, she bought me Aquemini on vinyl as well...I played the shit out of that record and juggled the beats a bit while trying to rap to the beat. I never DJed outside of the house but I started to take rhyming more seriously and that's how it all began.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a project that I’ll be putting out sometime next year called “Reluctantly Player”. It’s focusing on the idea of “everyone wants love, but no one wants to work for it.” and it’s completely diving into past relationships, situationships and hook ups. I’m doing a lot more singing on this one, and getting out of my comfort zone because I’m way more than just a “rapper”.
I also co-founded Stokely Hi-Fi which is a Retro Futurism Comedy Collective. I’m Directing the visual aesthetic while collaborating with my friend/comedian/writer Teklai on the themes and subject matter. Tek’s taught me a lot about comedy which has in turn helped me with my writing process with music and it’s weird how similar they are. Working on visual and being the producer to Tek’s Rapper is a interesting dynamic that’s absolutely carried over in my new music.
What do you feel about NYC now you’re based there?
NYC is one big mirror, I’m constantly forced to look at myself, and bombarded with possible distractions or inspiration. The best and worst part of NYC is there’s always something going on, and those choices can be hella overwhelming if you let them. I feel blessed every single day that I’m here to be able to call this my home. I’m always surrounded by creative people or things, it’s a weird place that’s def helped me develop into a better human being.
A lot of your music can feel intimate - referencing your own youth or experience. What do you like about that?
Everything I speak about is through my own lens and if its not I don’t really want to say it. It’s therapy, it’s me putting something into the world that has my personal stamp on it. I don’t feel like the process of that is special, but the end result truly is. When I do fiction, I’ll just make a cartoon or a short film and that will be a whole other experience entirely.
What is informing your lyrics now?
My relationships and interactions with people, situations I’ve lived because in NYC it’s like you’re going to have something crazy happen to you or at least have a idea based on something you saw or a conversation you had. I’ve seen the worst and best in people over and over again because we’re constantly on top of each other in NYC, it’s like one giant social experiment. That’s basically the outline of how I’ve been thinking without giving away specifics.
Aliens are real, the world is a simulation, Sade is still a goddess and someone bring me some Malaysian food.
courtesy BLACK EL
interview FRANCESCA GAVIN
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