Hip-hop is back. After a long drought of creativity and substance, hip-hop has begun to re-establish itself as a true art form – a sound mosaic of beat and rhyme.

There is no greater proof of the genre’s resurgence than Elzhi’s solo debut, The Preface, which finds the Slum Village MC stepping up his game with innovative concepts and clever punch lines on every track. Recently, Elzhi spoke with Format about the state of the music industry, the importance of creating from the heart, and how this album marks the beginning of a new era for both himself and the Slum.

“We don’t got big buildings like Capitol or Def Jam and stuff like that, the way LA or New York has and so we feel like we gotta do 120 percent to get our name out there and get the word out.”

Format: You’ve been in the game for a while now – first as a solo artist and then with Slum Village – but this is your first solo album. What was your motivation behind the album?
Elzhi: The motivation was going on tour with a couple of my friends, and I took a tour CD with me called the Euro Pass. On the road, you know, I’m saying like at the shows, I wasn’t able to sell the CDs like that. I guess people just like to buy t-shirts or whatever when they’re at shows. But I was able to sell it to this one place in Germany and it was like a mom and pop store, and what they did was they put it online, and it spread like wildfire. So I ended up getting a buzz back on the Internet through the Euro Pass. That was really the inspiration to make this record. I went into the studio, it took like two and a half to three weeks to do it, and just basically I got my buzz back and I had to do this record. And that’s how The Preface came about.

Format: About the Euro Pass –a few months ago, LA Weekly called it “the best rap album of the year thus far.” Did you feel any pressure to really deliver with The Preface after such high praise?
Elzhi: Nah, not really, ‘cause I mean I’m always trying to outdo myself anyway, you know what I’m saying? I’m always trying to make sure my album sounds better than the last one I put out; the goal is to make something classic. The Euro Pass was just songs I put together and arranged so that one song sounded good after the other. With The Preface, that was really me in the mindset of doing an album. When it a lot of praise like that I was like, “Wow, that’s what’s up,” you know what I’m saying, ‘cause the Euro Pass wasn’t even really an album. So I didn’t really feel any pressure, I just went in there and did me.

Format: So what’s the difference between doing a Slum track and doing a solo joint? Is there another side of you that you need to express?
Elzhi: I wanted to be the one to basically go off the vibe, go off the style, and add to what they did – not overdo nothing or anything like that. Slum isn’t really known for their heavy concepts, so there is a difference. I’m known to get a little more personal than Slum, I’m known to get a little more technical with the lyrics and I’m known to come up with the concepts that are a little different than what Slum comes with. I’m glad that I put this album out and I’m glad that T-3 is putting his album out later this year. By people listening to what I can do and listening to what T can do… maybe we can incorporate what we do on the solo hand and put it inside the new Slum record.

Format: Speaking of concepts, can you talk about some of the concepts behind songs on the album? Like “Colors,” for instance, is really interesting conceptually…
Elzhi: Yeah, see like I’ve said before, when it comes to rhymes, I’m more like a scientist. I create formulas for myself – it goes beyond patterns, it also leaks into concepts. I haven’t figured out a name for it yet, but I feel like songs like “Colors” and “Guessing Game” are concepts that I feel have never ever been done in hip-hop (and that’s in my opinion).

So it went beyond the word “Colors,” and it was just something that kind of happened. I was writing something and I ended up saying “red-handed” and I ended up saying “blue jeans” and I’m like, “Wait a minute, how many words in here already got colors in them?” Like “Blackberry,” “Bluetooth” and I’m like, “Damn, let me go ahead and build off of this concept.” So I thought about the song “Colors” by Ice-T and I was basically on some street shit. I wanted to create short stories that use these colors incorporated in the rhymes. I am real big on doing things that no one else has done.

Format: In the past you’ve described your rhymes as patterns. Could you elaborate on this and describe your writing style in the studio?
Elzhi: In the studio, there are so many different ways I write. I write in the booth and I might scat on the track and come up with a style. I might already have a rhyme written. I might write a whole song in the studio, like, come with nothing and leave with a whole song. It’s many different ways, man.

As far as my rhyme scheme, it goes beyond just the patterns – it can go with the style too. Because when it comes to beats, you got certain cats that rhyme the same way over every beat. That ain’t me. I come from an era where if the beat is telling you to do something, that’s what you do. So if the drums are hitting a certain kind of way, then that’s how I’m gonna flow on the track. If the beat is constantly changing my vocal tone to blend in with how the beat sounds, then that’s what I’m gonna do. So, there’s many ways that I approach the rhymes and create the song.

Format: How would you describe hip-hop culture in Detroit?
Elzhi: We true to the art. As far as hip-hop – like underground hip-hop culture – I mean, shit, we put 120 percent into everything we do. But the thing is, we feel like we have to do that because we don’t have outlets to put our music out. We don’t got big buildings like Capitol or Def Jam and stuff like that, the way LA or New York has and so we feel like we gotta do 120 percent to get our name out there and get the word out.

“I come from an era where if the beat is telling you to do something, that’s what you do.”

Format: Black Milk produced nearly your entire album and it features that soulful quality that a lot of your music is known for. Would you ever consider working with other producers who would give you different types of beats?
Elzhi: Man, I’m always open to work with different producers. If the beat is crazy, it don’t matter where it’s coming from. It can come from Just Blaze, it can come from Madlib and it can come from some upcoming artist. As long as the beat is crazy, I’m with it – it really don’t even matter. I’m trying to add to the legacy of good music, that’s it.

Format: Who are some of the people you’d like to work with, then?
Elzhi: Oh man – Just Blaze, Madlib…I still like what Pharrell and the Neptunes do. If you got that shit, I’m trying to work with you.

Format: On the intro to The Preface, you talk about being tired of “that bullshit on the radio” – what is your opinion of the mainstream scene right now?
Elzhi: The industry itself is looking for cookie-cutter artists. Like, if one person made a certain kind of hit, then that’s the kind of artist they looking for. Okay, if he made a hit, then I’m looking for an artist just like him, but just a little different. ‘Cause, I mean, it’s all about a dollar now. When I think about Marvin Gaye and when I think about Stevie Wonder doing their thing – even back in the day with Mary J. Blige and them – I mean, you can feel them coming from their heart and soul, you know what I’m saying? It’s all about a dollar and it’s even reflected in R&B now. I’m not saying all of it is bullshit, but the majority of it is.

“It’s all about a dollar, and it’s even reflected in R&B now. I’m not saying all of it is bullshit, but the majority of it is.”

Format: Is there anything out there that you’ve been feeling? What’ve you been spinning lately?
Elzhi: Man, I’ve been spinning that new Coldplay album. I think this is one of their most experimental albums to date, I’ve definitely been feeling that. I’ve been feeling the new Radiohead album. Of course, I’ve been feeling that Guilty Simpson and shit. So yeah, man, I’m open.

Format: Is anything happening with Slum in the near future?
Elzhi: Yeah, look for the new Slum album early next year, and we also got Baatin back on this new album too. We’re not really trying to take it back though; we’re always trying to evolve. But we’re really happy to have his presence on this record, so really be on the lookout for this.

Format: You’ve always been regarded as one of the most thought-provoking and intelligent lyricists. When people listen to your music, what do you hope they take away from it?
Elzhi: First of all, I hope it inspires people in whatever they do. If I’m eating a great meal that was prepared at an incredible restaurant, that inspires me to write. So I hope that when I drop music and people listen to it, it inspires them to do great things. And also, I would want them to take away from it that I put my heart and soul into it. I just want to contribute to the culture.

Format: Any final thoughts?
Elzhi: Yeah, as far as this being the tip of the iceberg, I got something else that I’m putting out in December. As well as me and DJ House Shoes have a mixtape coming out called Elmatic, and it’s a tribute to the classic record Illmatic that Nas did. I got a lot of records coming out – we’re just going to keep creating to stay alive. I want to thank all of the people that support me, that listen to me, and understand what I do fully. I appreciate all that, and there is just much, much more to come.

Yang-Yi Goh

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  1. It’s been a while since a rapper of substance, like tupac or nas, has come up on the scene but this elzhi interview def caught my attention. will be listening to his album for sure!

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