Good music and perseverance have a way of working in unison and Elzhi (born Jason Powers) most recently utilized both with his dual comeback and breakout effort, Elmatic, a remodeled version of Nas; debut album, Illmatic. While it’s been done before, Elzhi was toying with the idea for some time and in his sit-down with The Smoking Section, he discusses the reasons for the delay, addition of the live band, Will Sessions — who produced the LP –and futures of his role in the rap world.
TSS: I see you took it upon yourself to pick up where Nasty Nas left off. What’s good with that?
Elzhi: Aw man, it’s just me paying homage and tribute to one of the better albums — in my opinion — to ever hit Hip-Hop. It inspired me to want to become a better MC.
TSS: You had to anticipate a little backlash on the initial unveiling of it all, though. Did you foresee that coming?
Elzhi: Nah, not really. I’m coming from a fan’s point of view when I’m doing this and I’m giving a tribute. That’s what it’s really about. Giving people who weren’t up on Illmatic a chance to get up on it and for the ones that were, I’m giving them a chance to just enjoy good music.
TSS: For the general understanding, Houseshoes gave you the idea a few years ago to go head and revisit the project. How did it feel for you to sit back, knowing you already had the idea in place, and see a few other Illmatics being brought into light? Did it make you a little salty?
Elzhi: I wouldn’t say that but I was thinking like “damn, I didn’t get to it first,” and it made me want to put the project down. But with the help of people like Jae Barber and Houseshoes, they kept me going with it. Not to mention the people online that was still talking about it throughout the years. Because like I said, I was going to leave it alone and do something else. But I would go online every now and then and see someone talking about it. So I had to push forward and keep it moving, and here we are.
TSS: You put a little twist on it as well. The group, Will Sessions, injected live instrumentation to it.
Elzhi: Yeah, I linked up with them and [the leader] of Will Sessions, Sam, was down with the idea and we went in the studio and knocked it out. We tried our best to insert the essence of Illmatic inside of Elmatic, so we didn’t do it exactly how Illmatic is; we put our little twist and spins on it as well as my rhymes and concepts I put into it too. It’s quite different when you listen to it as a whole.
TSS: How does that work creating an entire project with a live band? Do they record the music and you rap over it or do you guys just have a jam session in the studio like a concert?
Elzhi: Oh yeah, Sam would take the idea and they would lay it down, let me hear the track, and I put my vocals to it. And there you have it.
TSS: You guys plan on doing a few shows in support of the project?
Elzhi: Most definitely. Will Sessions is a live eight-piece band so it should definitely give a different dynamic to my shows with the live instrumentation behind me.
TSS: Going back to your different concepts and everything, everybody knows Slum Village took hits over the years. Did you try to mirror the songs on Illmatic with concepts like tying that in to “Memory Lane” at all?
Elzhi: Nah, nah but my “Memory Lane” is definitely a different concept. Y’know, it still has the same essence as the original because I’m going back down memory lane but it’s like a whole different approach to the concept. I think fans will enjoy it.
TSS: On “Life’s A Bitch,” Royce Da 5’9″ plays AZ to your Nas, correct?
Elzhi: Yep, and Stokley [Williams] from Mint Condition is on there as well. There’s a notable twist to the original right there.
TSS: Being that you are 313, why not cover a golden Detroit album opposed to bigging up the NYC scene? [As suggested by commenter Black Canseco]
Elzhi: I don’t look at it like “New York Hip-Hop” or “Detroit Hip-Hop.” I look at it as an album that inspired me to get sharper with my lyricism, concepts as well as my choice of music. It also served as a study guide for any new artist or MC that tried to focus on bringing lyrics to the forefront, I feel like if they never heard Illmatic, they need to go back and check that out because it’s nothing but poetry and good music. So I revisited it not only because of the concept that Houseshoes had come up with but how it made me feel as a young MC who was starting to learn the ropes of his craft.
TSS: Have you heard anything about Nas catching wind of the project or do you think he cares?
Elzhi: Yeah, we sent him a copy so he knows about it.
TSS: Nowadays, studio albums get trumped by mixtapes or street albums — like the one you just did — in terms of creativity and quality. How is Elmatic going to ensure that your next studio album stays on par with this and you don’t get sucked into doing a bunch of commercial singles?
Elzhi: I’m always trying to reinvent myself going into the next project, so Elmatic doesn’t sound like The Preface and The Preface doesn’t sound like Witness My Growth. In other words, I’m always trying to flip it and bounce it so whatever I do is going to be an elevation from the ground I covered on the last project.
TSS: Do you think major labels are making artists solely focus on making radio singles these days?
Elzhi: I don’t want to say all major labels but I would probably say the majority would just focus on radio hits and ringtones. A label might want to change your sound to match the last person who had a big hit on the radio or last act who made a lot of money in that year. They may want you to go in that direction and really not understand what really made you great. They may know you have a fanbase out there that appreciates your music but they might not fully understand or know why they really appreciate your music. So some labels try to reflect the times. That’s how that goes about.
TSS: What were some of your more recent label meeting experiences like? Part of that was what ultimately divided Slum Village and delayed Elmatic, was it not?
Elzhi: Yeah it was. It was a lot that went on behind-the-scenes so imagine all the business headaches while still trying to attempt to do music. I’m just glad I pulled through and actually got the project completed.