Elzhi is a hallowed name in the ears of hip-hop heads across the globe. He began as one of the more intricate MCs in Slum Village, the Detroit crew J Dilla helped form in 1996. In fact, Elzhi’s solo work became so popular that he would eventually separate himself from the group in 2010.
His story begins circa 1998, when he recorded a series of songs with DJ House Shoes and DJ Rios in Detroit. Those songs became the rare Out of Focus EP, and though they eventually drifted apart, it was House Shoes who passed Elzhi’s DATs to Dilla. Elzhi ended up getting his big break on “Come Get It” from Dilla’s debut solo album, Welcome 2 Detroit.
From there, Elzhi hopped around, working with Waajeed, Nick Speed and others before releasing his first nationwide project, The Preface, in 2008. It was immediately recognized as an underground gem and Elzhi became one of the most revered MCs in the game. To this day, you can hear Royce da 5’9″ spout praise for him.
Five years ago, Elzhi released Elmatic, his second official solo album, as a re-interpretation of Nas’ classic debut. But since then, fans have been clamoring for new music from the dazzling mic wrecker while he retreated into the shadows.
His retreat was caused by depression and now he’s finally re-emerged with the finely tuned Lead Poison LP, one of the best rap albums of the year so far.
XXL spoke to Elzhi about what he was up to during his hiatus, what caused his depression and why his Kickstarter campaign went so wrong.
XXL: Your last album was five years ago. What’ve you been doing in the interim?
Elzhi: Those five years were just me trying to better myself on a human level. Trying to escape my demons and look at life the way I’m supposed to. So it’s a combination of that and making music. Just me trying to get myself together.
You’ve spoken about this dark cloud that’s been hanging over you for a while. What was the origin of the dark cloud?
Just me looking at things on a surface level. Looking at life through the two eyes and not looking at it from a deeper standpoint. I can’t speak for anybody else, but I know when I was doing that, I was missing out on the positive things that came about in certain situations. Blessings in disguise, those kinds of things. When things were looking crazy on the surface, I would just take it for what that was and internalize it. It ultimately became poisonous to me.
So I had to learn how to change how I view things, and once I was able to do that I was able to see the silver lining.
How’d you go about learning how to view things?
It really came from a spiritual place. I was shown these things, so just being open to hearing those things. I was able to exercise the way I perceive situations coming my way and it helped me often. And also, just writing my experiences and feelings down and putting them into the music was a great way for me to cope with what I was going through as well.
Did you make a lot of music during your five-year hiatus?
Yeah, I made a lot of music. It was a lot of writer’s block too. It was so much stuff happening at one time and it was stifling my creativity, but when I was making music, the music wasn’t reflecting what I was going through, so personally for me I wasn’t feeling it. I’d make a song and people would like it or whatever, but I just didn’t think it was my best work. I felt the only way to give my best work was to face my situations head on.
So that’s what caused me to write my experiences down and what I was going through. I used it as an outlet to get that poison out, and once I decided to do that I was able to overcome the writer’s block and be the person I’ve always been since age eight. Writing just comes naturally to me, so instead of overlooking my problem, I overcame it by taking it head on.
You have a song on the album called “Healing Process.” Do you feel healed now or is it a thing that’s constantly changing for you?
You might have days where you got through some things and you got to just get yourself back on track, but writing this album helped me out. It really did. “Healing Process” is a reflection of the meditation music or the audio book that I would listen to. This is my take on that, that’s where the concept came from, but I want to do that for somebody else. Put something together someone can listen to and get themselves together, maybe something they’d listen to in the morning before they gotta attack their day.
Did you complete other albums between Elmatic and Lead Poison?
I got a ton of music. I was gonna put out a mixtape before Lead Poison but music quality wise it wasn’t up to par. I didn’t think it was a representation of me in that moment. The music was good but the quality of it wasn’t right. I tried to get it together before I put the album out, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to. But who knows, it might come out later down the line. I got mad material.
Are you planning on releasing any of that music?
I might. It might find its way somewhere. It might be a surprise thing we drop, I’m not sure yet. But it’s a gang of songs, man. I’d say a lot of it was just stuff I was writing and not really about what I was going through, and then some of it is just a little bit darker than what’s on the album. Like, a lot darker. With the album, I wanted to be a little more playful with how I approached my situations and my concepts. It’s stuff that’s in the vault that’s crazy.
You mentioned at one point that you’re trying to channel Tim Burton, Shel Silverstein and Larry David on Lead Poison. How would you say those three influenced the album?
I’m a big fan of Tim Burton. I love how colorful he is. I think of movies like Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice and stuff like that. I want my music to be as whimsical as that, my storytelling to be as clever as Quentin Tarantino. My music is playful, I want it to be art imitating life like Larry David. So those were like my three influences I drew from, not to mention Slick Rick. I’m a big fan of Slick Rick’s first album, that was like a loose concept album and I sort of wanted to do the same with this record. There’s no particular order in what happened to me as far as the song I put together on the album, I just wanted it to be a loose concept album.
You mentioned Great Adventures of Slick Rick so I have to put you on the spot. What’re your five favorite rap albums?
Sheesh. Great Adventures of Slick Rick is one of ‘em. Death Certificate by Ice Cube is another one. I always go back and forth between Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. Madvillainy, thought that was dope. And man…I’ma go with Illmatic.
There’s a short poem at the end of the album called “The Turning Point.” What was your turning point?
Thabisile Griffin did that poem and 14KT played the keys and she basically wrote a poem that she felt reflected me. She based it off of me and I thought it came out great.
The turning point was when I decided to turn my poison into medicine. Using my writing as an outlet to get the poison out of me. Making that decision and letting fans know what’s really happening. And I felt like I owed them that, but the reason I didn’t before is because you know…just the nature of the game. Everybody wanna try to have that reputation like everything’s cool. So I was sort of embarrassed to let that out, but I felt like it was for people over the world who were going through their little situations.
How’d you feel when you saw the backlash to your Kickstarter?
Put it this way, I understand, because around that time, people had no idea what I was going through. I didn’t put anything out there saying I was going through this or that, so people’s imaginations can run wild and they might just think I’m on a yacht somewhere without a care in the world, but that was far from what was happening. So I don’t blame certain people for getting upset and not really knowing.
Plus the way I was doing it, as far as videos and little audio recordings I did, I didn’t think they were up to par. They didn’t represent the quality that I want to put out. I discontinued those, so not having that on top of not telling the fans what I was going through, I can see how some people got upset.
But as far as the accusations of me running off and scamming folks, I couldn’t even get mad at that. At one point was like whatever. What’s crazy is this kid I saw on my Instagram left a message for me and bought into the whole thing, telling me off and whatever. So I looked into his page and saw he was a cool dude, so I’m like damn he bought into that? At first I felt some kind of way, kind of made me feel bad that he did that. But then I was like damn, everything happens for a reason. So when I looked at it from that standpoint, it’s hard for me to really be upset about anything. Because at the end of the day, what’s in the dark will come to light and people are gonna see it wasn’t a scam or anything and that everything’s cool.
So it’s pretty much swept under the rug now, just letting people know it’s out, but I can’t be upset how people took it because they didn’t know what was going on.
Did you ever seek professional help for your depression?
Nah I didn’t, and that’s not to say someone else shouldn’t. Some people may need to go see a therapist or talk to a counselor or somebody, but nah I didn’t. I thought about it but I just never did. Thank God I found out what I needed to get out through my outlet and that helped me.
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