El Da Sensei helped write the book for what it meant to be an MC coming from the Garden State. From helping create classic hip-hop head-nodders like “Wrong Side of the Tracks” to forging a successful solo career, there’s not a lot El hasn’t done as an MC. The graffiti writing MC has lately been getting it in with The Returners, an overseas production crew who has given El Da Sensei some of the best music of his career. After releasing an EP with the production crew in 2008, El’s back with a new full-length project with them. Already released overseas, the album will finally make its way to the states this October. Check out our interview with the legendary MC as he discusses his new music, getting back with Tame One and how the new Artifacts sound will be in 2010.
You’ve been working on a new Returners project. How’s it coming?
The international version is already out and it’ll be out in America on October 12. We’ve got Akrobatik, Sean Price, Treach from Naughty by Nature, Rakaa, Tiye Phoenix and Doujah Raze. Bekay is on the American version and an M-Phazes remix.
What’s the advantage of releasing an international version first?
Well, actually, I wanted to release both of them at the same time, but the scheduling with the labels didn’t work out. The day it came out some dude posted the songs on YouTube on his channel and I hit him up and told him I was glad he was a fan but the record hadn’t been out but a few days and he already had it up. I know people can rip audio files from YouTube but what can you do? You’re always going to have a smart guy who knows how to get around the system.
It’s good fans work so hard to get the music out though.
Exactly. That’s why I wasn’t mad at him. I put an LOL after my message to him but I had to hit him up. A person like that, you can’t hit them so hard because you know the only reason they’re doing it is because they’re trying to show people that there’s some real hip-hop out there.
You’ve always come across as pretty laid-back. I can’t see you sending out any threatening emails.
Not even! Not even! If it calls for it, I’ll do what I gotta do, but I’m a regular dude. I try to stress that a lot with cats. Fans can say what’s up and we’ll talk. I’m approachable and I’m a pretty nice guy, I’d like to think, but I’m not a crazy dude.
How did you choose who you wanted on the album?
It’s like picking kids on the playground. You know they all can play, but you have to pick the ones that fit you best. You want to get artists who are coming out now or are from my era and still doing it like Treach. I knew I was going to have to get people who were relevant today and who had fanbases. Everybody on the record deserved to be on the record and they all sounded like they wanted to be on the record, which was good.
How did “Knowledge Be the Key” come together?
The Returners made that beat and the way it happens, I’ll just sit back and listen to the records. They really have a good ear for production. I kept listening to the hook and I asked Rakaa to do the joint. When you listen to the words in the song, it’s about doing street stuff but it’s also about being smart. It’s a message to put out there that you still gotta be smart to be in this business, whether you’re doing the music part or the label part. Once I sent the beat to Rakaa, he was down and I knew we could take it to another level with that. But it all fit together.
You talk about your career on “2 the Death.” What was the writing process like on that?
When I wrote that song, I heard in the beat where if I could sum up my whole career in a nutshell, how would I want it to sound? That was the perfect beat for that. It was moody. And people still like my music and I just wanted to give them something. I’ve done a lot more than people know and I feel like I haven’t done enough. In that song I talk about my travels and being in a group and breaking up with a group and now I’m back in another one. I’ve learned a lot and I can stick my chest out and say I’m still proud of making more records.
When you look at joining a new group, is it different because you’re coming in as a veteran?
We did an EP in 2008 and that was the beginning for me with the Returners. We didn’t know how people were going to take to us working together. Me coming from where I was coming from, people would probably think they would work with someone younger or from their generation, but their beats fit me. We started touring and recording. I would say that at this point, we’ve put a lot of hard work in and we’ve been going back and forth for three years. I would think that with the first EP, they would know what we’re doing. Some people can’t believe that Polish producers are working with me and sometimes MCs will only do something for money, but everybody on this record is a friend. This thing is for us. I’ve never had eight artists featured on anything. I was extremely lucky with this.
How did you first meet up with The Returners?
My man DJ Lethal works with the Snow Goons in Germany. He asked me to do a drop for The Returners. A couple of months later, they hit me up and asked me to do a single with them for another group they were working with. They sent me the beat and then they started sending me their tracks. But I guess I wasn’t working fast enough for them so they said it was going to be easier for them to fly me out there. We were also doing shows out there the whole time so we could let people know what we were doing. Now if you fast-forward to 2010, we’re putting out more music and it means something to me and hopefully it means something to them. They helped me out a lot as far as keeping my sound out. I think we’re at a good point right now with this album.
Is it ever tough corresponding via email with The Returners?
I can be home to do the music but it’s not the same feeling as when we’re all in the room together. I can tell them in person where I want the drops at and it’s better than being home. We communicate well. I go out there and do shows and I would like to get them here to do a tour. It’s hard to get them out here. A lot of people are always asking me how I work with them when they’re all the way out there. I can go over there and knock out a lot of work.
What do you want Global Takeover 2 to do in the United States?
Well, for me it would be that there would have to be online promotions on it and that we could get in the chain stores like Best Buy. That’s what’s important. Then I would know that we were really making moves. You have to have some kind of push. With the way people are responding right now, they’re responding very well. I think that with this project right now, I mean, Treach don’t do songs with anybody. I can count on one hand how many features he’s done for people. It’s an honor to bring him to my level. He’s a different caliber MC than I am but he’s from my era and we went to school together and I know having his name on my project is a good stamp. And having Sean Price, I want people to recognize that we’re thinking big with this record and that we’re doing everything we can do to really blow it up.
The Treach collab is long overdue.
Yeah. I hit him up and told him we done went to school together, chilled out, drank together and that I would do anything I needed to do to get him on this record and he told me he got me. A few months later, he was on tour and Naughty’s back on the scene and he hit me up and told me he was in the studio. I got there and I already had my part there. When I got there, all his boys were there and I could hear the beat coming out of the studio and he was sitting there writing and he was shaking his head and was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m so on this shit right now.’ And everybody that hears it, they don’t even believe that it’s him. They say they’ve never heard him rock like that before and I tell them that it is.
How did you and Tame One decide to come back together?
Two years ago when we were at the Rocksteady Anniversary, I was performing and I brought Tame out onstage and everybody was screaming. We did two songs and boom, we started talking from there and we kept it where we were kind of dissing a little bit but we started talking a little bit harder. We did a song with Foul Mouth Jerk from North Carolina and we said after that that we had to get it popping. We’ve been getting in the studio and have done more shows. We got a show coming up in L.A. and we’re going to be performing with a lot of cats from out there like Tash from Tha Alkaholiks. We’re just trying to get these shows popping, man. We’re going to do the A3C Festival and we got a couple people confirmed already to be on the record like Freddie Foxxx and Pharoahe Monch. We’re just trying to set it up right now.
How would you describe your chemistry with Tame One right now?
It’s not tense. It was never what people might have thought. They thought we were arguing and fighting and shit like that and it was never like that. I just told him that we had to man up a little bit. We both know that we could have a solo career right now. Our show is actually better now. We’re bringing more to the table. We already know where we’re at. We just have to make some good songs, point blank. We don’t have to make songs to compete with what everybody else is doing but to show people that we grew as artists and that we’re here to put some new shit in the game and that we can have success in the game with what we’re doing.
It’s a good time to come back together. I think it was just us not knowing what we had. We sat down with each other and it was more an icebreaker than anything. I just want people to know what we can accomplish and what they thought was going on was two different things and we were able to sit down like two grown men. 15 years ago, we were at a time when hip-hop was changing but things happen and they went the way they did and what matters is what we do from here. I told him now we understand what we have to do and I think that not being on a label and having different people around us is different. We had certain people around us and when we sit down now, it’s just me and him. Nobody is involved as a middle man and all the shit we learned, we’re starting over and nobody can hinder our success.
How far along are you guys on the recording process?
That’s the only thing right now – we haven’t really gotten to the studio. We’re doing some shows now and we’re going to try and get in the studio. We got time. We’re just trying to get all these beats together and we’re trying to get everything right. There’s not even a deal on the table yet.
Where do you see the direction of the music going?
I think that in this environment now, you just have to make good songs. People know what we can do. Redman said it to me best. He said we gotta not simplify it but make it to where people can follow us. It’s hard for us not to be us but I can understand what he’s saying. We’ve solidified us as battle MCs and graffiti MCs and we’re talking to the younger dudes now and what are we going to say to them? What are we going to say to females who are into hip-hop? What are we going to have for them? What are we going to have for people who go to the club and spend money on chicks? We have to have something for all of them. We have to really put our minds together and make sure that the people that are going to support us now and have been supporting us over the years as solo artists, we have to make sure that this album is for them and we have to make sure that this album is on point. But I guarantee you this – the album is going to be hot. I’m sure of that. And it’s going to all be brand new.