El-P on Camu Tao's legacy

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el-p and camu

Initially, El-P and I struggled to determine whether we would discuss Central Services, his one-time collaboration with the departed rapper Camu Tao, as well as Camu's unfinished solo record, King Of Hearts.

I had a lot of apprehension going into an interview with a close friend of the rapper, who died of lung cancer in 2008. Camu's record is a difficult listen. Vocally Camu sounds unrestrained and brilliant, but the record lacks completion, as he never got the chance to flesh out his songs. What's left is the skeletal demos, almost minimalist. But El-P was prepared to discuss his friend's work with the knowledge that the release forces us to hear the finality of death.

So this morning I
want to talk about the Camu record, King
of Hearts
and the Central Services record you two did together. I'm wondering: how much of the work done here is posthumous, and how much was conceived before Camu died?

We all expected to get Camu in the studio and go as far
as he wanted to go with the record. The songs are bare, but then again a lot of
them are just what he wanted. A lot of them wouldn’t have changed much. Knowing
Camu, he had a lot of talented musician friends he would have liked to have
collaborated and have involved. I do think the album would have been different
had he lived to complete it.

It’s hard to really tell. The reality is he didn’t have the
time to ruminate over it. The songs he made are the songs he made and most of
them were made while he was sick.

How long into the
recording process did he know? Did he work on the whole record knowing?

I think Camu knew that he was sick longer than he had been
diagnosed. Something was wrong with him and he knew it. He kind of hid it, not
only from everyone around him, but he didn’t admit it. He went through some
serious physical pain for a good year. He dropped a lot of weight and no one
really questioned it because he never really let on.

Every once in a while, in retrospect, I remember him eating
something or trying to eat and just clutching his stomach in pain. He would
never draw attention to it. In his head he was petrified. He knew that
something was wrong with him. A lot of the songs that were written reflected
that when you listen to the music and the lyrics.

When he finally got diagnosed the doctor gave him two weeks
to live. He lived for a year and a half after that.

As you were going
through these demos, planning out the King
Of Hearts
posthumous release was there any temptation to mess with the
sound or did you want to leave it completely as is?

It was a tough line to straddle. It was difficult to figure
out, philosophically how to approach it. Camu had an album file on iTunes that
he’d shared with us all that was basically a representation of his record. All
the demos he’d done, in the order he wanted them. The majority of them were
incomplete, in the sense that they weren’t 100% done, but most of them had full
verses and full beats and hooks.

This was the reference that I used. It wasn’t me deciding
what had to be on his record, but him deciding. We had to go find the files and
the best way to put them together. For the most part, I stuck to what his sound
was. When we found the files and would mix them, we would keep his levels; if
it was distorted we would keep as much intact to get the best mix on that
sound. A lot of them weren’t even mixed because there were no files, just
straight up mp3s.

Others I had to go into Garageband to find the original file
he did the beat on or the Logic file he’d recorded the vocals on. It was sort
of a puzzle that I had to put together. Luckily, I had these demos as
references. It was about getting the closest possible representation of the
album he had in mind. There were decisions that had to be made on cutting the
length of some stuff because it was just one little hook and a beat, but those
things became small little interludes. I’d tried to be faithful.

That sounds like a
very grueling process.

Well, it’s the least I could do.

Hmm, yeah, when it’s
for a friend it’s probably not as difficult.

The process wasn’t as grueling as much as the emotional
aspect of it. I think it was emotionally difficult because it took me a second
to gear up and face it. I’ve got to get in there and really expose myself to my
friend when I’m still emotionally raw about everything. I think that emotion
made me determined. That love for him gave me purpose to complete this. It
wasn’t a chore, it was what it was.

Is there a reason you
included the raw demo of “Kill Me” as the last song. I feel as though “Fuck Me”
on [Central Services’] Forever Frozen In
Television Time
is the fully-realized version and I’m curious about the
juxtaposition of the two. It seems as though he’s still milling the song in his
head on the demo.

Well, there’s two ways to look at this record. One is that
it’s an album and the other is that it’s a collection, an anthology of Camu’s
music. That he’s not around anymore and there will be nowhere else to get his
stuff. I listened to this demo and it was the original… you know he wrote that
song “Fuck Me” for Central Services and I’d never heard the original he had

In the “Fuck Me” one I had influence on it. I remember
changing it. He had originally made it “kill me” and I remember being like,
“no, no let’s call it ‘fuck me’.” And I remember another lyric he was saying
“kill me” again and I said, “Why don’t you make it, ‘but don’t kill me.’” We’re
collaborating on this and I never knew he had another version of this song.
When I heard this a cappella of him, sitting there really sort of quietly and beautifully
singing this other version, I heard what he wanted out of it. I thought it was
beautiful. It just moved me. It felt right to include it because in some way it
gave an example of what was going in his creative process. The album was about
him coming into his own and writing these songs that are very different and
chilling in some ways.

I thought, if I don’t put this out no one’s going to know
he’s going to exist.

I feel as though
there’s an amazing connection there in which he’s trying to express something
you hadn’t seen in him yet.

It was. It kind of made me feel like, “Wow, this is what he
really wanted to say.” That’s the reason we didn’t put “Fuck Me”, the Central
Services version, on the record. I wanted this record to be all Camu. It
wouldn’t have made sense for me to have my fingerprints on it. Once I
recognized there was a version of this song that was really Camu’s and if I
hadn’t have been there to give my suggestions and alter it in the way I saw fit
(which we both agreed on at the time), it would have been different.

I don’t really know. It’s a really pure… there’s no music,
but you can hear him creating music as he’s singing it. He obviously has an
idea in his head and it’s very indicative of what the album is. This is him
wanting so much more, he wanted to go there.

Hopefully people look at something like that as what it is.
The way I look at it. It’s a moment that’s been captured, that could have been
lost into the ether were it not placed here.

Why was the Central
Services record shelved for so long? Was the timing just never right?

It wasn’t really shelved. It was just me and him hadn’t
gotten the chance to keep going with it. Camu had moved back to Ohio and
started making these other songs, so we signed him to do the King Of Hearts record. He started
focusing on that, so the plan was we’ll wait until he’s done with King Of Hearts and release this in
conjunction with King Of Hearts. And
then he got sick. That was just the way
it went. It got delayed and delayed and we couldn’t do anything until we knew
what was going on.

After a couple of years it was like, why even bother putting
it out because Camu’s shit is going to be so crazy. It just wasn’t a big deal
to us. We didn’t do the Central Services music thinking… we didn’t know what we
were going to do with it. We were just doing it for fun.

Do you think there
would have been sampling issues had you put full energy behind promoting that


[Laughs] I’m glad it
remains the way it is. It sounds incredible. I’m a fan that’s been anticipating
it for awhile.

I’m wondering how
long KiD CuDi has known about these demos. The direction his music is taking,
is there any cause for alarm in style biting?

I don’t think he’s known about it very long. I don’t think
that’s valid. He and Cage became friends over the past year. That’s how KiD
CuDi heard them. If anything KiD CuDi appreciates him. Plus, they are both from
Ohio. Cage said KiD CuDi was super into the record and really into Camu and
felt really connected to the music. You can kind of see why.

We asked if he would give us a quote for the record and he
was nice enough to do it. I think that was pretty fucking cool of him.

I feel like the
release party in Columbus will be something that’s good for Ohio considering
the tough luck they’ve had in the past few years losing Camu and DJ PRZM.

Ohio has had a lot of tough luck and lost some great people.
I know how much Ohio meant to Camu. I’m really close to his fiancé and she
really put the party together. I wanted to go and celebrate with Camu’s family and
all the people from his hometown he really cared about so much. It’s just going
to be a celebration of Camu. I think it’s going to be great. It’s a chance to
heal a little bit. I don’t like leaving a question mark at the end of this
whole thing. This record and coming together with the community he was involved
in, is a chance to show and prove.

I appreciate you
taking the time to talk about a great artist

Thank you for giving a shit, man.