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People have doubted Elzhi since he started rapping. His family wanted him to get a “stable” job. After eight years as a member of Slum Village, rapper T3, the group leader, left Elzhi out of the group’s music video for “Reunion 2.” When he decided to go solo, his label said he wouldn’t make it.
For years, Elzhi discussed remaking Nas’ album Illmatic, and calling it Elmatic. Naysayers said it would never come. They questioned how he could improve on such a classic album. Then last May the album was released. It was a huge success. Despite being an independent release, both video singles “Halftime” and “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” each received over 500k views.
Before our interview with Elzhi, we looked at the album’s track titles like “Genesis,” “Detroit State Of Mind,” and “It Ain’t Hard To Tell,” and saw them like chapters to his story. So consider this interview the chapters leading up to its conclusion, the album’s release.
Additionally, we asked Elzhi to provide us with songs for each chapter to create a soundtrack for his story. Press play below, and begin.
SF Critic (SFC): Tell me about your cousin Chris Bud. Is there a particular song I may be able to find of his that I can include on this playlist?
Elzhi: Chris Bud was huge in my eyes when I was growing up. He formed a crew called COA (Criminals of America). He was one of the best emcees on the block, if not that whole area where we stayed in. He was definitely one of the influences on me on who I am today. I don’t know if you’ll be able to find it, but the song that really sparked my interest to become an artist myself is a remake that he did to Digital Underground’s “Doowutchyalike.”
(He’s right, we couldn’t find it – we used Digital Underground’s original version.)
Detroit State Of Mind
SFC: Tell me about your background growing up in Detroit. Can you give me some examples that helped shape your “Detroit State Of Mind?”
Elzhi: To the people that grew up in Detroit and do music, and to people that grew up in Detroit that don’t do music, we all feel like we have something to prove. We all feel like the underdogs. I feel like the energy of the riots still exist to this day because through that energy a lot of neighborhoods became hoods. Blocks aren’t the same. It’s almost as though in certain areas of Detroit it’s an apocalypse.
If somebody was to fall into a coma and wake up now in a certain area of Detroit, they would think the apocalypse had come. You have certain blocks where there is only one house. Other blocks with houses boarded up and trash everywhere. I hate to paint that picture, because it’s not like that everywhere, but for the most part waking up in that kind of environment gives you a certain kind of mentality.You feel like you got to get it. Certain people may feel that way, years go by, and they learn to accept it. Then you have certain people like me that chose to continue that path and break through.
SFC: Was there a point that you can remember being weighted down by the ills of Detroit? The song “Detroit State Of Mind” seems almost optimistic at some level because at the end of the track you say “it’s the same everywhere else,” so at least you’re saying you’re not alone.
Elzhi: Before the Hip Hop Shop, which is this open mic I used to go to when I was younger, I felt it was hard to do what I wanted. In Michigan, people were driven to go to the [General Motors] plant because their fathers or their grandfathers went to plant. Then you had other people who went the other way and turned to the streets. It was either to make this money I’m going to move this weight or I’m going to move cars.
When I was young my peoples told me, “There are so many rappers out here, what makes you think you can get in the game?” That was a statement that I felt was something on everyone’s mind out here. When I recognized a place like The Hip Hop Shop that was my spark of inspiration and it made me optimistic about the industry.
“Detroit has always felt like it was the last ones out. We stuck together and created an energy amongst ourselves that stuck with us when we went back to our neighborhoods.”
SFC: Is there a song that reflects that Detroit state of mind experience?
Elzhi: I’ll say this song by Jay-Z called “Where I’m From” because he painted a great picture of Marcy through his lyrics and the activity scattered within the verses. That was the approach I tried to take when I wrote “Detroit State Of Mind.” I wanted people who never been to Detroit to know how it is inside the city when you scratch the surface.
SFC: Tell me about The Hip Hop Shop. The environment sounded like it was really collaborative, is that true?
Elzhi: Yeah it was a very collaborative environment. Like I said, Detroit has always felt like it was the last ones out. We stuck together and created an energy amongst ourselves that stuck with us when we went back to our neighborhoods.
SFC: There were different crews like D12. Outside of The Hip Hop Shop were you all friends or were there competitions?
Elzhi: There may have been competition behind closed doors inside certain people, but on the surface, and just speaking from me I couldn’t see it. It was more of a family thing. I was in a lot of different crews. I always talked to Proof [D12] on the phone. There is a story I rarely tell about my relationship with Proof because he was like my big brother at one point. He introduced me to Eminem. He called me on a three way so Eminem could rap for me, and this was before Eminem was Eminem. This was Proof’s friend. He might of done this to a bunch of other people, I don’t know, but he introduced Eminem to me by having him rap to me. Of course, he was phenomenal.
Thrillcall: Has the environment changed since Dilla’s death and Eminem’s emergence?
Elzhi: It changed. People feel like they have to carry on that legacy for Proof and J Dilla. Before Proof’s or Dilla’s death, they showed us that we could make it. I feel like a lot of emcees, by standing with them in the same spot, the same environments, or having conversations with Proof or Dilla, that gave them inspiration to push further. Any beefs that occurred while they were living, may have changed peoples’ mind states. That’s one of the reasons we do have a Bad Meets Evil album today.
SFC: Can you give me a song either by Dilla or Proof that reminds you of the days of The Hip Hop Shop since that seems to be an underlying theme?
Elzhi: I have to say the “Look of Love” by Slum Village. I remember Dilla coming up in The Hip Hop Shop, I don’t know if he had just recorded it that day, or mixed it that day. The Hip Hop Shop was over because it lasted from 4pm to 6pm, and there weren’t too many people in the shop. Dilla walked through the door, walking really fast like he was really proud of something towards the booth and he threw on the “Look of Love” for the first time. We might have been the first people to hear that coming straight from the studio, and that’s why I’d say the “Look of Love” by Slum Village.
SFC: What was the greatest battle you ever witnessed in The Hip Hop Shop?
Elzhi: The greatest battle I ever witnessed was between Proof and Peter Pimp. Proof had a line where he made the Pimp stand for something. He told the Pimp that the P.I.M.P. in his name stands for “Proof is my papa.” I thought that was clever.
SFC: In rap in general what is one of your favorite battle lines?
Elzhi: I’m going to have to go to Eminem. It comes from this song called “Scary Movies” from back in the day he did this song with Royce Da 5’9 and the line goes “Any man who chooses to battle gets smashed out of his clothes so fast he looks like an invisible man standing.” The visual of that is really animated. It looked like it could be something out of a cartoon. The way he set the line up was just perfect to me.
The World is Yours
SFC: What was a moment where the world was not yours?
Elzhi: There was a time in Detroit, Michigan and I didn’t have any heat and sleeping. I was in my coat, curled up under a couple layers of blankets over me and looking at the change I had accumulated poured out on the floor. I was trying to figure out how I was going to get something to eat and just manage.
SFC: How long ago was this?
Elzhi: This was when I still in Slum Village. It wasn’t when I first got into Slum, but after the Slum Village self-titled album and Slum Village wasn’t doing anything. It was pretty rough.
“You know what . . . I forgive [T3], but I don’t forget. His actions played a part in helping me get where I am today. Once I realized he was just a vessel, it’s hard to not forgive. But, I don’t forget.”
SFC: What did you do?
Elzhi: I started writing solo songs and putting it out there that’s how you heard The Preface. I felt like people turned their back on me. Looking back on it now, nothing is really negative; it all serves a purpose that intertwines with a positive outcome.
SFC: Did you rely on your family?
Elzhi: My family was always looking for me to help them. My family at one point in time didn’t think I could make it to the level that I had. My family wanted me to work on computers, go to school, and get a job and have some kind of stability.
When things were looking bad with me being in Slum Village I didn’t feel right telling them. There was something in me that made me feel like they’d say you should have gone to school or something like that. Just recently I was able to connect with my Auntie and Grandma and we talked about those days that they didn’t know about. It’s all good, but back then I didn’t want them knowing about that. I didn’t want the world knowing that.
SFC: What is a song that reflects that low point in your life?
Elzhi: I would say “Hey Young World” by Slick Rick. A song like that is really inspirational. When you hear that song, the things he’s talking about, it makes you think you can still get ahead.
SFC: What is a way you’ve represented Detroit whether citing a song or action?
Elzhi: I was in New York City a few years back. This little kid saw me with a fitted cap on. He must have been at least nine or ten years old. He saw me with my brim kind of broke, kind of bent, and I guess that’s kind of a Midwest thing. This kid asked me “Why did you do that with your hat?” I was like “That’s the way we wear our hats in Michigan, we bend the brim.”
He couldn’t understand that because he was from New York. I’m not saying New Yorkers never do that, but in his life time he just knew people to throw the hat on with the flat brim. He thought I broke the hat, but really that’s just me being me. Representing the “D” means that what I did growing up, and that’s what I’m still doing.
SFC: Is there a song that represents Detroit in your mind?
Elzhi: It’s by Trick Trick featuring Eminem and it’s called “Welcome to Detroit.”
Life’s A Bitch
SFC: Next, with “Life’s A Bitch,” you kind of described the lowest of lows, but was there a moment where you ever just said “Hell with it, life’s a bitch but I’m going to do it?”
Elzhi: One of those moments was sitting back listening to the radio hearing my former partner saying statements about me that weren’t true. Normally, I would keep a lot of stuff behind closed doors. If I did speak on it, it would be through the music, but I felt like it was my duty to get on the air and let people know that for one, some of those things he was saying weren’t true; and two, I wanted people to really know what they’re trying to do to me.
SFC: Did you and T3 ever make amends?
Elzhi: You know what . . . I forgive him, but I don’t forget. His actions played a part in helping me get where I am today. Once I realized he was just a vessel, it’s hard to not forgive. But, I don’t forget.
SFC: Is there a song that sums up this situation?
Elzhi: I am going to say “Push People” by N.E.R.D. When I hear Pharrell saying “Shit happens, just blow it off,” it’s just kind of inspiring to me. It put me in a good mood. For that moment in time it makes me not pay attention to life’s ills.
SFC: Now with “One Love” do you really believe in life there is only one love, which I assume means yourself? Would you agree with that interpretation?
Elzhi: I look at God as being love. That question is kind of broad in my opinion, from what angle are you speaking of? I could say I love a lot of things. I love rap music. I love my little brother. I feel like God is love. If you’re looking at it that way, then yes, it’s one love.
SFC: It was meant to be open. Is there a song that reminds you that God is one love for you?
I know a song that reminds me of love. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Just the way he speaks in that song it’s like he sees the problems in the world and he’s saying we need some love today.
It Ain’t Hard To Tell
SFC: The final question, it “Ain’t Hard To Tell.” At the end of the song you say “I thought I fell.” What part in your career is that referring to? Who are you speaking to?
Elzhi: I’m referring to that transition after the storm of all the Slum Village stuff went down. I’m speaking to people who are shape shifters that front like they’re your friends but they’re not. Who intentionally are going to back stab you or cut your throat. They might have heard of Elmatic three years back, and thought it was never going to come out. It was at a point in time when no one heard anything from me musically or anything. I am speaking on the people like my former label who I felt left me out to dry.