Coronavirus

Elzhi Talks Kickstarter, Depression & Long-Delayed Comeback Album

Elzhi 2016
Jeremy Deputat

Elzhi

From the time Elzhi’s career began bubbling underground through his time on mainstream radio, listeners have known he was one of the best lyricists around. After enjoying Internet buzz with his Out Of Focus EP, he accepted a nomination to join legendary Detroit group Slum Village after the exit of founder and producer J Dilla in 2001. The group enjoyed some of its most popular songs -- the Dwele-featured “Tainted,” and “Selfish,” which featured a young Kanye West and John Legend -- during his three-album run with them. Elzhi left Slum Village on messy terms in the early 2010s, but after Elmatic, his 2011 tribute to Nas’ classic debut, his solo career seemed to be on the right track. His otherworldly abilities to stack multi-syllabic rhymes, craft creative concepts and meticulously ride beats were on full display.

But for the past year and change, the Elzhi conversation has been dominated by the delayed release of an album he successfully funded through Kickstarter. Shortly after contributing fans threatened a lawsuit for not receiving the goods, Elzhi finally announced a late March release date for Lead Poison. He attributes the wait to depression and his perfectionist attitude, and the record -- a mix of somber reflection and vibrant redemption -- reveals signs of both. Loss of loved ones including his SV brethren Baatin and J. Dilla, financial woes, and alcoholism all hover over the record in what he describes as a lingering cloud. “At that moment in time, I wasn’t really feeling strong,” he says. “But once I got through everything and saw the obstacle course I left behind, I’m like ‘whoa, I got through all that?'"

In a conversation with Billboard, Elzhi explains the lack of updates to supporters, how he escaped the cloud of depression, and gaining recognition from one of the greatest MCs of all time.

The first question people are going to ask about this album is: What took so long?

What’s taken so long? It’s a variety of things. I wasn’t just working on an album -- I was working on myself. Working on yourself and working on an album, it’s just constant growth, creative-wise, and spiritually. Financially, things haven’t been going my way. Also, I’m a perfectionist. I don’t want to give people who love my music something I don’t stand behind. You can ask around -- I’ve got mad songs. They may be dope to other people, but if I don’t think they’re fly, then I’m not going to put it out there. And, this is like a loose concept album. I like to refer to The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, where he gives you all these moments, and he puts it all together.

When the Kickstarter campaign for this record began, you said you were taking that approach to avoid the issues that would come with being on a label. What kind of issues would you deal with?

Just having too many chefs in the kitchen. But doing it your way comes with its own sets of problems too, and that’s another reason it took so long. It’s certain channels I’ve gotta go through, and certain things I’ve gotta do to even make people aware that there’s a project coming out. But I’d rather do it on my terms than on anybody else’s.

Backers have gotten upset that the album release has taken so long, and they’ve complained about a lack of updates. How do you feel about the decision to use a Kickstarter campaign now?

Me and my manager Jae Barber have our own label so we had to figure out a way to fund certain things. It’s a learning experience. I only blame myself -- not giving people updates, and letting people know where I was at. But I wasn’t living my truth. I was still faking like everything was OK and I didn’t want people to see what I was going through. We were doing videos and a few audio updates, but they didn’t come off how I wanted them to. So I was like, ‘let’s kill that altogether.’ Some people got upset and I understand that. But I hope when people listen to the album, they know that I was struggling with what I was going through. If I don’t have the finances to give you quality, it’s going to take a little longer to give it to you.

A big theme on the album is depression, and you touch on alcoholism, too. Did anything specifically lead to those issues? Had they been going on for a while?

It had been going on for a while, but I ignored it. Issues that I haven’t dealt with were always in the background. I was moving around a lot. But around the time of Elmatic, I finally got a chance to sit down. That’s when everything from the back started running towards the front. Things I didn’t deal with: my mom's passing, fake relationships, fake friendships, people in the music industry, my old label clowning. I’d never known pain to be that way. Imagine doing shows in Europe and Africa and Japan, trying to mask what you’re going through like everything is cool. You can probably look back at pictures and see that I wasn’t really there. The cloud still lingers, but in a way where I don’t pay attention to it. There are more things that I’m open to and looking at, instead of looking at that cloud.

People don’t want to deal with the pain. They want to get high and forget about the bills that they can’t pay or the relationship they once had but now it’s over with. Once you come up off that cloud, it’s still there. I think the first step is attacking that pain head-on, until it transforms into healing.

I never knew that. Where I come from, it was almost like a bad word to be like, “You need to see a therapist.” Nobody wants to see a counselor in the hood. People have things they don’t deal with, and over time, it starts showing up in certain ways. I had to deal with everything all at once. There were certain songs that were a little too depressing. I definitely wanted to tell my story but I wanted to be a little playful with it, and still be true and honest.

I thought about Baatin a lot while listening to this. He had mental illness issues as well, although a different type. Did you think about him while creating this?

I think about Baatin every day. I think of how he passed [of undisclosed causes in 2009, after suffering schizophrenia and substance abuse], and different things behind the scenes that happened. Decisions that could’ve been avoided [relating] to him passing away, and what life would be like if he was still here. I learned that he passed while I was flying into Canada, to do a Rock The Bells show. Things that were said to me in that moment that made me go off, because I couldn’t believe people were thinking the way they thought. It’s not on the record, but I wrote about it. I advise anybody going through some things -- find your outlet. That’s what the album is about. God gave me a gift through writing, and that’s how I was able to get it out.

What’s the balance between what listeners and fans deserve to know, versus what’s private for you?

The only thing I won’t give is certain names. There are things that were happening at that time, and I saw a lot of people’s true colors show. I’m not going to put names out there. But I’m an open book, and I think they deserve to know everything, especially if they’re fans of what I do. I want to share everything I’m going through, the good and the bad times. But at that time, I wasn’t ready to express myself or expose all those things. Other interviews that I’ve had, people will come out and say, ‘I too have dealt with depression.’ People really give me props for putting it in the atmosphere. I had to put it out there for me, but maybe people can relate to it or see me as an example.

After Elmatic dropped, did you ever hear from Nas about it?

Nah, I never heard from Nas. But I’ve got a story for you. I was in Australia, and I did a show. I went backstage, and some dude snuck backstage. He told me that Nas was there, I can’t remember how many months ago. When Nas was backstage, he snuck backstage and kicked it with Nas for a second. He asked Nas, ‘who is somebody I should look out for?’ He said Nas mentioned me. He didn’t even know who I was before Nas mentioned me, but since Nas is legendary status, he [listened to my music]. I felt like that was a blessing as far as me hearing that, and being privy to know that even existed. That’s all I need. That was dope to know that he was on the other side of the planet speaking my name.


THE BILLBOARD BIZ
SUBSCRIBER EXPERIENCE

The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to Billboard.com/business.


To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.