If you’re a fan of J. Cole then you’re a fan of Elite, even if you don’t know it yet. This New York City-based producer has been with Cole since The Come Up (and the story of how Elite and Cole met is truly a testament to the technological wonders of our time). Between being an in-house at Ruff Ryders and working with Cole from the ground up, Elite has a wealth of experience and knowledge to draw upon. We caught up to chat about self-reflection, compression, and the value of making educated decisions. With stellar collaborations and his solo debut album in the works, Elite is poised to make waves big enough for his whole team to surf on. Hit the skip for the full interview. Shouts to Shawn!
Elite: “I feel like you can tell somebody’s musical tastes just by listening to them. Artists that have good musical tastes are usually good. Well, it’s hard to say ‘good,’ because it’s all opinion, but I feel like if you’ve only listened to a small selection of artists in your life you don’t have as broad of a palette; you don’t have as many colors to draw with. The more you know and listen to, the better your music is going to be.”
BaaBP: For our readers who don’t know you, who are you?
Elite: You’re probably more familiar with me as a producer. For along time I was in the in-house producer for the Ruff Ryders in the early-to-mid 2000’s. I did Shootouts for Jadakiss on Kiss of Death, the Why remix, which has Nas and everybody on it. I’ve done a bunch of stuff with a lot of different people. More recently, I’ve been working with J. Cole, who is a good friend of mine. We go way back. Cole and I co-produced Who Dat, I did Heartache, Playground, See World off Friday Night Lights. And also, I rhyme. So now I’m working on stuff as an artist. I’m dropping a mixtape in the next couple months.
BaaBP: Your career started much earlier than most people know. In 2003, you were an in-house producer at Powerhouse, right? Do you remember how your first record with Drag came about?
Elite: Yeah! Well, actually, I had a rap group in college, and I was making beats for them. I made the Drag beat for us, and we were gonna do a song to it. And I had a manager early on, she was actually managing me as an artist, and she didn’t even know I made beats. So when I made that beat, she started shopping it around. She was actually the sister of Dee & Wah, the CEO of Ruff Ryders.
BaaBP: This is Alimah Dean?
Elite: Yeah. She shopped it around to Icepick, I think, who was the A&R over there, and he was like, “Yo, this would be perfect for Drag.” Basically, it was way back, so I had nothing to do with the production of the song. It was just, I did the beat and he did the raps, and that was it.
BaaBP: You have worked with some of the heaviest hitters in the game (Jada, Styles P, DMX, Kool G Rap, Canibus), but you also work closely with J. Cole and Omen, the new school cats. How do you balance working with veterans and up-and-comers?
Elite: Well now, it’s all about up-and-comers for me. Not to say that I wouldn’t work with some of the big names, but I’m really not into shopping beats around anymore. To me, it’s all about working in the studio with the artist. I feel like I’m at a different point in my career where it makes more sense. You know, I have a team! I have three artists other than myself that are all incredible. Really it wouldn’t make sense for me to focus energy elsewhere, unless it was an obvious situation. And I’m sure there will be a situation like it as time goes on. But right now, it’s all about building the home team and making sure we all have the best projects we can.
BaaBP: Do you think it was a benefit to work with such well-established artists from the get-go?
Elite: Oh yeah, absolutely, because you learn so much. You can only get better by being around people who are better than you, you know? When you’re young, if you’re around professionals who do this for a living and are serious about it, you’re gonna up your game, you’re gonna learn and improve. So that was big. I learned a lot from being around Ruff Ryders, and from being around the other people in extended circles from Ruff Ryders, meeting industry people, and stuff like that.
BaaBP: How did you meet Cole?
Elite: It’s actually a funny store. When we were really young, like in high school, we were big Canibus fans, Canibus fanatics. And we used to post our lyrics on this Canibus website forum. This is early. This was back when Canibus was poppin, like ’98. We were on the internet early just posting our raps up. So we met through there, he hit me up. And we started trading songs, as soon as we started being able to record and send stuff through the internet, we would send each other our songs. Same with Voli and Omen, we met on the same site. We started sharing music and critiquing each other. Once Cole moved to St. John’s we started working together and getting up more often. And now Omen moved out from Chicago. So we all work together all the time.
BaaBP: You yourself called your music high-impact, and I do think it’s dramatic in all the best ways. How has your sound, and your approach to making music, evolved over the past couple years?
Elite: Well, first of all, thank you. I appreciate it. I feel like previously I was focused on power and dramatics. You know what it is, when you go to studios and play beats for artists, I realize I wanted my stuff to hit hard and blow people away, you know? Big sounds, big stuff, just so people would be like, “Woah. What the hell?” You couldn’t play a beat after I played a beat because it was so loud and big, and that was my goal early on. You know, going to all these studios with Jadakiss, DMX and all those people, that’s the impact you need. But now, I feel like I have more of an artist’s mentality. I realize that sometimes it can be hard to write to beats like that. I have so many beats that are crazy, but no one’s ever gotten on them because you have to be DMX to get on that shit. You have to have a voice, a big voice, and a big presence. And even if you do have a big presence it can be intimidating because the music is so powerful. So now that I’m working more as an artist, I realize what stuff is easier to record to. I feel like it’s all about mood. It’s all about setting a mood with the music, allowing the artist to connect with it emotionally somehow, and then working with the artist. Now what I like to do is, after the artist has done his part, I go in and do a lot of post-production so I can build it up and make it a big production after the fact.
BaaBP: When you’re trying to evoke certain emotions with a beat, how do you put yourself in that emotionally evocative state of mind?
Elite: That’s a good question. It’s hard when you’re not with the artist, because you’re guessing. You don’t know what’s going to connect with somebody. But when you’re in the room with the artist, there’s an automatic vibe; there’s already something in the air. You play something and you could feel it. It’s like, “Does this work with the energy in the room right now, or does it not?” It’s so much easier. That’s why, whenever I make a beat on the spot with an artist, the song gets done. Always. There’s no way it can’t, because you’re just creating with the energy that’s already in the room. Whereas if I’m making a beat at home, I’m making the beat with the energy there. Somebody might come into the room and change the whole energy (this might sound kinda crazy, but it’s true!), the whole energy changes. You have to vibe with people. You gotta make sure the mood is right. It’s like when you’re at a party and someone comes in with a crazy energy and the whole vibe of the party changes. That’s what making music is like, too.
BaaBP: In your bio on your website, it says “So now everyday is about creating his own inspiration. Fighting those dark days of doubt. Becoming better.” Is that where the concept for “Judas” came from?
Elite: Oh yeah. “Judas” is just honesty. That’s just me letting loose, there was almost no thought to it. It was just like, this is what and how I think, so let me just write it down. I had done songs when I was younger, but since I really started taking it seriously, I’d say about two or three years ago, “Judas” was the first full, complete song that I’d been happy with. It was really autobiographical. It was very true to my story. I feel like it’s a nice introduction. A lot of people were telling me not to put it out, because it’s old! That song is like two years old, and it doesn’t really compare to the stuff that I’m doing now. But I feel like I want to show progression. I want people to see where I came from, what I started doing, understanding that I was a producer and I’m making this transition, and seeing the growth between “Judas” and the stuff I’m doing now and the stuff I’m gonna do.
BaaBP: “Judas” is the perfect example of how you are currently making the transition from solely being a producer to being a producer and an emcee. When did you start writing rhymes seriously?
Elite: Well, Cole, Voli, a couple other people and I started a rap group two or three years ago, right around the time when Cole was doing The Come Up. When we started the group, I was thinking I was going to produce most of it, and just do a verse here or there. But I started getting a taste for it, and I started getting good responses. And when Cole took off, everybody started doing their own thing, building their own stuff. Voli started doing his own thing, Omen started doing his own thing, so I was like, “Well, I want to start making songs.” And I started really making them after I got great responses. And it felt great. It felt so much satisfying and fulfilling than just making a beat. It was more fun, and I realized that that was what I had to focus on.
BaaBP: During The Come Up and The Warm Up sessions, did you know that Cole was gonna blow?
Elite: Oh hell yeah. Of course! This is gonna sound crazy, but I’ve known him since he was 15 years old. The first song he sent me, I was like, “Yo, this kid is amazing!” It’s just a matter of time. And I feel the exact same way about Voli and Omen, the exact same way. It’s just a matter of time. The right situation’s gonna come. The talent within this group of people is not hard to see. It’s just the right person who knows what they’re looking for and who knows music. I told Cole, “All you need is a good artist or a good producer to hear your stuff, because they’re gonna recognize how good you are.” That’s why I knew, as soon as he said he was meeting with Jay-Z, I was like, “It’s a wrap. He’s gonna know. He’s gonna understand” It’s different when you’re meeting with an actual artist as opposed to an A&R who’s uncertain and doesn’t necessarily know. Whereas someone who listens to your lyrics, and thinks, “Oh my God. I write lyrics too, and I know how good this is.”
BaaBP: On your blog, you have the “Investigating Elitists” section, and I know you started keeping a journal in Mexico a couple years ago. Have you always written for pleasure? Do you see writing as a good form of self-reflection?
Elite: Absolutely. It’s therapy. As far as the journal goes, it’s important to clarify your thoughts sometimes. Even when you just write goals, or write you want to be perceived, or how you see things going for yourself. It’s important because a lot of times you’ll have a goal in your head and you’ll be certain of it. And then a month later it’ll be totally different and distorted because you’ve gone through so much in your life. Stuff changes, there are new influences. So I always think it’s good to sit down and reorganize your brain, and then you can stay focused on what you really want.
BaaBP: The last line of your bio is Elite “is an artist making educated decisions.” You went to SUNY Purchase. How important is education nowadays?
Elite: That’s a good question, because I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, especially when I listen to new artists. And I don’t even mean education as in school, I mean education as in knowing your craft. Knowing about the genre your in, knowing the history. I feel like you can tell somebody’s musical tastes just by listening to them. Artists that have good musical tastes are usually good. It’s hard to say good, because it’s all opinion. But I feel like if you’ve only listened to a small selection of artists in your life, you don’t have as broad of a palette; you don’t have as many colors to draw with. The more you know, the better your music is going to be.
BaaBP: Have you noticed that the two movies your music is in both have the number 2 in their title?
Elite: Nah, I didn’t even think of that.
BaaBP: What was the last good movie you saw?
Elite: Man. I don’t know. I’m really into comedies. When I go to the theatre I like it to be relaxing, because when I create it’s so intense. I just started watching LOST, and it’s so intense, man. It’s like it’s too much for me, and I can’t even do it. When I relax, I want to really relax. When I watch a movie, I wanna watch Step Brothers, or some Will Ferrell, or something like that. I guess the last serious movies I saw were Inception, Avatar was incredible. I like big dramatic stuff, you know?
BaaBP: Did you catch The Social Network?
Elite: Nah not yet, man. But I may or may not have downloaded it.
BaaBP: How did you end up doing the score for the NBA on ESPN and the NBA FINALS on ABC?
Elite: I just sent beats. [Laughs] I didn’t really score it. They were actually throw away beats. They were actually really bad beats. But they like those bad beats on ESPN, I guess because they can’t have samples in them. I remember there was a point when my manager was doing a lot of stuff for TV, and she just said, “Make beats in five minutes and just send them to me. They’ll like them.” And I said, “Aight.” And I did it, and they did.
BaaBP: Do you think compression is overused in the music industry today?
Elite: That’s so weird that you asked me that, because I was just in the studio the other day with someone I went to school with who’s an engineer. We were talking about that when we were listening to a bunch of albums. There’s this battle between dynamics and loudness, you know? I think it all depends on the song. If you’re doing an R&B track or a soulful song that has a lot of feeling to it and you want more dynamics, which means less compression. If you want something big and loud, you use more compression. I’m a compression addict, I can’t even lie. You can probably hear from my music, it’s loud and it bangs. I’m working on that right now, trying to find that balance. Especially with my mixtape. Because when you have an album that goes up and down mood-wise. You definitely don’t want it all to be loud the whole time, because then people get ear fatigue and they get tired. You want a roller coaster. I think it is overdone, but I think it’s because a lot of people don’t understand the benefits of dynamics. A lot of rappers just want it loud, they want it to hit. They don’t understand that it’s like, “Listen, this part comes in and it creates a different emotion,” you know?
BaaBP: The Groundwork, which we loved, was a compilation of all your work from 2003 to 2010. What can we expect from Elite in 2011?
Elite: Definitely the new mixtape. I haven’t released a title yet.
BaaBP: I was just about to ask you.
Elite: I have it, but it’s subject to change still. The mixtape is mostly done in terms of songs. I might do two or three more songs. I just have to do post-production and really mix it and make it right. I’m treating it like an album. It really is an album but I’m giving it away for free because I’m new as far as artists go. I would give it two months, maybe three at the most. I’ll be doing more work with Voli, Omen, and J. Cole of course. Actually last night I finished a song with Jon Connor out of Flint, Michigan. He is a beast. Whoever’s not listening to this dude should go check him out because he is a monster.
Many thanks to Shawn James and Elite. For more on Elite, check out his website.