Interview: Elzhi Goes In Depth About Fighting Depression, Flint And The Legacy Of Detroit Hip-Hop

In the often hyper-machismo culture of hip-hop, a lot of value is placed upon your public persona and image. Never mind humanity when it’s all about keeping your poker face, your chips stacked high and your image larger-than-life. But sometimes, like the great writer Langston Hughes says, “Life ain’t been no crystal stair.” In the midst of enjoying the music, we often forget that when a rapper is out the recording booth and when the cameras are off, artists are just as human as the rest of us.

READ: Talib Kweli, Elzhi & Phonte ‘No Competition’

Although most emcees often dish out their anguish and pain on songs, there’s hardly ever any dialogue about the reality behind mental illness and clinical depression — especially among entertainers. They live hard and fast lives where no matter what happens, even if they lose loved ones, they have to keep moving for the sake of their careers. Unlike us regular folk, artist don’t have time to mourn or heal. It’s an ugly game.

In a grander view, depression is also something that isn’t talked about much in the black community without having a negative stigma attached to it. And depending on how a person copes — it will either lead to a new beginning of healing or a downward spiral of self-destruction.

Thankfully, Elzhi, who did hip-hop justice as a part of the legendary Detroit group Slum Village, did the former and turned his pain into art. While suffering from a deep depression for years, even during his run with his critically acclaimed Elmatic tape, he went through a lengthy hiatus leaving fans thirsty for more. Now, he’s using music to help fight his demons with the album Lead Poison, a lyrically and musically elegant personal narrative about all that he has been going through. With many revealing stories, exemplary lyrics, and solid production, fans will be drawn in to what is his most personal album to date,

Lead Poison is me finding that outlet of getting that poison out the only way that I know how and that’s to write. The first step is to get it out and write down all the things that are bothering me. The next step is to talk about it the way I’m doing right now. So I feel good, I feel fresh,” said the D-Town lyricist.

Heading on the bright road to recovery, he El chopped it up with VIBE and went into detail about what he was going through, how he wants to combat he negative stigma of depression, the legacy of J. Dilla and Detroit Hip-Hop — and he certainly pulls no punches on the water crisis in Flint, Mich.

How long did it take for you to put the album together?
What’s funny is if you follow my career, it’s like it doesn’t really take me that long to do a record. In this particular case, I was working on myself while I was working on the record because I was going through so much because the way that I looked at life was like… my perception was all about the deception pretty much and at one point in time, I never was able to look at the bright side of what was going on.

Once I really got together what I wanted to say, then I had to go through that process of like, okay, I gotta make the subject matter a little lighter, I gotta be a little playful with this, it’s a certain way I gotta come with it. I wanted my album to sound more whimsical, ‘cuz I was in the mind state of Tim Burton, Quentin Tarantino, that kind of vibe. I wanted the record to sound real whimsical, but at the same time, tell my story, so it took a minute to actually get that fusion going and put it through that funnel to make it sound the way I wanted. But once I got it there, once I heard how it sounded for the first couple of tracks it was like ‘okay, now I know what to do with the rest of them.’ But I would say it took me like a year to just fix everything completely.

Is depression something that you’ve been dealing with all your life or did it happen between Elmatic and now?
What happened was, I never really dealt with it because I was on the move. When my mom passed [in 1998], life flipped upside down for me. And I feel like around that time I probably should have talked to somebody. I should have talked to a counselor, a psychiatrist, or something. But at that time, I was so driven to do what I wanted to do because I’ve been rhymin’ since I was eight. When my mom passed it hurt me, but because I wasn’t sitting on my ass and wasn’t chasing a dream. I didn’t really have time to deal with those issues. It started with that and along the way you had people who turn their back on you and show their true colors and you still moving.

Then issues with your label to find out that their doing things that you don’t really approve of, and you still moving so once I got out of that label issue and got out of that group I was in at the time, I actually sat my ass down and was trying figure out what my next move was. That’s when everything started flooding. My psyche was like… I was feeling the aftershock of an earthquake. And so form there it became this thing where it was just like, ‘damn!’ Everything from homies passing and other real life situations. It was too much and it got to my spirit, and then I did Elmatic. ANd I couldn’t even enjoy that moment, you know what I’m saying? Like, going on tour and kicking it with the people who enjoying the record and testimonies about the record and how they felt about it. It was very much appreciated, but I wasn’t there. I wasn’t in the right headspace… thinking everything was ok, and it wasn’t.

I’ve had bouts with depression myself, man. How were you battling that while coming off as if you still had it all together?
It was crazy, cuz you know, my manager makes magic happen, he that guy. He was hosting industry parties and wanted me to come along, which is understandable, but I would get there — and I would feel really out of place. I’m not really with the fake s**t. I’m just not like that, and I can’t do it. You can probably see it in my face, like I’m not having a good time. So it’s like I’d front like everything is okay, but I be really feeling out of place knowing that my s**t ain’t together like that. So with that, I spent a lot of time with myself, especially because I ended up developing trust issues with people who I thought was family and was tossing that word around, frivolously, like we was really brothers from another mother, and I found out that we wasn’t.

It was kind of difficult for me to open up to people who I didn’t know like that and really study what was really going on. I had to study their mannerisms, how they walk, how they talk, what was in their eyes when they was talking to me, the grip of their handshake and that kind of s**t. I had to spend time to myself. That was some of the best and worst times of my life because I was getting close to God and really got spiritual. Being able to pick up on the signs and pick up on what he’s saying and I’ll go to church or whatever. It was also a constant struggle to overcome depression, it had me in a headlock, it was bringing me to the ground. I was constantly fighting that s**t, but sometimes it will win, sometimes I’d win. But doing it by myself, it was kind of wack as f**k. I got through it, though.

What’s something that you wish you could have done differently in your darkest hours?
At that moment in time, I should have realized that it’s not the size of your problems, it’s how you view them, you realize it’s not a problem because anything that God allows to come to you is beneficial for you, and a lot of people like to choose to live their life like seeing things only with their two eyes that was given for them to navigate the third dimensional plane, but that’s not how you look at things.

You gotta look at things through a spiritual way. That means going deeper, cutting through the surface and fabric of reality and accept what that really is. Once you understand that anything being thrown at you is beneficial, then it’ll change the way you look at life. So I wish that was something I was fully knowledgeable about.

If you could, how would you like to change the stigma of depression and mental illness within the black community?
The only way I know how is through my God given gifts. Just being real with what I write. Eventually I want to write books about my struggles of depression and winning that battle. Maybe I could put a book out there that somebody can pick up and read or maybe I could do a seminar or something and get something out of that, or through my lyrics.

Going back to Elmatic, going on the road and as an entertainer, the kind of entertainer that I am, I’ll get off the stage and go to the [merchandise] table and kick it with the people that came to the show. There were so many people that came to me like, my mom passed, and I heard your version of “Memory Lane” — and I totally relate and it got me through this and it got me through that. And so that’s when I started realizing the power of what we do as emcees, to be able to have that soapbox. To be on that soapbox and say what we want to say. Now some people misuse their power and they don’t really understand their power like that, but once you understand it you would watch some of the things that you say. So it would probably be like writing and getting that writing out there, just playing my part to get people to change the way they think and overcoming depression.

Did the anticipation for the album get to you?
Nah. Every now and then I’d tip-toe on a certain site and see somebody comment out of frustration because it took too long. They might have said some choice words that I don’t agree with and some people that I know would be like, ‘oh they saying that, man, I would have did this or said that,’ and I really didn’t see it that way because I changed the way I looked at things. I wasn’t really putting any information out there. In this competitive game of hip-hop everybody wants to wear the crown. Part of me was embarrassed to put it out there, but once I started writing really how I felt and what it’s about, it set me free. It literally became medicine. The poison inside of me, of how I felt was coming out my pencil, writing what I was writing, it set me free. To be more open about what was going on. So I couldn’t blame that person being frustrated or whatever. In actuality, I saw a positive in it like, this kid really gives a f**k and I love that.

What’s your thoughts on what’s going on with the Flint water crisis? Did you have any friends and family out there?
Nah, I don’t really have any friends or family out there, but I think it’s disgusting, man. Just the whole situation of people getting backed into a corner. They can’t really sell their cribs or anything. It’s illegal because of the lead situation and poison water. And then, babies getting rashes from washing up in the water, and then they’re still threatening to cut peoples water off if they don’t pay!

To me, that’s bulls**t , just the whole thought process of allowing that to happen in the first place, people dying behind it, s**t is f**kin disgusting to me, man. Somebody gotta pay for that, at least in my opinion. I don’t understand it, man. I want to do something for them, I wish I had the bread to do everything I want to do but I want to do something for ‘em.

Who do you think should get the blame for what’s going on there?
When you talk about deaths and people dying because of decisions that was made, that’s blood on people’s hands. When you talk about deaths, [I think Gov. Rick Snyder] should be in a jail cell. It’s other things that I’m hearing too as far as like, one of my peoples I used to rap with, he’s working at the plant and he was telling me things that was happening in the plant and it had something to do with Snyder. He gotta pay for that. You know what’s crazy? I’m hearing that it’s happening in other parts in America where people are dealing with pollution in their water. To know that it’s a kid out here not knowing what clean water looks like. So I mean, it’s so f**king disgusting.

What’s your thoughts on Dilla Day that just passed recently?
It still amazes me that people around the world celebrate J. Dilla and rightfully so, he changed everybody’s life, but just to know the man and see the love that he get is incredible. [People] ain’t know Dilla like I know Dilla but they loved the music that he put out. They love it so much that they’ll go buy posters and frame ‘em and art pieces that was created by somebody and put ‘em on their wall, and it’s just incredible to see it just to see all the love that he get and how his music has not only change people’s lives, but… it’s crazy to know the guy. It’s just a blessing to see. And every year I feel like it’s another person getting up on him. It’s just growing and growing.

Considering that Detroit brought us so many legends and great artists like J Dilla, Slum Village, Eminem, Kid Rock, yourself, Black Milk, all that, do you feel that Detroit gets the proper respect it deserves from hip-hop?

I think we get the low key respect. I think we are respected. I think people appreciate what we do. I can’t speak on other cities, but it’s kind of hard to make it out Detroit. But low key, from the Amphibious, to the Movie Mans, to the Andreas, the Guilty Simpsons, I feel like people know. People know what’s up and we see it everywhere. I remember Inspectah Deck being at Rock the Bells, and I remember walking through the little area to get to the stage and I hear somebody calling my name and it was Inspectah Deck and I was like “Oh s**t, Inspectah Deck know me?” It’s always that feeling like, ‘Rakim know me?’ Yeah, I think we get that respect, that low key respect, but man, I’ll take it how I can get it. I’m just being myself and doing what I do.