ELZhi has been going through a lot. He won’t exactly say what—just that he’s been going through a lot.
Whatever the Detroit-bred MC has been experiencing has made him get deeper and more introspective in his music. “I went through a lot these couple of years and, you know, I wanted to basically get a little bit more personal—not only just for the fans’ sake, but for mine’s too,” says eLZhi (real name: Jason Powers), calling from the Motor City. “Just me putting out what I put down in the studio was kind of therapeutic for me. So, it kind of worked in both ways.”
Is it safe to say that eLZhi’s departure from Detroit hip-hop crew Slum Village fueled this new creative spark? “That’s part of it,” he divulges. “That’s part of what was going on.”
In 2001, eLZhi, already an established MC in the Detroit hip-hop scene, joined Slum Village, making his debut with the group on their 2002 album, Trinity (Past, Present and Future). Slum Village is itself a group that’s been through a lot, with prized producer Jay Dee (who would go on as hip-hop legend J Dilla) departing before eLZhi joined, then later dying of lupus in 2006. MC Baatin, another member of the group, would also pass away in 2009, dying of unknown circumstances in his Detroit home. ELZhi himself would cut off all ties with Slum Village in 2010, after he learned, via Twitter, that he was terminated from the group. He would later say that RJ Rice, founder of Slum Village’s longtime label Barak, sought to break them up when eLZhi hired new management for himself.
Although a Slum Village reunion will never be in the cards for him (“No way on that,” he confirms), he’s thankful to the group for teaching him about business, he says—“just to make sure that I have the proper people in place to watch over me and have my back.”
ELZhi kept himself quite busy after he left Village. Mostly, he worked on ELmatic , his 2011 mixtape tribute to Nas’ classic 1994 debut Illmatic. Although eLZhi cites Illmatic as one of the dopest albums ever made, the idea to do a salute wasn’t his. It was famed Detroit producer/DJ HouseShoes (with whom eLZHi collaborated in the late ’90s on the Out of Focus EP) who came up with the idea.
Unfortunately, he wouldn’t be the only MC at the time to come up with his own Illmatic tribute. As eLZhi was working on ELmatic, West Coast rapper Fashawn released Ode to Illmatic in 2010. “I didn’t even know he was dropping his,” remembers eLZhi. “And I heard it, and it was pretty good. I like Fashawn as an MC.”
Even with that mixtape out on the streets, eLZhi continued with ELmatic, getting Detroit funk group Will Sessions to provide its live-music backdrop. “I just came up with a bright idea one day to have a band play everything,” he says. “They have a name in the underground hip-hop community, as well as the funk community.”
While eLZhi has it on good authority that Nas listened to ELmatic and enjoyed it immensely, don’t expect Nas and eLZhi to get together for a Watch the Throne-style pairing anytime soon. “I’m pretty sure that would be very hot,” he says. “But I feel like, you know, it’s a game. You gotta build your name up for any kind of high-powered collabo to happen like that. So, that’s why I’m making sure this next project is incredible as far as, like, my standpoint. And I hope people feel it.”
Indeed, eLZhi is working on an upcoming album that he says will have “just a lot more personal records.” So, if you too are wondering what trials and tribulations he’s been dealing with to make him take this creative detour as an MC, it looks like we’re all just gonna have to wait until it comes out.
Mon., July 16, 9pm. With Chill Moody, 4th Pyramid, Dewey Decibel, Bakery Boys + DJ Phsh. $12-$15. Silk City Diner, 435 Spring Garden St. 215.592.8838. silkcityphilly.com
PW's Music Issue 2014