EL-P On The New Cat-Rap Classic Meow The Jewels: "It's A Lonely And Strange Thing"

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Embrace the moment: One of the most feverishly anticipated hip-hop
albums of the year is finally here, and it’s made up almost entirely of sampled cat sounds. It’s called Meow the Jewels, and you can download it for free right here, and its backstory is now the stuff of internet (and cat) lore. It started when EL-P and Killer Mike (EL’s on the left in the pic above), they of wildly feted rap duo Run the Jewels, teased last year’s firebrand Run The Jewels 2 album with a premium $40,000 pre-order option wherein you could commission a full remix of the record using nothing but kitty meows and purrs. A fine jape!

But then a fan-borne Kickstarter campaign was instigated to actually hit that $40,000 figure; it sailed past its target, and a bunch of other artists who you might think have better things to do with their studio time than twiddle around with a clowder of sampled feline sounds jumped on board. Those esteemed names include Massive Attack, Geoff Barrow from Portishead, Beyoncé’s pal Boots, hip-hop banger-makers Just Blaze and Alchemist, sci-fi beat technician Dan the Automator, and off-kilter singer-songwriter Zola Jesus. These are fine times indeed for the creative class.

Donning a critic’s hat, let me say that the completed Meow the Jewels is definitely unlike any other cat-sounds album you’ve heard in recent times. (Important note: All profits from the vinyl version and so forth will go to charitable causes, so it’s not like anybody’s getting rich off the cat game.) Early-exposure highlights from the 12-track project include the juxtaposition of Alan the Chemist’s delightfully childlike and melliferous “Creown” with EL’s own menacingly caterwauling take on “Jeopardy,” along with Barrow’s pioneering “Close Your Eyes and Meow to Fluff,” which surely establishes sub-purrs as the new sub-bass.

In celebration of Meow the Jewels’ release over the weekend, I spoke to EL-P—because, as he puts it, “Mike hates cats”—about the artistic suffering that goes along with crafting cat-based hip-hop music, sampling Lil BUB’s whines and yelps, and the kitties who have helped define his life.


Whose idea was it to include the Run the Jewels 2 pre-order joke of remaking the album with cat sounds?

That was me, unfortunately.

Does Killer Mike now hate you?

Well, Mike didn’t really have to do anything for it! I hate me. I’m mad at myself, and I think a lot of the producers probably are mad at me—I don’t think they realized exactly what they were getting into.


Can you remember your reaction when you realized someone had started a Kickstarter to force you to make Meow the Jewels?

Yeah, my first reaction was, “I should ignore this, because this is not real.” Then the second reaction was, “Shit, I should probably shut this down, because this is a terrible idea, and it was a joke.” So, yeah, I was not happy about it—not that I was upset, I just didn’t want it to go too far.


But at that point, the rest of the world seemed to think it was a great and funny idea.

They did. It did start to gain a little traction, and we put our support behind it. I think we realized there was a chance to do something cool—not even really about the music, but an unexpected mechanism to give back to people and do something for charity. That was when we decided, “Alright, fuck it, if people make it happen, and the people like this idea and want to make something happen for that reason, as well as just to watch us suffer while we try and create a cat record, then it will be worth our time.”

Once Meow the Jewels became fully funded, what were your first steps? Did you really go around and sample sounds from cats?


I actually threw in an old meow from my old cat, Mini Beast, on the low—I didn’t even credit her, because she oversaw the whole thing. But, no, I didn’t really go around sampling all these cats—it was finding libraries of cat stuff and weird shit. I only did one song myself, so I didn’t have to go too fuckin’ far. Lil BUB reached out through her owner—she doesn’t talk directly to anybody—and they sent me an entire library of sounds from her, and I sampled a bunch of random shit from just YouTube and just bullshit I could find. I had to dig deep; I had to find some libraries and some little things. It worked out okay.

What’s it like to listen to an entire library of Lil BUB sounds?

Um, amusing at first, then the slow, creeping reality of madness starts to set in. At first it seemed like a hilarious and maybe even an easy idea, but once I realized that it was actually possible to make it sound okay, that was when I realized I was fucked, because I wasn’t going to allow myself to make something that just sounded like pure shit. That was the problem with Meow the Jewels: “Oh, fuck, it’s actually possible to take these sounds and make something decent.” [Pauses.] I would never even insult the world by saying “good,” but it’s certainly the high-water mark for cat-sound records, I think.


Is there much competition when it comes to cat-sound records?

What’s out there?

I have no idea. I didn’t really research it.

Whatever’s out there, buddy, whatever there is, you better believe it, and I’m coming for the crown.


From a technical point of view, is there anything you did to the cat sounds to make them sound better?

There were only a few rules. One is that you had to only use sounds that were cat sounds, but you were allowed to interpret that instruction as you pleased. In other words, if someone were to have sampled the sound of a Jaguar car, that would have actually qualified. No one did that. But a cat hitting their collar with a bell on it, that’s fine.


For me, I ended up just treating it like I’d treat any sample, which for the most part is I try to obscure it, I try to change it, I try to run it through effects and things and turn it into something that it was originally not. That was the only criteria that I had to stick to—that it was all source material from cats.


Did the other artists featured on the project stick to the same rules?

Everyone had to kinda make their own choices about that, contextually and with their sense of humor, and also in their approach. Some people went really far into it, like Just Blaze [on “Oh My Darling Don’t Meow”], you almost can’t tell it’s cat sounds—it’s just a dope beat. There’s not too much that sounds like cats on there. I think me and Boots took a similar approach, but there are other people who made it really obvious that these are cat sounds. That was one of the cool things about the project, that you had all these really amazing producers being forced to be really terrible producers—basically being forced back to square one. It was the great leveler: No one is particularly great at producing a record with cat sounds.


Which of the other artists surprised you most with their use of cat sounds?

Man, everyone did a great job. I think the first one that really blew my mind and fucked me up and made me go back to the drawing board—like, “I can’t just make it a complete joke”—was Boots, when he did “Meowrly.” He told me, “Yo, I’m trying to make the Sgt. Pepper’s of cat songs, like I’m gonna make it like my version of ‘A Day in the Life.’” That was the first one that completely fucked my head up. But everyone was amazing; Just Blaze was obviously unbelievable, but there’s a lot of range in the way people approached the shit—like, Zola Jesus’s shit is just completely psychedelic, and I think the Little Shalimar one is probably the funkiest of all, one of the most head-noddy ones. I tried to make a banger—we’ll see.


Which track did you do?

“Jeopardy,” the first track on the album.


What were your first sketches of the cat-sound version of “Jeopardy” like?

The first sketches were me literally recreating the original but substituting cat sounds, and I got pretty far. One of the very first things I put out to the public was an Instagram clip of that, of me trying to recreate that. I got pretty far, but I kinda hit a brick wall. I kinda wanted to be almost really exact, and I realized how difficult it was to do it, and I walked away from it, and I was touring, and I was also trying to get everyone else to pick which song they were doing and get it all in motion, so I kinda put it off and put it off. Then when I heard Boots’s mix, I was like, “Oh, right, I don’t have to actually recreate the song in cat noises, ’cause that’s impossible.” That really inspired me to go and create something brand new.


Do did you have many deep conversations with the other producers about cat sounds?

Oh, yeah, for sure, absolutely, because imagine how lonely it is! All of your friends are out there having fun, producing regular human records, everyone’s doing what they’re meant to be doing, and you’re at home, and you’ve already said yes publicly to a charity record. No one can really back out—and the ones that did back out had really good reasons, like they weren’t around. But for the most part, it’s a lonely thing—it’s a lonely and strange thing. Who else are you gonna talk to?


Did any of the other producers sample their own cats?

Yes, Geoff Barrow from Portishead and I believe 3D from Massive Attack, so the two Brits. And maybe Just Blaze. And also there were two pledgers who bought the higher tier, and they could send in their cat sounds and we would incorporate it into the record, so we did that on the track that I produced.


What were those cats’ meows like?

Shit, man, it’s all a blur.

What do you think people will get out of listening to Meow the Jewels?

Honestly, man, I think if anything, a smile and a laugh and on occasion even a little bit of enjoyment. But more than anything, I think this record just exists because people wanted to make it happen, and there’s something good associated with it, and there’s something good that we could do with it. That’s all I really care about. If it takes some inside joke to make it happen, then I’m all for it. More than anything, I think it’s an anomaly as an interesting and weird fuckin’ record. There hasn’t ever been anything like it, and there probably won’t ever be anything like it, and that’s it.


What other hip-hop album do you think would be most suited to being recreated with cat sounds?

Man, I would never want to insult anybody by stating that clearly. I have no idea!


Which cats would be on the ultimate Meow the Jewels posse cut?

Good question! Chester, Garfield, Heathcliff, Cat Stevens—pardon me, I don’t have them all at my memory—the Cheshire cat, Tom from Tom and Jerry, Fritz the Cat but the Ralph Bakshi version specifically, and I think that would be a pretty jam-packed session.


If you and Mike were cats, what breeds would you be?

We’d be the kind that do not stay indoors. We’d be whatever mutts viciously roam through the alleyways, picking through garbage and having sex at night.


Is it true that Mike’s actually allergic to cats?

Nah, Mike’s not allergic to cats. Mike just hates them. It’s much easier to just hate a cat than to be allergic to one.


You mentioned your old cat Mini Beast earlier. Which track is she sampled on?

Well, it’s hidden. It’s in my track; it’s just a little hidden moment to pay homage. I grew up with this thing—it’s not like I’m a cat lover, this cat was given to me by a drunken ex-girlfriend, and we became friends, and she lived for a long time. So I figured I’d tip the hat to her.


Did Mini Beast ever show any interest in the music you were making over the years?

Oh yeah, absolutely, she was a studio cat. She sat in my lap; there’s nowhere else she wanted to be more than in my lap by the speakers that were bumping—which may actually have contributed to her ultimate deafness.


Do you have any tips for anyone else keeping a studio cat?

Keep them out of the studio! I’m pretty sure that if you hired a musicologist, you could find a cat meowing all over my entire fuckin’ catalogue, to be honest with you.


Did you have any other cats while you were growing up?

Yeah, I had one called Murphy, got him when I was seven—he lived for 18 years. And then I had Mini Beast. Murphy, incidentally, was named after Eddie Murphy.


What was Murphy’s personality like?

You know, he was like an orange tabby. He masturbated a lot, strangely enough. He used to hump teddy bears. It was strangely disturbing.


I think that’s a good place to end this.


Phillip Mlynar lives in Queens, NYC. When not writing about rappers for Red Bull, NYLON, and the Village Voice, he muses on the feline form for Catster. His Twitterclaims he’s the world’s foremost expert on rappers’ cats.


Lead image by Getty and Shutterstock.

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