Between Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: A Conversation with ELUCID
The Queens emcee found an unlikely home in East New York for his new album "Save Yourself"
I have lived on the same Brooklyn block for fifteen years, and from the day I moved in, I’ve watched a crew of drug dealers holding court outside my building. Some have turned from young boys into men, gone to jail, and come back home to clothes that don’t fit. I’ve seen tagalong kids they used to send for Dutchies move up the ladder until they were the ones leaning up against a brand new whip, dispatching other kids to the store with directions to keep the change. They are still there now, as I write this, but hardly any of them live in the neighborhood anymore, forced out by rising rents and eager landlords. Their childhood homes razed and their tenements ethnically cleansed, they return to this block like salmon, swimming upstream against an implacable current.
All around them, construction sites hum and clatter while white folk make their lives, oblivious to the fiends who wait, wraithlike, for a signal to meet a runner around the corner. These separate cities always existed, of course, but into today’s New York they exist in various states of siege; an ironic reversal of the white flight and redlining of the recent past.
Rapper-producer ELUCID was born in Queens and grew up moving between that borough and Suffolk County, Long Island. He and his younger brother grew up in a strict religious home, but also in a family steeped in music. ELUCID’s mother was a singer who, at one time, performed with Grace Jones. His father was a working musician, playing everything from bluegrass to funk to gospel, and his uncle is DJ Stitches, a founding member of De La Soul. So it didn’t take much for ELUCID to start making music.
“Around 16, I tried DJ’ing but I didn’t have the coordination,” ELUCID remembers. “So I started looping up beats on cassette, writing little raps and making my own tapes.”
He moved to Brooklyn for college, living with an aunt in Bedford-Stuyvesant. In the ensuing years ELUCID would leave school, work several different jobs—including a lengthy stint at Billionaire Boys Club—fall in love, move to a gentrified Fort Greene, and collaborate with artists like Tanya Morgan, Beans, billy woods and J*Davey, but he never put out an official solo album. Everything changed when his relationship of seven years came to an end. By the time the smoke cleared, the rapper had quit his job and, along with his younger brother, moved into a “quasi-abandoned” brownstone on the gritty outskirts of Brooklyn, East New York. Early on, his furnishings consisted of a mattress on the floor, a Korg sampler and a heap of records. He went back to school and got a night job as a line cook at an upscale Brooklyn restaurant.
“I would come home at one or two in the morning, turn on the system and make music till six or seven in the morning and no one complains,” he says. “I might get home and my brother was working on a beat, so I might add something to it while he was at work, and we would collaborate that way. There wasn’t much to do, no distractions, I was in a little bubble.”
From that “bubble” emerged Save Yourself. At a time when “New York hip hop” albums should come with a disclaimer that read “Herein lies the reanimated corpse of your favorite ’90s albums,” Save Yourself stands apart. Put simply, it doesn’t sound like anything else. 12 of the 17 songs on the album are self-produced, and while established beat makers like Small Pro and Willie Green make strong contributions, ELUCID is clearly running the show. Weird loops, filtered keys and horns bounce off woozy bass lines. Drums wax and wane, leaving negative space peppered with field recordings and sonic diversions. Inexplicably, NYC electro-pop duo Psychic Twin show up on two songs, to good effect. By the time “Skinny Luther” brings this album to its odd conclusion, you won’t even blink as it awkwardly welds smooth-jazz, boom bap drums and rudimentary dub together.
Save Yourself is thick with dueling notions of spirituality and religion, belief and apostasy. The songs “1000 Faces” and “Wake Up Dead Man” bookend the album with invocations of death and rebirth. On “Blame the Devil”, ELUCID wrestles with his upbringing in the church and his own lack of faith, with candor that recalls James Baldwin’s “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” Overt rap songs about Christianity often make for dull listening, regardless of their perspective but, like Baldwin, ELUCID succeeds with attention to detail by using the church as a lens through which to examine his family and community, all over a beat that sounds as if Trent Reznor is on keys at the First A.M.E. Zion. The hypnotic mantra of “No Grand Agenda” deftly moves between new age, self-help speak and Christian theology while embracing neither. “Jealous God” is either a religious analogy for a relationship song or a relationship analogy for a religious song, but there is no subterfuge in “Burnt Sugar’s” scalding breakup appraisal, delivered over jury-rigged punk rock drums and throbbing bass, accompanied by electro-pop duo Psychic Twin.
Race, police brutality, rambling existentialism and personal growth all get their due but, more than anything else, this is an album about New York City, or perhaps more accurately, one of the New York cities. Much of the narrative takes place inside bodegas and fast food restaurants, in front of bulletproof glass and behind dead-bolted doors, on subways and buses, row-house stoops, storefront churches and check-cashing spots. The escape from this bleak milieu on “Burnt Sugar’s” ill-fated tropical vacation or the lazy Sunday of “Son Still Shine” only makes the return that much more stark.
All of this comes to a head roughly midway through the album on “If You Say So”. The song is a slow burning elegy to a disappearing Brooklyn; it’s benighted residents, loosed by the developer’s wrecking ball from their grimy tenements, like chattel slaves in the Union Army’s wake. The old order, however unjust, has crumbled and the question of “what now” hangs in the air like an epithet.
“That reverse white flight/got you a slice/urban renewal/dead nigger poltergeist you can’t remove/as a reminder…to live and die in a hole/tiramisu-like layers of chaos and control/internalize and implode/panic attacks/asthma/tabernacle and botanica be equally packed in attempts to guide an unseen hand in personal favor/this won’t take all night/cosmic pager/paid the balance/land raiders coming malice/cut-rate shell of a broke down palace…”
Then, the murky, hashish-pipe of a beat dissolves into a pastiche of keys and jazzy riffs only to reemerge as a warmly hypnotic loop. ELUCID shifts from grim prophet to wry observer with lines like “you niggers better learn to swim/Jamaica Bay is callin/dreamed I bought a houseboat, mopped the deck to Sonny Rollins” before tying this ticking bomb of a song up in a mocking baseball analogy.
It’s a remarkable song, and a microcosm of the album in the way that it humanizes the ghetto without romanticizing. These neighborhoods whose plunder he details are places of neglect and deprivation, violence and persecution, but still, they were our neighborhoods. No one cries for the slumlord they leave behind; they weep for the one they are soon to meet.
Underneath all these ideas of community, though, Save Yourself is a lonely album. Outside of childhood reminiscing and the embers of a failed relationship, our narrator is alone. His few human interactions—almost all of which are with strangers—are easily outnumbered by the spectral ones. When I ask ELUCID about this, he points to the unusual circumstances in which the album was made. “I was in a new neighborhood where I don’t know anyone, and people aren’t always eager to speak to or acknowledge strangers,” he muses. “People have been here for generations and I am that new face on the block.”
New York centrism aside, Save Yourself actually has more in common with Goodie Mob’s 1995 classic Soul Food than it does with Nas’ Illmatic. It’s a potent blend of apocalyptic overtones, dense imagery, racial politics, religion, violence, sex and paranoia that somehow manages to be intensely personal at the same time. You could argue that “Jealous God” does all those things in a single song. Like Soul Food, the political is personal, and even that which is God’s must ultimately be rendered unto Caesar.
There will always be calls for artists to “bring New York back,” regardless of the fact that no one can really agree on what that would mean. And there will always be someone imitating Premier, just like there will always be someone imitating Muddy Waters—it’s like complaining on Stringer Bell’s proverbial 40 degree day. Far more interesting are the projects, like Ka’s Grief Pedigree (2012) and Ratking’s 2014 debut So It Goes, that go beyond the artifice of “New York Rap” and actually give us one of the Naked City’s eight million. Before we part ways, I ask ELUCID about the veracity of his line on “Lest They Forget” about meeting Parrish Smith while working at McDonald’s. He laughs, before replying, “Yes, that’s a true story.”