Prime Element began as 3 the Hardway, three hip-hop heads -- an MC, a producer and a DJ -- devoted to celebrating a culture they love through positivity, hard work and great music. Their name has obviously since changed, as has their label affiliation since Set in Stone, their last release, but what makes them a special group never has. Prime Element remains a hardnosed, old-school, local hip-hop powerhouse that won't make music any way other than how they believe it was meant to be made.
Prime Element's new release Welcome to the Future, which will be issued on the act's own House of Waxx Recordings imprint, marks a new step for them into self reliance, though they always have been, to a large degree, controllers of their own destiny. The members feel more practiced, skilled and ready than ever to take their music to the next level. In advance of the group's release show tomorrow night at the Solution, we chopped it up with the guys for a bit.
Westword: How did the three of you meet?
Es-Nine: I knew Dent, Dent knew SP Double. He [A.V.I.U.S.] had a group with SP Double. He [Cysko] had done some recording at our studio that I worked at. So that's how I knew Cysko, and that was in like 2003, 2004.
I guess you had probably worked together before you decided to make an official group.
EN: Yeah, at that point we were all pushing out to do music. I had a little [reputation] for producing because I had done some stuff with KRS-One and some other known national artists. I left my label at the time. We kind of parted ways, mutually. I kept in contact with [A.V.I.U.S.]. I met him through just hanging out with Dent. And then myself, SP Double and [A.V.I.U.S.] were like, "Let's see if we can do a group."
So we tried for a little bit, and kind of went ways. Me and A.V.I.U.S. kept in contact, and we were just like, "How about you come over, and we'll record some music. See what happens." The first song we recorded ended up being, like, "Wow. Alright, there's good chemistry there." Kept going after that.
And with [Cysko,] we're like, "Man, we need a DJ." Because I started initially deejaying myself, but at that point, I was wearing way too many hats. I was recording all the music, mixing all the music, producing all the music. At that time, we were kind of co-writing together a lot of the material.
And then, to perform, we need to make it legitimate and have a DJ. His skills on the turntables are insane. So we approached him, and we kept talking, and he did some cuts for his first album, and I was like, "Man, this stuff sounds really good." And I think we did one show, right?
A.V.I.U.S.: Yeah, we did a show at the Fox Theatre with GZA of Wu Tang, and it kind of started there. We decided to put a group together.
EN: Well, after that, we had done another show with [Cysko] and that's kinda where we were like, "Yeah, that feels a lot better," because at that time, I was trying to handle turntables and backup vocals on the stage, and I was like, "I don't know."
I was actually going to ask about that because a lot of groups or artists have DJs when they perform live, but it's not necessarily part of the group. So what do you think having an in-group DJ -- how do you think that helps the music?
EN: I think if he's not part of the group... Hip-hop comes from the DJs. I'm a DJ myself. I started as a DJ. I've been embedded in the culture from the beginning, and if you do your homework, as far as trying to come up in the game, it all started with two turntables before the MCs started rapping. Before, it used to be that the DJ was the centerpiece, and the MC was just the host trying to big-up the DJ. I think that's how it should be.
That's always referred to as the backbone of hip-hop. I believe it's true. Without the DJ, it seems a little weird. It's always looked weird to and sounded weird to me when a guy turns around, playing his computer, and presses play... The showmanship, too, you lose a lot of it... You have to have a DJ. At least for us, that's an integral thing.
As a group, do you feel like each one of you has had the opportunity to pursue whatever creative inclination you've had, individually?
A: Yeah, for me, I guess as the group's concerned, we've always supported each other's personal careers, as well, and pushed each other. I had my first solo album that Es-Nine produced. Cysko had cuts on it. And then we did the group project. And then I dropped another solo project back in 2011. Cysko did all of the cuts for it. Es Nine did a lot of the production, and mixed and engineered for it.
So we try to help each other out and support each other's careers. Cysko's done some mixtapes. He also deejays for some other groups, like I think this weekend, he's deejaying for the Procussions; they're going back on tour. And we support that. He's also gone on tour with other groups, and he's battled, and he's done cuts for big groups, like Swollen Members, who has a video with like 10 million hits that he did a single for...
[They try to remember the name of the single, but cannot. I later discovered that it was "Night Vision."]
Cysko Rockwel: I'm that tired. Sorry, I had class all night man. I am burned.
It's cool. I get it.
EN: But, yeah, we all support each other. We were just discussing that on the way over here. That's one thing that I've noticed with a lot of groups that go really hard, album after album after album -- there's two ways to look at it: They're very productive, but they also get down to the sound of the group.
As artists, I know I came into it, I have also my own ideas and things. I know he has other things he wants to explore as far as themes that probably won't work within the group, you know? And he probably wants to do some cuts for songs that probably wouldn't work for the group.
Instead of making that a problem, I think the best way to do that is to support each other in that, and one of the biggest groups that really influenced that for us was Dilated [Peoples,] which ended up becoming good friends of ours through touring and doing shows here in Denver.
We just took a page out of there book, and it was like they supported a each other every time they had a project themselves, like individually, and they actually went album after album, and then went to do their solo projects. And it always worked well, and it kept chemistry, and it's cohesive movement, and there's power in numbers. You gotta support each other.
How would you describe your creative process? Like when you guys get together and make a song, do you start with a beat? Do you start with lyrics? Do you have an idea of some samples that you want to scratch in?
A: It's luck of the draw. Sometimes it's a beat. Sometimes it's a theme.
EN: Sometimes we're just hanging out at a practice, and we're just joking about subject matter, and wind up going, "Wow, that's actually a good idea." A day later, we'll be like, "That's actually something to tackle." For a while there, I know, from a production standpoint, I used to think that you have to have a formula.
For a while that may work, but after a while, that also becomes boring. But then you also realize that it doesn't work every time, trying to have a formulaic approach. You kinda just got to approach it spontaneously. He'll come up with a theme sometimes, and I'll be like, "Let's roll with that. That's good." And I'll look for some sample to match it, or he'll be like, "Check this out! This sample."
Are you guys still with Kamikazi Airlines?
A: That was kind of like a one-off album thing. It kind of turned out to be more of a digital distribution thing. Dizzy Dustin did what he could. It was basically a beginner label coming up, and we joined, and we helped, and we went out to L.A. and did a couple of shows and a small tour. He helped us out a lot overseas; we got a lot of overseas fans because of his promotion game and because of Ugly Duckling's name. But as far as another release, we're just going ourselves and trying to build House of Waxx name and really just build our own foundation, as far as Prime Element is concerned and continue on that path.
I guess the ethics of the business and the politics of the business took over. It just seemed like a lot of things that we didn't need, such as management, such as a digital record label that we can do ourselves and kind of get the same answers or the same movement or promotion that we were getting with management and a digital release company.
So is there anything you learned from Dizzy Dustin or just the experience?
EN: Well we're grateful for it. I mean, Dizzy Dustin... That's one of the fathers as far as L.A. hip-hop. So he's part of that movement. Back in the mid- late-'90s. Ugly Duckling's a huge group out in Cali, and they're associated with people that we still deal with like... Dilated, People Under the Stairs and all that, uh, J5.
So we're grateful to have that love and to have that seal of approval from somebody that reputable in the business with an extensive catalog behind them with that group, but we were kind of like, you know, it was a one-off for them and for us, to see what we could do together. It did well. It got a good reception out in California for us, and it definitely sealed the deal for us to have a stepping stone and be more national and international.
A: It pretty much came down to a minimal budget, too, with the label. They didn't really have enough money to fund tours, and that's really what we need to do as upcoming artists still. I mean, we've been doing this for six, seven years, and we've got a reputable name, and we've got stuff we'd like to tour and get promoted overseas, and, you know, we've been on every blog spot you can be on: 2dopeboyz, The Find Magazine, we've been in SPIN magazine.
Unless you're touring constantly and you have a label that's funding you, and you're able to at least live on the road and have gas money, and these promoters are willing to pay you, you basically putting music out for people to listen to, but you're not really making money off of it. So that's kind of really what we felt like, like we're wasting our time, and we're not profiting off of it.
So we might as well start from the ground up again with [Welcome to the Future], and just start pushing our label and start figuring out what it is that we want to do with our careers and not necessarily have our careers in the hands of outsiders who don't necessarily have the budget and stuff, either, to help us out.
EN: And not to say that if they had the budget, I don't know if it would help us. It's an upstart label. They're barely coming up, and they had multiple artists besides us, so the way we felt, they were trying to do as best as they can by us and handle their business on their end.