Derek “Sadat X” Murphy and William “El Da Sensei” Williams are consummate professionals. They share a love for dope hip-hop and a commitment to creating music that will appeal to their dedicated fanbases. Teaming up to record an album together seems like a natural extension of their longtime friendship and their steadfastness to their blue-collar approach to creating their art, which manifests itself in XL, the duo’s first full-length musical partnership.
Both El Da Sensei and Sadat X are members of acclaimed and legendary hip-hop groups, as well as seasoned solo acts. Sadat X is a founding member of the iconic Brand Nubian, which began to make noise in 1990 and has since recorded six albums. He has also dropped 10 solo albums since 1996. Meanwhile, El is best known as one half of Artifacts, but has been recording solo material since 2002.
The pair have a long history in the hip-hop scene. Sadat and Lord Jamar took Artifacts under their wing in the early ’90s, and helped them record their first demo. They’d remained cool over the years, even appearing on each other’s albums on occasion, like the extremely dope “On and On” from El’s first solo album, Relax, Relate, Release (2002).
Six years ago, the two realized that it made sense to collaborate and record an album together. Busy schedules from both recording and touring prevented them from finishing the album until 2018. They finally released XL in late September of last year.
I recently spoke with Sadat and El about the long process to making the album, their in-studio chemistry, shared work ethic, and the role of veterans like themselves in the current hip-hop landscape.
Jesse Ducker: When did you guys decide you wanted to record an album together?
Sadat X: It’s been in the making for a long time. It finally came together I’d say maybe about five years ago. We actually started putting the pieces together and got the process going and then it matriculated from there.
El Da Sensei: We got the same friends who were kind of asking us, “Y’all ever think about doing a project together?” And we just looked at each other and were like, “Yo, let’s try it, see what happens.” This was the final result.
SX: Basically, it was that time, with a lot of people telling us to do it and it was a matter of us really sitting down and just doing it.
EDS: We know the same friends as far as producers. Half of the producers on the album, we both know, so it fell into place once we started getting into the music.
JD: For the album’s production, did you primarily use people you knew or did you work on getting some from outside submissions?
SX: I would say a combination of both, actually. People we knew, people sending in beats, people that were recommended to us, a combination of all of that.
EDS: Yeah, and international production as well. We pretty much were like, “Let’s get everybody we can get that we know can help and actually have a new sound.” We still worked with the older dudes like Spinna, J Rawls, we got new blood with Mentalist and Divine Drummer. So a lot of the producers on the record are kind of new.
JD: How long have you two known each other?
EDS: Over 20 years.
SX: Word, since the ‘90s, so it’s been about 25 years.
JD: How did you first meet?
SX: We were performing at the State building in Harlem, downtown. I met [El and Tame] and they explained they were doing what they were doing and they were on some hip-hop tip and trying to get their stuff together. I guess we exchanged numbers, connected, and they would come up to New Rochelle where I had some DJ equipment, me and Lord Jamar, and basically we just took it from there and just kept the bond growing.
EDS: We were watching them perform in Harlem and we knew they were gonna be there, so we caught the train. Actually, there’s a little story to this. Me and my man Polo Ice got arrested that same day. Because me, Tame, and his boy, we’re on the train, writing on the train and then the conductor dude came and saw us. Even though we had the markers you can wipe off, they still were like, “Nah, let’s go.” So we got arrested that afternoon and still made it to the show.
SX: That’s crazy.
EDS: It was a big concert. A lot of rappers were on there. When we were walking down the street coming to the stage, Monie Love and Lord Finesse were on stage doing a freestyle off of, “You’re a Customer,” the EPMD remix beat. So that was crazy.
JD: Sadat, from what I understand, Brand Nubian helped shepherd Artifacts in the beginning of their career. I remember reading when Artifacts were in the “Unsigned Hype” column in The Source in the early ’90s, that you and Jamar appeared on their demo and worked with them.
SX: We were instrumental in hearing a lot of stuff they did. Jamar did some early production with Artifacts. We were just there through the whole process. Not like we were overseeing them or something, because they stood on their own, they were doing what they do. I just was a fan looking, watching, and observing.
JD: You two are both accomplished solo artists, and you’re both accomplished as members of different legendary groups. How was the chemistry between you guys different this time?
SX: It was good because, basically, me and El are the same type of artist. We work with other people. We’re pretty much flexible. A lot of the songs we wrote together so we could sound natural together, as opposed to it sounding like a whole e-mailed album. That was one thing that we stressed, that we wanted it to sound authentic. We wanted it to sound basically like we were in the same place at the same time. So we worked together. Both of us are pretty much laid back, easygoing people, so it wasn’t really a stretch to do.
EDS: Nah, definitely not. And being fans of each other made it easier, because when you’re sitting there, whether I’m in the booth or he’s in the booth, for me it was like damn, it’ll be great if we get to do this. Because as a fan, I love his music. So when we finally got to do this, to hear that shit coming out of the little studio room, me and my mans were like, “Oh shit, it’s really happening.” Like the first song, we were like, “Oh shit, this is about to be dope, yo!”
JD: What was the first song you recorded together?
EDS: The first song we recorded was “Like It.” And after we did that song, I played it for my man. I remember clear as day, we were in the laundromat, I gave him the phone, he listened to it, he stopped the music he was like, “Yo, this shit sound like y’all been doing this for a minute together!” I was like, “Nah, that’s the first one.” He was like, “All right, let me hear the rest.”
JD: So did you record the whole thing five years ago, or was it a continuous process over time?
SX: Over time. We recorded maybe one or two songs five years ago and then another song later on. Mind you, we were still working, we’re still artists, so we were still going around doing what we were doing. But over this period of time, we just stretched it out.
EDS: For that time span that went by, we added stuff to the album. The scratch interludes—we didn’t have that. We patiently waited and we got the Freddie Foxx joint out of that. It’s a blessing in disguise not to rush everything. It was like Detox stuff for us on some Dr. Dre shit. It worked out because we didn’t rush it.
JD: So did you record in studio together all the time?
SX: I would say we did about 90% of it together. Maybe one or two songs given the circumstances I might’ve had to e-mail or he might’ve had to e-mail. But basically 90% of the album we did together.
EDS: The 10% was the last bit of the album because we were in rush mode to get the mixing and stuff done, the mastering. Salute to my man Jake Palumbo. Without him mixing that record, we would’ve been waiting a little bit longer, so that was a blessing to have him.
JD: Did you come up with the concepts ahead of time or in the studio?
SX: The song concepts came according to each song. The feel of each song, what we were talking about. That gave way to naming the songs and doing what we do.
EDS: It’s like, “Play the beat,” then we looked at each other and it was only maybe a few songs where I’d say it was hard work. We had a discussion about this industry and dealing with producers and doing features and shit like that. That’s where the line came, where X says, “We ain’t pressing send on the computer to do songs, we in the studio together.” And like we said, it makes for better chemistry.
JD: One theme throughout XL is exploring hard work, power moves, and work ethics in general. Is there a particular reason that this became a dominant theme?
SX: Pretty much if you look at me and El, we’re pretty much hard-working artists. There’s nothing wrong with it, but we don’t have a whole bunch of jewels and cars and stuff like this. Basically, if you look at the world, 90% of the world has to work. 90% of the people in this world gotta get on some type of hustle to make some type of bread. If you’re afforded the luxury of not having to do that, well hey, that’s better for you. But we wanted to make music that celebrated people that’s been up with us. He mentioned his man Polo Ice; Polo Ice has been up with us for like 30 years. Dudes like that. Dudes that get up in the morning that go to work, that come home and maybe drink a beer, have something to eat, smoke something. That’s who we made it for.
EDS: We just wanted to make a record today like how we made records in the ’90s because dudes don’t have skits and little beats come in where they disappear, and dudes like, “Damn, they should’ve rhymed on that.” Those are the things we wanted to add to the record: just little ingredients to let dudes know where we came from.
JD: Why don’t you think rappers work like that today?
SX: Because they’re trying to rush getting shit out. Now, when a lot of artists put out these songs and albums, they just stream the whole album out. Back when we were putting out stuff before, you put out an album but you might’ve had some physical work with it, the credits and all that and I miss that. I look forward to looking at the credits on the album, seeing who somebody shouted out, and being able to hold it in my hand. You get a different feeling when you can hold something in your hand and actually look at it, as opposed to streaming. Nothing is wrong with it, but it’s two different things. Back then, it was more personal.
EDS: And you see dudes now asking for physical copies of CDs and the vinyl.
SX: Because they want to support that!
EDS: They wanna sit there and look at the record. It’s like getting cereal in the morning. You’re eating a bowl of cereal, you’re looking at the box.
JD: Do you both still buy CDs and vinyl?
SX: When I can, I do.
EDS: Yeah, definitely. I support all our peers, so we support each other and sometimes they hand you stuff and put it in your laptop or the car. But it’s definitely a support thing because we all are in the same game right now and we’re doing the same thing. So I would think that the labels are smart to listen to the fans because it’s going back. I don’t like saying that, but it’s going back to a level where there is an equal plane so everybody’s on the same level.
JD: Do you feel like you get proper respect as veterans of the hip-hop game?
SX: We make our lane and we’ll take our respect. That’s one thing, I don’t dwell on what’s going on and what people are talking about, “How long are you gonna do this? When are you gonna give it up?” We’re just doing it. We still have fans and we cater to them. If we get new fans, we love it. I love to get new fans, people that don’t know El Da Sensei or people that don’t know Sadat X. That’s part of the touring game and actually getting on stage and doing it live. We’ll take new fans, but we still concentrate for our old fans. We don’t dwell on, “Y’all getting older” or this and that. We’re just making music.
EDS: And the gift with doing it today, when we’re doing these records, cats will see “XL,” but then when they see us, they’re like, “Oh, that’s the dude from Artifacts and that’s the dude from Brand Nubian.” So when at our shows, a lot of our fans are young. So when we go to Europe, a lot of times these cats are coming in the club and they’re a mixed crowd, so it’s a mixture of ages. It’s our age group there and then they got the young cats there and they’re like, “Okay, I’ve never seen these dudes perform before.” So they know Sadat’s music as a solo artist and they know my music as a solo artist. And these other songs start coming on, they’resaying, “What’s ‘Punks Jump Up To Get Beat Down? What’s ‘Come On Wit the Get Down?’”
So now you’re bringing new fans in with older fans and that’s the gift and the curse with the Internet. So it’s a blessing for us because we’re reaching new people. For the older cats, they’re appreciating what we’re doing because they know we can easily stop, because it’s so frustrating today, with older artists trying to make music and getting these kids to accept it. We bridging the gap right now. Like if you look at the Jurassic Park movie, they made that new dinosaur, but at the end of the movie, who do they call? They brough the T-Rex out. That’s what we are right now. We’re like dinosaurs walking amongst these new monsters but yet, we still stomp hard and we make our music and we make our way.
JD: Do you feel like there’s a lane for rappers from your era?
SX: I think it’s a good, solid lane, it’s just that you gotta keep consistently making good music. Masta Ace consistently makes good music where he’s created his lane. And it’s like as long as you keep putting out good music, you will have a lane.
EDS: And they claim 2018 was a good year in hip-hop because a lot of releases came out, but when you look at the majority of releases, it was from the older artists, whether it was us, Masta Ace, Black Thought, Roc Marciano. All of us come from that ’90s era, so there’s definitely room for us because like X said, we make good music and you can’t deny that.
JD: Roc Marci put out like three albums this year, right?
SX: That’s the work ethic, you see? That’s the work ethic.
EDS: He definitely made a lane for himself and that’s the thing we’re talking about. When cats hear about these dudes like Roc Marci, who isn’t a new artist. A lot of these dudes think he’s new.
SX: Yeah, he’s not new. He’s been out for years!
EDS: Mad years like Flipmode Squad with Busta and them. He was in a group called The U.N. a few years ago and now my man done made a lane for himself where he can just pretty much do what he wanna do, release his stuff when he wants to. He doesn’t have to put it on iTunes first and he lets people get in first and then he gives it to the big boys. That’s a good thing.
JD: So what are you guys listening to right now?
EDS: Mostly those cats I just mentioned.
SX: I’m listening to our album, I’m listening to Roc Marci, but then I listen to some of the younger artists. The only thing with the younger artists is there’s so many of them and it’s so much volume of them coming out with stuff, where sometimes I don’t remember the names of them because it’s just so many. Like back when we were coming out, first of all, you had to be nice to come out. You couldn’t just come out. You had to have some type of apprenticeship or some type of cosigning to let you come out.
But like I said, I listen to artists of my era. I still listen to A.G., O.C., Roc Marci. I listen to regular music, James Brown this and that but then I listen to some of the new cats too. I just can’t remember all of their names. I listen to Westside Gunn, definitely.
EDS: That’s our lane. That’s the lane that we come from, so it’s easy to listen to them because they come from the same vein of where we were at. Artists like Benny the Butcher.
SX: Yep. That’s why they made their own lane because they don’t sound like a lot of these young kids. They sound like some young, old dudes and they created a whole new lane. Every now and then somebody comes and creates a lane. That whole Griselda movement? They’ve created a lane.
EDS: And even to speak on that, we did a show in Atlanta for A3C and I saw this with my own eyes. Me and X, that night when we performed, we were the OGs of that night. Skyzoo was there. We came on that stage and cats knew what was up, and when I looked at the film and I looked back, my man was taping it, he was like, “Yo, look. Benny is in the front of the stage.” Benny the Butcher in the front of the stage watching me and X perform. He was in the dressing room, he heard us perform and he came right out and he stood there and watched that whole show and I respected him for that because he didn’t have to do that. He showed me and X a little respect to say, “Damn okay, these dudes is rocking.” And we know it’s easy for all these young dudes to bypass, but I think because of the respect level that he has for us, I liked that he was in front of the stage like that because that just showed that we still got it.
JD: So we always ask people about their five favorite albums. Can you list yours?
SX: Showbiz & A.G’s Runaway Slave, Ultramagnetic MCs’ Critical Beatdown, James Brown’s Escapism, Diamond D’s Stunts, Blunts & Hip-Hop, and my Wild Cowboys album.
EDS: I’ll definitely say Brand Nubian’s All For One, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s Mecca And The Soul Brother. I’ll throw you a curve ball right now and say, because it’s true, Special Ed’s second album, Legal. That joint has songs on there that bang out, still. Because I mentioned them before, The U.N.’s UN Or U Out. I can play that one straight through, front to back. Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. I can go further, but I’ll say Chubb Rock’s And the Winner Is…
JD: Anything else you want to say about the XL album in particular?
SX: Pick up our album, there’s a lot of hard work involved with it. It’s true, everything we say. Basically the songs you hear are actual facts. You’re not gonna hear songs of us promoting anything or talking about anything we don’t have a part of.
EDS: We just wanted to let people know to pick this record up. This record is for you. We had everybody in mind when we did this record and we gonna be shooting the video for “Power Moves” when we get to L.A. in January, so that’s the next thing everybody can look out for. You can go to vinyldigital.com and you can pick up the album right there, 22 joints for your ass.