Black EL / photo by Eastman Garcia, courtesy of Black EL
“What are you lost in?” Black EL muses to himself, naming the song titles from his latest project, L_ST, and explaining what he felt with each track. “‘Innertubes’: I’m lost in love. ‘Do Not Disturb’: I’m lost in youth. ‘Olde English 800’: I’m lost in alcohol and drugs. ‘95 White Maxima’: I’m lost in the idea of just running away. ‘Inanet’: I’m lost in the internet.”
Before debuting L_ST this November, Boston rapper Black EL—née Blake Morrison—was experiencing a depression he couldn’t quite knock. And that’s what his project’s about. “The idea is being lost, and when you’re depressed, you feel lost, so that was really the cohesiveness of the whole project,” he tells me. “It’s all about dealing with certain things, dealing with certain aspects of depression, and feeling like you don’t know where the fuck you’re supposed to go.”
From a sonic standpoint, L_ST (pronounced “lost”) sounds like it knows exactly where it wants to go. The production is synthy, bordering on house music. EL likes to call it space wave. “I think Victor [Radz] has the space and Durkin has the wave,” he says about his producers. “Space wave—that’s what I feel like. I thought of it while I was looking at IKEA lamps, and I was like all right, space wave. It just got stuck.” To some, the name might sound like another silly label, but to EL, Durkin, and Radz, space wave was an intense labor of love and their vehicle for evolution.
Change inevitably became a running theme for the three musicians, particularly as EL recognized the value of giving up control over certain parts of his life. During the two years the trio took to develop their sound, they encouraged each other to experiment and try new things. Durkin, for example, began doing the final mixes for each song; EL began singing and learning how to write a melody. Their space wave sound was born out of that process, and it united the three in a way they didn’t expect by pulling EL out of his depression and by pushing the group to create and look at music in ways they previously hadn’t.
Durkin / photo by Guarionex Rodriguez, courtesy of Black EL
“I’d have one week where I fucking got in a car accident and my car got fucked up, that’s g, I gotta fix that,” EL says of his depression. “And then I’m fighting with my girlfriend. Like the music shit isn’t working out. Like my mom’s sick, she has lupus. She fluctuates. There’s a lot of things where I felt like I was never in control of my life, and I always wanted to feel in control… This whole project really helped me break out of that depression. And obviously Durkin, Vic, my girl—they were there to support me when I was feeling my shittiest, so I really feel like now I’m not where I was when I first started this project. I was really in a bad place; there were times honestly like when I didn’t really want to live. I was not fucking happy at all.”
When talking to EL, this emotional history isn’t immediately apparent. He’s loud and likes to laugh and joke, and he constantly teases Durkin. Durkin, on the other hand, is thoughtful and slightly more serious, providing a matter-of-fact point of view. Radz is quiet and offers even more of a contrast, only chiming in the conversation when necessary.
EL met Durkin through friends in 2007, but they didn’t start working together until after EL released his first project A Major Minority in 2008. Durkin began sending beats to EL while EL was interning with Sony and Down Duck Records in New York. Though EL had only moved to New York in May 2008, he moved back to Massachusetts later that year, when the economy took a hit. The two then began performing and making music together. EL and Durkin met Radz in 2010; the musicians then became a trio.
Before L_ST, EL, Durkin, and Radz worked on two other projects together: Color Commentary, from 2010, and The Collage, from 2012. The production on their previous mixtapes was extremely sample-based, but they wanted to get away from that sound. Once Radz introduced Durkin and EL to his moody synthesizer sound, the trio was able to avoid sample-based production.
Radz and Black EL / photo by Mxrcy Pxrcy, courtesy of Black EL
Despite this history, you won’t be able to find any of EL’s previous projects online; he took them down because he believes they no longer exhibit his musical direction. He views his mixtapes prior to L_ST as demos, where he, Durkin, and Radz were just making music to make music. It wasn’t until L_ST that the three of them were sure about themselves musically.
“It was a long process—we all went through a lot of transformations at an artistic level,” Radz says. “We really had to get outside our comfort zone and push to a whole new sound. It was a lot of growth in two years, and that’s a short amount of time but it seemed really, really long.”
Over that period, EL’s musical evolution allowed him to gain an improved sense of who he is personally and to see his life’s purpose and his day-to-day much clearer. However corny it may sound, L_ST had the exact opposite effect of its title on the MC: The project allowed him to find himself. It taught EL that he could regain control of his life by letting go of the things he couldn’t control. “Now I just fucking let go and see where everything takes me the best I can,” he says.
Photo by Jeremy Karelis, courtesy of Black EL
Though they decided to push L_ST as Black EL’s music, most of the tape’s production was a collaboration between Durkin and Radz, and the creative process was a joint effort between all three. “I think like the sound of this project was definitely something that the three of us worked really closely on together,” Durkin says. “I would never put it on one person in the group. We all worked really hard on each idea.”
Above all else, the three musicians are a team. They share the credit, their emotional drive, their creativity, and their inspiration. EL used L_ST as an outlet for his sadness, and his teammates were there to support him. “Now I’m a lot happier [after _L_ST_], and I feel like the next batch of music that we do make is going to be a whole different vibe,” EL says. “It’ll be a lot more positive, which should be interesting because I really haven’t done that yet.”
Durkin adds, “I like to kind of think of [L_ST’s] vibe as almost hopeful.”
Tara Mahadevan is a writer living in New York. Follow her on Twitter.