The criminally underrated EZ Elpee was the producer behind “Bloody Money”, the dark heart of Capone-N-Noreaga’s The War Report. For our latest Behind the Beat, Thomas Hobbs spoke with the Bronx beatmaker about why CNN still resonates all these years later.
“People used to compare Mobb Deep to Capone-N-Noreaga, but they were nothing alike,” claimed producer EZ Elpee, who collaborated with both duos. His voice lighting up at memories of rap’s golden era, the Bronx veteran (real name Lamont Porter) continued: “They were on totally different waves and had separate lingos.
“I am proud I got to make records for both groups, but my real goal is to try to make people see Capone-N-Noreaga with the same appreciation they’ve got for Mobb Deep. That’s how special CNN were.”
This staunch defense of the Queens rap duo is a hint that CNN — whose 1997 debut album, The War Report, barely made it onto Rolling Stone’s Top 200 Hip Hop Albums list at 187th – remain somewhat underrated. And the fact an expert producer with formative smash hits for major rappers — including The Notorious B.I.G., Nas, and Shyne — is willing to talk about a beat he crafted for Capone-N-Noreaga as being his very best, reflects a desire to force a new generation to re-think this duo’s legacy.
With a bewitching piano line, which creeps forward at a pace that ices out the air, and drums that hit like paranoia-induced heart palpitations, the beat Elpee has agreed to be quizzed on, The War Report’s opening track“Bloody Money,” is Goodfellas if it was set in Queensbridge. “Bloody Money” set the murderous tone for everything that followed, as sole MC Noreaga cinematically juxtaposes the struggle of LeFrak City to the warzones in the Middle East, highlighting the sheer hypocrisy of America trying to appear like it is more civilized than its political enemies.
The genius of “Bloody Money” can also be traced back to the way Elpee bends such an iconic pop culture staple out of shape. The nostalgic “Philadelphia Morning” by Bill Conti is the soul stirring piano melody you can hear during the original Rocky movie, played during a scene where the determined boxer wakes up to eat egg yolks and hit the bag at an unreasonable hour. It’s tinged with sadness but, ultimately, a warm and tender piece of music.
Yet under Elpee’s skilled hand it transforms into a morose lullaby, as he eerily slows down the keys, so they instead give out a feeling of impending doom and mirror the sonics of a cursed wind-up music box toy. Taking the drums from The Honey Drippers’ “Impeach The President,” and speeding them up so they sounded far more chaotic, “Bloody Money” is a lesson in how rap producers can play around with mood and transform bright samples into far darker textures.
“I wanted to do the complete opposite to the Rocky music,” Elpee said. “It was Yin and Yang. After I made the beat, I was fucking around with ‘Impeach the President’ on the turntable. I sped it up and distorted the drums, and they sounded fire… Those two songs were the magic combination. I played what I had done to N.O.R.E. down the phone and he was like: ‘Yo, bring that shit to [LeFrak City Apartments] right away dawg!'”
To fully understand what led to EZ Elpee flipping samples for Capone-N-Noreaga, you have to look back at Elpee’s childhood in the Soundview region of the Bronx, where his love of music lit up the whole community. “I had the block rocking, just playing music out my window on the decks.” he said. “It wasn’t a bad block at all. Everyone that lived there had a mother, father, working parents. People weren’t getting killed; everyone just loved music.”
In the mid 1980s, a teenage Elpee was introduced to M.C. Holiday, a rapper whose song “ The Gucci Mane” was making waves locally and in desperate need of a DJ at his live shows. Rich Nice, the first rap act signed to Motown, was also an early supporter of EZ Elpee, and a close relationship with legendary producers Lord Finesse and Buckwild blossomed. “Buckwild and Lord Finesse were Gods to me,” Elpee said. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t even have made beats. They taught me everything.”
EZ Elpee’s real breakthrough came after producing Junior Mafia’s 1996 single “Get Money,” a song that was supposed to act as the Bad Boy-affiliated crew’s official theme song. Containing a star-making turn from a “guaranteed to be down” Lil’ Kim, as well as a smooth verse about intricate plots and enemies wanting to stick him for his paper from Biggie, “Get Money” was luxury hood rap at its finest. The song deservedly secured a Platinum plaque.
“I remember we all sat in the studio for hours and hours, just smoking blunts. I said to Biggie, ‘Are you ready to write?’ ‘Nah nigga, it’s ready, don’t worry.’ We then sat there another six or seven hours, before he finally stepped in the booth. In all that time, Biggie and Junior Mafia were just having a party inside the studio… living it up.”
Beyond working with the hottest rapper in America, “Get Money” was a potent showcase of EZ Elpee’s diverse range as a producer, particularly the smart way he flipped Sylvia Striplin [“You Can’t Turn Me Away”] vocals so they sounded more like orgasmic cries. “That Sylvia Striplin loop was something a lot of people didn’t know about until I exposed them to it,” Elpee said.
“Why expose people to music that they always hear? It is so easy to chop up some Funkadelic or take Keni Burke’s “Rising To The Top” and play that one loop over and over. My goal as a producer was to open the world up to something totally different than the ear was used to.”
Capone-N-Noreaga had first got Elpee’s attention after they appeared in The Source’s Unsigned Hype column. Having bumped into Tragedy Khadafi, the cult street poet mentoring CNN, at the Loud Records’ offices, the idea of working with the pair became more plausible. And when the musician clocked that Capone was actually the cousin of Royal Flush — the underrated storytelling MC who Elpee was already producing for — it felt like the universe was conspiring to bring EZ Elpee and CNN together.
Having formed in prison in the early 1990s, Capone-N-Noreaga were the definition of a rags-to-riches story. Capone’s uniquely wheezy vocals, which made him sound like he had a permanent cold, resulted in one of rap’s truly original voices. Meanwhile, Noreaga had an intoxicating charisma and an unlikely affinity for the middle east that meant he was likely to threaten to put out a fatwā in one of his verses. “They were both their own men,” Elpee said. “But bring them together and something special happened.”
Angry at Snoop Doggy Dogg and the Dogg Pound symbolically kicking down the skyscrapers in the music video to “New York, New York,” CNN had a scathing response with “LA, LA,” teaming up with Tragedy and Mobb Deep to shoot down the anti-east coast rhetoric coming out of Death Row Records. Rather tellingly, on the artwork for The War Report, the pair are surrounded by an army of street soldiers, nailing the album’s idea to present Capone-N-Noreaga as generals standing firm at the gates of hell, ready to protect rap’s mecca from invading dissenters.
But while it is tempting to frame The War Report as a courageous last stand from the duo, the reality was an album created in testing conditions. In fact, the two songs Elpee produced for the project, “Blood Money” and “Iraq (See The World)”, didn’t even feature Capone.
“Capone had a looming case, he was consumed by it as he knew it meant he was going back to prison soon,” Elpee said. “But to N.O.R.E.’s credit, even when Capone was in and out of prison, he kept on working. N.O.R.E. really saved our asses by getting all those collaborations. He’s the reason The War Report got finished.”
Lyrically, Noreaga moves with the instincts of an assassin on “Bloody Money.” He’s brutal, too: at one point he pledges to put a “bogey” — aka a cigarette — in a fake rapper’s face. Even though the reality was a label (Penalty Entertainment) with a limited budget for studio sessions and a subsequent need to make every second count, the urgency of N.O.R.E.’s raps makes him sound like a rebel soldier reporting from the dark heart of an uprising.
Elpee says “Bloody Money” remains so special because of N.O.R.E.’s down-to-earth verses, and he hopes the song can get people to recognize him more as an MC, less as the energetic host of the Drink Champs podcast. “N.O.R.E. doesn’t get the credit for being a great rapper,” EZ said. “Maybe people see him as someone who gets you hyped, but he is a technical rapper, too.
“N.O.R.E. spoke for the underdogs. Even on ‘Bloody Money,’ he’s shouting out the dudes doing 25-to-life. I miss that! But we got a new era now. The new era has no responsibility to the niggas locked up.”
In the years that followed “Bloody Money” and The War Report, CNN carried on releasing new music, but the atmosphere of these projects rarely lived up to their classic debut. EZ Elpee, meanwhile, continued to evolve as a producer, working with the likes of Wiz Khalifa, Raekwon, Foxy Brown, and Prodigy. in 2022 he’s still pushing himself, having this year produced “NunYa” by E’Lanah, a moody, intoxicating R&B song. The need for genre-fluidity, he says, was something he learned from his late friend Biggie.
“Biggie made records for the men, the women — everyone. That’s how you become a star. If you only make music for the hip hop community then your shit will be cold,” he explained.
As sadness started to creep into his voice for the first time. “You know, I spoke to Biggie right before he got murdered. I was one of the last people he spoke to,” Elpee said. “I was working on beats for Lil Cease and Big called me: He told me he was in LA and that Puff had told him he had to go. It sounded really dangerous. I told him to be careful.”
It’s an astonishing memory that highlights how EZ Elpee has tended to sit at the epicenter of hip-hop history, even if his name tends to be overlooked when people talk about the great rap producers. Not that he cares too much. “A lot of people tell me I am underrated,” the producer said. “But I’ve got records with all the GOATs.”
I try to tempt EZ Elpee into reminiscing on “Bloody Money” one last time, asking how he would like the song (and his own contributions to hip-hop) to be remembered. “’Bloody Money’ was just about finding the perfect piano and combining it with those perfect ‘Impeach The President’ drums. That combination was golden,” he said. “I just want to be remembered as a producer that gave his all to music and the culture. I was never about the dollar and all about the music, period. If you go to the clubs any night of the week, they will play at least one EZ Elpee-produced record, if not six. At this age, how can I be mad at that?”
Graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer
Thomas Hobbs is a freelance culture and music journalist from the UK. His work has appeared in the Guardian, VICE, Financial Times, Dazed, Pitchfork, New Statesman, Little White Lies, The i and Time Out. You can find him on Twitter: @thobbsjourno