Six days before the release of his new album, Baltimore rapper Ellis is in engineer Jesse Magloire's basement studio, Ole No. 7 Productions, in Towson, still putting final touches on the mix. Ellis Marcus Hopkins Jr. sits with a can of Heineken in his hand while Magloire sips from a glass of whiskey and cues up tracks, listening and making adjustments, finishing up the arduous process they've been at for months. "I want it to sound perfect through your iPhone, I want it to sound perfect in your car. It has to sound great. It's gotta sound perfect everywhere," Hopkins says, recounting how he's continued playing mixes of the album on every kind of stereo and device, finding flaws and fixing them.
Many of the songs on the album The Education of Ellis were initially recorded in 2011. But Hopkins took his time with the album as it grew in scope and ambition, eventually creating a companion film of the same name-scripted and shot by his manager, Toni Branson-that will be screened in New York in January, shortly after the album's late-December release. Hopkins has been far from quiet during the album's gestation, however, releasing the mixtapes BMC 2K12: The End Game and BMC 2K13: The White Henny Edition, to make use of good songs that didn't quite meet his lofty standards for the album. "I can make this project better than it is just by taking songs off," he says.
Hopkins, 31, standing at a lanky 6-foot 4-inches, kicked off his rapping career at a relatively ripe age, releasing his first mixtape in 2009 and quickly giving his music the focus and effort that he used to apply to playing basketball in high school and college. He makes frequent trips to New York to network and further his career, and lately that work has paid off: NYC rap veteran Styles P. appears on the thought-provoking lead single to The Education of Ellis, "Misled," and even made the trip down to Baltimore to shoot the video. Mainstream hip-hop blogs like Rap Radar have been posting Ellis' music, and he recently made appearances on MTV's RapFix Live and satellite radio station Shade 45's Sway in the Morning.
Both the film and album The Education of Ellis were actually inspired by another film, 1974's The Education of Sonny Carson. Hopkins first took an interest in the film when he recognized samples from its music and dialogue that have appeared in records by rappers like Ghostface Killah and Common, but he soon found himself interested in the plot, about the early life of New York political activist Sonny Carson. "I automatically connected to that story, from a child to a man, his plight. It's not overstated, it's regular things you go through in city life," he says. "It comes from an honest place. A lot of movies today, as far as black films, they over-sensationalize, it's over-the-top, it's not real."
Like the film that inspired it, Hopkins' music has a contemplative, unglamorous realism that contrasts with the way many other rappers depict city life. His own setbacks and struggles informed that outlook. "Me and my brother are both felons, and we both have changed our lives around since then," he says. "My father has never been to jail, so that hurts him." The songs on the album deal with personal issues-like a cousin who's currently battling cancer-so much so that Magloire says he learned more about Hopkins by listening to his lyrics than by actually talking to the rapper.
Hopkins and longtime producer Legin assembled many of the songs on the album around samples of music and dialogue from The Education of Sonny Carson, creating a musical narrative of the rapper's life that parallels the film. But samples necessitate legal clearance, so Hopkins had to seek permission from the film's director, Michael Campus. "He actually approved everything . . . as long as we don't sell it, of course," he says, lamenting that plans for a traditional retail release had to be scrapped in order to maintain his vision for the album. But the album will be available for free on mixtape sites like DatPiff, and Hopkins and his label, BMoreCareful, will work around the compromise however they can, giving away the CD/DVD package with purchases of T-shirts and other merchandise. "I'll have some BMore Careful crew-necks made," he says. "You'll get [the album] for free when you get the crew-neck."
Shortly after the album's release, Hopkins has a meeting scheduled with a large independent distributor, and he is eyeing the next step in his career. One benefit of the numerous delays to The Education of Ellis is that Hopkins has a head start on his next project, Ocean Grown, for which he's already recorded several songs. He's released an album or mixtape every year since he began recording, almost as if making up for the late start, a mentality that carries over into his daily habits. "I can't sleep late, because I feel like I'm gonna miss something. I feel like I've wasted enough time in life."
For more information, visit ellisbmc.com.