Doubling Down with Run the Jewels
ABOVE: RUN THE JEWELS’ KILLER MIKE (LEFT) AND EL-P
Throw your hands in the air / And wave ‘em like you just don’t care / Keep ‘em there / Run the jewels, run the jewels, run the jewels.
Twenty-three years after LL Cool J rapped these lines on “Cheesy Rap Blues,” hip-hop’s least likely super-duo, Killer Mike and El-P, are resurrecting LL’s rhymes as the battle cry for their first full-length collaboration as Run the Jewels.
While the Killer Mike / El-P pairing on last year’s excellent R.A.P. Music may have initially surprised some, the duo is a natural fit. Both favor old-school productions, have energetic flows, and line their lyrics with social consciousness. Their highly anticipated, self-titled album is out this week for free on Fool’s Gold. Ahead of its release, Interview spoke with the emcee-philosophers about bad questions, the recipe for good rap, and how success is dangerous.
ERIN BRADY: What question do you hate from journalists?
EL-P: It’s been a while since I’ve had bad questions, but I’d say almost any question asked of me in Germany.
BRADY: Can you give me an example?
KILLER MIKE: Please do an impression.
EL-P: There’s something in the German language that makes you feel like you’re getting a hug and a backstab at the same time. [laughs] No, no, but what I really despise is, “What are you listening to right now?” I can never come up with the answer, and I don’t think it’s a real question.
KILLER MIKE: Basically, I hate any question that asks me about OutKast. I’m one of their homies, but I don’t really know what they’re going to do next. I’m just like you. I don’t have the answer, and then I get kind of bummed that I don’t have the answer. Anything other than that, I’m open to.
BRADY: Duly noted. Why did you guys decide to call yourselves Run the Jewels?
MIKE: El came up with the name. When he first said it—not that I didn’t get it; it’s actually an old LL Cool J line, which is dope as fuck—but I wasn’t sure. When I sat down and got out of my own way and allowed myself to marinate on that shit—and I knew what it meant on the streets of New York, on the streets period—I thought that was just the most hardcore shit that could be said, that could be heard and it really exemplified the spirit that I brought into making this record. “We’re not second to any rapper or producer. We rival all of your idols and we’re going to spend the next 30-some-odd minutes proving that.” I called El back and I was like, “Yo, I’m fucking retarded.”
When I hear “Run the Jewels,” I see the cast of Reservoir Dogs walking out of that diner together. It is tough-as-nails rap music without being belligerent or unnecessarily coarse. It’s just dope, fun, real, raw rap shit.
EL-P: It was also a nod to the record. That was the era that made me and Mike fall in love with rap music. For us, this project is about that. This whole project is really about our love for rap music.
BRADY: I feel like asking about group names can sometimes be like asking about tattoos. There’s either not story or a good one.
EL-P: And we have neither. We just have a calm description.
EL-P: Really, it was just the toughest possible shit we could think of.
BRADY: What is your process like? Do you write or freestyle?
EL-P: It’s a combination of those things. I usually work on the music ahead of time. I’d do a lot of pre-production then Mike would fly out, we’d get into the studio, go through the music and then do psychedelic drugs, drink, and smoke way too much weed. Mike did more freestyle. Mike will get a couple lines down and then he gets into the zone. He keeps adding on and adding on, so it sounds really natural. I’m much more of a writer. We just sat down together and combined those things. It was really easy.
BRADY: I know that when you first started collaborating, people were surprised; why do you think that was?
EL-P: They’re not surprised anymore. We knew people would be surprised, but for us it was the most natural shit in the world. We knew it would raise eyebrows and that we could use that to our advantage. Why do I think that is? Because people have dug themselves holes in terms of expectations. People were surprised because they didn’t see it coming. Us getting together was the thing that everybody wanted, but didn’t know that they wanted. Now, a year later, people write about us and they say “El-P and Killer Mike’s longtime collaborative relationship…” Now all of a sudden motherfuckers can’t picture me and Mike not working together.
BRADY: How did you guys get together in the first place?
MIKE: We have a mutual friend, Jason DeMarco, who is an executive at Adult Swim. He asked, at some point, if I’d like to do a solo record over there. I wanted to because basically they gave you all the freedom you wanted and encouraged it even. In all my time of making music I’ve never gotten that from any corporation. The plan was to work with a few different producers, who are all dope, and some whom I’m still working with. But, I got into the studio with El first and within the first week of making the record, I knew this is the dude I’m supposed to be making this entire record with. By the end of the album, I was like “I’ll never make another album without this dude.” If it weren’t for Jason, we wouldn’t be here.
EL-P: Jason is that kid in his bedroom making lists of musical “What If’s.”
MIKE: I don’t know of very many executives in music who are still courageous.
EL-P: He’s a guy in a corporate culture who doesn’t give a fuck what anybody thinks about his taste in music. We had a bit of an angel.
MIKE: Yo! What’s Jay going to say when he sees you called him an angel?
EL-P: Probably insult me. [laughs]
BRADY: Mike, I read a quote by you, I think in XXL, in which you said that rap is supposed to shock people. What’s the last thing you guys heard in rap that shocked you? Can rap shock people anymore?
EL-P: Me, I’m not easily shocked.
MIKE: When I heard El rap “Tap dance on your face with cleats or a finisher.” That fucked up my week. I left the studio like, “Damn, that white boy says some shit.” You know that’s an impossible possibility, but to say it—that was dope and amazing and shocking.
EL-P: Personally, more so than shock, I think rap music has to be born of rebellion. It has to, because no one ever gave shit to rap music. Rap music deserves truth and it deserves spontaneity. For rap music to continue to live, it needs a burst of rebellion and that can come in many, many different forms. It depends on what’s going on around you. There’s no right or wrong way to do that.
BRADY: As long as there is stuff to rebel against, there will be rap music.
EL-P: There’s always stuff to rebel against. Living, waking up, getting from fucking point A to point B is a rebellion, because the entire world is programmed to destroy you.
MIKE: It’s like that new Will Smith movie.
EL-P: Even being honest is a rebellion sometimes.
BRADY: Ok, so rebellion, honesty, what else does a good emcee need?
EL-P: It’s not about truth, it’s just about an honest approach. You can lie honestly. [laughs] Just to clarify.
MIKE: Yeah, I’m with you. The only other thing I could say a good emcee needs is the desire to remain dope. The greatest enemy of an emcee isn’t failure. It’s success. Success relaxes you.
RUN THE JEWELS’ SELF-TITLED DEBUT IS AVAILABLE FOR FREE NOW.