ABOVE: RUN THE JEWELS IN L.A., NOVEMBER 2014. PHOTO BY CARA ROBBINS.
If Run the Jewels’ 2013 debut came as a surprise, then this year’s follow-up plays out like an affirmation. In the two years since they first came together on R.A.P. Music, El-P and Killer Mike have risen up to become two of hip-hop’s most unlikely saviors. On Run the Jewels 2, the pair is operating in full stake-claiming mode, wielding beastly, politically-charged lyrics and left-field guest spots from the likes of Rage Against the Machine’s Zack De La Rocha, Blink-182’s Travis Barker, and Three 6 Mafia’s Gangsta Boo, who creates one of the most vulgar and female empowering moments in recent history via “Love Again.”
The pair dropped 2 for free last month, and this week they’ll return to New York City for a show at Stage 48. Interview recently caught up with El-P and Killer Mike in Los Angeles to talk about collaboration, gender equality, and why age is just a number.
ALY COMINGORE: How long after meeting each other did you guys know you wanted to work together?
EL-P: Ten minutes. [laughs]
KILLER MIKE: Less than that. [laughs]
COMINGORE: Neither of you are strangers to collaboration. What made this different?
MIKE: I feel like it’s genuine in an age where everything is contrived. It used to be that Ice Cube popped up on a Too $hort record or a Ghetto Boys record because they were in the same lane, or that E-40 and Master P actually knew each other because they were both on the independent grind. We’re in the age where records are configured, down to the point where you’re not even present in the studio, you’re just sending something digitally, soullessly through the Internet and hoping that whatever they send back is satisfactory to you. El and I have never made a record outside of each other’s presence.
And we were open to it. A lot of people come into these things with their own agenda. I think the audience senses the genuine sentiment that we go into it with; it’s a real friendship, it’s a real dedication to making dope music and dope songs and doing dope shows, and I think it resonates on a different level, a different vibration.
EL-P: You can always get something cool out of a collaboration—you can always have a moment—but meeting someone that you want to collaborate with continuously, that’s a different thing. I’ve had that a few times in my life, where it’s just a wonderful synergy and we just managed to really be in a zone. I was kind of not really expecting that again, to be honest. I thought I was really about to just concentrate on myself. What happened between us as musicians and as people just in the first day of meeting each other sort of reset everything and threw all those ideas out the window. It’s hard to explain something as simple as liking somebody, you know? And people want to know, they want to understand the details. “How is it possible you like each other?” I don’t really know what to tell them.
COMINGORE: I feel like those friendships tend to have a lot to do with where you’re at in your life.
EL-P: Totally. When you’ve been around the block a few times, you know what to look out for; you know when it’s there and when it’s not. I think me and Mike had both come to the decision that we were gonna just roll with what feels right individually in our lives, so by the time we met we were really in the same place mentally. We were both very serious that we were going to do some great work—we were going to really go for ours. Also, I think we both found ourselves not knowing what was going to happen and not knowing what to expect. It’s one of those really weird sort of things where, quite frankly, it all just sort of lined up.
COMINGORE: And you’re both in your 30s, when it becomes less about everyone else, and more about looking out for number one.
EL-P: To a degree. I also think when you do make new friends in your 30s they are really powerful friendships because you know what to look out for.
MIKE: And you know what to look out for in yourself and your own bullshit proclivities. [laughs]
EL-P: You know how you fucked up your friendships before. [laughs]
MIKE: I talk to people and they’re like, “Oh, you’re 39.” I’m like, “OK.” I don’t really know what that means. It doesn’t mean anything to me. I don’t know how old E-40 is and I don’t give a fuck.
EL-P: He’s 40! [laughs]
MIKE: I don’t know how old Bun B is; I just know that he’s been dope since I’ve been in high school and I want to continue to buy his shit. I don’t know how old Mick Jagger is; I just know that motherfucker’s still rocking. I know how old Willie Nelson is because they say, “Willie’s 80,” but I don’t even understand the concept of that. Rap is just—you’re supposed to be dope, your style is supposed to be dope.
EL-P: We’re two guys who have legitimately been on a creative journey for years and years and years and have remained hungry. In our heads, we’ve never stopped and we’ve never gotten to where we wanted to get, so by the time we got together, shit, us being in our 30s was a weapon.
COMINGORE: How does the writing break down? I read that Mike doesn’t work on lyrics before you guys get into the studio.
MIKE: I have four children—I can’t write anything before I go into the studio. [laughs]
EL: [laughs] But don’t let him downplay his talent. That’s the way Mike operates. He’s very spontaneous and visual in the way he reacts to music. Learning that about him was one of the most thrilling things about the relationship. When I went in to record R.A.P. Music, he tried to write stuff down, but it ended up being this really sort of magic thing where he just would go in the booth. For me, learning his process and seeing him build upon it—he’d go in, think to himself, pace around the room, and then you’d see this look in his eye and he’d be, “Come on, let’s do it!” It’s all from his head to the mic.
COMINGORE: What’s the story behind “Love Again”? How did it start?
EL-P: [Laughs] I’ll tell you my version and Mike can fill in the gaps. Basically, that was the last record that we did. I whipped up that beat in about half an hour the night before. I had sampled something that Run DMC sampled on “Beats to the Rhyme,” which was Sam Kinison saying, “Dick in your mouth all day,” but it was gonna be more of a shit-talk song. I knew I couldn’t afford the sample, so I just started saying it, almost like a placeholder for the hook. When we went in [to the studio] we didn’t know what was going to happen, but it ended up being a sex jam.
MIKE: When he said the hook I just remember thinking, “Oh man, he wants to kill our career.” [laughs] I grew up in the South, so I grew up on 2 Live Crew. I love “Paula & Janet” by Too $hort. Even before rap, I was sneaking in and listening to Redd Foxx. I love filth. It’s not misogynist. I’m not down on women. I’m just talking about freaky fucked up sex.
COMINGORE: And if you really listen, it’s totally a love song.
EL-P: Yes, but there was still this voice was in the back of our minds… It was actually Mike’s wife and my girlfriend who were like, “You guys should add a female to this.” That’s what was wrong with it. So we got Gangsta Boo—
MIKE: And she embarrassed us on the rhyme. She threw down the filthiest, raunchiest shit. [laughs] She made me sound soft.
EL-P: Once we had her we knew that was it. That was that record. We knew that if we didn’t [put a woman] on there, people who fancy themselves morally pious wouldn’t listen to the song. They would just hear the bells and whistles. Again, we grew up on Too Short, 2 Live Crew—
MIKE: Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison, Richard Pryor
EL-P: Eddie Murphy
MIKE: George Carlin
EL-P: Dirty and funny and nasty and raunchy is not misogyny to us, and I think it’s incredibly condescending to say it is. Because most of the time when people make those criticisms—
MIKE: —it’s a white man. It’s an old Christian black dude or a young white progressive guy.
EL-P: Somewhere some guy is fanning himself because he’s just so insulted. It’s like, wait a second. Women like to fuck, too, man.
MIKE: And in a generation that’s even more prudish and more conservative than fucking Tipper Gore was in 1987, I think it’s necessary that we have these types of records. You need “Paula & Janet.” You need “Nann Nigga.” You need that Khia record “My Neck, My Back,” because they give us a chance to laugh and giggle at the absurdity of all this gender shit. It makes it public for a moment.
EL-P: On another note, I’m 39 years old and I’m a smart guy, and frankly, I’m not falling for your trending, pedantic sense of false morality. I don’t know what you do when you close the door to your bedroom, but me and my girl fuck, and I’m not gonna put my kid gloves on and explain it to you.
COMINGORE: In regards to all the festival shows, I feel like Run the Jewels might be one of the few redeeming things that came out of that model in the last couple years.
EL-P: Thank you.
COMINGORE: Do you feel like the live show is a product of that environment?
EL-P: It’s certainly gone really well for us. We saw those crowds grow from 3,000 to 20,000, I think to some degree because we have an energy that’s refreshing in that environment. And that’s not because it’s a better energy—it’s because it’s a balance. For hip-hop in a festival setting, where people want to really have fun and go crazy, Run the Jewels is sort of the only game in town. I hate to even say it, because there’s a lot of amazing touring acts out there. You see someone like Danny Brown and he’s got something even crazier.
MIKE: That motherfucker is my hero. Jesus Christ.
EL-P: But there’s a vibe in a lot of rap right now that I don’t think translates that well to that environment. A lot of it is “Look at me. Look at how I’m living. Look at how well I’m doing.” With our shows it’s like, “Look at us.” We’re very very cognizant of the fact that the audience is the reason we’re doing #2. We had no idea that people would respond the way that they responded, and it inspired us to make more music. There’s a bond that we have, at least from our side when we’re on stage—you’re seeing two guys who are thrilled to be getting this chance. We’ve done this a long time and we never got jaded, and we always wanted to put our best foot forward, and I think that translates on stage. I hope it does.
RUN THE JEWELS 2 IS AVAILABLE FOR FREE NOW. THEY PLAY STAGE 48 ON SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 29.