Run The Jewels don’t follow the rules of the animal kingdom
One of the most exciting things about hip-hop is its ability to bring together and unite people of different races and backgrounds. Often collaborative projects can be predictable, but every now and then one will come along that really stirs things up. This is what brings us to Manchester’s Academy venue, where we are sat opposite Atlanta’s Killer Mike, a member of the legendary Dungeon Family, and signee of T.I.’s Grand Hustle imprint, best known to the mainstream for his verse on Outkast’s Grammy award winning single ‘Whole World’. Next to him is El-P, a New York rapper and producer known for shaking shit up, starting off with Company Flow whose 1997 album Funcrusher Plus defined the backpack generation and later went solo, dropping a number of incredible solo projects as well as starting up his own influential indie label Def Jux; the man has become synonymous with boundary-pushing underground hip-hop music.
Like some unexpected comic book team-up they formed Run The Jewels, an experimental collaborative exercise that has become a fully fledged rap group, and an unexpected career peak for the pair who are both approaching 40. Their seemingly conflicting fanbases were eased into the process back in 2012 when they simultaneously dropped solo albums that contained each others influence; El with Cancer 4 Cure which features Mike on standout cut ‘Tougher Colder Killer’ and Mike with R.A.P Music, an album produced in its entirety by El. They later went on tour together to support the records, which is when they began recording sessions for a collaborative album called Run The Jewels.
At first many stuck-in-their-ways fans couldn’t comprehend the collaboration, seeing the pair as so clearly separate. With tension between rap fans who prefer East coast music to Southern music, and vice versa, many looked at El-P’s sci-fi paranoia and Killer Mike’s Atlanta associates and assumed the worst. “Rap has fallen into a caste system” Killer Mike begins, before El-P interjects “They’re all evil and don’t want people to love each other!” Mike resumes: “People want whoever they listen to to identify who they are. People who listen to this rapper imagine themselves fashion forward. People who listen to this rapper imagine themselves real street dudes. People who listen to this rapper imagine themselves intellectuals. If you had ears and you listened to both of us, you’d say ‘Damn this guys aggressive raps and his beats would probably marry well together,’ or you’d be willing to give it a try. But I think people are so set in their minds that they didn’t understand that the coolest thing about humans is, they don’t have to follow the rules of the animal kingdom. Lions ain’t running around fucking tigers, you get that every now and again, but the cool shit is that you can get two different things, from two different places that make this new and special goddamn thing.” El-P pauses threatening to look up lions and tigers mating on Youtube, informing us that it’s one of “the most rare, beautiful and erotic things in the animal kingdom.” Mike isn’t put off, “Show me. Pull it up. Youtube. Let’s go.” Before El-P dispels it as a joke, trying to psych his friend out.
“Motherfuckers act like we can’t do a record apart now,” says Mike, returning to his point. “And I love that. I’m just glad that the universe brought it together, because as an artist you just want to make monumental shit. When you die that’s all that’s left of you. Then there’s some kids and you can’t control what the fuck they’re gonna do. But the music lives forever so I’m glad that this is what it is.” While the first album was a tribute to the rap groups that inspired them, EPMD often being a reference point, but following a list that contains N.W.A, UGK, BDP and many more — the second album sees them actually becoming a rap group themselves. The mental change from collaborators to rap group happened while the duo were out on tour for the first record. “In the middle of the run when we were out touring with one another, opening for Run The Jewels — I’d go first, El would go, then Run The Jewels would go, 30 minutes each — we started seeing the kids were like ‘This is a rap group.’” recalls Mike. “They deemed it a rap group. We’d be foolish to act like it isn’t and try to walk back away. It would only be ego that says ‘I’ve got to go and do solo stuff, we’ve got to get back to who we are.’ I think that the pure energy real energy made it that. So I realised by halfway through that tour, halfway through that tour it was like ‘This is a fucking rap group.’”
While audiences may have insisted that a group was born, El-P explains that their choice to continue was an important one. “When we went back into the second one we knew that it was going to be another huge commitment, so we were like ‘We’ve got to make sure that we bring who we are into this record. And make sure that we’re not leaving anything on the table.’ Neither of us want to feel like we’re losing something by choosing to do this, so we made sure to bring our heart into this record a little bit more clearly and to make sure that this group really was something that was fulfilling to us artistically.”
The sequel certainly proved to be that, further demonstrating the strengths of the pair as they meld together more closely. While the first album might have been a no holds barred exercise in rap music that punches the listener in the ears, this time around we get more levels to the Run The Jewels formula; the subject matter is diverse, the songs are more carefully constructed and the manifesto is fully-realised. It’s a rarity in rap that an artist can balance being simultaneously as funny and serious as Mike and El achieve here. The way the pair depict themselves in lyrics and videos — as rampaging ambulance drivers for example — many artists would find themselves filed away by the media as a novelty act. And yet RTJ can simultaneously hurl insults at fuckboys like “You can all run naked backwards through a field of dicks” and appear on CNN to talk about the happenings in Ferguson. It’s a genius balance, and one that was utilised by classic groups like Public Enemy; balancing the wackiness of Flavour Flav with the socio-political awareness of Chuck D. “I think that you can just be serious when you need to be serious, and you can be irreverent when you want to be. I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody that I liked that found the two mutually exclusive,” says El-P. “Because if you’re not laughing, but you’re that serious, you’re going to fucking kill yourself or somebody else. We’re not walking around as this one idea person and I think people connect to that. We have no problem being the fool and we have no problem saying something really seriously and directly as well. We don’t see a conflict in that and we don’t carry ourselves like we do. I think there aren’t many examples of people who can do that. And it’s refreshing to some degree. Honesty and humour are very interconnected I think, the closer to true in some way that the humour is, the better the humour.” Mike finishes off in agreement, “I’m not married to one emotion and I never wanted to be presented in that way, so I’m glad that I’m not.”
They’ve also helped each other to balance out their individual working process. The question of what they’ve learned from working together is initially met with humour — Mike says he’s learned to like Asian food “White people love that shit”, while El smokes more weed and gained an interesting egg salad recipe — before revealing something a little deeper. “The biggest thing I’ve learned from El honestly, is discipline and patience,” admits Mike. “Working this closely with a producer, even my rap style — I’ve learned focus and patience and discipline from him. And I’m glad because people have been trying to show me that since I was in high school playing football badly. So it’s amazing what a friendship can do and a high school coach can’t.” El reciprocates, “And as we balance each other I’ve definitely learned to relax a little bit more. Being in a group is cool because you can just lean on your friend a little bit too, you don’t have to take all of the energy, all of the ideas, all of the stress and everything. I’ve also learned to share a little bit more of that control, and it’s an evolving process, but working with Mike has made me realise and improve with loosening the reins on what I think something is going to be, and letting it be something. That for me is an important step as a musician and a person. I think we’ve both been letting it happen and — for want of a better term — going with the flow. Run The Jewels just seems to be this energy that we’ve hitched onto and that’s been a big lesson to me, to relax a little and let things unfold as they unfold.”
They’ve also let loose of the old school mentality of shifting as many records as possible, giving fans the chance to download it for free and repay them in a number of other ways — something that they’ve found to be very liberating. “That’s just the reality we live in,” says Mike of the decision. “If you give people the opportunity to really support you and not try to fool them, they’ll take that opportunity if they’re so moved to. El says all the time man, why we gonna act like we put a record out on this day, when we know the record leaked sixty days ago? Why we going to ask everybody to participate in your own delusion?” Instead fans are given a number of options, including everything from a free download to purchasing a package that includes the original vinyl reference of the album. “It’s easier to tell people ‘Hey, I know you’re going to get the record, here’s the opportunity to have it for free. If you want to, if you support it, here’s an opportunity to buy it. If you don’t want to buy it and you just want to download it, why don’t you just do a fair even swap — ain’t no swindle — you come to a show. If you come to a show so moved, buy a piece of merch.’ And the fact that people do that, enables us to continue doing this. The fact that you come to the shows, and buy some merch has enabled us to do it twice. It’s almost like a weird silent agreement happened with the audience.”
Having ran a pioneering, Internet-savvy, independent label, Def Jux, for years, El-P finds that releasing the Run The Jewels albums for free gives him a very different feeling. “It took us giving the record away for free to get to another level in our business and in the industry. Whereas for the rest of our previous careers we were so locked into the old school idea of selling as many records as possible,” he admits. “At the end of the day I think people need to adapt and be smart about the way that they want to engage their audience. Not everybody can do it the way we did, we had the benefit of having exposure way before Run The Jewels, we were both doing well ourselves. So it doesn’t just work automatically for everybody, but for us it just made sense.”
Above that though, the reason that the pair initially wanted to give the album away was to say thank you. “More than anything it just dawned on us that we could do something cool for the people that had been supporting us,” says El. “We both felt very grateful for the fact that we’d had a rekindling of our careers, our touring lives and the whole thing. Both of our records in 2012 went really well and we were on tour together having a blast and when we did this project I came up with the idea, let’s cut through the red tape; I want to do it at this time, I don’t want to have to do a deal, I don’t want to have to promote, let’s just drop it because people have been really good to us — that was where it came from.” The business side came secondary. “Everything’s changed,” he continues. “For some people it’s not a part of their lives to go out and buy a record, and that’s fine, it doesn’t mean that I don’t want your heart and your mind. I want everyone who likes this to get a chance to like it, and we’ll figure it out. This is our contribution to what we hope is a long term relationship with the people that allow us to do the thing that we love. It’s working and we love that it’s working, because it means that we get to do it again. We feel really validated about that approach right now just because it is working and people are enjoying the music, we’re letting everyone make their choice. You wanna hear it? Fine, great. If you like this shit then you’ll react accordingly I’m sure.”
Originally published at RWDmag.com.