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How El-P and Killer Mike Built The Creative Powerhouse That Is Run The Jewels

The dynamic duo of Run The Jewels, which just dropped a second album, share their thoughts on the power of creative collaboration.

How El-P and Killer Mike Built The Creative Powerhouse That Is Run The Jewels
El-P and Killer Mike [Photo: Timothy Saccenti]

Run The Jewels (noun): The act of taking, by force, someone’s most prized possessions. There’s no asking involved–you can’t even call it a command. It’s an aggressive statement of “what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is mine.”

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And it couldn’t describe El-P and Killer Mike any better.

Hailing from Brooklyn and Atlanta, respectively, producer/rapper El-P (aka Jaime Meline) and rapper Killer Mike (aka Michael Render) have established successful solo careers with their own distinctive styles, but last year debuted their collaborative project Run The Jewels. Just as people were starting to recover from the duo’s explosive and unapologetic energy, Run The Jewels is back with their sophomore album that goes even harder.

But you’d be foolish to take Run The Jewels’ brash flow at face value–there’s sharp social and political commentary embedded in their rhymes that’s exactly what the rap game, and the cultural zeitgeist at large, needs right now.

Run The Jewels recently spoke with Fast Company about the power of collaboration, working (or yelling) through creative differences, and why an album of cat noises will call attention to injustice.

How did you guys meet?

EL-P: In about 2010, we met through a mutual friend, Jason DeMarco, who works at Adult Swim and has the Williams Street Records label. Jason had signed Mike to do a record with him and he asked me if I’d be interested in working with Mike on his record. He asked Mike if he’d be interested in working with me. We both said yeah–we both knew each other’s work. I was in the middle of working on my record Cancer 4 Cure, flew down to Atlanta, met up in the studio, and it set off from there. The music was happening immediately.

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KILLER MIKE: “Big Beast” was the first record we started on.

EL-P: Yeah, “Big Beast” was the first. I left Atlanta and I was like, “That was great. I’ll definitely do a couple of songs on your album.” And Mike and J had other plans for me. They were like, “nah, you’re doing the whole album.” and I was like, “No, fuck you. I’m doing my album.” And Mike was like, “I don’t think you heard me. You’re doing the fucking album.” Eventually, through a series of veiled threats and out of fear for my life, I acquiesced to their request and did their whole record, and we’ve basically been stuck together ever since. Much to my chagrin, we actually became friends. I woke up four years later like, Holy shit I haven’t stopped making music with this motherfucker.

What about each other’s work appealed to you?

KILLER MIKE: El was the last vestige of aggressive rap music. And I don’t mean aggressive like, “Hey, I say hardcore shit.” We grew up at the same time in the ’80s and ’90s–we remember when rappers were like rebels to the status quo of music. That’s the rap I love to this day. I just felt like their sound didn’t get a proper ability to grow. I think El has progressed into what rap should’ve evolved into. So the aggression is what I like–it’s what I love about El’s music. Lyrically, he’s just one of the illest rappers, period. Nobody syllable-flips like him unless you start talking about the upper echelon of the Bun Bs, MJGs, the Eminems, those guys. From a production standpoint, it just fits like hand and glove, it sounds like Killer Mike is supposed to be on these beats.

EL-P: I don’t think Mike had ever quite met his match. He had worked with amazing producers who did amazing records with him but no one had sat down with him and to create an emotional arc. I heard songs like “God in the Building” and as I was listening to this dude, he sounded to me like someone who had taken on the mantle of an Ice Cube in his prime. That type of voice was so powerful and also missing. For us, we’re children of a legacy of music that we were inspired by that had all but disappeared in terms of influence. So when we met each other, musically, I was able to give him an emotional palette to do things like “Willie Burke Sherwood,” which is not an aggressive song, but it’s an emotional song that Mike had in him.

EL-P: It’s one of those things where you want somebody to get you and you want that person who gets you to be the nastiest rapper on the planet and that’s what happened with me and Mike. There are plenty of people who want to work with me and appreciate what I do but Mike got me. When I’m in the producer’s chair the most fulfilling thing you can have is someone to work with who’s simultaneously bringing the best out in you, who’s turning what you’re doing into magic, and vice versa. And that was just there with us from day one. And beyond that, it wouldn’t have really mattered if I didn’t just like the motherfucker and we became genuine friends. We started working together and touring together and putting records out and everything just started to unfold in an easy and enjoyable way.

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How does Run The Jewels 2 differ from your first album?

EL-P: The first record we didn’t really talk about it. We didn’t have a philosophy. We just got in and spit. We would talk about songs as they were happening but it was a really spontaneous process. if we had done the one album it would have been just an album. But in order to be a group, in order to have a legacy, we needed at least another album. And we knew there was momentum with the way we were working and with people enjoying us–it was clear to us we had something special and that it made sense for us to follow up. When we walked into it we actually talked more about than we did the first time. We both wanted it to grow a bit. We wanted to get more out of it. We wanted to push it into a classic second album realm. This record is not about, “We’re Run The Jewels and we’re here.” We’ve already established we’re Run The Jewels. This record had a little bit more room for us to fuck around and say some different things. And I think both Mike and I took advantage of that in certain places.

[i]Run the Jewels 2[/i]

Killer Mike, you’ve gone on record saying, “Run The Jewels 2 is going to be the best hip-hop album to drop this year.” That’s a bold statement, isn’t it?

KILLER MIKE: I know I’m making a bold proclamation. With that said, when Michael Jordan puts on his number 23 and walked onto the court he didn’t give a fuck about Charles Barkley, Danny Ainge, or whoever was on the other side of that ball. I have worked very hard to be paid attention to and I feel like I’m at a point in my career where I can tell the truth about how the fuck I feel about me. We are dedicated to making the most badass brash rap with purpose and message. And I can’t promise you that is every MC’s purpose today. If that, for no other reason alone, once you hear the record you’ll understand why I made that statement.

What message are you trying to get across?

KILLER MIKE: I think EL and I’s ultimate purpose is to get you to say “why?” to get you to question things that are handed to you in neat little boxes. Whether we’re addressing the hypocrisy of religion or attacking organizations that use religion to abuse, whether we’re talking about symbolism within or outside of government–there’s a very real agenda happening in this country. On the most basic level of police brutality and how they deal with American citizens–all of that is addressed on our album and I don’t think you’re going to get that on other albums in the same way. Ice Cube is a forefather to this shit. I love him to death. I want to be on Ice Cube’s new album. With that said, people are not reacting with the enthusiasm for Ice Cube that I think he deserves. In lieu of that I want to be the other person on the stage ranting.

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EL-P: Mike will have you thinking we just made Fear of a Black Planet! The important thing to note is that all of this stuff is subtly wrapped up around us giving the most high-level ignorant ridiculous shit. The great rap groups of my childhood felt like superheroes, and not because they’re superhuman, but because they were relatable and they were saying “fuck you” to everybody that was in power. These dudes were not villains, they were just badass dudes who didn’t take any shit. They were funny. They were raw, but they weren’t your enemies. I always hope a kid listening to Run The Jewels feels like, “I want to be in Run The Jewels.” And I think Run The Jewels is that kind of group. We’re not talking at you from a higher level. We’re not the guys who are saying, “Look at us! We’ve made it!” We’re saying we are you and at the same time we’re saying you can have fun, you can be weird, you can be stupid and at the same time you can have ideas and you can be smart and you can move with intelligence, and those things aren’t mutually exclusive.

I like people I can relate to. It’s like Slick Rick. You knew that motherfucker was smart as hell and yet he’s telling ridiculous, over-the-top stories about him getting locked up in jail. I just think the time is right for bigger characters that are more dimensional. Me and Mike are not young kids and we’re not old either. We know ourselves. We have a swagger that comes not with cockiness but with experience. I hope it’s a populous group.

Do you prefer working solo or as a group?

KILLER MIKE: It’s easier for me when I got El in there. It’s easier because I got someone who absolutely knows me. I got someone to bounce shit off of quickly. With solo projects, you get in your own mind–that’s a fucked up place to be.

EL-P: Hell yeah.

KILLER MIKE: I enjoy making solo and group records but I have to be honest: The group is just fun, fun, funfest because even when it’s difficult you have someone in there with you. My recording process is pretty much that same: Put on a dope El-P beat, walk around, smoke weed, pace for a few minutes, and shit will start coming.

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El-P and Killer MikePhoto: Timothy Saccenti

Do you feel you’re stronger as Run The Jewels than El-P and Killer Mike separately?

EL-P: Mike and me have our own musical histories–sort of an arc of what we’re trying to do. Run The Jewels is like a brand-new kid that we’re raising. There are things we can’t say in the context of Run The Jewels that have to be said as artists individually. Like, there are things that Mike will have to say that are about Michael Render and about the soul of Michael Render that are a part of his legacy. The same thing with me: There are things that are only going to be able to be worked out through an El-P solo record.

But we didn’t want Run The Jewels to be a complete departure from what we do individually. You can always relate to a person. But there’s something special about the bigger idea of a group. When you have a banner to hold an idea under, the fans are a part of defining what it is. We’re watching Run The Jewels being created. We started it but we’re not the ones in charge of it at this point. The people in charge of it are the people who are giving it meaning.

How do you handle creative differences?

EL-P: Sometimes we just talk about it and try to understand what the other person is doing and try to follow it up with something that makes sense for it. And sometimes we just fucking yell at each other.

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KILLER MIKE: Yeah, that’s true! We both always realize that whether we’re talking it out or yelling, both of us just want the best for the group and the best for each other. It’s about getting past those moments and back to the work because we never take our eyes off the prize. Both of us view the audience as the other member of the group. I just don’t want to let people down because of anything that would be ego-related or anything like that. Whatever differences come up we usually get settled.

EL-P: Sometimes we’ll have different approaches to a song and we’ll get to a place where we’ll have to match them up, so sometimes that’s where the creative differences come up. It’s not really a difference–it’s more like a puzzle you have to solve. We’re trying to make a record that’s not just me and Mike dropping verses that have nothing to do with each other. So there’s more conversation about where the song is going than we would ever had if it was just us doing our solo records. No one is ever going to tell Mike when he’s writing his solo record, “I think you should write this.” Mike would tell that person to fuck off and rightfully so. It wouldn’t be appropriate in that context and I’m the same way with my shit but in this context it forces two very strong, opinionated people with artistic direction to actually sit down and deal with the fact this is our record.

So what’s this we hear about Meow The Jewels?

Meow The Jewels is Mike’s stupid idea. We got really high and thought it would be fucking funny: I redo the album using nothing but cat noises. Some crazy kid started a campaign to raise money for Meow The Jewels–there was no way in fucking hell I thought it would happen. And maybe it won’t. Me and Mike feel strongly about police brutality so we saw the opportunity to do something good in a funny way and in a way that’s what Run The Jewels is all about. If Meow The Jewels happens, I’m going to take the money and put it directly as close to the hands of the families of Eric Garner and Mike Brown as I possibly can. It’s just a cool way to do something good and also to make the stupidest rap album of all time.

NOTE: Meow the Jewels was successfully funded after this interview and is totally real and totally happening.

About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America" where he was the social media producer.

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