Features I by I 14.06.13

Special edition rap comics: Killer Mike and El-P are Run The Jewels

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Special edition rap comics: Killer Mike and El-P are Run The Jewels

The most memorable rap moments are always those that appeal to the inner fanboys in all of us. And this has only gotten truer as the culture and music has gotten older.

Last year’s R.A.P. Music album by Killer Mike brought us such a moment, arguably one of the year’s finest for some, myself included. The combination of Mike’s rap persona and ability with El-P’s production led to a shared vision, and delivery, that was irresistibly dope and spoke directly to inner fanboys the world over.

While the smoke has settled since that release – which came at the same time as El-P’s latest solo album, Cancer 4 Cure, on which Mike also guested – the pair have found themselves unable to stop what they’d created, having found a common ground and shared love of a vision for the music that they have repeatedly proclaimed to those who will hear it. Roughly one year from the double barrel blast of R.A.P Music and Cancer 4 Cure, El-P and Killer Mike are returning under the name Run The Jewels.

Released at the end of June on A-Trak and Nick Catchdubs’ Fools Gold label, the album is exciting not just because it’s keeping the fanboy flame alive but also because it’s clearly not just another album. Rather it’s something that the pair carefully crafted as a thank you to their fans and another proof of just how dope their chemistry in the studio can be. Plus the album is a free digital release with select physical bundles full of nerdy loot, something that’s both enticing and revelatory of just how seismic the changes in the wider music industry are.

Over the phone the pair are just as complicit as they appear on camera or on stage, sharing jokes but also speaking in a way that felt genuine and not overly rehearsed. Despite time differences, call drop outs, being high and living in the cursed heat of the South the pair spoke on their vision for the album, their camaraderie, the double-edged sword of Molly, live rap, being villains and laughter being just as genuine as crying.

“Just because it was fun and it came easily doesn’t make it any less important.”

I wanted to start with the following: if Run The Jewels were comic book characters, who would they be?

Mike: That’s a great fucking question…
El-P: Is it? … I don’t know if there’s a comic book out there that exemplifies it but I’m pretty sure that neither of us are Robin.
M: We’d be villains.
E: That’s kinda how I feel about it. We’re like the low functioning super villains in training. We’re the dudes who can’t get it right but really want to be super villains.
M: It’s that villain life. I always admired Magneto though cos I felt like his villainy came from a pure, right place.
E: I like to think of myself as The Flash because I can run at super fast speeds.

You’re able to demonstrate that if need be?

E: Yeah I’ve never actually done it but I know I can. It’s just a matter of energy. I’m pretty sure if I wanted to I could cover a mile in about twenty seconds.

I guess getting high kinda gets in the way of that though…

E: It does, it really does.

Is Run The Jewels a cunning ploy to stay in the limelight following last year’s albums?

E: I mean isn’t putting records out a cunning ploy to stay in the limelight forever? Fuck yeah it is. It’s a cunning ploy to make great records that’s all. We’ve been doing this for a long time and we’re having a lot of fun doing it. It’s not contrived anymore than anyone else being a career rapper is contrived. We’re just having fun and really enjoy working together, touring together and just wanted to keep it going. It was so easy too, our vibe making music together is easy and so it just came out, it happened. So… YES definitely it is absolutely a cunning ploy to stay in the limelight and Mike and I absolutely plan to stay in the limelight for as long as we possibly can.
[Mike comes back after dropping off]
M: Black Jesus is back. Sorry the phone had hung up.

You’ve mentioned the fun side of working together last year. After two serious albums, is Run The Jewels a release for you?

E: No question. That was the thing, we both made really big, personal statements on our records and they were very important to us and led to everything that we’re doing now. But Mike and I didn’t want to stop and when we talked about what the next record would be, we knew we wanted to make another record but didn’t want to rush directly into another chapter in both our solo shit. We saw something else we could do, another idea that we could inhabit that would be creatively thrilling to us. We’re two dudes who’ve worked for years to get their own music out there, to define themselves and this just seemed like the most fun thing we could do for us and that was really it.

“Y’all always know I’m the asshole to say it, but I think it’s a classic.””

Getting this out of our system was an obvious next step now that I look at it, but at the time it kinda happened without too much thought. I was doing an EP and Mike was asking to get down on it and it just turned into ‘fuck it let’s do a record together’. It really just kinda happened and once it started happening, we were having fun and it seemed like it was obvious to us, ‘of course this is what we should do’. You mentioned comic books and for us this is the Marvel ‘What If?’ you know? It’s the special edition weird comic to a degree. It almost feels too good to be true, for me at least. It’s like we could have just disappeared for a year and worked on a record and…
M: We could have come back and projected our images on the side of middle schools.
E: I actually had this idea for the record release to stand on a corner and project the image of a building on my face.
M: I’m going to literally stop every Def Jam/Kanye West event and stand there with homeless people holding black and white TVs playing our video. And call it art.
E: That seems brilliant, but also mildly expensive. And I cannot back that I’m sorry.
M: Ah yeah, we do not have that marketing budget. Maybe we’ll just do one.

You could always shadow their tour with yours and gatecrash their parties.

M: Call that shit the ‘We’re coming too tour’. But for real it was a pleasure to make the record with El. When you work with people you like you want to do it again. With our last two records we did drugs and dug deeply into ourselves, and so we wanted to do drugs again but not dig as deep so… I think El best described it yesterday when he said that this record is really about style. We were influenced a lot by the camaraderie of classic shit, in particular I used EPMD as a muse. They were two radically different people apart but together it was literally peanut butter and jelly. El and I seem to have a similar good chemistry and our styles mesh, we played more on our cadences and stuff this time and it gave us another chance to – as I said – enjoy some mushrooms, enjoy some good majijuana, focus on style, not over substance, but style as substance.

I guess you’ve been in this long enough to take a project like this, which is fun, just as seriously as you would a more traditional album.

E: Absolutely. This isn’t some bullshit project we just threw together. We took it really seriously in the sense that we really knew what we wanted to get out of it and I believe in the record, I believe in the music. Just because it was fun and it came easily doesn’t make it any less important. It had to be fun and easy in a lot of ways. I’m really excited about the record, I’ll put it up against anything. I think it’s a piece. It’s a fucking good piece.
M: Y’all always know I’m the asshole to say it, but I think it’s a classic. And I’m not going to sugar coat that shit, cos you know we pay our publicists well but I don’t know if we pay them well enough to say that shit. But it’s the truth. This is a classic group album, it’s a group album I’ve always wanted to make cos you can only make this kinda record with a true partner, a true comrade, someone with whom ideas are equally respected and it’s about the good of the album and the ego of the group.

And when you’re young and in a group, as El and I have been, a lot of things come into it, personal interests, musical philosophies which you aren’t even sure of yet and now we’re just both two grown men who know what we do, know what we do well and we know how to push each other artistically and it was fun. It was a fun process. And I always say this but I look forward to making more records with El for the rest of my career.

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Going back to what you were saying about believing it’s a solid record, maybe there’s a lot to be said about honesty in art and it being driven by real emotions like pain but also sometimes, as in this case, fun.

M: Laughter is as genuine as crying.
E: Absolutely. And this is not a light record either… [Noises cut the line] Jeesus Christ Mike what the fuck?! Are you in Cybotron over there?
M: Excuse me motherfucker I live in the south I’m walking outside to a car.
E: Take the fuckin phone out of your back pocket while you walk. Sounds like you’re snuggling into a pile of leaves.
M: You just hating. It’s like 95 degrees out here, this is like anti-black people weather. It’s hot as fuck.
E: That’s the curse of the south. Ummm… So anyways the record isn’t light. I don’t think Mike and I are really capable of making a light record you know? It’s not possible.
M: This is the Louis CK record.
E: Yeah, we had fun merging our thoughts about society on this shit. When I say fun I mean that it came naturally, the process was something we keyed into and it just unfolded. And a lot of times when you’re working on your own shit you don’t have someone else to balance, you don’t have someone else to give you the thumbs up. It’s a different experience and doing it was just as enjoyable for me. It was just a different type of vibe. Like Mike said we really went in some ‘let’s flip styles on these cats’ and kinda give the rap fan in us, and everybody, something that they would really want. And that’s a big part of what we love about rap music in general, we come from a real raw perspective on the shit and we just got grimey on this.
M: You know how long I have wanted to rap about shooting a fucking poodle? Like, real G shit man. I had a homeboy who was in a robbery, he was robbed by this one dude who was a sick and depraved individual. He would rob you, turn you around and shoot you in the ass. And I always thought: what would be worse and more humiliating than shooting one in the ass post relieving them of whatever valuables? Shooting the goddam dog. Nothing more dark and cynical, and funny, than shooting the poodle. And when I said that line and saw the light in El’s eyes I knew I had brought that one home. I can anticipate PETA hating this line though.

“You know how long I have wanted to rap about shooting a fucking poodle? Like, real G shit man.”

What about guests on the album: anyone beyond those announced/leaked like Nick Hook, Big Boi and Prince Paul?

E: Well actually we just recorded the vocals at Nick’s studio in New York, that’s where he came in. Prince Paul, Big Boi and my dude Until The Ribbon Breaks, who’s a Brit, are the three guests on the record. We have friends come in and contribute. My friend Torbit aka Little Shalamar, he was my right hand man during the entire process, did a whole bunch of co-production, live instruments and different things he added to it. He was a great part of the whole process. We have other friends on there too. Matt Sweeney came and played guitar, and Ikey Owens played some keys. But in terms of real featured guests it’s just Prince Paul, making his return as Chess Rockwell – which I’m proud to be a part of – and Big Boi and Until The Ribbon Breaks, who did a hook for us. It’s not guest heavy, it’s really just the Jamie and Mike show for the most part.

Mike’s dropped again hasn’t he?

E: I think he has. You’ll know he’s back when you hear a lot of clicking and whirring.

Fools Gold is putting it out as a free digital album, with limited physical versions also available for purchase. It made me think about what they did with the Danny Brown XXX album, where it was free for a while then could be bought. You and Mike have been around long enough that you’ve seen the industry change, you’ve been a part of the previous model, and if I’m not wrong this is the first release from either of you using such an approach.

E: Look, one of the reasons why I am doing this is because I don’t really know if I believe that the traditional model of releasing records is that important anymore. At least not in every circumstance. For us it was more important to get this music out to people, not only as a thank you to everybody who was so good to us over the last year and supported what we’ve been doing, but also just as a way to cut out the middle man and say ‘look we’re not trying to compete in the industry, we’re trying to compete for your hearts and minds’.

We’re trying to put this out there, so take it, listen to it and if you like it great. I stepped to Fools Gold because they did such a great job with the Danny Brown record, I felt that it was one of the first records that had come out for free where people didn’t call it a mixtape, which is one of the most annoying things in the world.

[Mike comes back on]

E: It’s like if we give you a record for free you’ll classify it as a mixtape simply because I’m not trying to get a bunch of sales in the process. But this record is not a mixtape and they have experience doing things like this and they’re great guys so that’s why I wanted to do it. We had decided that we would go on the road and have a great time and we wanted to get the music out. More than anything we also didn’t want to lose the momentum and wait around to deal with… signing some huge contract and some big promo campaign etc… We’re in a position, because our fans support us, that we’re not really needing money to go get a deal or whatever, this is ok for us.

“At the end of the day I’m not going to sit around, bitch and moan. I’m going to figure out the shit.”

It doesn’t necessarily work for everybody else but the position we’re in meant we were able to invest ourselves into doing this and come up with other ideas to make money. And I believe in that. It was hard for me to run a record label. One of the reasons why I stopped my record label was because I couldn’t personally look anyone in the eye and tell them ‘I believe 100% that the traditional record label is the best model and best way to do this’. In a lot of ways it’s an experiment. I’m not saying it’s going to happen again, I’ll still be doing records I’m charging for, but for this record it just felt right.

And I guess if you’re metaphorically robbing people you might as well not charge them either.

E: Absolutely. I think that Mike and I both feel we want everyone to hear this. And we don’t want to have to jump over the hurdle of having to deal with all the other bullshit that comes with selling a record. We didn’t want to wait a year.
M: It’s an even swap and no swindle. Let’s be honest, kids are ripping records and I don’t blame ‘em. When I had the villainy to dub a tape I would and if I wanted to support the artist I’d go the extra mile and buy. Kids come to my concerts all the time, which are capacities, I’m even knocking out some sell-outs now, and they come up to me and are honest about ripping records. But those same kids that ripped the records came to the show, bought two t-shirts from me, took pictures and created a memory and gave me free promo online. That’s an even swap. No swindle.

We ain’t the Mother Teresas of music, a lot of people get to do cool shit and act like they some type of martyr for the shit, no. You do cool shit as a thank you for fans and I’m not going to lie: I had one of my best years musically and financially last year and the least I can do as an artist is put out a cool, free album – not a fucking mixtape – and immediately hit the road and tour instead of laying back, chilling, driving whatever car you know? I think that’s what we’re supposed to do.

There’s a third member of Run The Jewels and that’s the audience. I feel like that because we’re not the hype artists, even if the record has a track called ‘Twin Hype Back’ and I love that. I don’t want kids to like me for 90 days when they’re flooding my shit on the radio and then they wonder what happened to me on the 91st day. So thank the audience.
E: And who knows, at the end of the day we’re not stupid guys so please trust us when we say that we wouldn’t be doing this if it was a problem for us. We just found a cool way to do it, make some money and give people what they want and that’s what the project called for. We’ll see what happens in the future. In the meantime we’re psyched about the model.

I feel that the more artists such as yourselves, who have a legacy and been through different stages of the industry, engage with these new models the more chances we have of something finally settling and becoming the ‘norm’.

E: At the end of the day I’m not going to sit around, bitch and moan. I’m going to figure out the shit.
E: That’s it. No one has to worry, we’ll figure out a way to make a living out of our shit and I believe that the relationship between fan and artist has changed, the structure of it has changed, we’re coming into the middle and we’re all trying to figure out how to enable those changes. I’ve never liked the attitude of being… I understand all the arguments, feel some of them, but I don’t believe that if you want to put something out for sale people should feel entitled to steal it from you. Because that’s your job, and there are a lot of reason why that’s a ridiculous concept. But for me at the same time, I’m just a musician. We want to make music and do what we want to do, we’ll figure it out and we’ve got a lot of people, our fans, who are there to help us figure it out. We’re all in it together.

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You have a tour lined up following release. I wanted to know how you felt about live rap in general. I’ve been a hip hop fan more than half my life and I feel that as I’ve grown older, and as the culture and the music has got older, the impact of live hip hop has diminished a little.

E: Two thoughts on that. First of all… No, three thoughts. First of all, you are getting old. Second of all, most rappers suck at performing. And third of all Mike and I are some of the best performers in the rap genre right now, and I say that with a straight face because we fucking destroy shit. We don’t give you a regular show, we’re fucking good at what we do.

You’re right, people don’t put the time and energy into their shows and it gets a little cliché and a little predictable. Who wants to go see a show where the dude insists on crowd response every two seconds while not really giving anything to respond about. I don’t want to be told to shout in excitement. What Mike and I do is try to create moments that make you spontaneously scream. We’re not trying to demand it.
E: That’s it. It’s our job, and honestly I can say with no delusion that we have worked hard enough individually and collectively on our shit to be really good at doing live shows. Not everybody can do that, and not everyone has done it.
M: I miss DMX man. I really do. I like a lot of the lights, camera and action that happens on stages with the bigger performances now but I’ve been blessed to see Outkast, Jay Z, Kanye West, amazing productions. I’ve seen Bone Thugs, Ice Cube, Tech N9ne… all those guys are dope and passionate but I miss that one dude on stage walking that motherfucker like a lion and going insane. I seen El do that on stage with his band, people see me do it with my DJ and wait till you motherfuckers get a load of us together. Twin Hype is back bitch.

Hopefully we get a taste of it in Europe in the future.

E: We’re talking about it now, the first thing locked is North America this summer but we’re talking about getting out there in the winter so.
M: It won’t be in January though I tell you that.
E: Definitely not.

To be fair your window of opportunity for weather in Europe is pretty small these days.

E: It’ll be painful no matter when we go.

“Somewhere there’s a forty-year old raver still in his giant pants with a glowstick in his asshole listening to current rap music, shaking his head and saying ‘don’t do it’.”

You mentioned mushrooms and grass in the making of the album. What do you make of rap’s current fascination with Molly? Growing up with hip hop that drug was the last thing you’d associate with the music back then and yet here we are more than twenty years later and it’s become a part of it.

E: People just like drugs, ultimately.
M: I don’t fuck with that man made shit though. I fucked around with some shit like that for a month and I forgot too many days and woke up to hangovers and shit… I speak to the shit that grows out of the ground and the only thing needed to manufacture it is rain and cow shit. That’s the shit for me.
E: I pretty much fall in the same guidelines. But I spent probably about a decade doing ecstasy and I would say personally that I find it a little alarming. Not because I think that pure MDMA is the worst thing to take but because I worry a little about some kid trying to get a baggy of what he thinks is Molly and that shit is arsenic, roach powder, cocaine, or heroin, you know? I just think that hard drugs in general are somewhat of a dangerous thing to play around with and that’s coming from a dude who’s done mad fucking hard drugs. At this point I’m with Mike, I do my thing but people are always going to like drugs.
M: Word.
E: As long as society is a giant evil, spinning-blade wheel of oppression and darkness people are going to seek out drugs. And frankly when someone takes Molly or ecstasy or whatever they’ll feel really good, so I get it. It’s not rocket science. Somewhere there’s a forty-year old raver still in his giant pants with a glowstick in his asshole listening to current rap music, shaking his head and saying ‘don’t do it’.
M: Don’t do it.

In your recent RBMA lecture, El, you mentioned about wanting to contribute to the culture when you got into hip hop. I was speaking to B+ in LA recently who also mentioned the importance of hip hop being a contributive culture, the way it invites you to come in and contribute in your own capacity. What do those ideas mean to you?

E: It’s true to a degree and an interesting idea. But hip hop doesn’t just invite anyone in to contribute anything. You have to be on some shit first, you have to be good. For me I grew up admiring graffiti writers and learning my ethos from their mentality, which was style. You had to bring something to the table. It didn’t matter what, but anyone can pick up a can and copy what the next guy is doing, that’s called a toy.

So I grew up believing that the right way to be involved in hip hop culture from a respectful perspective, and this is from a New York cat back when it wasn’t as widespread as it is now, is to add and not leach off it, not grab onto it. Actually give it something else, give it something that you can say ‘here, this is for this, I love this, take this’. To this day it’s still how I operate. I really believe that.
M: To add to what El said, not only did you have to bring style but I’m from the country, I’m from Atlanta. I’ve always said hip hop is a fraternity, to be in the fraternity you had to bring style, a new dopeness, a new finesse. But then being from outside of New York in particular, and in our age coming from Atlanta which was essentially the country, you had to be dope.

And that’s what we realised. Not only did you need a different style, not only did you have to add to the culture but you had to be good. Others had to say ‘that shit dope’. And it’s really the only bar we have when we make music. When we finish something or during the process we look at each other, we smile and we say ‘this is dope’.


“My ability to access high art very quickly and my ability to see ratchet shit and pornography at will very quickly…”


E: Mike had to prove himself in a climate throughout his life where people completely ignored his entire region. And I had to prove myself at a time when there were no fucking white rappers. I never really talk about this because I think it’s corny but it is something that in a way bonds us because we fought hard to be legitimate, and to make legitimate statements and to be contributors in a real way. That’s something neither of us will ever forget.
M: You’ll never find someone more loyal to a church than a convert. I feel blessed to be a part of hip hop because I know it could have gone another way for me. I want to leave a legacy that is dope. I always look at Premier when I think of this. To me he is a corner of hip hop and he’s from Texas. I’ve wanted to give up, because I’m from Atlanta and because at one point it wasn’t about being dope but about doing the same style as the next man.

I really looked to Premier at those times to realise that you have to leave a legacy. No matter how much we know Premier as being in BK and being a part of Gangstarr or setting shit off on the East Coast, it always does a southern kid’s heart good when they hear or get to say ‘but Premier’s from Texas’. And I always want to be that. Kids might say ‘yeah but such and such’ and someone replies ‘but Killer Mike though’. I’ve worked hard for that right, and I enjoy having found a partner who understands this even if it’s in another context because he’ll never let me forget it.

Well I wanted to wrap things up with a couple quick, not too serious questions about the internet. The first of which was why do you think everyone is so cool online?

E: Cos your internet self is your avatar. It’s like when you play multiplayer online: you’ll pick the coolest outfits, you going to have the coolest gun, the most fucked up name. That’s all. The internet is a revolution for uncool people.

And lastly what is your favourite thing about the internet? The favourite thing you like to do or waste time on…

M: My ability to access high art very quickly and my ability to see ratchet shit and pornography at will very quickly. I swear to god that’s the truth.
E: And I will say in all honesty that my favourite thing about the internet is definitely the fact that I have a direct relationship with the people who support my music. That is absolutely the best thing I’ve seen come out of the internet, the rest of it is a horrible, perpetual trap for my mind.

I hear you on that one. Thank you for your time.

E: Thank you.
M: I’m about to go look at redtube now. Peace out.

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