El-P and Killer Mike in conversation...
Run The Jewels - El-P and Killer Mike

Run The Jewels is Atlanta’s Killer Mike and Brooklyn’s El-P: rapper and producer, MC and co-MC, guys with similar tastes and of the same age… best pals.

The pair’s work together began, properly, with Killer Mike’s ‘R.A.P. Music’ LP of 2012, on which El-P served as producer. El-P, real name Jaime Meline, also released a solo album the same year, the excellent ‘Cancer 4 Cure’ (Clash review). He and Mike (real name: Michael Render) hit it off, and a professional relationship blossomed into a firm friendship.

Which, in turn, produced Run The Jewels, the pair’s collaborative group – and it is a group, as the duo explains to Clash when we catch up with them towards the end of their long stateside tour supporting the release of their debut, eponymous LP (Clash review), released in June. The night before was Atlanta, Mike’s hometown. Word is, it went off

(Warning: videos contain language and scenes that might be a bit juicy for some readers.)

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Run The Jewels, ‘36” Chain’, from ‘Run The Jewels’

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First up, how was the Atlanta show? Being Mike’s hometown, I can only imagine that it was special.

El-P: Oh, it was unbelievably fun. Ridiculous.

Killer Mike: Yeah, I had a ball. It was a little homecoming dance for me.

And New York is the last show on this tour. I guess that’s going to be a big one, too…

El-P: You can’t really describe the energy of those type of shows, man. The hometown show… Just based on that pure, desperate need to be home, it’s more fun than any other possible show.

KM: (Laughing) I’ll second that, bro. I’ll second that.

Even before ‘Run The Jewels’, the album, was released, there seemed to be this real appetite growing for it. Is that something you foresaw: the real desire, the demand, amongst fans to get this into their ears?

El-P: I think we kinda knew… I think we felt that we were making a monster in the studio. But that’s just because we make records to please ourselves – we’re rap fans, so we just approached it like that. And the shit was putting grins on our faces – these evil, maniacal grins – so we thought that people might react to what we were doing. But you never know. I think Mike and I have been feeling very lucky, and surprised, and grateful for the response we’ve been getting, for sure.

And to give the album away for free, digitally – when did that idea really take root? As both of you have been through the model, several times, of record, wait several weeks or months, and then release an album…

El-P: Well, we’re feeling pretty relentless these days – and we wanted to keep that energy we were feeling going. When you find a creative partnership, a friendship, that’s so fun to do your job in, in the context of, you don’t want to sit around waiting for a label to figure out what they’re doing with your record.

Personally, I just thought it would be the coolest thing to do, to release the album for free. It just stuck in my head, and I couldn’t imagine us working on some long marketing plan, trying to sell people what’s on the album. You know, we didn’t want to bother with all of that shit, and Mike and I have been really lucky over the years with our own solo things, so at this point we didn’t really need to go to a label for Run The Jewels. We just thought that it’d be cool to thank people, in a way, for letting us be able to do this. If that makes any sense.

I recall you, El, Tweeting about seeing the download numbers go up and up. I wonder if there’s any part of you that thinks: man, if only we’d charged, like, a dollar per download…

El-P: I don’t think that a present should come with a price tag, and for us Run The Jewels is a present. It’s something that we were excited about – that we are excited about – and for me it’s a commitment to a relationship with our fans. It’s basically us saying: here’s our contribution. We want those guys, our fans, with us, as we’re going to be doing this for a long time. I figured that we’d take the first step.

So I wasn’t looking at those download numbers like, “Damn, I could be making some money.” I was looking at them and thinking, “Wow, people are really getting this record.” And that’s what we really want. That doesn’t mean we won’t charge for a record at some point, but right now that sort of shit doesn’t matter to us.

I resent and find repulsive that first-week sales is something that’s come into the conversations of fans. That, and the general mindset of the listener, it’s something that’s new, and something that a fan shouldn’t be burdened with. It’s unfair. And it’s unfair on us, too, to be distracted by anything that prevents us from getting this record to you.

To some degree it was a statement, but also a way for us to say: forget all that other stuff. We’re not competing with anybody – we just want to compete for your hearts and minds. And if you enjoy the music, then we have faith that you might come to a show, or buy merch, or tell a friend about us… y’know, support us in some way. This is an on-going relationship, and we’re all trying to figure it out. This might be a leap of faith on our part, but I think that’s a good thing.

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Killer Mike, ‘Big Beast’, from ‘R.A.P. Music’

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El-P, ‘The Full Retard’, from ‘Cancer 4 Cure’

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The reception from the fans was great, that much was clear immediately. But how important was it for you two, after two amazingly received solo albums last year, to have Run The Jewels do well amongst critics, too?

KM: I felt that was quite important, because we didn’t want this to be seen as a Killer Mike record featuring El-P, or the other way around. So for me, it was important that Run The Jewels had its own identity – and for that identity to be recognised. This is a real group. If we’re gonna do Run The Jewels, it has to be a real group – not for this moment, not as a one-off, but for some time.

I don’t want this record to be compared to our solo records – I want this record, this group, to be compared to the greatest rap groups of all time. Meaning, when I made this record, I wanted it to be compared to EPMD, to OutKast, to UGK. So the fact that critics are looking at Run The Jewels as a group album is a compliment, as they’re talking about things like the cohesion on the album. And even though it might not be as political as our own solo records past, what it has is a rambunctious nature about it that all rap groups start with.

The way the album’s been received makes me proud. I wanted it to be judged how it has been. I think we’ve passed our own test with flying colours – in fact, I think we surpassed our own expectations for this.

El-P: I was actually hoping for across-the-board horrible reviews, personally. That was my dream, and it didn’t happen.

KM: There was one idiot that said it was awful, but he just wanted the attention.

You say that perhaps ‘Run The Jewels’ doesn’t have the political edge of something like ‘R.A.P. Music’, but it ends on a pretty deep note, with ‘A Christmas F*cking Miracle’, which clearly addresses some serious ills of modern-day society.

KM: Yeah, that comes at the end because it’s not the focus of this album. This is hip-hop that’ll punch you in your f*cking face, that’s the focus of this album (laughs).

El-P: Mike and I, when we work together, you’re never not going to hear songs that go deeper than just playfulness. What Mike’s saying is that, for this album, that’s not the main focus – but there are at least three songs on the album that do address some serious stuff. I’ve never defined myself as a political rapper, though – I’m just a rapper. I write ideas down and see what works at the time. There are songs on ‘Run The Jewels’ like that – I mean, it’s a 10-song record, so three of the songs are politically focused.

I think that when you get to a song like ‘A Christmas F*cking Miracle’, it has this impact, in the context of the record, because we’re not on that tone the entire time. So when it comes, it really means something. And it’s a song that really means something to us, which is the reason why it’s on there. We just made the record that we organically made – it just happened. So when those moments come, they’re very real for us, and I feel that they’re more powerful because of the context they’re set in.

And was it important, too, to keep the album relatively short? Ten tracks, 33 minutes – that’s not ‘usual’, I suppose, for a rap record.

El-P: Well, look back at ‘Illmatic’. Nas has forever conquered the short rap record. And whenever we make a short, 10-song album, we need to think about that! I guess we just wanted this album to be unskippable – and having an 18-track album where you skip five songs, that just didn’t appeal. That’s not the point of Run The Jewels.

KM: I’m a fan of the 10- or 12-song album, I really am. Y’know, Nas made a real statement with ‘Illmatic’. I think if you’re making a longer album, you’re competing with ‘N*ggaz4Life’, and that’s not something I wanna try to compete with. So I like to keep things lean and mean, because I don’t want filler tracks. I’ve made records like that before in my career, and I won’t make that mistake again.

Going back to this US tour you’ve been on – it’s been a long jaunt, hasn’t it?

El-P: Yeah, but I tell you what, it’s flown by real quick. Once it’s done we’re only home for a week or so before we’re out again for a bunch of spot dates and things. It’s been amazing. I’ve never been on a tour that’s gone so fast but been so long, if you get what I mean.

Sitting on this side of the Atlantic, looking at Twitter and reviews of the shows, it seems like it’s been a lot of fun…

El-P: No question. You’re looking at best friends touring together. And all the people who are with us are amazing. People are coming out to the shows and losing their f*cking minds, y’know. For Mike and I, it feels so amazing. We all have our own ideas of what successful touring is, but it really feels like something special is building here, and it’s just been great. We’re feeling pretty f*cking good about things. At this point in my career, I can’t not be having fun, or I wouldn’t do it.

And I’ve got to ask about coming to Europe. Are we talking planning stages, or is there anything concrete regarding shows over here?

El-P: It’s in the planning stages at the moment. I’ve just been looking over a bunch of offers, but we’re looking to come to Europe this year, for sure. I don’t think we’ll do a five-week winter death-run…

KM: I was on that run in January! That’s a rough run, bro.

El-P: So I think we’ll avoid that, no disrespect. Sometimes a truck stop in America is easier than a truck stop in Germany, and I’ll leave it at that. But we’re definitely going to come to the UK, and the major cities in Europe. We’re just working it out right now. We’re just taking things one step at a time – but there is a huge demand for us to come out there, and the fans have been really vocal about it on Twitter and general social media. So, people want us to come there, and we will come there, for sure.

And just to pick up on that comment about Run The Jewels building towards something, and how you want this seen as a proper group, not a one-off, I guess that means there’s more of this to come? A ‘Run The Jewels’ mark II, at some point in the future?

KM: Absolutely. We’re a real rap group. I wanna make the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame twice – once as a solo artist, and as a member of a group.

El-P: I’ve already told Mike that my plan is based on the EPMD plan, where we make a classic album, and then experience a horrible and contentious break-up. (Laughs) And then we have the comeback album, and another break-up. I dunno, we’ll work it out. But essentially we’ll follow EPMD.

KM: I’d like to follow the OutKast model, where we sell 10 million records, and then don’t break up, but don’t actually make a new record. So let’s sell 10 million, still hang out, and have everyone desperate for a new Run The Jewels album. Let’s do that.

El-P: Okay, let’s do it.

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Run The Jewels feat. Killer Mike, ‘Banana Clipper’, from ‘Run The Jewels’

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‘Run The Jewels’ is out now, and can be downloaded for free here.  (You can also buy the album on CD, or buy a shirt while you’re there.)

Clash’s review of the album can be found here

Photo: Michael Schmelling

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