In Conversation: Run The Jewels

Getting deep with Killer Mike and El-P...

One of 2013’s standout rap records is also one of 2014’s best, as Run The Jewels’ eponymous debut LP (review) is re-issued in an expanded style – with new track ‘Pew Pew Pew’ and two remixes, plus bonus instrumentals – on January 13th via Big Dada.

RTJ is the collaborative project of New York producer and MC El-P (Jaime Meline) and Atlanta rhymer Killer Mike (Michael Render). Both have highly acclaimed solo releases to their names, catalogues stretching back to the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, yet it’s with RTJ that they’ve achieved perhaps their most significant traction – with critics and your average rap fans alike. ‘Run The Jewels’ might have started life as a free-to-download collection, but numerous sold-out shows have proved that interest in this pairing goes far deeper than the casual acquisition of a new-release ‘mixtape’.

2014 is only going to be bigger for the duo – not just because of the deluxe version of their first record, but also due to the arrival of a sequel. El-P tweeted on New Year’s Day: “2014 aka RTJ2 year”. A slew of retweets and replies along the lines of “f*ck yeah” and “pretty much AOTY already” go to show that anticipation is bubbling, to say the least.

Clash spoke to the pair not so many days after their show at London’s Brixton Electric (review), as they prepared to take a well-earned Christmas break, and began to look ahead to 2014…

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‘A Christmas F*cking Miracle’

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You’ve got ‘Run The Jewels’ about to come out officially in the UK, via Big Dada, with some nice extras – how’s that feel?

El-P: It’s great, they’re great. It’s an easy relationship because we already had the record.

You guys own these tracks, outright, right?

El-P: Yeah. Of course. I’ve pretty much always owned my shit. But with this record we took the easy route – we made it, and then hooked up with people who we thought were cool, to disseminate it. We love (US label) Fool’s Gold, we love Ninja Tune (parent company of Big Dada), and have history with both labels. So it’s not bad. As for the music: we assembled it, we built it, we own it, this is our house.

I got the impression from the stage in London that the reception you’ve had for Run The Jewels has been a sincerely moving experience for you guys…

El-P: Naw, that was all contrived. We actually worked all of that out before the show. I’m glad that it came over as sincere – but it was actually probably the least sincere thing we’ve ever done. We don’t even rehearse our songs, we just rehearse platitudes. (Laughs) But we’re f*cking excited, man! Getting the energy back from the crowd, and having a successful run, and having people like what you’re doing… There’s no beating around the bush, that’s a great thing for us, genuinely.

Is there not a risk that Run The Jewels could get too busy for you in 2014?

KM: I don’t think we can be too busy if we’ve already planned to do all that we’re going to do. You can get distracted from what’s next, and what’s next is to do another record – but we’ve pretty much got the next three years planned. If you’re thinking in terms of just the next year, yeah you’re gonna f*ck up.

El-P: We’ve already come to grips with the complete sacrifice of our personal lives.

That’s sort of what I was getting at – you’ve a family, Mike, so will more Run The Jewels work not keep you from them, for too long?

KM: Well, I’m lucky. My wife travels with me a lot. I’m fortunate in that respect.

El-P: It’s easier for me, actually, because on the low I’m solving crimes in every city we visit. So I feel like I’m doing some good out there, solving crimes, usually in between soundcheck and showtime. I usually manage three or four a day. But nah… It is what it is, man, and we do what we do. It’s an adventure. It’s a tough schedule sometimes, but who’s going to complain about being tired from touring Europe and making money?

You’ve both got substantial back catalogues, but do you feel that Run The Jewels is reaching entirely new audiences? I did notice a fair few young faces at the London show…

KM: Absolutely. Kids, that’s what I’m seeing. I’ve got a 16-year-old daughter, and I’ve been amazed at the amount of 16- and 17-year-old children I’ve seen at our shows. Y’know, we’ll be in some places where part of the crowd is sectioned off by a rope. You’re like, “Why is that section roped off?” Oh, yeah, those are the children.

But it’s been cool having them, because I can remember, being a kid, discovering certain groups, and it’s cool to be one of those groups that can appeal to a couple of generations. It’s good for me, and I think a lot of times you can be ‘reborn’ through gaining new fans, and it can give you new energies. I appreciate it.

I look at the people who support Run The Jewels by coming to shows and buying merch as almost a third member of this group. We share a lot of the same things, in terms of how we’re seeing the world, and it’s cool to know that a bunch of young people out there are so into dope records, into dope hip-hop. That’s really encouraging to me. So as long as y’all keep coming, we’re gonna keep doing.

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‘Pew Pew Pew’ (feat. DJ Qbert), from the forthcoming deluxe version of ‘Run The Jewels’

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Was freely distributing the record online a deliberate way to reach a younger audience, to engage with people who might not know you from past releases?

KM: Just doing dope shit is all that’s on my mind.

El-P: I don’t really know… I mean, nobody’s really thinking about this in terms of demographics. We just want to make great records, and whoever listens to them, listens to them. It’s interesting to me, now I’m in my late-‘30s, that people want to talk to me a lot more about distribution and that. But I don’t think that people are asking other mother*ckers this sort of question, about giving their music away for free, all the time.

I think there’s an elephant in the room here, and that’s the fact that it’s amazing that we’re still making records, at all. And it is, honestly. To some degree, it feels like we’re pulling off these weird, impossible feats by putting out new records.

KM: I wanna be doing this when I am as old as The Rolling Stones or Willie Nelson. Straight the f*ck up. Willie’s 80, and he’s just there smoking weed and figuring out dope shit. That’s what I wanna be doing. And I don’t mean it in an abstract way when I say, I like Willie Nelson. When he’s coming through my town, I’m gonna go see him, y’know? I used to think that there was a finite amount of time with this – but the more you do it, the more dope shit you make, then f*ck it, why not keep going?

In terms of productivity, you’ve the 'Run The Jewels' sequel due in 2014, and you both had solo LPs out the year before the RTJ debut, in 2012. That’ll represent quite the run. But prior to that, El, you’d released just the three solo LPs proper in 10 years…

El-P: Well, I did have a record label (Definitive Jux) to run. I was responsible for that for 10 years, and that really slowed down the process of making my own records, for sure. But since I shut it down [in 2010], I’ve made an instrumental album (‘Wearealgoingtoburninhellmeggamixx3’), a solo record (‘Cancer 4 Cure’, review), I produced Killer Mike’s record (‘R.A.P. Music’), and I made ‘Run The Jewels’. So that’s four records in three years. So that’s the path I’m on now, and I don’t have any intention of stopping.

I think that we’re tapping into a zone, and we need to hold onto that. We have got to a point in our lives where we are properly set up to be doing this, so I’m gonna keep going. I never rush anything – but when I’m inspired, shit just happens. That’s why the records have been coming quickly, and working with Mike has been great. There’s an energy between us that we’ve been able to harness, and that’s made us both a lot more productive than we were without each other. We have a lot to do, a lot on our plate, but it’s cool to have a partner in crime. Mike motivates me, and vice-versa.

How far do the two of you go back, before you worked on ‘R.A.P. Music’? So far as I know, not very…

El-P: We met in, I guess, 2010. I guess it’s lucky. Usually you have this sort of bond with someone you came up with, but we met in a very different place.

Clash placed ‘Run The Jewels’ in its top albums of 2013. What have been your own albums of the year?

KM: ‘Run The Jewels’. For me, man. Abso-f*cking-lutely.

El-P: I like to defer to Mike on these questions. I’m bad at rating music. If I say that something is my favourite album of the year, then tomorrow that will have changed.

KM: (Looking at Clash's cover) I will say that I love M.I.A. as a human being and as a musician. And she’s beautiful, too…

El-P: I’m a fan, myself.

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‘Sea Legs’ (David Sitek remix), from the forthcoming deluxe version of ‘Run The Jewels’

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To turn to the reissue of ‘Run The Jewels’, are you guys who still prefer holding a record to simply downloading one? Do you like the ‘artefact’ quality of a vinyl release?

KM: I like it, because I like art. I like physically holding art. Somewhere along the line, people have become less artistic, and have stopped caring so much about that side of things. Like, I like the way (The) Alchemist puts his records together – I’m a fan of the type of thing he does. What he does, with or without Prodigy, he just puts art into it. On top of the music.

El-P: I grew up as a record collector, but I’m not… Well, if I do vinyl then I want it to be something that people want to buy, to collect, to have in their homes. I know that I love it. I’d lament the complete loss of physical product, but whatever you do, physically, you want it to be beautiful. And I ran a record label for years, so I have an affinity for putting product out.

Houses are only so big, though…

El-P: I have the same problem. I mean, I have a decent-sized spot, but I have that problem. Fifteen, 20 years… I guess I started my record collection when I was nine. My father bought me ‘Monster Mash’, for Halloween. He had a big vinyl collection. You know, “It was the monster maaash.” The first record I bought myself was ‘Star Wars: The Score’, with Darth Vader on the cover. I was taken to see Star Wars…

Hang on, you’re surely too young to have been taken to see Star Wars, let alone remember it. It came out in 1977…

El-P: I was born in ’75, so… Maybe it was Empire Strikes Back.

KM: (To Clash) You’re good.

El-P: He does have a point. I’d probably not remember seeing a movie at two years old. Though I swear to god I remember that shit. I don’t remember what I did for the last year…

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‘36” Chain’

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One of the biggest – well, most outspoken at least – rap talents of 2013 has been Kanye West. One of his more-recent outbursts was where he claimed to be “Shakespeare in the flesh”. I’m just wondering who you might go and compare yourselves to…

El-P: I’d be some haphazard character in a Kafka novel. Being crushed by bureaucracy, and withered… That’d be me. Actually, naw, I’m not even that cool.

RZA told me recently how some rappers can lose sight of the character they present to the public, how the realities between the everyday and the fantasy of their rhymes can blur, dangerously…

El-P: Are you asking if authenticity is important? Well, we both perform under pseudonyms, and that’s just how it is. I’m not gonna break it down – that’s just what we do in the hip-hop community. Graffiti artists don’t go around and tag their real names on the wall. I don’t think a rapper owes anyone anything.

KM: Back you your previous question, I’m Gordon Parks (Wikipedia). And I’d like to challenge all successful rappers to get new references. Because I think that most of their references are getting contrite, and old.

Andy Warhol painted in the ‘80s too, and he was a pop artist. If you’re talking about (Jean-Michel) Basquiat, or you’re gonna rap about photographers, know who Irving Penn is. You gonna talk about the Harlem Renaissance, compare yourself to Zora Neale Hurston or Countee Cullen – it doesn’t always have to be (Langston) Hughes. So, I’m Gordon Parks – because I like shooting shit, I wear a cowboy hat, and one day I might make a Blaxploitation movie… and I like taking photos.

Of course rappers are characters – because everyone is a f*cking character. People mostly just get to do it on Halloween, but we get to do it every day.

El-P: What form of art doesn’t employ some form of a pseudonym? Even in rock bands, they’re all characters. “Oh right, you’re the dangerous, dark, sexy guy…” Sure you are! Getting yourself a chicken Caesar wrap in the airport when you’re travelling in sweatpants and a fannypack. To me what matters is just sincerity, even in a joke or a lie or a story or a tale – sincere involvement with your craft.

Mike and I, we feel like we can say anything because you’re in on it with us. This is not some prank we’re playing on you; we’re not attempting to trick you. If we say something outrageous, you’re going to know it’s outrageous because we intended it to be that way. I think there are rappers out there who don’t realise that their whole shit is outrageous – they’re trying to pull it over like it’s the real thing. That’s fine, but they have to realise that everyone knows what’s going on, and that’s part of why they like you. But don’t get it twisted. We’re not all falling for the fact that you thought you were this thing… We’ll decide whether it sounds good or not. And if it sounds good, then we’ll smile. We might even like the character you’re portraying. That’s all it is. It’s not what you call yourself, it’s what you do on a record, or in a book, or at a show.

Everyone has to remember that, I think, rap music is the only form of art where it’s valid to talk about ‘how real’ it is. Or how real it isn’t. But you don’t talk to a filmmaker and say, “Hey, I don’t think those aliens are real.” A director of a gangster movie isn’t living that life – they just made a movie. Like, look at us, pretending that squirrel (Mr Killums, as seen in the ‘36” Chain’ video, and others) is alive!

I think it’s quite clear that we’re not trying to sell reality. And it’s hilarious, for us, to do things like the ‘36” Chain’ video.

KM: I don’t hold nothing against nobody, because I know that everyone needs a fairy tale to follow. So I think that it’s no great travesty to have men making up things to be, because you wouldn’t love Don Quixote if he wasn’t abso-f*cking-lutely insane. That play (Man Of La Mancha) would have been shit otherwise. But the audience, at some point, has to accept that he can’t actually fight a windmill for real. When I say I’mma shoot a poodle, it’s outrageous – and you have to view something like buying 10 bottles in the club with the same outrageousness. You’d be broke, and I don’t want you to be broke!

El-P: A lot of people have this idea that reading non-fiction is somehow more valid than reading fiction. But for me, reading fiction is more interesting because I’m not having to deal with the supposition that what I am reading is real. In other words, if I am reading a metaphor or parable, I’m more likely to get something out of it than if I have to deal with whether or not the person who wrote this book is telling the truth.

KM: That’s why I like the Bible.

El-P: That’s some sci-fi shit. Flaming chariots, God beaming lasers down to a mountain. That’s weird as shit.

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The Big Dada-released deluxe version of ‘Run The Jewels’ is released on January 13th. Get more information here

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