Interview: Run The Jewels Is Better Than Your Favorite Rap Group
It’s not at all an insult to call acclaimed hip-hop group Run the Jewels one of the most unlikely success stories in popular music folklore. In fact, the duo of hardboiled lyricist Michael “Killer Mike” Render and left-field producer/rapper Jaime “El-P” Meline would be the first to tell you that they have been completely taken aback by the enormous buzz that has surrounded the mismatch tandem. Their latest release, Run the Jewels 2, a fist-pounding follow-up to their universally hailed 2013 debut Run the Jewels, is proof that all the talk of the charismatic tag-team being the best hip-hop group since OutKast called it quits in the studio is not unwarranted. “We never knew it would go this far,” El-P tells VIBE without a hint of false humility. “The way the fans have supported us…it’s been crazy.”
The surface stuff is quite easy: El-P is white and from the North while Mike is black and hails from the south. Then it gets much more complex: Brooklyn son El, a former member of the influential hip-hop group Company Flow, is the Godfather of New York’s ‘90s backpacker scene fueled by such iconic independent labels as Rawkus Records and Meline’s own imprint Definitive Jux. Mike, the intimidating, booming voice Atlanta native has ran with both OutKast’s and T.I.’s respective camps, crafting his own critical-darling glory. But some how it all works. The future duo originally met when Cartoon Network’s creative director of Adult Swim Jason DeMarco suggested that El and Mike come together for a collaboration. After appearing on one another’s solo sets (Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music and El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure, both released in 2012), Run the Jewels was born.
VIBE caught up with Run the Jewels to discuss the group’s obsession with validating their out-the-box success; their straight-no-chaser views on the pending Ferguson verdict; how their current tour has restored their faith in hip-hop; and why marijuana is a hell of a drug.—Keith Murphy (@murphdogg29)
VIBE: With the first Run the Jewels release there was kind of a mystery surrounding the project. The talk was why are these two guys, who seem to have nothing in common with each other, coming together for an album. And then the shit blew people’s collective minds. How different was your creative mindset going into the Run the Jewels 2 album vs. the first one? Was there more pressure to blow the first project out of the water?
El-P: We just wanted to make a classic follow-up record, man. Like you said, the first album nobody knew what to expect. We didn’t even tell anybody that it was coming that hard. People just got taken by storm by the first Run the Jewels album. But with this one we wanted to make this a real legacy. We wanted to prove that this is a great group and not just a moment or some freak occurrence [laughs].
Killer Mike: Run the Jewels was in homage to the rap group, which has basically been gone from existence. But what we found from doing this tour is that the kids were like, “Oh…this is a real group!” The pressure came from how do you make a classic follow-up? Because the first Run the Jewels is a classic. How do you top dope? The only way to do that is to be super dope.
El-P: It was a test for us. It became: how do we beat ourselves? Our expectations are always going to be higher than anyone else’s.
I would be remiss, especially given Mike’s very strong and pointed comments about what’s been happening in Ferguson, not to bring up the grand jury indictment decision on the cop who shot and killed am unarmed Michael Brown. When you look at what’s going on why is there this enormous sense of hopelessness? People there are really expecting the worst.
Killer Mike: That hopelessness is based on the track record. The track record is we can kill American citizens and no one gives a fuck. The track record is police in particular can kill black men and no one would really give a fuck. The track record is your Constitutional rights are being railroaded everyday and everyone is passively sitting around talking about what they are going to get on Black Friday for Christmas. That’s just the truth.
It’s just that the people on the bottom they feel it earlier. That’s why they are angry in places like Ferguson and that’s why there are riots. I think Dr. King had a great quote about riots. He said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” I don’t want there to be another riot. I don’t want people dead and bleeding in the streets. I just want all Americas of every color to put the government back in its place.
There’s a song on the new album called “Early” where Mike plays the role of a man who is being profiled, harassed by police and taken away in handcuffs in front of his wife and kid. And then El-P has a verse in which he appears apathetic to the brutality going on around him…
Killer Mike: Not only that, a mother is shot and killed.
Which was very shocking when you make the connection between your verse and El-P’s verse. Can you talk about how that song came together?
El-P: I think we just wanted to show people that hidden connection. It’s a photograph…a painting of that moment. Those moments can be grand in scope even in the smallness of it. My verse you are talking about a guy who essentially is walking around kind of in a daze. He just sort of hears about the incident that took place in Mike’s verse. I think you got two really honest perspectives.
[“Early”] is capturing a moment…it’s capturing some sort of framing of the different ways we are all maneuvering through the muck and the mire of all these incidents and how we are sort of protected from it. My perspective in the song is that of the guy who is not being directly affected by what’s going on. He’s not that connected to it, but he is aware. He’s just sort of mindlessly going about his day and just trying to cope with that ever-present feeling…
Killer Mike: The apathy…
Killer Mike: And I think El’s verse shows a level of testimony. It could be glanced over, but when you look at it we are all those characters. We all have become apathetic beings. El literally hears the gun shot. We hear and see these things all the time, and we do nothing about it. It’s like I said on the matter of Ferguson: there is no bigger proponent against the militarization of police than the NRA. I’m a member of the NRA! Yet the dumb asses at the top of the NRA wouldn’t even say anything when they saw a tank in the middle of street during the protests.
I don’t care if you agree or disagree with why people were out there. Police were using tear gas, which is illegal now in war, but not when it’s used against unarmed protestors. The fact that we didn’t see any NRA representation there just shows you this country is so polarized and fractured that they are just going to knock on our doors and take our rights. Because no one wants to advocate for the rights of people that don’t look like them. I think that’s the real danger. People that don’t look like you and who are not in your class structure continually allow these things to happen over and over again.
So let’s get into something much more lighter. You guys have been on the road promoting the new Run the Jewels album. What has been your favorite gig so far and are you surprised how dedicated the fans have become in such a short time?
El-P: The thing is we have been doing this shit for a long time, but I will say that this shit has been crazy. This Run the Jewels thing blew up and we didn’t expect that. The shows have been fucking nuts.
Killer Mike: Four straight sold-out shows…
El-P: Just complete fucking mayhem. We’re adding two and three extra shows a night. It’s been a maniac, mosh pit, scream-fest. It feels like we are at someone else’s show…like what the fuck is going on? [Laughs]
Killer Mike: Yo, we were in San Diego and the crowd moshed through the entire show…the whole crowd! There was one kid who crowd surfed the entire show!
El-P: They held that dude up for about an hour and five minutes [laughs]. But Houston was my favorite, personally. It was just insane. And I never sold out Houston.
Killer Mike: Bun B came out!
El P: Yeah, Bun was onstage with us. It was crazy. In then in LA we had Zack De La Rocha, Gangsta Boo, and Travis Barker come out.
Killer Mike: On his birthday.
El-P: Yeah…it’s been nuts, man. We’ve been around for a minute and we’ve had good careers, but we’ve never experienced this before. This is some new shit.
Killer Mike: I said to El, man, the only thing I’ve seen that felt like this was Wu-Tang Clan. I heard one Wu-Tang record and I had everything Wu-Tang the next day! I had Wu-Tang shirt, Wu-Tang hat, Wu-Tang everything…
El-P: A Wu-Tang necktie [laughs]…
Killer Mike: Yeah. It was crazy.
El-P: And there’s an energy at these shows…it’s not a new energy. It’s just a renewed one. This is an energy that has existed in hip-hop. For anyone that is above the age of 30 you recognize this energy from a lot of different things and music. But it’s not the most prevalent thing in the music industry right now. It’s something that people really want, especially from hip-hop music. There is a sense of excitement and comradery that’s palpable. For us we are getting onstage every night just grinning like, “Oh shit…this is fun!” Personally I’ve been blown away by the whole thing.
How high were you guys when you came up with the joke pre-order for Run the Jewels 2?
El-P: Man, I was so high [laughs].
Killer Mike: El was so high that he thought of some genius shit!
El-P: Mad fucking high [laughs].
The crazy part is one of the jokes has become a reality with the spin-off release Meow the Jewels, which will utilize cat voices on the actual beats from Run the Jewels 2. The money from that project is going to victims of police brutality. I’m sure you didn’t think such a wacky idea would go this far, right?
El-P: Well, when we were doing the pre-order packaging for the record, I had rolled a very large blunt. I sat down and I smoked that shit and I came up with a bunch of stupid and what I thought were funny ideas [laughs]. Just joke pre-order packages and things that nobody would ever buy for hundreds of thousands of dollars. One of those things was Meow the Jewels, in which we would remix the Run the Jewels 2 record using nothing but cat sounds for music. Obviously, this was a joke. But someone we didn’t know started a Kickstarter responded to our joke with a joke. But when you joke about shit like that it can take off. And it took off! It started getting donations and media coverage.
I reached out to the kid and wanted to see where his head was it. We didn’t want to see people invest money and time into something that’s not real. But when we spoke he told me that he wanted to invest some of the proceeds to victims of police brutality. And then I said why don’t we donate all of the money to victims…why don’t we just make this about charity? And if we do that that’s something that Killer Mike and myself can get behind. It’s something that is dear to our hearts. It was just an amazing opportunity to fight injustice with stupidity.
Mike, when El was coming up with the pre-order jokes how did you react?
Killer Mike: I was on the phone with my manager Will in California. And I read them shits and spit water out my mouth [laughs]. The pre-order package was just so damn detailed, man.
You said in a recent interview that with El-P you felt like Snoop Dogg when he first hit the studio with Dr. Dre. What specifically does El-P’s production bring out of you as an MC?
Killer Mike: The best. I think I’m the best over El-P’s beats. I’m born to be on El-P’s production and it’s not something I expected. But I feel like I was also born to rock over the Bomb Squad’s beats and nobody would have ever called that [laughs]. I don’t question it. I can’t tell you why. I just know there is something about the production that El does and what I do as a rapper, and that it fits together like a hand in glove.
El, when you hear such glowing words coming from Mike like that, what comes to mind?
El-P: He’s right [laughs]. What I mean is Mike is right that there is something special that happens when we work together. And it works both ways. I get everything out of it. Not only do I have a production muse, but I also have a rap partner. I’m inspired constantly by Mike. There is something that we do that brings the best out of each other creatively. And that’s been unprecedented for both of us and has made some magical things happen. That’s exactly why we are talking to you right now. We cannot front on whatever it is that makes our combination of musical shit and ideas and vibe something special. Even if nobody else thought we were special we would still feel that way.