How Run the Jewels Became Hip-Hop's Most Intense Truth-Tellers

El-P, Killer Mike on overcoming midlife crises, honing "badass interplay" and befriending Bernie Sanders

New York cult hero El-P and Southern scene-stealer Killer Mike trace the history of their thriving alt-rap duo Run the Jewels. Credit: Peter Yang for Rolling Stone

El-P was riding through a downtown L.A. intersection, shotgun in Jonah Hill's Audi, when another car materialized seemingly out of nowhere and – bam! – T-boned it. The Audi's entire passenger side was destroyed but, amazingly, everyone emerged OK. "I'm a believer in air bags," El-P says three days later.

At the time of the accident, he'd just met Hill, who is a big fan of Run the Jewels, the furiously inventive, critically beloved hip-hop duo that El-P formed in 2013 with his friend and fellow MC Killer Mike. Right before the crash, Hill and El-P grabbed a bite and "talked about working on some shit," El-P says. "Possibly a video." They ate at Philippe's, a venerated spot downtown, and so the collision, El-P adds, wasn't without a bright side: "I had a really good sandwich."

As El-P tells this story on a brisk December afternoon, he's smoking a cigarette outside a Hollywood rehearsal space with Killer Mike, who's smoking a joint. "The fact that you did not make TMZ – you're fucking Batman," Mike tells him. "I'm so happy I did not make TMZ," El-P replies. Online tabloids covered the crash, but El-P remained unidentified. "I'm 'other man,'" he says. "I was like, 'Yes! I'm Keyser Söze!'"

El-P has spent most of his career below the radar, so he's comfortable there. A veteran of the New York underground rap scene, he was a member of the mid-Nineties cult trio Company Flow before pumping out a string of beloved indie-rap classics as a solo MC, indie-label boss and producer: spitting dense, dystopian raps and crafting gritty, hammering beats for himself and like-minded oddballs. Killer Mike, for his part, is an Atlanta native who made his name as a member of OutKast's Dungeon Family, delivering scene-stealing guest verses on Stankonia and Jay Z's Blueprint 2 before making solo albums.

Both had enjoyed success, in other words, but no major breakthroughs when, a few years ago, a mutual friend suggested they collaborate on Mike's fifth studio album. At the time, El-P was recovering from the demise of his label (money trouble), grief over the death of a dear friend (cancer) and bouts of self-destructiveness ("I was doing a lot of fucking drugs, trying to escape," he says). Mike was in search of an escape too. He'd suffered demoralizing label headaches over the years – executives overly interested in hits, prolonged release-date purgatories – and came to associate sales with self-worth. He had his own hurtful impulses, which largely took shape as substance abuse and infidelity to his wife – or, as Mike puts it, "depression, drugs and bitches."

Working together, however, reinvigorated El-P and encouraged Mike "to be totally free and honest, free in pushing my style, free of the expectations of radio or a record company." The resulting album, R.A.P. Music, came out independently and established Mike as an expert bomb-hurler in the charismatic tradition of Ice Cube, with Mike spitting thundering but dexterous lyrics about police violence, Ronald Reagan's legacy and Lord of the Flies. El-P, masterminding the beats, struck on a dazzling digital-age update of the Bomb Squad's incendiary sound.

They soon decided to form a duo, inspired by legendary two-man outfits they adored, like EPMD, UGK and OutKast. They called their project Run the Jewels – casting themselves as scrappy stickup kids, poised to mug the mainstream – and their lyrics combined leftist politics with stoner hedonism, bound together by the palpable pleasure the two took from sharing a mic. "When you listen to this shit, it's like, 'Yes, these guys are in the room together,'" El-P says. "That's the lifeblood of what I love about rap music to begin with: that badass interplay." Their 2013 self-titled debut and its 2014 follow-up, RTJ2, sold hundreds of thousands of copies; their concerts sold out and spanned the globe. Suddenly, decades into their careers, both were more successful – and happier – than ever. "It's pretty cool being 40 and having your blow-up moment," says El-P.

They head inside to rehearse. They are under a month away from releasing their excellent third album – RTJ3 – and they're in L.A. to handle a bunch of release- and tour-related business. Mike, who stands well over six feet and currently weighs "about 370" pounds, sits on a stool behind a music stand, consulting printouts of his lyrics. "I write in the booth and memorize in rehearsals," he explains, snacking on a bag of Doritos – a momentary lapse in willpower, since he's been trying to lose 100 pounds. He notes that Travis Barker, who has drummed with Run the Jewels, "put me on to this app that tells you all the vegan restaurants that are nearby."

"If you lose 100 pounds, I'm not gonna speak to you anymore," El-P says. "Because the dynamic of this group relies on it being a fat guy ... and a less-fat guy." They cue up their new single, "Legend Has It." As they rap, they face each other from about 15 feet off, El-P smiling as Mike rises to his feet and throws his elbows at the music stand like a boxer toying with his opponent. When the track's done, El-P looks down to discover that he's bound up his legs with the microphone cord. "I walk around in circles until it's all in tangles – which is a good metaphor for my life," he says. Then he points at Mike: "And at the center of the maze, I meet this cuddly bastard."

El-P and Killer Mike first met "in Nebraska," Mike says. "In a cage match," El-P notes. They are kidding: stoned and fucking around. The real story is that Mike was born Michael Render. His mother, who gave birth to him at 16, had an artistic streak that manifested, for a time, in a job as a florist. It was through this job that she found a sideline selling cocaine. "It was the same clientele," Mike says. "Rich white ladies. They asked, 'Could you get me some?' She thought about it, and she could."

Mike was in fourth grade when he told his teacher Ms. Ealey that he wanted to be a rapper, "like Run-DMC. She told me, 'You should be a pilot,'" he recalls. "She was the first teacher to tell me that I was smart." (He later enrolled in a pilot's class, and enjoys flying small planes.) Mike was raised in large part by his grandmother, a nurse, and his grandfather, who once drove trucks for the Chattahoochee Brick Co., "which used prison labor as slave labor during Jim Crow," Mike notes (his skull is brimming with such history). It was through his grandfather "that I started to understand class versus race; I often had more in common with working-class whites than with the Southern liberals my grandma looked up to, or with the blacks of means who lived over in Collier Heights." That neighborhood, he elaborates, "was the result of planned gentrification: Democrats actually bought land out from under poor whites in order to bring blacks to the party."

His father was a cop, his uncle a guy who made money "in the streets," Mike says, giving him role models on both sides of the law. Mike dealt drugs briefly, and on the Run the Jewels track "Crown," he raps about the deep regret he still feels for having once sold cocaine to a pregnant woman. "Working with [El-P] makes it safe for me to get out some of the darkest, most tumultuous, guilt-ridden thoughts I have," he says, welling up at the memory. "I sold cocaine, and there's days where that shit fucks with me, because I knew, even at that age, how wrong I was. But everybody sold cocaine! Everybody sold and did cocaine!" He begins crying, wiping tears from his cheeks. "That verse just poured out of me – I didn't give a fuck if it made the album. I gave a fuck that it was finally out of me."

A thoughtful, engaged kid, Mike spent time in high school as an anti-violence mediator with a group called Black Teens for Advancement. He fell in love with Fred Hampton and James Baldwin and enrolled at Morehouse College – a storied black school whose alumni include Martin Luther King Jr. and Spike Lee. There, Mike studied philosophy and religion. "I wanted to understand man," he says. "I was raised a black child in the South, where you're indoctrinated into a religion that an oppressor gave you. That left all types of fucked-up questions in me." He kept rapping, too, and through a classmate, he met OutKast's Antwan "Big Boi" Patton, who rewarded Mike's raw talent with a record deal. Radicalism coursed through his early work, but he also strove for commercial success, at times in ways he now deems hollow: Mike's breakthrough single, a bouncy sex jam called "A.D.I.D.A.S.," reached Number 60 on the pop charts, but he disavows it. "It's an OutKast song that I was instructed to release," he says. "I hate it."

El-P, meanwhile, was born Jaime Meline and grew up in Brooklyn. His dad was a jazz musician with a Wall Street day job he hated; he encouraged Jaime never to work solely for a paycheck. His mother, who raised him and his two sisters largely by herself, was an ad-agency copywriter. Jaime's mother allowed him to attend a school to focus on music production, and by the time he was 15, he'd landed the same manager as Mobb Deep. In addition to hip-hop, he loved Steve Reich, John Carpenter scores, Gary Numan and Devo. A fantastic, proudly unconventional producer, El-P developed an aesthetic that mixes sci-fi synthesizers with frenetic percussion – something like a boom-bap Vangelis. To celebrate his success with Run the Jewels, El-P recently shelled out $25,000 for a Yamaha CS-80 – "the synth that Vangelis used for Blade Runner." They're exceedingly rare, but Eddie Van Halen turned out to have one for sale, and El-P decided to splurge on it – its cosmic sounds are all over RTJ3.

Co-founding Company Flow in his teens, El-P specialized in abstract brags, but he had a thematic breakthrough on the song "Last Good Sleep," deciding to rap about how his stepfather viciously beat his mom. "I didn't think anyone wanted to hear that shit – like, 'Boohoo,'" he recalls. "But after that song, people started coming to me with tears in their eyes." The track reflected El-P's ingrained mistrust of corrupt authority figures, which continued into tracks like "Patriotism" – a sneering assault on capitalism and imperialism – and, from there, into Run the Jewels.

Not that the duo don't leave room for plenty of dick jokes, oddball non sequiturs and rhymes about how much iller they are than everyone else. "The majority of our shit wasn't really at all civic-minded," El-P notes. "It's a celebration of rap and the shit that made us smile when we decided we wanted to be rappers, which is just the fun and the skill of the whole thing. Then we found out that we could get in a room and make each other cry, too."

With RTJ3 – which they recorded last year at a studio El-P bought in upstate New York – they dig deeper into that duality. "Legend Has It" is a raucous brag-fest, but defining political phenomena of 2016 come into their crosshairs, too: On "Talk to Me," Mike snarls at "all-lives-matter-ass white folk" and refers to a "devil" who wears "a bad toupee and a spray tan." Over the years, Mike and El-P have taken aim not only at the right but also at centrist liberals. In a 2012 song, Mike called Barack Obama "just another talking head telling lies on teleprompters." In the video for Run the Jewels' "Lie, Cheat, Steal," the duo don rubber Bush and Obama masks and throw their arms around each other jovially – a creepy sight gag suggesting that the presidents are more cronies than true ideological foes.

During the election, Mike was a prominent Bernie Sanders surrogate, stumping for him on TV and the campaign trail. When one reporter asked what drew him to Sanders, Mike's response was priceless: "Smoking a joint, reading his tweets!" In an interview with Stephen Colbert, Mike praised Sanders' commitment to social justice and called him an heir to Martin Luther King Jr.: "We can directly elect someone who cares about poor people, cares about women, gays, black rights, cares about lives that don't look like his." Mike invokes King again when I ask for his thoughts on the antipathy so many Democrats showed toward Sanders. "I think a lot about what King said in Letter From Birmingham Jail: 'I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council–er or the Ku Klux Klan–ner, but the white moderate.'" (He's still in touch with Sanders: "We were texting just the other day.")

Run the Jewels have collaborated repeatedly with Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha, and cite Public Enemy as heroes. (Chuck D, in turn, has called Run the Jewels a recent inspiration to him.) I ask if they see themselves carrying on that radical-pop lineage. "I could never be as dope as Rage and P.E.," says Mike. "To me, they're braver than any of us: overtly leftist, Marxist, political. But I'm inspired by them to be a truth-teller." El-P, who identifies as a cynic to Mike's optimist, describes his ethos as one of extreme misfit defiance: "I wanna give kids who listen to our shit the same shit I got from my rap heroes, which was an attitude, a way to approach life from a badass stance that isn't about having the same things, or being as in-control, as the people that would subjugate you or that would look down on you." He frowns. "It's about having a swagger in the face of fucking doom."

When they're done rehearsing, we walk to a bar a couple of blocks away. "Whiskey made me an asshole, so I switched to rum," El-P says as we scan the drinks menu. "I'm a weed man," Mike says. "But El introduced me to whiskey." Conversation between the two is free-flowing: light one moment, heavy the next. Before long we're talking about Cosmos, the old Carl Sagan PBS show. "That was my shit growing up," Mike says. El-P nods, but has a criticism of the Neil deGrasse Tyson reboot: "He equates atheism with intelligence too much. And has a condescending way of expressing it. Like many atheists do." "See, I grew up full-press religious," Mike replies, "so atheists saved me."

El-P gets a tequila cocktail. Mike orders a whiskey drink and cottage fries. In a few minutes El-P needs to leave for a private dinner at an ultra-exclusive L.A. restaurant called Wolvesmouth, thrown on behalf of Google as it prepares to launch its own music-streaming service. The dinner guests will include several major-label executives and powerful managers and a celebrity or two. "I have to go," El-P says, apologizing for cutting out early – the thing starts at 7 p.m. sharp.

As career outsiders, Run the Jewels remain proudly independent, but as they grow increasingly popular, their proximity to power will shift, and this fact is hovering in the backs of their minds. At one point, our conversation drifts to the subject of Peter Thiel, the Trump-backing billionaire who has expressed interest in "sea-steading": moving civilization to the oceans.

"Pretty soon, an elite few will live underwater, after the planet and the rest of us are destroyed," El-P says, riffing grimly. "Do you think they'll ask us to join them? Like, 'Hey – some of us are fans.'" Mike smirks at this suggestion. El-P continues, weighing two imaginary options: "Live with some assholes for eternity? Or die in a flash of light with good people? Hmm …"

"I dunno," Mike says with a smile. "But I like to think we'd lead the revolt."