El-P and Killer Mike have spent the past couple of years making albums together and touring, releasing two of 2012’s most lauded hip-hop records. El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure was an intense, aggravated album of celestially menacing beats and intricate lyricism with vocal/composition contributions from Killer Mike. Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music – produced entirely by El-P – was a socially and politically-charged work stuffed with street wisdom and urgent commentary.
Most of all, the Brooklyn rapper-producer El-P and Atlanta emcee Mike are now close friends, having connected on personal levels beyond music and their “Into the Wild” joint tour last year. Their bond pushed them to form a bona fide rap duo in Run the Jewels, and their self-titled album is set for a free release on June 26th; it’s a passion project in which “magic is the formula,” as Killer Mike tells Rolling Stone.
Run the Jewels was crafted in short, focused bursts in a studio in upstate New York, borne from “doing nothing but taking hallucinogens and doing this record,” El-P explains. He sat down for a chat with Rolling Stone, and Killer Mike joined the conversation a bit later; in this excerpt, the duo shared plenty of insights on forming Run the Jewels, becoming more confident in their work and their idea for their very own TV show.
You guys have been hanging out a ton for over the past year. When did you start thinking about this album?
El-P: Not long after we finished our records and we did our first tour last year, we started talking about doing another project. We wanted to just jump in and do something. Neither of us really felt like we wanted the next thing to be something really heavy. We didn’t want it to be. . . our next big statement in terms of our solo careers. We just wanted to keep a vibe going that we had. . . [been] having fun together and having a great time working together.
As soon as I got off the first initial [European and North American] tours, I started making music. I didn’t really know exactly what they were for. It wasn’t long after that started that we just were like, “Fuck it, let’s just do this,” because we just have a chemistry that made it really easy for us to work together and it was something that we just wanted to just grab onto. We’ve both put out a lot of records in our lives, so the idea for us to follow up the next year with something that was fun for us was really appealing because both R.A.P. Music and Cancer 4 Cure were a big deal to us personally, and they were intense records. We wanted to make something that was completely [not] those records. So we just went for it and I personally have never had the experience where music comes as easily as it does when I’m working with Mike.
I haven’t been able to listen to too much of the record because you guys aren’t sending out any press copies or anything, and I know you’re keeping it tight to the vest.
El-P: Well, for me, the idea of releasing a free record is powerful if everybody gets it for free at the same time. Unlike a record, where you’re trying to put it out and you’re trying to market it as much as possible and get as many sales as you can first week, we decided that it would just be a hell of a lot more fun and easier for us to not worry about any of that shit. So putting it out for free just seemed like a really cool move and a fun move for us. Both me and Mike are having great years and we’re loving where we’re at and it was more like what can we do that would be special [and] exciting for fans and would be a thank you to [them] as well for giving both of us an amazing year. That was really it, man. It’s nothing too contrived.
And it’s a little antithetical to the way this industry works in some ways and for me, too. I’ve never released a record and not done the thing where you send it out to try and build hype and try and get reviews. It’s something I think to some degree people don’t get that much anymore; it’s hard to release a record and not have it out there before it comes out, and that’s something that you just accept when you’re putting your record out. And that’s cool, we accept [and understand] it. It’s not our preference but that’s the way it is. But in this situation, it’s not going to be like that.
Before, you guys were working on each other’s records, but now you’re a real group. How was it different fully working on an album together as a duo?
El-P: Personally, I think it was lighter and it was more fun because we didn’t have as much pressure on us. It was just something that we were doing for us artistically and we weren’t putting the full weight of whatever our next step in our career was on.
Killer Mike: I just like making records with my friends. I’ve been trying to make records every way you can make records: I had been cosigned by the hottest people in Atlanta, I had worked with the “it” producers at the time, I’ve jumped on at least two different futile Southern music movements. For me, man, it’s just I smoke weed and I am next to a guy who raps incredibly and that’s still sharp as steel. I enjoy [being] next to him because the skillset requires that I be creative, that I accelerate up or down, that we balance each other. It’s as natural as a fishing buddy. You can kind of get a [scope] of someone – I catch a couple, you catch a couple and before you know it, you’ve spent seven or eight hours on the lake. I find making music with El, it’s kind of like that.
We usually set a limit on ourselves but I think we both get so creative that records can turn into this endless thing – procrastinations, insecurities – and that’s when you’re working on your own stuff. But the most beautiful thing about making this record was we made [it] from the standpoint of “We don’t give a fuck, it’s dope,” and that was it. It was all tapping in that philosophy that you hear a beat, you like it, you rap on it, you figure a hook out; or you figure a hook out, love the beat and rap on it. And we traded bars and we just treated that shit like a group and I’m glad that it comes across like that.
El-P: We did a total of about four straight weeks on pre-production and production. Getting into a zone in that way is something that just really helps both of us just focus. A lot of fucking rappers, man, they get in the studio and it’s like, “You’re fucking throwing a press conference.” You get to the studio and it’s like there’s 70 people there and by the time the fucking rapper writes the first bar, it’s almost like you gotta write a press release about it.
I’m proud of both of us that we actually managed to get our shit together to do it. For a guy like me who is used to taking a couple years on a record, it’s amazing for me because it gives me hope. It’s just as fucking good as anything I’ve put my fucking name on, in my opinion, and I believe that it’s a fucking real record. But it’s about inspiration and both me and Mike have that respect for each other. At this age, I started my rap career in a group [Company Flow] but when I was young, being in a group was really tough because no one knew each other, no one knew themselves. Everyone was trying to figure this shit out and it was a constant battle between all these different things and ego and. . . all this shit and now coming back around to doing something like this, I feel like we did it right. This isn’t about ambition.
Killer Mike: This is like the last version of LSG: Levert, Sweat and Gill.
You guys have been heavily associated with your locales in your careers: El, with you and Brooklyn and Mike, with you and Atlanta. But your music now seems to go beyond that.
El-P: Hell yeah, and that’s exactly what our union is about: simultaneously being true to who we are and where we grew up. . . and also [to] bring those things together into something that is not definable by one genre or one location. We’re erasing those lines, I really do believe that. I think we’re helping – we’re not eradicating it – but we are creating something that everyone can have. We don’t believe in one side or the other or region shit. Because that’s not how we. . . we didn’t care about that shit growing up in music. Music wasn’t like that. It becomes homogenous to a degree when you come up in your scene because you work with people around you and that’s the deal. You have to represent the people around you and who you are as a culture. But Mike and I, I hope are blurring those lines and making something that just feels good for everybody.
Killer Mike: This shit is about just being dope. This is what me and El constantly say to each other. I don’t be like, “Yo, I gotta stay true to Atlanta.” He don’t have to say, “I gotta stay true to Brooklyn.” El-P is Brooklyn, New York, like no fucking question. I’m as Atlanta as it gets. I’m the motherfucker that went to Morehouse and sold marijuana while there.
I’ve been all around my city and my city’s a dramatically different place, contingent upon what corner you’re in, but it all feels good. And I feel like that about me and El. That’s my only thought. When we do something, it feels good. For the most part, man, it’s just a celebration of dope. It’s like two classy veterans that end up on the same team. Like [the way I see it], I’m at the championship. And I know I’m gonna get it with this little ginger motherfucker right here. There’s no question in my mind. There’s nothing like waking up knowing that. And that’s straight up – we’re unfuckwitable.
El, you were saying how it used to take you years between records. [Your album] Fantastic Damage was in 2002, then I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead was in 2007, and Cancer 4 Cure was last year. That’s five years in between, but in, like, the last year, you have three records.
EL-P: Here’s the deal. I had to have my whole situation and my whole shit change. I spent some time having to redefine my life and create the space in my life for me to be able to just focus on the music.
Well, [your label] Def Jux obviously [went dormant]. . .
El-P: Yeah, I had a huge thing that I was involved in that was really not just about me and that I had to spend a lot of time dealing with. And also, I wasn’t happy doing it for a long time. I guess there are a lot of writers out there who get really inspired when they’re depressed. I can’t write about being depressed until I’m happy. That’s all there is to it. I need space. I need to be able to be in a good place to make music, and so I’m on a roll with that shit. I’ve been feeling good for a couple years now, and lo and behold, in two years I’ve put out three records. And this is what I always wanted.
The thing that I always feared was that. . . I always had this terrible idea in my head that if it happened too quickly, then it wouldn’t be the best thing that I could do. And the reality is that I think that’s not true, and it was never true. You don’t really take five years to make a record. You take however long it takes you to get inspired and to get in a good place, and to get to the place where you have the space in your life to do that shit. So for me personally, it’s been ever since I put to bed some of the other, larger things in my life that were taking up my time, I’ve done nothing but pump music out. And for me, even I’m surprised. This is so much easier than it was before. And I think that music is just about holding onto inspiration, and that’s why I’m [invested in] Mike and our friendship, because I have found inspiration in that, and that’s something that I’m not willing to [part with]. We definitely both felt very, very lucky and very grateful for. . . even just being allowed to be here after being around for as long as we’ve been around and to have people actually be a part of the conversation, and have people actually support us. . . it was humbling for both of us. It could have gone a different way. It could have just been, like, this is our swan song.
Killer Mike: I’m looking forward to making every magazine’s freshman class next year. That would be the funniest fucking shit in the world.
Mike, you just launched a talk radio show in Atlanta, and you’ve been recognized as an insightful voice in that political and social context. What does it mean to you to have that platform now?
Killer Mike: I grew up listening to that station, which is a small AM station, that focuses on – for the most part – black Atlanta and its issues. Our grandmother and grandfather both listened to that station and that station’s antennas are in my neighborhood. So for me, as an Atlantan, it is something checked off the bucket list that I never thought I’d get.
I at some point in the last couple of years decided to change my trajectory from trying to being the realest in rap and [that type of thing] to making sure I rap about that stuff as I always have, especially as I saw audiences grow, but to find other platforms in which to be who I am. Because I’m a rapper that’s lucky enough to be Michael Render and people like that. Killer Mike is Michael Render and Michael Render is Killer Mike, so getting the opportunity to go on that station which I have a nostalgic connection to and [even] to expand upon the stuff I talk about in music. . . [the] opportunity to have discourse with the audience is perfect for me. And it’s perfect for what I feel like my community needs locally and the conversation that could be created nationally.
I am looking forward to building a real career in talk radio because I feel like hip-hop has not had the voice it deserves in terms of real discourse in this country and cultural conversation. I feel like we deserve a place at that table and I intend to be that, and I’m very happy it starts very small and locally so all my fuck-ups can be laughed at by people I already know. Because I have every intention of being national at some point. And I have every intention of doing this along with rapping for the duration, until my wife and I decide to retire and move out of the United States.
If you’re out there, it’s WAOK [and] WAOK.com. It’s 1380 AM in Atlanta. 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. when I’m on, it’s people from all over the country, it’s young people that are socially and politically minded expressing thoughts and concerns. . . and I look forward to it growing. I invite people to join the audience the same way I interact with people back and forth on Twitter and stuff. To me, it’s just a little more personal and that is real talk radio and everyone can really call in.
I’ve noticed the chemistry between you guys, and I know you’ve both worked with [Cartoon Network’s] Adult Swim in the past. Mike, you’ve even voiced Taqu’il on Frisky Dingo. Would you ever consider a TV show?
El-P: Hell yeah! We already have an idea for it. It’s really weird because never in my life have I seen more tweets about how. . . literally everyone’s like, ‘You should make a buddy cop movie.’ We definitely want to do something. We don’t know if it’ll ever happen, but I think we’re gonna try and shoot something. I’ve already got people who are interested in it. So yeah, we definitely have thought about it.
Killer Mike: And after we do it we’re not gonna act all pretentious and special.