There are two reasons that the latest music video for rap duo Run the Jewels is being shot at Atlanta’s retro, neon-saturated Landmark Diner, explains director Trevor Kane: A long runway perfect for a dramatic escape and the Key lime pie.
Michael “Killer Mike” Render, 39, loves that the place looks like it’s out of a Tarantino film. He and bandmate Jaime “El-P” Meline, also the uncommon hip-hop age of 39, sit at a table and share droll, friendly chitchat that could have come from a Pulp Fiction reboot.
“French Montana has a monkey,” says Mike. “If you go from selling DVDs at home to having a monkey? You’re rich as fuck.”
El-P points out that boxer Adrien Broner has a pet lemur in his latest music video. “And his song, compared to the rap spectrum,” he says, “is pretty decent.”
Kane attempts to takes control of the scene: “It will read better if you’re not talking.”
Their banter is constant, caustic, occasionally filthy and often hilarious. That camaraderie is all over their upcoming album, Run the Jewels 2, a noise-addled, dog-shooting, future-shocked reinvention of golden-era rap albums like Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and Willie D’s Controversy — albums that dealt equally in righteous political indignation, bragmaster alpha-male antics and hilarious third-degree burns. If there were a Grammy for Most Creative Ways to Say “We’re the Best” (“We might be giants standing on little dandy shoulders/You punks is pussy, proverbial pansy panty-holders”) these guys would win it, or take it by gunpoint.
“There’s really no fucking way that you’d ever think, ‘I’m gonna make my best friend at 35,” explains El. “You’ve already been through it so many times. I wasn’t in the market for it.”
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There was a time when such a partnership seemed all but inconceivable. In 2003, Atlanta human megaphone Killer Mike had multiple verses on what the RIAA considers the best-selling rap album of all time, Outkast’s 11-times-platinum Speakerboxx/The Love Below. In Brooklyn, El-P was pouring sweat into Definitive Jux, a critically adored subterranean record label where success meant the high five figures. They were separated by nearly 900 miles of Interstate and the incalculable hurdles of the hip-hop culture wars — Internet turf battles about North vs. South, mainstream vs. independent.
“Thank God that’s over,” says Jason DeMarco, the Cartoon Network executive who originally introduced them together in 2011. “The one good thing about the music industry dying is that shit doesn’t matter anymore. All anybody argues about now is if Young Thug is a good rapper.”
The partnership is giving both rappers a renaissance at the cusp of 40. With a dozen records between them released in every conceivable fashion — from majors like Columbia Records to indies like Fat Possum to a TV networks to self-pressed CDs and vinyl — they threw caution to the wind and dropped the 10-track Run the Jewels as a free download. The result is a runaway success like neither has experienced.
They claim to have ran out of the RTJ2 pre-order stock in a day. Festival crowds have grown. They started seeing fan art and tattoos and “titty pics” and girls making their instantly iconic “pistol and fist” logo out of Hulk Hands.
“El-P and I were opening for each other. I’d do 30 minutes, he’d do 30 minutes, then we’d do 30 minutes together,” says Mike. “I come out, the crowd, bam. El come out, the crowd, bam. But then we came out together and there was this other group of kids that went crazy. At first it was just like, ‘Oh shit! Those kids are mighty young to like Killer Mike and El-P!’ And within four or five shows, we started realizing…”
“They don’t like Killer Mike and El-P!” interrupts El with a huge laugh.
However, Run the Jewels haven’t exploded to the point where they can afford to use the Landmark Diner for the whole night, so they’re stuck rushing through the last scenes in the video while the owner hovers impatiently. Brooke, a 26-year-old waitress working the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift, is cast for her first acting job. Kane never gets the runway scene he wanted. However Brooke does bring El the Key lime pie.
When El complains about a fly landing on it, Mike pops his balloon firmly: “It’s just a gnat, flick it off and keep eatin’. It’s the South.”
In case the gnats and muggy night didn’t convince you that this was the South, at the next shooting location, Black Lips saxophonist Zumi Rosow offers El-P some Georgia moonshine in a pickle jar from a topless Ford Bronco. In this shot, El and Mike are going to do a bad job getting a cat out of a tree.
“Do you have a cat wrangler?” Rosow asks.
“I don’t think it’s that kind of budget,” replies El. “At best we have somebody who’s worried about the cat.”
Beyond the video’s $10,000 budget, they’ll also sink a couple thousand dollars of their own money. As the night progresses the pair will carry all 130 pounds of the Black Lips’ Cole Alexander (plus boots) in a gurney. Killer Mike will rap while driving an ambulance down 75 South. They both will fall out exhausted, in an SUV, at 4:50 a.m., waiting to be called for the final scene.
“We’ve never complained and kicked and screamed about not getting [success],” says El. “We just never stopped.”
The night before, Run the Jewels were committing knotty bars to memory in the rehearsal room of Stankonia Studios, down the winding halls from where Killer Mike’s career began around 2000.
In a heather-gray shirt advertising Grafftis SWAG Shop, the barber shop he and his wife Shana opened in 2011, Mike leans on the doorjamb of Studio A, where he laid down his first released verse, for Outkast’s 2000 album Stankonia. Today, through the glass window you can see posters, presumably inspirational, of Muhammad Ali and a bird-flipping Johnny Cash.
“I was fucking around with this lil stripper chick. She got down — her and some homegirls just showed Big [Boi of Outkast] and them a good time. We came back here all just drunk, high,” reminisces Mike. “Like around, the time Outkast was making it and getting ready for Stankonia, it was full on rock & roll. We came back here and the motherfucker had no less than 25, 30 people — like a public school classroom. I just wanted it and Big was going to give me an opportunity…
“When the engineer hit the button, I heard people saying that they didn’t think I was going to do shit… That verse was almost out of fear: ‘You might have to sell cocaine — more.’ But I knocked that motherfucker down. I walked out of there with a record deal.”
He admits the story is a little weird to tell since Shana and Big Boi’s wife Sherlita are now friends, but Michael Render, like his music of Killer Mike, seems to thrive on honesty and transparency — seeds that were sown from a young age. His mother was 16 when she had him, which Mike credits to being young enough to be experimental with parenting: He knew his mother smoked marijuana, she knew her son listened to N.W.A.
Mike’s voice fills up a black Tahoe SUV as he sits in the back seat, detailing a defining moment in his life. “I remember when Vanessa Williams… it was known she did [nude] pictures. Man, I couldn’t wait to see that book.” His mother eventually caught him with the September 1984 issue of Penthouse, and they had a talk about it. Shortly after, she caught him with a Playboy. “After Vanessa Williams, she was a little perturbed. Now, you just turned into a little cum junkie, you little fucker, you just want to play with yourself. But she caught me reading a Playboy — I was literally reading the article. And she was like, “Fuck it, you’re reading. I guess it’s OK.”
Mike’s mother and his older cousins has exposed him to rap, and Ice-T’s 1986 proto-gangsta tale “6 ‘N the Morning” was the first song he truly connected with — it reminded him of what his uncle Anthony was turning into. Mike’s birthfather, Big Mike, was a police officer whose younger brother, Anthony, was a hustler, exposing Mike to both sides of justice early on. Mike describes Anthony as a neighborhood legend, handsome fat guy in nice clothes and nice cars who ran numbers and engaged in “middle-management gangsterism.” Says Mike, “That’s how I got to know my neighborhood, and that’s how understand the power of smile and charm. I understood when other guys were listening to N.W.A and shit like that, and they were getting that bullshit-ass hard attitude, I was around real gangsters; my uncle was a real… street… dude. They sat on their shiny cars in their Starter jackets and laughed and talked shit. And on the front seat, there was a sawed-off shotgun and you understood not to fucking touch it. And you understood that what they were doing was not for you. Explicitly understood.”
Understanding that, education remained important for Mike — a voracious reader as a child; a seventh grader who wouldn’t cut school when his friend rolled past the classroom window on a stolen bike; a student in the advanced arts program at Fredrick Douglass High School who, when his voice changed over the summer, switched from chorus to art. He ultimately parlayed it into a scholarship to Morehouse, the esteemed liberal arts university whose alumni include Martin Luther King Jr. and Spike Lee.
But his real passion was rap music and he started battling in high school, when his nickname was Skunk. “That was when I slammed a door in my sister’s face and the burglar bar thing hit her nose. My grandma called me a ‘low-down skunk,'” he says with a huge laugh. His friends in local battle crew Unruly Scholars (“that’s one of them Nineties cool names”) didn’t show up to an event where a rival crew was hoping to ambush them. Mike says he served them one by one with a flow as technical as the East Coast dudes, but with the country swagger of Bun B or 8-Ball. A local DJ said, Stop it, this kid’s killin’ it. And, as he recalls, “Nobody ever called me Skunk or Mike again.”
Mike was in a very unique position. Raised by his grandmother, his house was on the working-class border of Atlanta’s Collier Heights, one of America’s first communities built for middle-class blacks. Drive towards the interior and you’ll find wealthy African-American doctors and lawyers, drive a mile or two out towards his father’s house and it was decidedly rougher — or in Mike’s parlance, “It got real.”
“There was so many times — I was supposed to be dead out here.”—Killer Mike
Around 9th grade, a friend who lived on the rougher side hooked him up with some “flex,” or fake crack cocaine. After a few more times he started flipping the real stuff, and his nascent business grew and grew. “I wasn’t no motherfucker — ‘I’m out here every day trappin’, droppin’ out of school.’ Fuck that dumb shit,” says Mike. But if there was a dance coming up and I wanted new sneakers?” A moral awakening came quickly after seeing his mother’s friends catch charges. “And then when I was 15 years old, I woke up to see my mama. She was on the news — she attempted to buy like 10 to 20 kilos of cocaine in Griffin, Georgia.” Mike moved to cutting grass.
“Crown,” the emotional apex of Run the Jewels 2, deals explicitly with Mike’s brief dalliance in crack sales — talking nakedly about the guilt and shame. The woman he speaks to in the song is a composite character based on two real women. He thought she was pregnant (she wasn’t) and was worried about the effect of his product on her unborn son. She tells him she prayed with his late grandmother, Bettie Clonts, and tells him to lay his burdens down.”
“They really had prayed together. My grandmother really was more aware of who I was and who I tried to hide from her, and it really didn’t matter. I rapped it… and the line just poured out. And it was almost like when I said the line, I could just see light. I could see glowing around everything in that moment. It was a transcendental moment for me.”
The SUV is now idling in front of Arden’s Garden, a juice bar and sign of the economic gentrification of Kirkwood, the neighborhood where his grandmother used to live. “I still can’t talk about or listen to that record nearly without tearing because I’m so happy I made it out,” says Mike, his voice trembling, a tear emerging from each eye. “Aw man, I’m so fucking happy that this shit didn’t kill me because, aw man, there was so many times — I was supposed to be dead out here.”
Mike wipes the moisture from his eyes with both hands at once. He tells a story about having to pick up four and a half ounces during a drought. “And I saw my grandmama van at the church, and I just pulled up in the church and I said, “Lemme go say hey and drop off some money.” She said, “Stop. Just sit with me.” And I sat with her and the preacher. But man, he just said, “Wherever you was going, man, you weren’t going to make it back from.” For the next fucking six, seven hours, my grandmother wouldn’t let me leave her. But this motherfucker kept calling me to pick up his dope… And I knew then that I was supposed to be gone… that day.”
Mike leaves the car to amble into Arden’s for his semi-weekly “Grand Slam,” which the freckled and tattooed juicer describes as “a full body renewal.” Their contents and tastes are as follows: a shot of wheat grass (a liquid lawnmower bag emptying near your gag-reflex), a shot of ginger (explosive), a shot of lemon juice (explosive, sour) and a shot of cranberry juice (dull, anticlimactic). Mike imbibes them with the subtlety of a child getting a vaccination, convulsing and yelling “fuck” with the sharp gulps.
“Welcome to your wife rules your life world,” says Mike. “I didn’t even know I was on a diet… You just don’t wanna die when you’re making lots of money.”
Although Shana has him on a healthier regiment, he’s allowed to cheat for lunch on interview day. Ann’s Snack Bar in Kirkwood is a testament to the local, independent, black-owned, community-minded business he values and contributes to. Mike proudly mentions how his grandfather owned a variety store a few streets down. We stop after an afternoon of looking for buildings for a second SWAG location.
The slight septuagenarian Ann Price runs this slow-cooking, cramped hallway of a counter-service joint known for its “eight stools, eight rules” policy. (Number 7 is “Please do not curse in snack bar.”) She’s been running this Kirkwood institution with it’s painted signs and yellowing photos for 38 years — “She owns the land,” says Mike. “Ain’t no gentrifying her” — and still works behind the counter. Before we’re allowed to enter, Mike has to ask if he’s allowed to bring in the media — she broke rule Number 7 and cursed him out when he brought Adult Swim to film without permission. When remembering this incident, Price stands her ground, “He don’t pay the bills here!”
“I brought another woman in here one time, back when I was not being the good and faithful husband I should be,” says Mike. “She looked at me and said, ‘I’m gonna tell.’ When I brought my wife back, guess what she did? I ain’t bullshittin’. But I love her to death.”
Mike had spent his early years of fame touring the hip-hop club circuit, having “1,000 wild-ass adventures at 1,000 hotels.” He found success quick with his gold-certified 2003 debut Monster and the MTV hit “A.D.I.D.A.S.,” released via Columbia and Outkast’s short-lived Aquemini imprint. “I told my grandparents that I had quit my job and I didn’t have any plan. I was gonna live off music and be a hippie. Scared the shit out of them. They saw that check and it changed them.”
The record “failed” to go platinum — Mike stressing the point with quotey fingers as big as his personality — but made its money back and made Mike a star. He handed out free school supplies to local children with the Baltimore Ravens’ Jamal Lewis. “All the other debauchery and shit — I already had already been fuckin’ ho’s, I already had a nice car.”
However, his turn in the spotlight would be short-lived. Outkast’s Andre 3000 left the Aquemini Records fold and put his group on hiatus. Mike was courted by Virgin, who ultimately distributed Big Boi’s imprint, redubbed Purple Ribbon. He ultimately turned down a deal, worried his take-no-prisoners political raps would be ignored for an easier sell like teammates Bubba Sparxxx or Sleepy Brown. A phenomenal LP recorded during this time, Ghetto Extraordinary, remains one of the great unreleased rap albums ever. The whole fiasco set off a beef between Mike and Big that played itself out in public — peaking with Mike releasing a video where he says, “I fired my boss.”
“My career became less about making good art and more about proving that I was better. It got into subtle disses and talk shit, it got into more alcohol and drugs, it got into more lothario shit fucking around with women. Just not being a good human being.”
He toured hard and released albums independently, but by 2008’s I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II, his defiance had turned to depression. “I was just doing drugs heavy, like, lean, Xans, smoking too much weed,” says Mike, rubbing a rubberband on his arm. Running between six, seven different women; not being the husband I was supposed to be to my wife. And it was all just trying to fill up that hole of a stardom missed. Part of falling off is, you got to accept it’s happened.”
Shana packed his stuff in the car and said goodbye. “After she left, I sat there and just thought to myself, ‘What are you doing? Everything you say you’re working for with this album, you already have and you’re not taking care of it.'”
His burger arrives and he unwraps it loudly. I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II reinvigorated him, but the question of how he and his wife reconciled floats in the air. He calls to his wife, seated at the other end of the patio. “Shay, you wanna come here?”
She leans over, and looks at the ceiling past her thick black glasses. “I need a second to think about it.”
Later she fills in the blanks: “He and I have a joke, I always say, ‘We’ve been married for going on eight years, but he’s only been married for three,'” she says with a laugh. “From our friendship, we was able to mend our marriage — that’s why it’s so important that you marry your friend. It took a lot of maturing, but now I feel the journey was worth it.”
He fixed his substance abuse by disappearing. Staying home instead of going out, reading books, watching TV, doing a bunch of nothing. If he had a gig, he would play the show, get paid, go home and get back into bed. When he decided he wanted more, he recorded Pl3dge, released on indie SMC and co-signed under T.I.’s Grand Hustle imprint. Music writers started to take notice. New fans — often white — were built off the Pledge series circulating on the Internet. He could play shows without doing any material from Monster. Soon, his entire career was mirroring the D.I.Y. hustle of an indie rock band or the “underground rappers” of the early aughts. Why don’t more artists do this?
“I don’t know. I just know, I can’t remember any of that shit from the major label and I can’t forget any of this shit. And that’s what’s right. Do I make good money now? Yes I do. Will El and I probably see a million because of Run the Jewels? Absolutely.”
Back in his modest Brooklyn loft apartment, surrounded by his stacks of Orwell and Tolkien and Cosby and a log of naked 12-inches whose sleeves were destroyed in a flood, a wired El-P rubs his face with exhaustion and smokes Marlboros with purpose He got up at 7 a.m. this morning and downed “like 20 cups fucking cups of coffee” to help drop the stream of RTJ2 promotional track “Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck).” Thanks to a high-profile launch (Buzzfeed) and a high profile guest appearance (Rage Against the Machine firebrand Zack de la Rocha), the waterboard-the-warden track was an instant Internet smash. “It’s so funny because Zack is trending now on Twitter and I just know that he doesn’t know or care what that means,” says El with a laugh. “I hit him up, like, ‘Yo, man — I know that you don’t give a fuck about this, but you’re trending all day.’ And he’s like, ‘Cool, cool, definitely. But I’m about to get some breakfast.'”
Tomorrow El leaves for the first date of Run the Jewels’ 33-date tour and he hasn’t packed a thing — though the waiting stresses him more than the deadline. “I kinda feel like Martin Sheen at the beginning of Apocalypse Now, staring at a hotel fan waiting for the next mission, trying not to drink myself to death,” he says with a laugh.
He grew up a short taxi ride down the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, in Brooklyn Heights, raised by a mom who wrote advertising copy in the Sixties, like Mad Men‘s Peggy Olsen. “She can’t even watch that show,” he says. “It’s close enough [to reality] that it bothers her that they’re getting a few things wrong.” Like Mike, he found L.L. Cool J and Run-D.M.C. and the Fat Boys, but he lived in a city where he could tune into Mr. Magic on the radio, see graffiti on the trains, watch breakdancing in front of his school and get caught up in sound battles from competing boomboxes. He wrote his first rap, in pencil, at age 10, which his mother framed and currently hangs in the box of a room that serves as his studio. It already showed promise (it uses the word “beguiled”) and features the prophetic line, “I’m not some guy that goes to school in a tie/If you want to know, don’t even bother askin’ why.”
“I remember one of the greatest things that my dad ever did for me… He worked a job at Wall Street for years, which he fucking despised,” says El. “He was, at night, he playing at bars in the West Village, playing piano and singing. Then he put a suit on and he’d have to bike down to fucking Wall Street to do his thing. I remember he took me down there one time, he brought me up, and he said, ‘Look around; look at everyone around here.’ Everyone was wearing suits. He was like, ‘Don’t ever… work somewhere… where you have to dress like this. This was the same asshole who was told he had to wear a tie to work and came in with it wrapped around his head.”
Music and hardheadedness ran in the family — the downside being, as his father told the Biddeford Journal Tribune, “I left it all in 1980 to go to tropical climes and play piano,” leaving El and his three sisters to be raised in a single-parent household.
“Music … wasn’t completely foreign,” says El. “But what wasn’t normal was making rap beats. I was just amazed by it, like, ‘How the fuck do you make these sounds?’ I think that stopped me from taking any more classical instrument training. I remember one day sitting in the mirror with a saxophone, just looking at myself, being like, ‘I can’t do this; this is ridiculous.'”
Brooklyn Heights in the Eighties was an affluent area full of old money and remains the most expensive place to live in New York City outside of Manhattan. As a single mom with three kids, El’s family were outliers. He what the New York Times calls the “prestigious and progressive” private St. Ann’s School on scholarship (“I could test well. But have shown literally no signs in any other way”). He bonded with four or five friends that, like him, weren’t grandfathered in through wealth. “And we roamed around New York City like a pack of fucking wolves,” he says, “and that was more interesting to us [than school].”
His stubbornness and music obsession started clashing with the idea of attending school at all. “My mother kind of saved the day on that shit. She took a really rational and maybe even radical approach and she was like, ‘OK. So, either you’re going to become this other type of person that can handle this regiment and these interactions and not tell the world to fuck off. Or do you want to do something?’ I had never been asked!” he says. “And so I was 15 and I was like, ‘Actually, you know, now that you mention it, mom. I want to be a rapper.’ How’s that to hear from your white child in the Eighties? And she was like, ‘OK. So let’s sit down and find somewhere where you can do music.’ And that was what she did. So, really from 15 on, I’ve only been working towards being a musician — that’s it. I felt like my life had finally fucking begun, really.”
The teenaged El studied engineering at the Center for Media Arts, and released a solo 12-inch under the Company Flow moniker in 1993. Soon he teamed with gifted New Jersey turntablist Mr. Len and ex-graffiti writer turned rapper Big Jus, solidifying a noisy group that would quietly change rap music forever. They weren’t the first rappers to release music independently — everything from the earliest Sugar Hill 12-inches, to the birth stages of Def Jam, to Too $hort’s cassette hustle was done without major label backing. But their triumph was in branding, writing “Independent as Fuck” on their record art like a punk-rock badge of pride. As rust-caked and electric as the third rail, their 1997 full-length Funcrusher Plus established Company Flow and the then-struggling Rawkus Records as the epicenter for “independent hip-hop.” The movement would dominate indie-rock club bookings, critics lists and internet dogma for the next eight years. However Company Flow wouldn’t last much longer after playing the Ralph Nader Super Rally in Madison Square Garden in 2000.
El-P soldiered on, and his new record label Definitive Jux found success fast thanks to parable-spitting Harlem duo Cannibal Ox, lanky word-cloud Aesop Rock, giallo-hop producer RJD2, apocalyptic traditionalist Mr. Lif and El-P’s own solo work. Multiple records neared 100,000 copies. “It was a surprise to everyone — we didn’t know what the fuck we were doing,” says El. “We had records, then we had to work retroactively to figure out, ‘Oh, right — how do we do business again?'”
They expanded quickly and cut deals where they had to release records at certain intervals. He couldn’t figure out how to expand the label past the scuzz-hop boundaries set by its explosive first three years, and 2003’s second-round draft picks — C-Rayz Walz, S.A. Smash, Hangar 18 — couldn’t approach the buzz of the label’s rapid rise.
“I think when it turned into more of a business is when stopped being as love with it anymore,” says El. It became high school all over again. “When I’m not feeling something, I have a very hard time doing it. And I was fucking … very fucking unhappy for a handful of years and I wasn’t admitting it to myself.”
The stress of running a label and being responsible for so many of his friends’ careers prevented him from making his own music, and he eventually hid in Montreal for three months with just a sampler, some records and “a bunch of drugs” to make 2007’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. Says El, “You know a motherfucker’s desperate for alone time when he’s going to Montreal for the winter.” Things came to a head when his friend and Def Jux labelmate Camu Tao passed from lung cancer in 2008.
“Even before that, when Camu was sick, it was like… I was just fucking throwing my face into oblivion every chance I got. And I didn’t even realize it. I had people that were close to me confront me about it, like, ‘Yo, you’re fucking doing drugs all the time. You’re doing Ecstasy, you’re doing blow, you’re getting drunk.’ In my twisted mind at the time, I was like, ‘Well, If I wanna fuckin’ do that shit, I’ll fuckin’ do that shit. Don’t I do enough for everyone else that I can’t fucking lose my mind?'”
As the head of Def Jux, El-P was not only responsible for his own career, but a sizable roster, a staff, a Manhattan office with exposed brick. He rented an expensive Brooklyn apartment but he poured all his money into Def Jux production and touring — and it wasn’t coming back. “I didn’t know how to get out of it because I built [Def Jux] up so far in my head that it failing was me failing, and I didn’t see any recourse,” says El, forcefully stubbing out and twisting a cigarette into the ashtray on his dining room table. “I didn’t see escaping it. That wasn’t even a part of the thought process. So I had to escape it on an hourly basis.”
El and his longtime business partner Amaechi Uzoigwe decided to put the label to sleep. “It just happened to coincide with this roaring, exhausted voice in my head that had been begging for someone to give him an out for a long time.” Humbled and broke, he left his three-bedroom duplex in posh Fort Greene for a small one-bedroom on the border of Clinton Hill and Bed Stuy.
“I had a year, where…,” says, El-P stumbling to find the right words, “I was secretly, 100 percent, dead broke. Just didn’t want anyone to fucking know, didn’t invite anyone over. I was eating fucking egg sandwiches. I didn’t have anything. Matthew Johnson, from Fat Possum, kind of saved my life; I’m not even gonna lie.”
Johnson was turning his iconoclastic blues label into an eclectic artists community, and advanced El with enough money to make his 2012 solo album Cancer 4 Cure. He moved into his roomier apartment, met his now-girlfriend and released one of the most critically acclaimed rap records of the year. “You don’t know what it feels like to have someone go to bat for you until you really need it, and they do. I don’t know if I deserved it, but I knew that if I was going to walk out of it, I was going to walk out of it with a different perspective. I wasn’t going to try and control what happened to me, anymore, in the same way.”
“And it changed my life; I swear to God,” he says, speaking softly. “Really, I swear to God, man, I had this conversation with the universe like, ‘I’m just going to give in for a little while. Just throw it at me.’ And that‘s why meeting Mike was so special to me. That’s why it was so important. I had a moment, where I almost said no to that — a moment where I almost said no to letting Mike into my world. Really. I needed to open up and stop controlling things, and that’s what saying yes to the Mike situation did for me.
“I look at it like maybe I’m the happiest I’ve been in my adult life,” says El. “It might be that.”
The three-hour Hudson River boat cruise thrown by Adult Swim as part of New York Comic Con is attended by a Carnage from Spider-Man, a Milhouse Van Houten, and — by one Harley Quinn’s estimation — about four or five Harley Quinns. In short: These devoted cosplayers are here for Adult Swim, not the “secret musical guest.” In fact, there’s no reason at all this audience should be able to sing back the chorus to “DDFH” (“Do dope, fuck hope”) without El-P and Killer Mike’s prompting. But they do. They crowd the staircase. They get crunk. El and Mike pull Adult Swim’s Jason DeMarco on stage for a hug and a thanks.
DeMarco is garrulous and friendly and passionate as he huddles for warmth at the top deck of the boat and says a quick hello to Justin Roiland, creator of Rick & Morty.
DeMarco has been at the Turner Network for 18 years, working for Cartoon Network’s late night short attention span wormhole Adult Swim since it started in 2001. He started writing promos and bumpers, but moved to sales, creating free albums with the whimsical idea of, “Let’s take some advertising money and make some cool shit.”
DeMarco cold-called Mike when a rapper dropped out of the 2007 Aqua Teen Hunger Force soundtrack and he needed a replacement. Their friendship blossomed and Mike started pushing him to make an album. He didn’t care about money, he just want to do something that he wouldn’t be able to do anywhere else.
Recalls DeMarco: I said, “‘What are the records that influenced you to be who you are?’ And he immediately said, ‘Ice Cube, AmeriKKKA’s Most Wanted. I want to make records like that — it was fun and funky, it was dope as shit and serious and had messages. Cube at his height inspired me and I want to do that.’ If you want to sound like those records, there’s one guy who makes music that sounds like [Cube and Public Enemy producers] the Bomb Squad. Do you know this guy El-P?”
The album became Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music. It was originally supposed to helmed by multiple producers — a who’s who of hot names in 2011 — and El flew to Atlanta for two days of work.
“The beats Mike was using before, certainly he had plenty of great beats from all kinds of great producers, but almost none of them were as avant-garde as El’s beats,” says DeMarco. “Mike is so smart, he can go into a booth and knock shit out without really thinking about it, but I think with El’s beats and El there, he told me he felt like, ‘I cannot bring anything less than my A+ game.'”
Soon Mike was convinced that El had to produce the album.
“I had already decided before I even met Mike that I was doing [Cancer 4 Cure],” says El. “I didn’t have anything. I was completely floating in the wind. I was in the middle of trying to pull my bootstraps up and get my fucking life together. For me, that meant making my record. But what can I say? The adorable bastard broke me down.”
Mike says he called him every day for a “strong 90 days.” DeMarco sent e-mails. “At the end of the day, the music won the day,” says El. “I couldn’t front on it … In his scheme to manipulate into me producing the record, we became friends.”
Mike laughs, “That’s real shit.”
“I started letting things happen in a much less controlling way. It’s a big deal. And we’re still going here,” says El. “We’re still riding the wave of that — of our lives feeling like they are changing and not wanting to push up back against that. Just letting it kind of take us there. I’m addicted to that a little bit. It’s been a great run and it’s still unfolding.”
For much of Run the Jewels 2, their third record together, they escaped to Los Angeles and upstate New York — neutral territories from El-P’s Brooklyn and Mike’s Atlanta. They basically lived together, despite some odd couple tendencies. “Mike doesn’t want to be in a fucking house in the woods in the wintertime,” says El. “Me, I’m like, ‘This is the chance to isolate ourselves!’ He’s like, ‘Where are there strippers and weed?'”
The partnership is still in the open end of a crescendo. Run the Jewels 2 is the meanest, hardest-hitting, bullying-the-bullyest hip-hop record of 2014. It will mark the first physical release for Mass Appeal Records, the label formed after Nas invested in the long-running magazine for cutting-edge hip-hop creatives. The duo has raised over $62,000 for a remix version made from cat noises, with the bulk going to charity. They posted the album for free on the Internet about 12 hours ago, and good luck finding someone who has something bad to say about it. It’s already garnered nearly 150k legal downloads according to their management.
“Walking out of an interview the other day, 17-year-old kid turns around from his parents and throws up the gun and the fist,” says Mike. “It’s real! I tell myself every day like, I’m trippin’. You’re thirty-something years old having your blow-up moment!”