Walking the tightrope of maintaining the individuality that makes a skilled rapper while also finding ways to mesh well with an equally talented partner isn't for everybody. That's why there are only certain rap duos within hip-hop's history that are so revered since the chemistry has to be perfect. Killer Mike and El-P have found their groove as a group and walking those same lines.
Born of out a chance meeting in 2011, Killer Mike and El-P linked up to form Run The Jewels, two experienced vets with respect and lyricism to match. Rolling together officially since 2013, they are now three projects deep, with their fourth album, Run The Jewels 4, coming soon. Before the coronavirus pandemic swept the nation, they had plenty of plans for what was to come, including an April album release and a sold-out arena tour with political rock legends Rage Against The Machine.
Those are both on hold for now (but are being rescheduled soon). As quarantine due to the coronavirus has left El-P and Killer Mike confined to their homes, they hopped on the phone with XXL (social distancing!) to discuss how the album is coming along, plus more. Expect Run The Jewels 4 to be "packed, punch you in the fucking face," according to El-P. They've already released two new singles from the project that do just that: "Yankee and The Brave" and "Ooh La La" featuring Greg Nice and DJ Premier.
"It's not like every time we make an album we're going to be like, 'Oh, we did this one with pan flutes and, you know, this is about us saving the whales. We're going to save the whales,'" he says. "It's like, no, you're just basically talking about two assholes, one from Brooklyn and one from Atlanta, who love to fucking rap their asses off."
Both in good spirits in the face of all that's going on with the coronavirus, Mike and El-P showcase just what makes them click together so well and also what makes them so different in this conversation. Being able to read each other is vital for musical success, even more so when you're a successful rap duo. Mike is more serious with a good sense of humor; El-P is hilarious with good comedic timing, but a very clear passion for the art. Nonetheless, what makes Run The Jewels "magical," as El-P puts it, is that they both truly care about the music they make and finding ways to push each other's creativity.
Read on as they share how they're doing during this shutdown, the first thing they'll do once the quarantine is lifted, what you can expect from RTJ4 and proclaim themselves "the Joe Exotic of the rap game." Shout-out to Tiger King.
XXL: How long have you guys been working on Run The Jewels 4?
Killer Mike: Felt like about 13, 14 months.
El-P: it was actually about full on, probably about a year-and-a-half that we worked on the record.
A lot of the artists don't take that amount of time, but you guys are also very patient with your releases.
EP: I mean, look, I come from the school of thought that this is art, man. This is the joy of it. You know, you work on the craft and you work on it until you feel like it's there and you don't rush it, you don't force it. We just gave ourselves the space and the time to just kind of think about it, come back to it, keep doing it. We kept traveling around, going to different studios and sort of just getting a vibe.
Also, I think that we probably put more time and effort into really crafting the records, just in terms of like the sound of an overall album than maybe a lot of people do. I mean, I'm not saying it's necessarily the greatest fucking thing in the world. I wish I could just kick an album in like two weeks, that'd be amazing. To be honest with you, man, from a dude who used to be like a solo artist and who used to make records, it used to take me like three years to make a record. This is actually pretty quick.
There’s a value in spending time.
EP: We're not just pumping music out to feed the machine. We're trying to make something beautiful. We know that we're lucky to have the shot just to keep doing what we've got to do. We don't do like 50 songs and then narrow it down. Like me and Michael, we'll work on the same track for like a year.
KM: You'll start with one beat. The beat will evolve or change. You'll lay verses down in January and decide that in March, eight of the bars are not right. You tweak it out. It really speaks to me, the dedication to a craftsmanship. We take our audience and our art very seriously. That doesn't mean you have to take a year-and-a-half. It means that if it takes a year-and-a-half, you're willing.
What message do you want to convey with the album this time around?
KM: I don't know if we start any album with a message. We are not politically involved because I'm no politician. What we start albums with is our sound and the theme kind of comes out of that. The sound to Run The Jewels is stripped down and very raw and then brutal. Run The Jewels 2 sharpened the tip of that spear. Run The Jewels 3 went into a place of almost like a Blue Album. It was reflective of the times. Then with Run The Jewels 4, I feel like we've caught a serious vibe and groove. With this record, man, there's no better time to be on quarantine with a fucking house speaker right now because I've been dancing every day to us. It's all the stuff that you already like about us.
EP: It's funny to hear your partner define the record and you're thinking about the record in another way. I think that this one, man, I just think that we knew going into this shit that we wanted to catch your breath from the moment this record started and not give this shit back to you until the end of the record. It's like he said, we don't go in with a message and shit. We're not like, "Oh, what are we going to teach the world?" We don't know shit. We're just a couple of stoners who just like rap and shit, you know. This isn't rocket science. We're just trying to be EPMD, basically. We're just trying to make our fucking classic force record.
You understand your individuality of each other, but you’re also committed to the group.
KM: My wife tells me all the time I'm in two marriages. So I'm married to her and I'm married to El-P. Thank God I don't have to have sex with El-P.
El-P: Don't worry. You're safe. No one is going to ask. The fact of the matter, when we started this project of Run The Jewels, we just did this shit for fun. As it grew, it just became bigger than the original intention. Also, we're finding territory that's fun to work in. Like as artists. It's not what we necessarily each individually imagined, but we've done the things that we each individually imagined.
This is the thing that the universe brought to us that was like, you guys have a choice. You can either ignore this magic or you can run with it. I think that me and Mike have been around long enough to know when you stumble on something that's magical.
You’ve also dropped some singles off of RTJ4. I liked “Yankee and The Brave” a lot. I think the title is clever too. What was the whole idea behind it?
KM: I mean two brothers against a force of evil cops trying to murder them. We love to go back and forth like Run-DMC and we love to do narratives. For me, I always envisioned the characters of Killer Mike and El-P or Yankee and the Brave. I envision us as two kids in an Escape from New York scenario. Those type of records, it was always fun for me because it's a movie. It's literally like we don't know what's going to happen in the next verse.
I was prepared to die versus the police in my verse. I was like, fuck that, I'm going to kill myself. These dirty ass cops ain't going to kill me. Then L pops in the next verse like, "Nah, I ain't going to just let you do that. Like you still owe me for Nikes."
EP: We didn't know what we were doing. It just turned into a story, man. That's one thing, you know, we always said to ourselves, we need to do a straight up story. EPMD always had like the "Jane" stories. I always loved sitting there, listening and imagining like Eric in Paris in a movie, like being set up in a France for the death of this woman, Jane, and trying… then the dirty cops dragging him in.
To me, that's just like a classic form of something that you could do when you have a rap partner. It was one of those things that we just hadn't quite done yet. Like I said, we had done versions of that. We did "JoJo's Chillin'," which we both really worked on it together; that was on Mike's album [R.A.P. Music].
You reference EPMD a lot. What do they mean to you two as a duo?
KM: Oh yeah, they're the standard. EPMD, OutKast, 8 Ball & MJG, UKG, they're the standard. They're the four … Led Zeppelin. There's a four records standard in my mind. In order to truly be a group, you have to master the first four records. Then you begin. Like we're going to begin the next record. These first four records and albums have been striving for perfection to get the foundation. I want everything after this to be as classic or more, but we had to master the four first. That's the magic number to me.
On your other single, “Ooh La La” featuring Greg Nice and DJ Premier, you two sound really fresh. How do you guys still stay invigorated and on top of things after being in the game so long?
EP: Because we never stopped. We never took a second to think about it. We just always kept going. We never got ours; we're still hungry. We never got the fucking respect. Cats still act like we're just going to disappear. There's a fucking reason we've been here for fucking 20 years. It's not luck. We're still hungry, we've been hungrier than muthafuckers forever. The second that you start to hear us not sound like that, it's pretty much time to hang it up.
KM: A shark doesn't know how old it is. A shark doesn't know what's going on above, outside that water. A shark knows that there's blood in the water, I'm hungry, and I need prey. When it comes to rap music, the beautiful thing about it, is if you don't get caught up in the superficial bullshit and opinions and you stick to being a fucking shark, before you know it, you're on the cover of XXL together.
Every time I'm touching a track, my job is to murder that muthafucker. I'm not going to make friends with other fucking rappers or younger rappers or other old rappers. I am just going to savagely rip that muthafucker apart. It's that goddamn simple.
EP: When you come from the era that we come from, where our influences are from, there's really only two choices. Either you're timed out of mattering, either you've lost track of what sounds dope and because it's just natural, the time, people just kind of lose track, or you get to be the dude who has all of this amazing influence and you're still rapping your ass off. It can be a weapon. It can be something that is working to your advantage.
It could be the fact that you are soaked in understanding and history and vibe. That's honestly where me and Mike are, man. That's the reason why we sound the way we do still because we never even looked up from the fucking piece of paper that we were writing on.
In addition to your longevity and focus, you two are really skilled at building anticipation between releases and keeping your fans engaged. How have you been accomplishing that?
KM: I think that we're lucky in that like a group like OutKast, our third member has become the audience. I think Run The Jewels started as a mixtape. It's grown and evolved into a rap group. What we saw happen was people took the music, they took the energy and the audience became a member.
We went from saying, "Oh man, we're rocking 300 people rooms. Oh my God. 700 people rooms, 1,500 people rooms," to "Oh shit. A dude just climbed the mountain and the first thing he thought to do was throw up Run The Jewels. Oh my God. A lawyer just won a $1 million suit against a municipality and the first thing he can think to do is throw up Run The Jewels. A girl just lost 100 pounds and ran a half marathon. She throws up Run The Jewels."
Run The Jewels' music, the energy, that exchange between us and our audience has become something in itself. I can't claim that we're marketing geniuses. You know, we smoke weed and say, "Fuck it, we should try this," you know what I'm saying? Our audience is like, "Fuck it, we need it now." I really think that the energy that the audience has given us and granted us is that anticipation. It's truly a relationship with our audience and we are always going to honor that relationship and they seem to honor it with anticipation and the will to wait when we need them.
EP: I think that if I had to look at it and be honest about it, I think that there is something about when people are being genuine, like there is something about genuine art that it's not required of everybody to be genuine and it's not even possible for everyone to be genuine. Me and Mike are just two genuine muthafuckers. I think that people crave that. I think that it forms a connection between the listener and the person in a different way.
We're not out here trying to get over on anybody. Everyone knows that we're not out here plotting to take over the world. We're just trying to come out and just make you nod your fucking head and we'll also stand up and we'll say something that means something if we see that it's something that needs to be said, from our perspective. We're not saying that we're the fucking greatest people in the world, but we're also absolutely going to stand up for people, when the time comes.
I think you both made good points.
EP: I also think it's because of how handsome we are, you know what I mean? Also, it's something that can't be understated. It's just pure animal magnetism I think.
KM: We're the Joe Exotic of the rap world.
How has the pandemic shutdown been for you guys?
KM: For me, it's been strangely refreshing. I mean, we have spent the better part of seven, eight years relentlessly making music. I'm still looking forward to getting on the road and bringing this album to people live, but I cannot understate how valuable the time with my wife and children has been. You never know how disconnected you've been making a way for your family until you're able to sit with them and be like, wow.
My baby girl was 5 when we started this group. My baby girl is 13 now and this is maybe the most I've been home. My boy is 18 and graduating this year and I've had an opportunity to spend more time with him, and their older sister and brother are 22 and 24, who, because of my career, I've spent a lot less time with.
Getting an opportunity to eat home cooked meals from my wife, I've lost weight, just exercising around the house, listening to our record. It hasn't been business, it's just been listening like a fan. For me, I will say that although I hate the conditions that paused the world, I'm glad that the world is paused in that people are connecting with what is really real and that is love and adoration for one another and quietly just being at home with one another and not worrying about what the next thing is I'm about to do.
EP: That's great. I'm losing my goddamn mind. I'm getting fat, I haven't exercised one time in three weeks, it's fucking horrible. I'm smoking a lot of weed. I'm going to be honest with you. I thought that I would become incredibly creative. I have literally done nothing creative whatsoever. My wife and I are getting into some pretty regular periodic arguments. I will not go near other humans. If anyone even talks near me, I just throw a mask at them and run in the other direction. I'm of course looking forward to the inevitable depression of American economics. Beyond that, I agree with Mike.
At least you guys are in good spirits.
EP: In all seriousness, my biggest thing right now is I'm incredibly lucky. Me and Mike are incredibly lucky. We're not in a position where we've lost the ability to feed ourselves or we have shelter, we have security. We're able to ride this out in a relatively comfortable way so far. There are a lot of people out there that are not. Particularly, of course, all of the obvious, the health workers and the people that are putting their lives on the line every single fucking day for us, but also the service industry.
Both me and Mike have businesses that are service industry businesses. I own a bar and a deli and Mike owns multiple barber shops. All of these people, these amazing people that are every single day really there that we just take for granted that are going to be there for us, these people are really suffering. I genuinely worry for the state of the country because people are fucking hurting beyond the obvious of people being sick. People are hurting for money right now and that's really what I'm more worried about.
Has the shutdown affected how you guys are making music?
KM: Well, we were already done with ours, but I will say your boy Curren$y hit me up the other day like, "Yo, I need to get a verse from you," and I was like, "Wow, maybe I should have done that home studio instead of the shoe closet."
EP: I told you!
KM: You did, you did. I will say, you absolutely did. I will say, watching his Instagram made me get the fucking shoe closet because Curren$y built an amazing shoe closet. So I replicated it, but what I've done is just found a very small studio to quarantine off and I'll pop in and do the verses and get the fuck out of there.
EP: We were supposed to be on a global tour with Rage Against The Machine right now. That was a sold-out arena tour and stadium tour with Rage Against The Machine. We were training, we were rehearsing, we were getting ready to get on the road. That's all changed. Me personally, I haven't really been doing any music in the last couple of weeks. I've just been working. We're sort of just dealing with life right now.
Has the shutdown affected how you guys roll out the album?
KM: It definitely has but the music's going to prevail. We wanted to roll it out, of course, with the Coachella performances and things and when stuff is fluid and shifting, we're also having to be fluid and shift. As we figure it out, you guys will be the first to know.
EP: We were going to be dropping this shit in mid-April and it's probably pushed back a month or so; I don't know. We're just waiting to find out, basically. Everything is in flux, but you know, that's why we started dropping songs because we're sitting here knowing that we got the album of our careers and we know that people are hurting and we don't really have any power except to kind of spread a little joy.
That's why we dropped “Yankee and the Brave” and that's why we dropped “Ooh La La.” Of course, it's fucked up our rollout of the record, but it's literally fucked up the entire music industry. I can't complain, I'm happy. I love doing what I'm doing. I love being in this group. I love the opportunity to make dope rap music and I'm healthy right now. So if the record has to come out a little bit later, it's OK.
When everything returns to at least semi-normalcy, what's the first thing you guys want to do?
KM: I'm going to go out on tour.
EP: I’m gonna go get fucked up. Oh, I'm sorry. That's not what I meant. I'm going to tour.
KM: I will say the normal thing I have gotten to do. I grew up with grandparents that gardened and shit like that. Being home has given us, me and my wife, a chance to do like a lot of this shit that our grandparents did. Like I made my grandmother's recipe corn bread the other day. My wife's been making these amazing soups she's been making since she was the kid.
We're going to till the backyard, and plant some stuff. I will say that this, interestingly enough, being quarantined has brought my wife and I, we're both southerners, brought us back to a normalcy that we hadn't had in 15, 20 years. I kind of like it, not being quarantined, but growing my own food and fucking eating things that we made right in the kitchen together and not ordering takeout.
EP: Again, that's great. I'm going to go get fucked up. I'm going to go out to my bar. I'm going to see all my friends and we're going to get fucked up to the point where I probably blackout in a puddle of my own piss. Then I'm going to wake up and I'm going to call Killer Mike from that puddle of piss and I'm going to say, "Hey, Mike, I'm sure you're probably gardening some fucking yams in your backyard or whatever, but I'm lying here in a puddle of my own stinking piss and I've never been happier."
KM: T.I. and I are opening Bankhead Seafood and whenever normal comes back, because this is a 50-year-old restaurant on our side of town, I'm really going to be happy to open the doors to that, to the community.
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