El-P and Killer Mike are about to drop their fourth album as Run The Jewels. It's a longevity that they didn't plan for when they first started making music under the name. "We had no fucking clue," laughs El-P, lighting an apple which he's fashioned into a makeshift bong (needs must in lockdown, apparently). "I knew that we were dope, but I was gonna be happy if we got to tour the country and do five hundred-person to a thousand-person venues," he continues. Instead, they've become a household name and eclipsed the success either of them had in their respective solo careers, something they weren't exactly expecting to happen in their mid-40s.
Even a worldwide pandemic hasn't been enough to dent their success, with Run The Jewels 4 holding firm at its scheduled June release date and at one point beating out Lady Gaga for the most pre-ordered album on iTunes, although El-P is putting that down to "some sort of weird glitch in the system" more than anything else.
As El expresses his disbelief at the success the duo are having, Killer Mike dials in on FaceTime from his car and takes over where he leaves off: "I knew this shit could be big, should be big, but I didn't know if it would be big and I didn't know the depth of what bigness it would be."
Throughout the call, the two take it in turns to give opinions, back each other up and crack jokes, not once disagreeing or talking over each other. "I knew that El and I had something special," Mike continues. "But the one thing you can't account for is luck. You can't account for the luck of bumping into Zack [de la Rocha] and him jumping on a record because the two of you hit it off getting a coffee one time. You can't account for the luck of one half of the group stumping for a presidential candidate that happens to be the most popular amongst the music-listening age group," he says, referencing his high profile and long-standing support for Bernie Sanders.
"You can't account for all that, you just have to do the right thing in the right moments and hope it leads to these things. Having said that, when I first saw kids in the audience cheering for Run The Jewels harder than for El-P and Killer Mike, that was crazy. That was when I knew we'd done it, because these kids weren't there for me or for El, they were fucking with us for the same reason hot wings and blue cheese sauce go together in Atlanta, or pastrami and rye goes together in New York – RTJ was just a combo that made sense. So I knew the group was gonna take us somewhere, I didn't know where exactly, but somewhere. At our most difficult day it is a joy to be in the studio making music we love and a joy not to be in a studio forced to make music we hate just to stay relevant."
El nods in agreement. "We've experienced some jaw-dropping shit in our time, and we've been around long enough, so when we saw what unfolded with this group..." He shrugs and holds his arms out. "You hear about shit like that happening for artists, and we've sort of brushed against it in the past, but to actually feel that energy reaching people in such a broad way, it's a crazy rush. I'm of the opinion that you have to be able to recognise magic a little bit. This is a gift, and we're gonna do everything we can on our side to make sure we're worthy of it."
Part of avoiding putting a foot wrong is taking the time to make sure each project is as perfect as it can be before release – something the duo have learned from years in the game. "I'm not about throwing it all out there and releasing a long-ass album, I did that shit when I was 25, but not now," says El. "We want every punch to land on our albums, so with 'RTJ4' we worked on tightening everything up and making sure that every moment is a payoff and lands in exactly the right way. I think for our last album we allowed ourselves to go a little further in terms of length and we were conscious of that as we were doing it, but fuck it, we earned it. Then we came to this one, and it just felt right to make it sleek and to the point – we weren't holding ourselves back in any way, it just felt right."
"It's the best album we've ever made," adds Mike. "I think each album has gotten progressively better for different reasons, but this one cuts as deep as anything in 'RTJ3', we pop off as well as we do on 'RTJ2' and we've got the surprise factor that 'RTJ1' had. I think we refined all our best qualities in one record and we pushed ourselves the hardest we ever have. Lyrically we were brutal – we went back to some of the tracks, and if there were even two bars in that bitch that bothered me or El we let each other know, and we ripped it apart. We were determined not to be defeated by our own legend; I don't want to be defeated by your affection for my last record, my job is to show up and make you pay attention to the right now."
"I always back away from statements about whether or not it's our best album," says El. "Because you don't have to say it is, but to some degree the artistic mind makes you believe it is. Every time you do a record, that new material is the stuff you're most excited about and the stuff you care about the most. I'll leave it up to more skilled critics to decide where we land [thanks, but your trust could be misplaced... – Ed] but I will say one thing: we try and walk away from these albums without one moment of regret, and we really push each other in that regard. We don't leave any stone unturned in terms of how we feel about it, and I absolutely think this album is worthy of the Run The Jewels name, that's how I'd put it.
"It's been a year and a half of work too, and we toured for nearly that amount of time after the third album, so we've been pretty busy with it all, we're excited to get it out there. Having said that you're not suddenly going to hear two different dudes on the record – it's still us, we're just not done talking, and we've got plenty of shit we wanna say and do. Each of these records stands on their own, but they're linked by us and the things we believe and feel. You won't be tuning in and thinking 'I can't believe El-P sounds like that!' It's still me."
While El is speaking Mike gets out of his car and wanders around his house, but cuts back in as soon as he finishes talking. "El and I are not afraid to speak on things socially, so that's always going to be a part of our music, too. I wanna say though that as much credit as we receive and as much as we appreciate that, hip-hop has been doing it for a long time and I gotta nod my head to the genre for giving us a place to express those opinions. It's always been a genre which pushes the idea that no matter what size you are as a group or an individual, when you get the opportunity to say something, and it's the right thing to do, you do it. I'm proud of that lineage and proud to keep pushing that in our music."
"But we also gotta have fun," El says, laughing. "We're more complicated than just one thing, and I don't think we'd be happy limiting ourselves to just the social issues. I don't want people listening to Run The Jewels and coming away from it like 'oh, that was dour', that'd suck! It absolutely has to be in the context of two weed-smoking, rap obsessed teenagers rapping their asses off and having fun. We gotta say this stuff when it means something to us for sure, but we go in there, and we have fun, and the music is fun – that's the basis of it all. I'm not happy unless these records are a mix of poignant and stupid."
At first glance, it might be easy to assume that the poignant and the social comes more from Mike's side, and the humour from El's, but the duo are both quick to say that isn't the case. "We're like brothers who share a room," explains Mike. "99% of the time we agree on the stuff that matters, the other 1% of the time? We fight like hell. For real though, ultimately, El is the greatest rapper / producer on Earth, and I'm not just saying that because we're partners. I've been listening to rappers and producers my entire life and the shit I see him do under the amount of pressure he's under? It's beautiful, and I usually defer to his better judgement about things. I do sometimes get something stuck in my craw but I just state it, we approach it, and we figure it out. No matter what, I'm always still a fan of making music with my bro."
El lights a cigarette. "Facts, likewise. You're not gonna be able to stay in a group if you just think of it as two individuals. We've got tricks and stuff anyway, different categories of compromise, different ways of arguing things – we work it out. The reward we get from working it out and the reason I'm still a part of Run The Jewels, apart from my friendship with Mike, is that it still surprises the shit out of me. Every time we do a record I don't know what's gonna happen, I can predict to some degree because of who we are, but we constantly do shit that we would not be able to do if we hadn't met each other. That's exciting, and even if we've gotta go through some conversations that might suck it's worth it because I'm happy, Mike's happy, and we sound dope together."
"Dope enough to be playing venues all over the world with acts that aren't even the same genre," Mike adds, referencing the group's slots with Queens of the Stone Age, Jack White and an upcoming support slot with Rage Against The Machine. "I gotta shout out our tour manager on that one," he says. "A couple of years ago he comes over to me, and he says 'I don't want you to take this the wrong way' – I think he was scared I was gonna punch him for some reason – 'you guys aren't a rap group, you're a rock band masquerading as a rap group'. I had no idea what he was talking about, but he said because of how relentless we were about touring and how in people's faces we get, maybe we've got more of a foot in both camps than we think.
"I love rap, and we are most definitely not a rock group, but I grew up seeing rap and rock groups doing arenas together, because at the time all the 'boy stuff' was mixed in together. Skateboarding, karate, rapping, comics, rock music – it was all just what boys did, so there was a real cross-pollination. Some clubs in Atlanta would do a six-hour set and half of it would be rap, and half would be punk, because it brought more people in. So for me to be on the bill with these huge stadium rock acts? That's a compliment, a massive compliment. Of course, El's mom didn't let him go to Fresh Fest when he was a kid, so..."
"Hey, I've seen it in my career too!" El protests. "At the end of the day, I think we make music that gives a feeling and has this real aggressive rush to it, so people from all different fanbases can plug in to that and connect with it. I'm hugely influenced by rock music as well as rap, so I don't find it too surprising. You go back years, and you can see Run DMC rocking stadiums, and you cannot rock a stadium if you're only rocking to the rap fans – you need to get all kind of people in, it's definitely a positive thing.
"Basically you can just put us on any stage, and we believe we can fucking kill it. Not just rock, we did a whole tour with Lorde as her direct support over in the States and on paper that looked crazy, you know? We had to prove it was a good idea to people, but hey, that's our fucking job. Point us to a stage, and if we can't rock you motherfuckers then we're not doing our job."
"Yo the illest shit about that Lorde tour," Mike says, laughing. "Was that we'd go out and you could see that it was date night for a few couples out there and you can see a lot of the girlfriends are thinking 'this is awesome, he's come out with me, and he's finally got around to loving the album in the way that I do'. And then all of a sudden we come out and smash that stage, and the guys lose their fucking minds, not always but you saw it a lot. You just know that afterwards, their girlfriends are looking at them like 'You motherfucker!' So Lorde was a genius for that one, I gotta shout out to her for making a lot of people happy. Plus we gained a lot of fans through that tour, because there weren't that many Run The Jewels converts in the audience before we started playing, so love to everyone that showed Lorde and us love.
"I think her music is incredible, too, so it was a double win for us. I love being part of this world where I can see all these dope artists outside of our lane. I got sent a link to some music by The 1975 by my management, I watched all of their music videos on a flight over to a festival we were playing, and then I got the chance to see them – I'm just glad we're in the midst of all this dopeness."
"And now we've got a record with Josh Homme from Queens of The Stone Age on it," adds El. "One of my all-time favourite bands and we get to put him on our album? That's mind-blowing shit. I love so much music, and it all comes back through our rap brains, and it's just part of who we are. I started as a producer collecting records and just trying to steal something cool, then suddenly you realise you've got a catalogue of a thousand different bands from a hundred different genres in your head. I'm not out here trying to steal stuff any more, I just love music."
Mike nods his agreement. "We both love music, it's what we do." 20 years into their careers, it doesn't sound like Run The Jewels will be throwing in the towel any time soon.
Taken from the July issue of Upset. Run The Jewels' album 'RTJ4' is out now.
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