Of all the things you could possibly imagine Run the Jewels doing during a normal lunchtime in Dallas, carefully folding laundry probably doesn’t rank very highly. Two separate, established faces on the underground rap scene before they had even met, El-P and Killer Mike formed the project in 2013 with few expectations. Spitting out their satirical, hyper-bravado pumped statement of intent - debut opener ‘Run the Jewels’ - the pair came out blazing with fury; “hungry as fuck,” and threatening to pull pistols on poodles, smash things, and change the entire game in the process.
Run the Jewels soon snowballed into a hulking monster, and though Killer Mike and El-P always had an inkling the project would connect in a big way, they never imagined they, as Run the Jewels, would become two of the most vital, leading voices coming out of rap. “As a rapper you have to envisage yourself right at the top,” reasons Mike. “I mean, the bullshit we talk on the records…” Yet here they are, Killer Mike, and El-P. Carefully folding t-shirts into a suitcase.
“People would pay good money to see this,” shouts El-P from across the room, laughing. He makes a very valid point. Over the past two years, since the project first came into being, people have paid good money to see Run the Jewels do a lot of ridiculous shit. Take ‘Meow the Jewels’ as case in point.
“Marijuana,” muses El, recounting how the entire ridiculous saga first materialised. “The pure power of marijuana and its shitty sense of humour. That’s it. I was just trying to spice up the [‘RTJ2’] pre-order packages to entertain myself to be honest, and that joke ended up being a Kickstarter campaign on the internet, apparently…”
“I don’t understand the ownership of a pet that doesn’t understand it’s your pet.”
— Killer Mike
El-P’s first reaction as he watched his stoner antics spiral out of control, he readily admits, was one of pure dread. “One day I realised I was fucking doomed,” he laughs. After initially being incredibly wary - Mike and El-P didn’t want to waste their fans’ money - the pair of them sat down and realised ‘Meow the Jewels’ could grow into something far more serious; a ludicrously far-fetched charity fundraiser. It was, in a roundabout way, undiluted genius.
Run the Jewels rarely do things by halves, and so their next step was to enlist some of the most talented producers in the world for ‘Meow the Jewels’. Massive Attack’s 3D, Geoff Barrow from Portishead, Just Blaze, Prince Paul, and BOOTS - the list goes on - all got swept along with Run the Jewels’ madcap new idea. “I’m very lucky those people came on,” El-P says. “I think everyone was very inspired by the idea behind it, and the challenge. But straight up, I just did that shit because I couldn’t do it by myself,” he laughs. “I enjoy the painful irony that this is probably the only time I’ll get to be on an album with this amount of people I respect, and I forced them to make the stupidest fucking shit possible.”
“We raised even more than we asked for,” reflects El, “and all the money went to charity, directly to the families of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. It was the choice of the community,” he adds, “I’m really inspired by the fact people made that happen.”
“Mike doesn’t like cats,” he laughs, switching tact, and dropping a clanging great revelation in the process. “Even he was down. The cause was good.”
“Because they’re stupid,” yells Killer Mike across the room in defence. “I don’t understand the ownership of a pet that doesn’t understand it’s your pet.” On Mike’s sliding scale, though, cats don’t fare nearly as badly as his biggest literal pet peeve, poodles. “Poodles I just detest!” he exclaims. “I wouldn’t shoot a cat.”
“As a rapper you have to envisage yourself right at the top. I mean, the bullshit we talk on the records…”
— Killer Mike
The snobbery of poodles is just the start of what Run the Jewels takes down in a deft swipe. Killer Mike and El-P veer from playful, overblown goofiness to attacking social critique. With ‘RTJ2’ track ‘Love Again (Akinyele Back)’, they got festival tents chanting their self-confessed “fucking stupid chorus” all summer. Then, just as satirically, they invite in Gangsta Boo to flip every tired out hip-hop stereotype on its head. There’s a lot going on here, for a song that, on first glance, is all about dicks. ‘Early’, meanwhile, sees Killer Mike imagining himself - a black American man - being dragged away by the cops in front of his son. Across the whole of Run the Jewels’ second record, in fact, there’s a clearly detectable shift.
“We had a discussion about it,” says El-P of the gradual transition into something more complex. “[‘RTJ2’] needed to be more than just a fun record, it needed to represent who we were artistically. We knew there was a chance to make this thing grow,” he says. “I think the foundation of Run the Jewels is ‘RTJ1’. That vibe, and that playfulness with each other,” he adds. “We’ll never be a super serious group.”
Besides the vibe El-P talks of, a refusal to do things by the book is also there buried in Run the Jewels’ foundations. From the very beginning, they also made the fairly weighty decision to release all their music for free. Not content with competing for first listens and sales, Run the Jewels played the game by their own rules.
“It cuts out the bullshit,” states Killer Mike. “It’s an unspoken agreement between us and our audience. ‘Hey, we’re going to give you this record. If you like it, thanks. If you like it a lot, buy it, or come out and see us at a show, support us, and buy a t-shirt or something.’”
“We don’t like the vilification of all the people that are allowing you to do the thing that you love,” continues El-P. “One of the byproducts of the confusion, as the industry’s changed, has been this really misplaced us vs. them. We don’t like that,” he says, flat out. “We’re not interested in trying to point a finger at something that is, at this point, essentially an antiquated business model. We also respect you if you don’t buy music, and if you can’t buy music. That’s the biggest gesture we could imagine to our fans; to say we want you, we want you involved, interested, listening. That’s it.”
“I’m really inspired by the fact people made 'Meow the Jewels' happen.”
That sense of openness also extends to politics, outside of their music. Appearing on news channels across the world as a social commentator, and speaking at universities across America on the subject, Killer Mike particularly has become a hugely important voice in the dialogue surrounding race in America. On the night of the Grand Jury’s verdict on the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, Run the Jewels were playing a show in St. Louis, as Ferguson’s protesters continued to take to the streets outside the venue. A clearly emotional Killer Mike spoke directly to the room in light of the verdict; speaking about his fears for his children, his wife, his black community, and for the future of America. Then, he and El-P launched together into the angriest, most venomous rendition of ‘Run the Jewels’ imaginable.
“As a black man, and a father of two boys in America, I feel a responsibility to do that,” Killer Mike says today. “There are not a lot of people doing it in a way that I view as effective. There are not a lot of people who understand the perspective, the pressure it is to be a young African-American male in America. I have the perspective of having a policeman as a father,” he adds. “I think there are extremes, extremists on both sides just shouting for the other side to lose. I don’t see a lot of growth coming out of that.”
That calling, he adds, exists out of the realms of art, and comes down to something more basic. “I feel a responsibility to make good art, too,” picks up Killer Mike, “and sometimes that’s very social, and poignant, and speaks to the human soul. Sometimes,” he laughs, his folding completed, and ready to bus off to yet another sold out tour date, “it’s just utterly ridiculous shit about shooting a poodle.”
Photos: Grady Brannan / DIY. Run the Jewels’ cat noise remix album ‘Meow the Jewels' is out now, with all proceeds going to the families of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Taken from the November 2015 issue of DIY, out now.