El-P of Run The Jewels: "Rap is not a person"

Run the Jewels was arguably the best rap album of 2013. Which is odd given that as late as April El-P and Killer Mike hadn’t even told anyone it was coming. 

Following on from what essentially amounted to a twin release in mid 2012 with El’s Cancer 4 Cure and Mike’s R.A.P. Music (which El-P produced) – both of which would make many of that year’s best-of lists – and a long series of sold out co-headline shows throughout the United States, the New York and Atlanta MCs respectively decided to formalise their artistic relationship. 

Run the Jewels was the result – a vivid illustration of what happens when two smart, thoughtful guys get together and try to out-rap each other, out-joke each other and generally have the time of their lives. It was the release valve after the anger, frustration and paranoia of the duo’s solo albums – the demented 35-minute post-midnight soundtrack to your favourite party. 

But as the months ticked by last year, what initially seemed like a brilliant diversion developed a distinct sense of permanence. Such is life when you team up with your best bud and make undeniable rap music. 

Now, Run the Jewels is set to head to Australia for Laneway Festival. El-P was down under last year for Jerome Borazio and Danny Rogers’s blue riband boutique event, but looking back that show now feels like an entrée to 2014’s main course. In the meantime, El and Mike together have developed a reputation for a ferocious live show, perfectly cut for a festival environment. 

My December interview with El-P, born Jaime Meline, turned out to have queer timing. Just twenty minutes before we’d both caught the news about Nelson Mandela’s death. It added an oddly poignant note to a conversation about music, relationships, optimism versus despondency, and the state of the world as we head into 2014. 


Where are you, Jaime? In New York, I take it? 

I am. I’m in Brooklyn right now. 

Every interview I’ve read it’s both you and Mike. Are these the first Run the Jewels interviews you’ve done on your own? 

We’ve done a couple like this when the schedules don’t quite match up. Mike’s in Atlanta right now. We try to do them together but this time it didn’t work out, I guess. 

Does it feel strange doing them on your own? 

Ask me that question in five minutes (laughs). 

I caught your online interview guidelines yesterday. I’m guessing you’ve been doing a lot of press recently. 

(Laughs) Yeah, we have. How can you tell? Sometimes you have to gently guide somebody into greatness. I think we’re just here to get the best out of everybody (laughs). Me and Mike in a high and mildly drunk afternoon stupor decided that maybe the world needed a few guidelines. 

It’s a product of the internet age, the endless press – 

Oh, hey, I’m not complaining about the press at all. We’re lucky to get it. But there are some things that we’ve covered ad nauseam. The story of how we met has been documented at this point, I think. 

When you first agreed to produce the entirety of R.A.P. Music, could you see yourself sitting in New York twenty months later talking about touring Australia with Mike as a rap group? 

No. Not at all. It wasn’t even an idea yet. It wasn’t something that we came up with really until we were on tour together [in 2012] and having such a great time. Obviously, we did records together. There was ‘Butane’ on R.A.P. Music and we did ‘Tougher Colder Killer’ on my album [Cancer 4 Cure]. We really liked doing those records together and we loved performing them together, which we did when we were co-headlining that tour. And we had such a great time and we were so successful and we had so much fun and we became such good friends that by the time the Run the Jewels idea came along it seemed like we had to. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world. 

But when we first met, I didn’t even think I was going to produce his record. I thought that I was gonna produce a couple of songs, maybe. But something happened – some sort of unstoppable force between us – and creatively we couldn’t ignore it. And I thought, “Fuck it. I’m running with this shit.” Whatever plans I had at that moment had to stop. I’ve been around long enough and worked with enough people to recognise when something magical is happening in the studio. 

And beyond that, I’ve been around long enough to know when I really like a motherfucker. And I really like Mike. I really like this dude. I will even go so far to say I love this dude. This dude is my family. This dude is one of my people. That was undeniable. And the more that we talked and the more that we worked together and the more we got involved with each other’s lives, the more we realised that this was something we had to go with. And so that’s how it happened. 

I think people tended to package your albums together last year: they came out at a similar time, had similar production, obviously, but similar outlooks as well – they were pretty dark records – and people really engaged with them. Was there a sense there that there was a demand for this? 

I’ll tell you, when we first announced that we were making a record together most people were completely confused by the idea. Most people couldn’t imagine it, and that was two years ago. And two years later, I would say that most people would never admit that they couldn’t imagine it. And most people would never question it again. But the records coming out at around the same time: that was a complete coincidence. It just happened. I thought my record was gonna come out months after Mike’s record. But it just didn’t go down like that. It was like, “Oh shit, it’s coming out a week after your record.” (laughs) 

I think simultaneously what happened was that people really opened their eyes up to Mike. I think people had maybe kinda passed over Mike and maybe weren’t really paying attention to him. He hadn’t had a heap of work out that captured everyone’s attention. People respected him and a lot of people knew about him, but he wasn’t on the tips of everyone’s tongues. That record really did that for him. And at the same time, my record coming out and our alliance: I think it just snowballed and for us, for sure, it was a little more interesting because it was like, “Well, we’re just making this music.” There was not a lot of contrivance about it. But it just grew from there. And now, everyone kinda associates us together. 

But at the same time, we have our own careers. We have our own records. We have our own perspectives. And a Run the Jewels record versus a Killer Mike record or an El-P record, they’re all different things. And it was very important to us that that’s the case because we have our own trajectory artistically. I just happen to work with Run the Jewels, El-P and Killer Mike. 

There’s that sense with the album that you’re letting your hair down. It’s a lot more fun, I guess. 

I agree. I agree. And after making a record called Cancer 4 Cure, I think I deserved a little fucking fun. You could call my record a lot of things, and I’m proud of that record and that record will punch you in the face, but “fun” is probably not the first word to come out of your mouth when you listen to it. And that’s because it was a different record from a different time. I made that record on the heels of a lot of big changes in my life and a lot of things that were happening and the loss of friends and the death of friends. It’s a different thing and the Run the Jewels thing was the result of a really good move from two people who think about really dark things. You’re getting a really dark record but framed by two people who were actually having the time of their lives, despite the fact that all of their leanings and the way that they think about their art is heavy. 

So I think there’s some magic there and I think that I had that similar magic with [El-P’s New York-based rap group] Company Flow. Company Flow: there was a lightness to it, but there was also a heaviness and I really enjoyed that balance. I think it’s important to making a great record. I think that’s what you’re seeing. 

So in a way Run the Jewels is a little bit of a Trojan Horse. It comes on and it literally makes you want to jump around and drive down the street at 90 miles per hour and maybe hit some people along the way. But the reality is that you still have these guys who think about this shit and are talking about things that mean something to them. It’s just wrapped up in a more colourful bow, I guess. 

I think there’s that perception that you and Mike are helping bridge that gap between New York – the traditional home of rap – and places like the south. Much like A$AP Rocky with his southern tropes, or maybe The Underachievers hooking up with Brainfeeder, a west coast record label. Do you see it that way at all? 

No question, I do see it that way. But I see it that way in the most natural, organic, real way. I see it as just simply being the truth. I don’t see it as being a stylistic plan. It’s funny for me and Mike to sit here and watch people just squabbling back and forth about “New York” and “Atlanta” and whoever has the top-est shit at the moment, and me and Mike are like, “Well we just made a completely boundary-less record.” And we just did it because we just love music. I think that that is what is potent about what we’re doing together. And I’m proud of that. Sometimes you’ve just gotta do shit and not talk about it. Sometimes you just have to create things and not really explain them. 

And that’s maybe the most subversive thing in the world. Instead of talking about it or writing a fucking think piece about what we should do in music, I think Mike and I are at a point in our lives where we’re not gonna talk and think about it; we’re just gonna make records we love. And I think that’s our edge. We’re just making records with no criteria other than we want to make the shit that we really fucking love. And whatever that is, between us we’re gonna find Run the Jewels. And I think that’s infectious. People can feel that – they feel something that’s genuine. And I think maybe Run the Jewels is maybe capturing that for people. 

The group thing. You’ve talked before about how important that is to you. About how much you loved Run DMC and EPMD when you were younger. Do you think rap’s lost the knack for a quality group, so to speak? Like, that hyper-real, almost comic book character rap group? 

Rap is not a person (laughs). Rap is not a person. Y’know what I mean? People always talk about rap like it’s some guy they know who’s going through a problem: “Damn, man, how’s rap doin’?!” “I dunno, man. Last time I saw rap he was pretty depressed!” Rap is a form of music, like rock’n’roll. It’s endless. And it is only good or bad or whatever as a moment in time, as a moment of inspiration, as an artistic expression. And everyone has a different take on it. 

As rap fans we’re so protective of it we find ourselves kinda trying to assess the health of rap at all times: “What does this mean? What does this mean about rap?!” But if I have a cold it doesn’t mean I have cancer. And if I have a mosquito bite it doesn’t mean I have malaria. It may not mean anything or it might mean everything, but one thing for sure is that there’s nothing that’s gonna take down a genre as powerful and creative as rap music. It’s just about whether we’re inspired by the things that are happening at the moment. 

And quite honestly, show me a genre of music where every time someone releases a record it’s what you want to hear. If that music does exist, then please send me a playlist (laughs). Because I want to know. I want to hear it. 

I caught a tweet saying you’re locked in for a second Run the Jewels record next year. Is that right? 

Oh yeah. No fucking question. We’re already in pre-production. We’re doing it again. Absolutely. 

I’m not sure about you, but 2013 felt like a pretty dark year with Snowden and the NSA revelations and Bradley Manning and so on. Would a second Run the Jewels LP be just as rambunctious as the first? 

I don’t know. They’re always gonna be the result of what we’re feeling and whatever our mood is at the time. And Mike and I will be true to that, whatever it is. The thing that’s exciting about Run the Jewels for us is that, unlike my solo stuff and unlike his solo stuff, it’s a new trajectory. It’s just been born and to a degree it feels like our first record – y’know how every new rap group talks about busting the door down? (laughs) Now we have a chance, maybe, to go somewhere else with it and evolve that, and I don’t know what that’s gonna look like. 

I think that that’s really the reason why I’m doing these records – it’s something unpredictable for me. I couldn’t tell you [what it will sound like]. It’s literally that Mike and I need to be in the same room and see what happens in order for us to know that. But I think that Run the Jewels has defined itself to some degree and we have kinda laid down a foundation for what Run the Jewels is. And from there there’s room to grow – there’s a lot of room to grow. I’m excited by that and I’m excited that I have no fucking idea what it will sound like. 

You’re 38. So is Mike. Do you find yourself getting more despondent at the state of the world or more optimistic as you get older? 

Despondent or optimistic – dammit, I hate it when they’re the only two choices. (laughs) How about a despondent and cautious optimism? I don’t know. The fact of the matter is that I’m alive and I intend on remaining alive, and I intend on feeling what that is like. And I’m open to whatever that is. I think that one thing’s for sure: both me and Mike are true romantics at heart. We express it differently. Mike is a little bit more directly positive in his music in the sense that he has a perspective and approach artistically that’s a little different to mine. I’m the guy making the music from within the insane asylum. That’s kinda how I’ve always been artistically and kinda how I’ve always looked at it. 

But the only reason why I have this philosophical edge that I put forward in my music is because I actually do deeply give a shit. And I do actually have a serious romanticism that’s been woven into my soul since I’ve been alive. Intellectually, the place where those things have turned has often been where the music comes. So I don’t have the answer to that because I don’t have the answer to the future. But I will tell you that no matter what, I will always try to be passionate and honest in my approach to whatever I do. I don’t think cynicism for the sake of cynicism is particularly interesting. And that’s something we all have to fight, maybe. 

These records for me: you never know but also I’m very hesitant to say whether I feel despondent or hopeful. Catch me at the right moment and I feel great. But I’m more complicated than that, is what I’m trying to say. And so is life. If you’re trying to be true to your art and you’re trying to be the arbiter of eloquent expression on the human condition, which I do try and attempt to be from my own fucked up perspective, that is what I aspire to. I’m trying to be true: not because I know what’s right or wrong, but because I know how I feel or I know what I think at the moment, or I can express confusion or I can express the things that a lot of people don’t have the time of day to really sit down and work on. That’s a long-winded and maybe pretentious answer, but it’s the truth. I don’t know. I don’t. 

Coming to Australia for Laneway. I saw you last year. Did you know then – or maybe think then – that, yep, I wanna be back here with Mike next year? 

Hell yes, I knew then that that was what I wanted. But it took a while to get it together. I think we kinda slipped through the cracks. Jerome and Danny were nice enough to let us come back. I think the fact that we’re doing Run the Jewels: they’re really supportive of the record, they really love the record, and they brought us along to Laneway in the US. When we saw each other we said, “Let’s do this shit.” I couldn’t be happier, man. I had the time of my life last year doing the El-P show, and I’m so psyched that I get to come back and do this again. I’m very excited about it. Plus we get to do the sideshows with Danny Brown and Earl Sweatshirt – and to me that’s the craziest line-up of the year. 

I was interested to get your perspective on this: when Danny and Jerome brought Laneway to the US, did it impress you that they chose Detroit? It felt like a really brave decision from this side of the world – an Aussie festival doing its first ever show in a broken city like Detroit. 

Yeah. I appreciated the idea and I think those guys were trying to do something cool. They were trying to make their mark and it worked. They did a great job and were nice enough to invite us along. We had a great show and a great time there. Yeah man: not everyone is thinking in that way, so I think it’s cool when people do.


Matt Shea (@mrmatches)

profile of MattShea