Like Spider-Man and Deadpool, Marvel’s hero and antihero whose respective spindly gallantry and dark humor finally earned them a full-fledged buddy comic last year, Run the Jewels is an unusual pairing but also a natural fit. Since the late ’90s, rapper/producer El-P has preached about terror behind closed doors and distrust for heads of state as a member of the New York indie luminaries Company Flow as well as in his solo work. Down in Georgia, Killer Mike has been a streetwise philosopher since debuting on Outkast’s 2000 cut “Snappin’ and Trappin’” telling an adversary, “Our shit don’t mix like yay and lukewarm water.” Both were mutual acquaintances of Adult Swim and Williams Street Records’ Jason Demarco, who, sensing a kinship, introduced Mike to El. The two have scarcely worked apart since.
Rap careers don’t unfurl like this. Most don’t end up in a new group in their third decade rapping, and they certainly don’t earn their biggest accolades and audiences in the process. And yet, after three self-titled Run the Jewels releases, Killer Mike and El-P are selling out venues they never believed they could fill and soaking up adulation that eluded them early on. It’s a happy second chapter for Mike, who has counted a few Southern rap giants as friends and collaborators but never quite received the glowing reception he deserved, and for El, whose landmark (but now defunct) rap label Definitive Jux often sufficed at the cost of his aspirations as a solo artist.
Released just in time for Christmas, Run the Jewels 3 is the one that proves this union is as versatile as the music is volatile. Beats are both darkly sexy and cinematically foreboding, while the raps zip between smart gallows humor and deep personal reflection. The brew is strange enough to pull in everyone from X-rated rap aficionados Danny Brown and Trina to thoughtful rock front men like Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio and Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha. The record is heftier than its predecessors at no loss to Run the Jewels and Run the Jewels 2’s sense of urgency. It’s the rare rap sequel that might be better than the first entry; instead of closing out a trilogy without breaking anything, it points to all the crazy places the series can go in the next installment. I spoke to El-P on a rainy afternoon in Brooklyn about people who’ve mistaken his group for a side project and what it feels like to watch the spooky dystopian future he’s been warning us about since 1999’s “Patriotism” creep closer to our new reality.
For a long time there’s been a sense among rap fans that you and Mike are these serious doomsayer types, which is weird because you’re hilarious on and off record. Is music your means of processing darkness in the world, or is comedy a way to cut through it?
The thing that I love about Run the Jewels is that it’s given both of us an excuse to be both of those things. That’s the reason why I love doing this shit with Mike. We take being stupid just as seriously as we take being serious … I’ve always felt like even in my solo career there was a humor in it that was maybe missed to a degree because there was a lot of heavy shit involved as well. I couldn’t tell if it was my fault or whatever the case was. I love the fact that we’re allowed to be both of these things, and I think that’s the reason why we’re still interested and still invigorated by doing this shit together. We don’t sit around in a bad mood all day. We sit around and get high and make jokes with each other. And thank fucking God that’s reflected in the music.
The answer to the question is that yeah, we use the music to get that shit out. If the heaviness that we can indulge in on some of the moments on these records was something that didn’t have an outlet or was just lodged in your personality on a daily basis, you’d pretty much be a miserable fuck. In conversational form, I cannot be the guy that wrote “Thursday in the Danger Room.” It’s just too goddamn dark. I just can’t do it. I have to be able to wake up and go about my day. If my mind were consumed by all the shit that I used the music as an outlet for, I’d be truly fucked as a person.
Another quality that sets you apart from a lot of new rap is that you make brutally uncompromising music that’s at least in part about being stand-up guys and good boyfriends. Why does that feel rare?
Isn’t that weird? Our rebelliousness is somehow intertwined with trying to just be good dudes. I think about that sometimes. Like, “Did I just make a fuckin’ really nasty-ass rap jam about being a good boyfriend?” And does that make me boring, or did I somehow manage to pull off the impossible and make that sound cool? But, you know, that’s the way we are, man. We are 41 years old. We are who we are. It takes you a long fuckin’ time to get comfortable with that and to know that. One of the distinct advantages to being where we’re at in our lives, and to being fuckin’ 41, is that we’re having this moment where we’re blowing up already having formed who we are. To some degree, there’s a swagger and a rebelliousness in just simply fucking being sure of who you are. Me and Mike are on the same with that shit. It doesn’t make us any less of an asshole. It doesn’t make us any less silly. But the fact of the matter is I’m not gonna put up a front for anybody. Our music is inspired by our lives, and Run the Jewels is so much like a family operation that it makes its way into it. When we tour together, our women will roll. Not the whole time, but they’ll come through, and it’ll be a family thing. But yeah, it’s something I’ve definitely thought about. How am I getting away with this?
Do you think rap’s a little too obsessed with bad guys?
I don’t really think of it like that. I don’t think there’s anyone that’s too obsessed. We’re obsessed with bad guys. We look at ourselves as antiheroes. I think that more so than rap being obsessed with bad guys, I think that people are too confused about what goodness is. I think that people don’t understand that goodness is just as grimy and just as fucked up as the opposite of that. And it has to be, in order to be competitive. In order for us to actually be humans, in order for us to fight for a bigger picture, we have to embrace the gritty, and we have to acknowledge the fact that our allies and the people with the same hearts as us are not gonna come in a predetermined package that’s clean, that makes sense to everybody. I think that one of the ways that we all fuck ourselves is by demanding that not only do people do the right thing, but they also act the right way or say the right thing all the time. I think that that’s false. Victories are won by embracing the fact that the filth and the dirt and the humor of goodness are just as valid as the pretense and the proper sort of intellectual mind frame.
I like the fact that me and Mike can kinda be assholes and also be good at the same time when we write these lyrics. In our minds, we’re characters. In our minds, we’re the Blues Brothers. You like the Blues Brothers, right? They’re fuckin’ assholes, but you like em … I think you’re doomed if you start trying to present yourself as anything more than someone that’s trying to do the right thing. I think that people who put themselves up on a pedestal of integrity and moral high ground are making a huge mistake, especially when it comes to music and art. It doesn’t leave a whole hell of a lot of room to indulge all the shit in your head. It doesn’t leave a whole hell of a lot of room to write. I think that there are plenty of people who have gotten trapped into that mode in music, even, and in rap, who can’t find their way out of it, who felt like they had something important to say but also forgot that they had something that wasn’t important to say.
Is that what happened to conscious rap?
I think that it’s a typical trap that people can fall into, for sure.
Jumping into the new album a bit, it’s striking because I’ve always thought of Run the Jewels records as action movies, and that’s a field where the third part doesn’t always hold up. This new one is your longest album as a group, but it doesn’t feel like a second of it is wasted. How do you keep refining and expanding?
Thank you. It’s funny because we have a friend in film. He writes, and he’s a big supporter and a big friend. He forced us to give him the new record early, and what he said when he hit us back was, “If the last one was a Tarantino film, this shit is a Christopher Nolan film.” We started something, and it was growing, but we wanted it to grow in its natural pace. These days a lot of people expect artists to take some gigantic, shocking, surprising leap. Shock the world with their new approach … Once Run the Jewels came through, and we kinda flexed a few other muscles that we hadn’t at first, we were like, “Man, we can really flesh this out and make this something that goes deeper and at the same time doesn’t lose what we love about doing his Run the Jewels shit.”
We were a little bit nervous about putting a longer record out at first. When we looked at it, we were like, “Shit, this is longer than anything we’d ever done.” We’d peaked at 32 or 34 minutes but this one was 51 minutes. At the end of the day, we were just like: (a) I think we’ve earned it, and (b) when we put it together, we didn’t walk away feeling like that shit was too long. We didn’t walk away feeling like, “Oh man, I had to fast forward.” And that’s all you want as a producer and as someone making a record. You just want the record to feel like it flows from front to back … You want people to feel like they don’t want to skip; they need to listen to track two as much as they need to listen to track ten. That’s all I try and do. As a producer, I’m hyperaware of that shit. If the record felt too long, I would’ve felt it as well. I’m the biggest critic of the shit that we do. I’m glad to hear you say that. It makes me feel great, cause it’s always a bit of a gamble.
To jump off of what you said about wanting 3 to flow from front to back, it does, and I’m wondering if that’s a function of how long you’ve been doing what you do.
No question. Yeah. Every record my entire career before that record is a rehearsal for this one. That’s how I look at music. I look at every record like, “What have I learned? How far have I come?” I spent a fuckload of time on this record — on all these records. Me and Mike get together for concentrated periods of time, and we write. Then Mike goes away, and I sit there, and I chip away at that shit endlessly. I’m a perfectionist, but I’m also more confident in my skills as someone who can be a producer of a record than I ever have been, and that just comes with time. I’ve fallen on my face. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve got plenty of records where I listen back and I think, I wouldn’t’ve done that. Every time you go into it, you get a little closer to being able to nail it down … I love the art of the album. I love the idea that longform can be a real art in the same way that I don’t think you want to read the chapters of a book out of order … I try and do my best every time I do these records — and I’m fucking grateful that I even get the chance to do ‘em.
Coming back to “the art of the album,” I wanted to talk about the journey between the cover art from the first Run the Jewels album and the new one. In my mind, moving from the charred zombie flesh of the first two releases to solid gold on this one is a statement about permanence.
We kinda felt like we had brought Run the Jewels, with this record, out of a cartoonish sort of vibe — because everything was really big and over the top and explosive with Run the Jewels 2. We knew that this record was a little bit more internal. We knew that it was a “bluer record,” as Mike likes to say. He calls this our “blue phase.” So it kinda felt like we were bringing it into a human realm even further.
The first one, there were these sorta zombie hands. The second one, they were bandaged up, and you could say maybe they were injured. Maybe they had been through something. That’s where some of the more emotional content started to come through, like “Crown” and “Early.” It signified a slight change for us. For the third one, we imagined that the bandages had come off, and, in some transformative metamorphosis, revealed to you that the idea of taking something someone else has — “run the jewels” is a declaration, someone saying “gimme that” — changed for us … It sounds cheesy when you write it down, but you are the jewel. The jewels are something that’s internal, they’re there within you, there to be mined.
It reminds me of Iron Maiden, sort of. They have this zombie character, this guy named Eddie on every cover.
Yeah! I was never an Iron Maiden fan, but I always loved those fuckin’ T-shirts.
They have this one album called Powerslave that’s got the blue and gold background. It’s a 51-minute record also, and the one where they sorta expanded on some things.
Wow! That’s crazy. I gotta peep that.
Speaking of your Twitter, the other day you tweeted “RTJ isn’t a phase me and Killer Mike are going thru. This is our group.” Do you feel like there are still people who think this thing is a lark?
I think that there are. I started to see some people talk about us as though, “They’re wrapping up the story about Run the Jewels.” You know what I mean? “Here it is, this is the end of the trilogy.” And we never said it was a trilogy. Quite frankly, we never said there were gonna be two records either. We just did it. But now we know. Now we really understand that this is what we’re doing. This is who we are. We took great pains to make sure that Run the Jewels was something that we can grow, to be something that we could both as men make our creative outlet and walk away from it not feeling like we compromised, that we were doing something that was even more special.
I wanted to make that statement to people so they could get it out of their head that what they were writing about here was the the last chapter in a saga. I know it’s weird that we popped out of nowhere having had 15-year careers on our own. It’s hard to completely think about us as a group, but that’s what we became, and that’s what we are. I wanted to put people at ease about that and let them know that this is not the end of the story. This is, in a way, just the beginning for us.
So, are you thinking about future solo albums, or is that on hold for the time being?
Honestly, man, I’m not. It doesn’t mean I won’t do jams or Mike won’t do jams or that there won’t be projects down the line. But I’m so thrilled by Run the Jewels right now, and it’s been so fun. We’ve gotten it to the point where I’m walking away from this shit feeling like I really was myself on this record. I really could say something from the heart on this record. So no, we’re not thinking like that at all. We’re pretty psyched about Run the Jewels to be honest. Right now we feel like we released the album of our careers.
We usually expect one from you every five years, and we’ve gotten three in the last three, so this is a good situation.
I spent a long chunk of my career divesting my energy. I spent a long chunk of my career not fully concentrating on my music and doing other shit like running a record label and producing other people’s stuff. One of the things I realized once I was done with that part of my life is how prolific I can be when I’m just doing what I love to do. So I’ve been obsessed with making sure that I’m constantly making music. There are a lot of people who’ve hit Mike and I up that are fans that are also saying, “We also love what you do on your own,” and I respect that, and I appreciate it, but we’re trying to find that place where we’re merging who we are. I started in Company Flow. This isn’t my first shift. Being back in a group has been a joy. Mostly cause I’m not to blame for the results fully. I can point at Mike, too. [Laughs.]
This year feels a lot like a world that you’ve have been warning us about on record this whole time is coming true. Are you worried about the future?
Fuck yeah, I’m worried about the future. I’d be a fuckin’ fool not to be. I think that we’re all in for a fight, and I don’t really mean a physical fight, but that may be the case at some point someday…
I’m ready for hands.
I think that we’re all in for a spiritual fight, though. For sure. And for our part, for Run the Jewels’ part, I think the thing that we can contribute to that, if there is something we can contribute to that … I don’t wanna call it “hope,” but I’ll at least call it an unwavering “fuck you” in the face of destruction. That’s the thing that I can be a part of. Yeah, man, it would be ridiculous for us to not be a little bit worried about what’s going on. That being said, for a lot of people, including me … I’ve felt this dread pretty much my entire life. I think we live in a bit of a bubble here. And that bubble’s popping. Everybody’s like, “Holy shit, things might not be fine if we turn the TV off.”
I don’t doubt that we’re all having to confront the reality of who we are collectively in a bigger way than our coddled asses have ever had to. But there are a lot of fuckin’ people in this country who have existed under an iron fist for a long time and have been ignored. So, yeah, it’s not great. But I still truly believe that … Darkness does not truly have sway. I think that it’s weak. I think that it has its moments. I think that it has its victories, but it’s in for a surprise.