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INTERVIEW: Run The Jewels
Thomas Hobbs , June 7th, 2017 12:51

Following a triumphant headline set at Field Day, we catch up with El-P and Killer Mike of Run The Jewels to discuss being rap’s most political modern group, why Mike might one day run for office and their plans to emulate Led Zeppelin

The last place you might expect to find El-P, one of the architects of grimey, verbose East Coast underground rap, is smoking a cigarette in a leafy suburban road just off West London’s Maida Vale.

Yet the rise of Run The Jewels - an experimental group that pairs El’s inspired techno rap production and surveillance state paranoia with Killer Mike’s street smart activism and southern Ice Cube drawl – has been so hypersonic the fact they’ve just finished recording a live session for BBC Radio 1, or headlined the main stage at Field Day a few days earlier, is no longer a surprise.

In-between thick drags of his cigarette, El, enjoying a break, is busy explaining to me how right wing politicians spread nationalistic propaganda as old ladies walk past us with their West Terrier dogs. Mike, meanwhile, is in the bowels of the BBC Maida Vale studios enjoying lunch, occasionally leaving his thick plate of mezze to check-in over the phone with wife Shay back in Atlanta.

Mike and El sit together with the contentment of a group that has been recording music for six decades – not six years (their first collaboration saw El-P produce Mike’s solo classic, 2012's R.A.P. Music). Together, they drop in references to Portishead, Philip K. Dick, Tupac, John Carpenter, UGK and Jeremy Corbyn, while laughing and finishing each other’s sentences like brothers.

Both now in their early forties, you wouldn’t be surprised if the project continues for a decade more. Or, as Mike puts it: “I want us to be like AC/DC – old fucking men wearing black denim, running across the god damn stage!”

The headline Field Day set was as energetic and intense as ever. One member of the crowd compared some of the mosh pits to a Nirvana show. How do you guys keep up the energy?

El-P: I’m just thinking about that money, B. The money will make you jump! Nah, I’m kidding. We just throw ourselves into it because we realise we’re fortunate to be in a line of work where we’ve made a deal with the world; we don’t have to do a shitty job so we better do the job we are blessed to do really fucking well. Me and Mike are like a human mosh pit. We’re not bouncing off one another like these cats in the crowd, but that’s only because there’s only two of us.

It’s something that I am proud of. It’s very cliché to say, I guess, but it’s worth repeating: that the energy you put out there comes back to you. We use the 'don’t leave anything back, don’t hold anything back' method, because, honestly, every moment we’re getting the chance to do this shit is something that we’re smart and experienced enough to know is special.

Killer Mike: I imagined headlining big stages when I was 9 years old - me and El were born a month apart. To me rap was the biggest thing in the world, I wanted to be like Run DMC on that stage. There was a skinny blonde girl at Field Day with an RTJ hat in the front row, a white Jesus-looking dude who fell over and our fans picked his ass up. I try to remember and savour everything.

RTJ3 is a real visual album, with lines such as “the air’s so putrid” almost describing an America in decay. Is the music getting darker with the times?

KM: It’s like cinema. I feel like this is our blues album – it’s like when Picasso went through his blue period, when he was mourning after his friend killed himself. We’re mourning for America. It’s about two kids escaping the apocalypse together. But somehow still finding time to have fun.

With the rise of Trump is the dystopian future you rap about now a reality?

EP: In 2002 when I dropped Fantastic Damage, everyone talked about it as a post-9/11 album, but I wrote it two years before that even happened. My song ’Dead Disnee’ had a chorus like “When the city burns down, I am gonna go to Disney World!” Look, you are either tuned in or not.

KM: For me it is like John Carpenter’s They Live. If you put the glasses on you can see the propaganda messages like 'Pro Create', 'Buy' and 'Obey'. The difference is that me and El are wearing the motherfucking glasses. Tupac had them on too, he knew what was up, just listen to his lyrics. Schoolly D knew what was up. Melle Mel too!

EP: So did Orwell and Philip K. Dick!

KM: I wish I could turn this shit off, trust me. I’d love to just smoke some weed and make it all go away. But once you see it, you can’t un-see it. The more we trust our audience, the more they trust us and the more open we can be. Our chemistry is like chicken and waffles, one day someone put them together and it was like 'Wow, this shit really fucking works!'

The 45th president of the United States of America; discuss…

EP: Trump is a fucking asshole, but I don’t think these kids need RTJ to explain that to them. But one thing me and Mike agree on is that Trump did not invent the archetype of the despotic brutal nationalistic asshole politician.

KM: Nixon did! People are very afraid. In my country, you had a corrupt party who sabotaged an amazing candidate [Bernie Sanders] who was stronger than the other. Had Sanders faced Trump even more young people – from black millennials to the gay and lesbian community – would have voted because he represented them at his core. Fear drove the American vote, because if you’re choosing from two devils like Hillary and Trump then you’re more likely to end up picking the one who is cooler and makes you laugh.

At the moment, whether it’s Corbyn and the Labour party in the UK, all I see is countries choosing between a nationalistic push or someone with a humanist point of view. Those with the latter, well, their message almost appears too ahead of its time. Although what’s happened in France and Canada does give us some hope.

EP: At the same time I think Trump is indicative of a larger problem. It existed way before him, it is our generation’s issue that all over the world people are and have been suffering from despotic power figures who want nothing more to control than help the people they claim to represent. The difference being is a lot of people had not been paying much attention prior because it wasn't directly impacting them.

You don’t fancy running for President then Mike?

KM: I like being a rapper and cursing and getting paid. But at some point I feel like I’m going to be an old angry ass man, who is going to run the school board or city council. I am not happy with what happens in Atlanta at a local level. I’d like to change that.

In my personal life, Michael, he’s a political activist. But that isn’t like what I set out to be. I am black and American so by proxy you either suffer in silence or fucking rage against it. My thirst right now is for making dope music.

El, you put out Dizzee Rascal’s Maths and English on your label Definitive Jux in the States. Does the rise of grime again in the UK excite you?

EP: Skepta is dope as fuck. I love grime, but to me it just sounds like dope rappers rapping over really interesting beats. I feel like it’s unfortunate some people still need validation for something that’s so clearly awesome. At the end of the day, we speak the same language! I been fucking with UK rap since I performed at the Jazz Café in 1996 and we would hang out with Chester P and Skinnyman.

KM: We gotta thank the UK for Slick Rick too! I remember Andre 3000 turning everyone in the Dungeon Family onto Portishead in like '95 or '96. He just came into the studio with a copy of Dummy and it inspired all the music Outkast made from that day onwards. We were all amazed by the soul of Beth Gibbon’s voice, the production of Geoff Barrow; that’s El’s close friend. I always feel like if it is dope music, anyone can connect with it.

How long can this RTJ thing keep going?

KM: You gotta be four albums deep to even be considered a proper fucking group. I want RTJ 1, 2, 3 and 4 to be like Led Zeppelin 1, 2, 3 and 4. The next one will be our masterpiece. Shit, why can’t we hit 7?

EP: This is a friendship too so RTJ will take many different forms. We are gonna do a movie, we might fuck around and do a TV chat show or a cartoon. At the bare minimum, you will see four RTJ albums.

Mike came up on ATL trap beats rocking with Big Boi, El helped break underground acts like Cannibal Ox and Cage. What have you learnt from bringing those very different artistic leanings together?

KM: I was born to rap on El-P beats, it takes no thought or thinking. The rhythmic patterns just hit my mind instantly. I thank god every day that I found my soul mate for that shit. This man made Killer Mike go from solid albums to a great album phase.

EP: Mike has made my rapping go to another level for sure. It’s a symbiotic thing. Sometimes Mike says some very El-P shit and sometimes I say some very Killer Mike shit. We’re soaking up one another’s styles. People would never expect me to say “Fuck the lord, they can eat my dick, that’s word to Pimp [C].” I say that because I ain’t just repping Brooklyn anymore but also the ATL as that’s where my best friend is from. This is a dream come true stylistically. We’re aware that just seeing a black and white dude on stage is powerful imagery.

We have the same school of thought, maybe it’s a different set of influences, but we have the same pillars. When you provide a contrast, it is really special. That is why we love Outkast, because Big Boi was the real personification of the pimp rapper – it was player shit with multiple syllables. Then Andre 3000 had this whole other energy. This balance is why RTJ works so well.

You’ve hit the big stages in your forties. Will we ever see a 70-year-old rapper touring like Elton John?

EP: Hell yes, but we haven’t had enough time to get wrinkly. Let us get older man! Maybe you’ll see me performing ‘Dead Disnee’ dressed in a tuxedo doing a Las Vegas run. That’s the plan.

KM: We’re already seeing it though! E-40 is 50-years-old and he is on a hit record every single year. Too Short is too, I owe him a verse. Jay-Z don’t fuck around either. Hip hop is the blues. If you got experience, you got more pain to put into your songs. You got blues musicians who are 70 or 80 years old doing the dopest shit. That’s how I see rap going. I want me and El to be like AC/DC, to be two old fucking men in black denim, running across the god damn stage stoned out of our minds.

EP: With the blues, the more pain you are feeling, the better you are at making it. We’ve figured out a way of being who we are authentically on a record. We’ve had practical and philosophical experience in our lives so we still have something to say and I believe that's what really differentiates us. If you are a good writer you use your life experience to do something different than someone who is 20-years-old can do. That is where you get your power. That is our power as a group. I am not trying to make the same music I made 10 years ago.

Does it annoy you that other veteran rappers publically slam acts like Lil Yachty, as 'Mumble Rap'?

EP: We don’t subscribe to that shit, we don’t like it. We’ve seen that hate and putting people into boxes all of our careers – just look at the backpack rap tag. The reality is people aren’t ageing gracefully in this shit. These hating rappers should be honest with themselves and just admit they aren’t into music anymore and are mad they can’t make records like they used to. The advancement of style is the cornerstone of hip hop. There is no correct or conservative way to make rap music. Rap is and must remain the answer, the alternative, to the conservative approach of making music.

RTJ3 is out now