An interview with the legendary rap duo ahead of their upcoming fourth album.
“We’re Not F&*king Done Yet”: Run the Jewels Are Back—And, If You Ask Them, Better Than Ever
Run the Jewels weren’t supposed to be here, at the peak of their game. At 45, Killer Mike and El-P are quadragenarian stars in what has never felt more like a young rapper’s lane. Where many others of their generation have hung up the mic for alternative pursuits or lucrative jobs in record label C-suites, the pair have pushed on to newer, greater heights. 2016’s Run the Jewels 3 topped out at Number 13 on the Billboard 200, making it (with the exception of Mike’s highly-anticipated 2003 debut album, Monster) the highest charting album of either of their careers.
Their secret? Run the Jewels aren’t really concerned about what the rest of hip-hop—or, for that matter, anyone else in music—is doing. That doesn’t stem from a lack of understanding the landscape, though; as our conversation late last week reveals, the pair see the recombinant state of the entertainment industry with clearer eyes than most. Rather than disparaging the rise of streaming services and Tik Tok-driven hits, or the general upheaval the music business has been grappling with for years, the rap veterans are energized by the opportunities a new, unmoored system presents. It’s their creative zeal and willingness to adapt that has sustained two rap careers for so long, only amplifying their voices as they enter their third decade doing it.
GQ spoke to Killer Mike and El-P about how they’re adapting in this unprecedented moment, how they see music changing, and what we can expect from the upcoming Run the Jewels 4.
GQ: Does it feel strange preparing to release a record in the midst of a global pandemic?
El-P: It’s like, “Yup, this is just exactly what we think might happen right when we’re getting ready to release the record of our careers!” But, for me, and I think I speak for Mike too, the chance to share some of the music has taken off a lot of that stress. One of the major stresses for me was “Goddammit! I want to connect again! I want to connect with the people!” It’s uncertain and it’s tense and it’s stressful and we don’t have much that we can do except bring a little bit of joy by dropping some of this stuff.
Killer Mike: I’m eternally optimistic. I own a couple other businesses that we’ve had to shut down: food trucks, restaurants, and barbershops. Not only have I been dealing with musically having to make sure our tour managers, sound guys, and stuff are straight, we got regular, everyday employees. Although I’m very optimistic, in this time, I’m appreciating being able to sit down and figure it out and not be under the gun like so many people are under the gun. Musicians and the people around us, we know that eventually work will turn, but my bigger concerns are for the people who work everyday jobs. I’m hopeful that some form of normalcy will return and that the country will get back on course.
Do you both see an impending shift in the music industry because of the effects of coronavirus?
Killer Mike: I pay attention to just Run the Jewels. There’s so many different pathways to success now. There’s the music pathways where everything is in clothes. Travis [Scott] and them do a great job of that over there. There’s the other pathway—the younger kids are going directly through SoundCloud, where essentially they don’t need a bigger company. They’re growing their audiences themselves. NBA YoungBoy’s been able to dominate through using YouTube and things of that nature.
And what I like about Run the Jewels is that we give you a few different ways. If you want hard copies, you have the ability to get a limited amount of CDs. Wax has been incredibly good for us and we put a lot into the artwork for them. Streaming has been good to us. But, we’re a live show band. We’re a rap group almost masquerading in the rock world because we depend on the live show and merchandise.
El-P: We also give away our music for free.
Killer Mike: For me, I don’t really think so much about what the industry is doing so much as there are so many options for an artist to do themselves now. I appreciate, interestingly enough, something Azealia Banks said: “How can you own something you can’t physically hold?” I think that we’re gonna see a growth to [vinyl], which we’ve already seen. And I think, to some degree, you’re gonna see a return to tangible things like CDs.
Like, when Netflix crashed the other night, my wife and I looked at each other like, “Maybe we shouldn’t have given up the DVD player.” [Laughs.] I think we may see a return, or a renaissance or nostalgia-like effect, to actually holding something physical in your hand.
El-P: You know, maybe I shouldn’t have given up all my Summer Jam and Rap City compilations. [Laughs.]
Everyone who’s in this business, who’s on the creative end, is in this business because they need this shit. They need to be a part of it. They need to express themselves. So, in times like this, everyone’s gonna run and start using the tools that are actually there for us already, and really start trying to maximize them. You see everybody right now trying to be like, “Ok, what can I do with this?” Instagram is damn near thought of as a public utility, but what can I do with this to connect with people?
You see shit emerging like with D-Nice—which to me is the most amazing story so far in terms of the entertainment business. This dude who came up under BDP, one of the illest rap groups in the world in, like, 1989 [laughs] and who I, personally, love. And all of a sudden—because of this situation and people needing to connect and him using technology—he’s the number one DJ in the world, arguably. Shit like that is really interesting and beautiful to me.
The fact of the matter is that the delivery service—the way it happens, the business and all that shit—it never really mattered to the truth of the relationship between the fans and the artist. It only matters to the people in there who are trying to make money. That’s it. The rest of it really isn’t that interesting. It’s like, can we still connect with you? Can we still put a smile on your face? Can we still make a living doing what we love?
I think times of crisis can be moments where a lot of us reflect on what we’re choosing to invest our time and resources in. As artists who are decades into your respective careers, with success and the ability to do any number of things, what about continuing to release music as Run the Jewels feels vital? What has brought you both back for a fourth time?
El-P: Because it’s fucking magic! It’s magical! And no matter what me and Mike go through, no matter how hard it can be sometimes, we know that it’s just magic. And we’re not fucking done yet! We always said that we’d do four records at a bare minimum. The EPMD four classic album model.
Killer Mike: All the greatest groups had four classics: EPMD, OutKast, 8Ball & MJG, UGK. LIke, it’s magic and it’s fun and most human beings fuck shit up by getting in their own way. And I think that El and I, more than anything, have avoided our own egos and we’ve grown. We said we had to do four classic records just before we were a real group, you know what I mean? So, four is just the beginning of Run the Jewels. With Run the Jewels 4 dropping we are finally in the big leagues now.
I haven’t had this much fun making music since I was a child. And anything that makes me feel 15 and comes off this raw and rugged and hip-hop and in your face? I’m not stopping this shit ‘til it’s over. I’ll stop when I’m dead.
El-P: Motherfuckers are really just gonna have to accept the fact that this is not like a fucking ego project. This is what we do. Run the Jewels is what we do! That’s it—until this shit is unbearable and Mike can’t stand me and I can’t stand him anymore.
You guys aren’t worried about ending up like The Who? Doing world tours without talking to each other? Recording in separate places?
El-P: Dudes like me and Mike, at this point, we’re the masters of our own little world. Most of the year, we don’t answer to anybody, except when it comes time to make these fucking records and then we have to answer to each other. And that’s not always the easiest process. It’s sometimes incredibly frustrating. But at the end of this shit, you look at what comes out of it and you’re like, “Goddamn this shit fucking raw!” and I don’t give a fuck what anybody thinks, I’m fucking 45 and having the most fun making rap music, than I ever have in my life, personally.
Killer Mike: I just finished watching myself on The Chappelle Show [which I shot] about 15 years ago. They were playing old reruns. I had so much fun. It was a ball hanging with Dave. I still know Dave to this day. We kicked it when he did the concert in Atlanta. But I’m so much happier making music now. Not that I wasn’t happy to be making music then, but I am settled and at peace and happy. You can’t buy that.
My wife always reminds me: you’re in two marriages. You’re married to me, and you’re married to El-P.
Who have you collaborated with on Run the Jewels 4 that you’re really excited about?
Killer Mike: The fact that we’re on a record with Greg Nice and [DJ Premier]? To have Preme cutting on a record and to have Greg Nice on a record? C’mon man, it doesn’t get much better.
El-P: C’mon, man! We’re using our powers for good. We come from that era and we are still here and we’re so excited to use our fucking, whatever it is—our platform, if you want to speak in creepy corporate talk.
First of all—let’s just be real, I know Mike doesn’t like talking about it—but two dudes who were born in 1975 are not supposed to be allowed to be at the cutting edge of music. We’re not supposed to be allowed to be at the table. It’s supposed to be that all of our influences and all of the things that we came up with and love are supposed to have been replaced by a new group of influences that people are rightfully into cause they’re younger and they didn’t experience the moments that we did. But those moments that we had are something that, if you grasp onto them, there’s a vibe that originated in the Golden Era of rap music. If you do it, not with imitation and not with re-creation, but with the spirit, with the essence of it? If you can successfully infuse it into your music? Then you will make people happy and you will make yourself happy. And I think that’s really when Run the Jewels is at its best.
You’ve both said you feel this is your strongest project together yet. What feels different this time around?
El-P: I don’t know, I just feel that way. What can I say? It’s a fucking straight up, 38-minute, punch to the spine. There’s no fucking fat.
Killer Mike: We really caught a groove this record, I will say that. We’ve always had moments where a groove peaks up, like something you could bop your shoulders to and move your ass to. To me this record caught a groove and rode it. This is a Run the Jewels record with a serious move and groove to it. This one is definitely gonna be Move Ya Ass music and I’m ecstatic about it, ‘cause I like dancing.
El-P: Interesting. I feel like it’s “hijack a tank and run it through a crowded mall” music.
Killer Mike: Yeah, but then you dance afterwards.
This interview has been edited and condensed.