The Albums of 2013 (#10): Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels (Fool's Gold / Big Dada)

Swimming against the ego-obsessed current of mainstream hip-hop with scientific lyrical beatdowns and heavy electronic boom-bap beats, Killer Mike and El-P delivered this year's finest rap album as Run The Jewels

Feature by Bram E. Gieben | 03 Dec 2013

In a year where the bloated, ego-fed excesses of mainstream hip-hop became the central narrative of pop culture, it would have been easy to write off rap. It would have been logical to conclude that rap had entered its own hair metal phase – prizing lifestyle over content, celebrity status over lyrical skill. What was needed, amidst the feting of also-rans and wannabes like A$AP Rocky and Kendrick Lamar, was a twenty year veteran to remind us all why we loved rap in the first place. Enter El-P, former Company Flow MC and founder of Def Jux, and his partner in rhyme, Atlanta's Killer Mike. Their collaboration as Run The Jewels snatched the mask from hip-hop's face and smashed it, exposing the ugliness beneath in a riot of 808 beats and futuristic lyrical beatdowns.

"It's not my fucking job to regulate the rap world and shit," El-P spits down the phoneline to us now, uncomfortable with the notion that Run The Jewels are hip-hop's saviours. "As far as I'm concerned, it's great if everyone just sticks to the same thing they are doing, because it makes me and Mike look like fucking champs." Laughter echoes down the line as El deftly sidesteps the mantle of rap revolutionary. Regardless, one thing the duo can't deny is the delirious reaction to their recent stage shows, as evidenced in the video for Get It. "It's been fucking crazy," says Killer Mike. "Shit's been going fucking maniac." El agrees: "It's been pure fucking mayhem."

Given the adversarial nature of the lyrics (two examples: "I'll pull a pistol on your poodle and your fucking baby" – Mike, and "Try to pet my fucking head again and I'mma put a tooth through the flesh of the palm that you jack with" – El-P), was Run The Jewels meant as a challenge to wack emcees? "We came into it and we really wanted to rip rappers' heads off," says El-P. "The only thing that's old school about it is the perspective – it's a record made from that place. It's a certain mode, a mode that dominated for a long time. But in terms of us legitimately thinking that, going into the record... yeah, we approached it competitively, for sure. We wanted to make sure that nobody could fuck with us. But that is what every rapper is supposed to feel like, I think. It's not an over-arching critique, or statement."

Nonetheless, the distinction is important – the feeling that an emcee could tear someone's head off with lyrical skill, rather than braggadocious statements about their gangster credentials, their secual prowess or their bank balance, is inherently revolutionary in today's shallow, image-obsessed hip-hop culture.

Where did the idea for Run The Jewels begin? "Um... I don't know, because I smoke a lot of marijuana," confesses Killer Mike. "But I do know that we finished a very dynamic year in 2012, and we were faced with the thought of, 'Okay, do we now take that, and try and recreate two more solo records, and potentially not give the people who love us the quality of music they deserve...' – because you are really trying to fulfill an expectation – or do you do something else?"

With El-P already deep in pre-production on a clutch of new beats, Mike, fresh from recording 2012's incendiary, swaggering R.A.P. Music, produced by El-P, wasn't ready to quit yet. "I said, 'Yo, if you're doing an EP, I'm doing it with you. I'm not really worried about money, or when the fuck it's coming out or anything. I just enjoy rapping with you.' He was like, 'I enjoy that shit, let's get together and do it.' Within the first month of us recording, we did these amazingly dope, off-the-cuff records that were really in the spirit of brag rap - the machismo and the bravado that kind of formed in the 80s."

Although the beats on Run The Jewels are ultra-modern rather than retro, they do revel in the simplicity of the 80s hip-hop aesthetic, a marked digression from the complex science fiction synth adventures of El-P's Cancer4Cure. The 80s rap culture was an inspiration as much for its universality as its stylistic components. "In the 80s, every nine year-old kid loved rap," says Mike.

"I come from a group, and Mike comes from a group originally – my first entrance into this was through a group. It's something I haven't touched on for a long time, and the time felt right," says El-P. "There is no better person to do it with, because of my friendship with Mike, and because we have some magic at our fingertips when we work together. That made it appealing again. At this point in our careers, we both agreed that we are just 100 percent going off of our gut. If something feels right, we're doing it. If it doesn't feel right, we're not doing it. A lot of people aren't at that point in their lives – but we are."

This was one of the reasons the duo elected to release Run The Jewels as a free download via Fools Gold. "First and foremost, we felt grateful because we'd had an amazing year," says El-P. "It just seemed like we could say, 'Lets cut through the bullshit and just give this to people. Let's compete for the hearts and minds, and not for numbers. Let's not go through the hassle of trying to market and deal with labels, and waiting and all this shit. That just didn't feel right. It didn't feel like what this was meant for. It felt like a really cool opportunity to thank the people that are supporting us, and also to say, 'Here. Here's our contribution to this relationship. We want you down with us. We want you to roll with us. We plan on doing this for many years., so here's our part. Here's what we're gonna do. We're gonna do these dope records, and if you can afford to support it, buy the vinyl. We have merch, come to the show. In the meantime, listen to this shit.' That's it!"

With the music industry in crisis over piracy, and with other established artists having made the 'free' model work for them – witness Death Grips' dominance of last year's end-of-2012 album charts – giving the album away free seemed like a risk worth taking. "All of the conversations about all of the different models, everyone's all confused about it and shit; we just kinda put the confusion aside and just said 'Fuck it,'" says El-P. "We had faith that people would respond to good music. And they have! We've been around long enough to know how to make money in different ways, and to turn a career into a money-making thing, as opposed to a record. So we're surviving, and we're doing our thing. It just felt right to say, 'Don't worry about what we're gonna sell in the first week. We're selling nothing in the first week. Here. Now it's just about the music.' It's really worked to our advantage, and it doesn't work like that for everybody. It's not a model that everyone can do."

With Run The Jewels II in the works, and an imminent European release of the first album through Big Dada on vinyl, with extra tracks, the band are preparing for a European tour when we speak. As for their further ambitions for the project, Mike says: "I would love to reach the levels of absurdity and wildness of punk music. I would love our show to become even more of a hedonistic expression of human nature. I wanna see people going apeshit wild. On the personal front, I'd like to hang out with the wife and kids. Just enjoy the park, smoking a joint." 

What are El-P's plans for 2014? "I'm thinking about getting into training hawks," he deadpans. "I just think that would be a cool thing, y'know? Like, I'm a rapper, but I'm also a falconer." The second Run The Jewels album is only the beginning: "We've got three records to make, essentially," El-P reveals. "We're gonna make Run The Jewels II, we're gonna make the sequel to R.A.P. Music, and we're gonna make the follow-up to Cancer4Cure." A panicked Killer Mike cuts in: "Yo, yo, don't tell him about the other two! My God, don't put that kinda pressure on me."

El-P gives a hearty chuckle. "I'm talking about the next two years, that's the schedule. We're just happy to have these consecutive years of getting out there and being able to perform for people, and have fun, and do music that we love. It's been easy – it's been something that we've truly enjoyed. We've been around, we've done every type of deal that you can do. I legitimately feel like I'm re-invigorated, like I'm moving somewhere, and progressing. I don't wanna turn away from that."

Mike offers some insight into the duo's ever-growing and deeply loyal fanbase: "I want to thank the fans and supporters – I'm looking forward to the next two years, because with Run The Jewels what I've seen is two audiences that weren't together come together. I've seen the audience for the group grow to become something that's individual and separate from the two components in that group. I've really seen growth, in terms of the audience. I was taught by a cool old man named Willie – 'If you do something right, do it again.' So look forward to seeing us do this for as long as you're coming to see it, and enjoying it, and we're knocking shit out of the park. I look forward to it. I'm looking forward to coming back to Europe as Run The Jewels, because it was so good to me as Killer Mike. So just in terms of energy and crowd growth, I'm anticipating a shitload of fun in a few weeks."

The Albums of 2013: 11-50
11. John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts (Bella Union) [interview]
12. Jon Hopkins – Immunity (Domino) [review]
13. Foals – Holy Fire (Warner Bros) [review] [interview]
14. Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork (Matador) [review] [interview]
15. Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety (Software)
16. My Bloody Valentine – m b v (Pickpocket) [review]
17. Daniel Avery – Drone Logic (Phantasy) [review] [interview]
18. DARKSIDE – Psychic (Matador) [review] [interview]
19. Yo La Tengo – Fade (Matador) [review]
20. Low – The Invisible Way (Sub Pop)
21. David Bowie – The Next Day (ISO/Columbia)
22. Tim Hecker – Virgins (Kranky) [review
23. Savages – Silence Yourself (Beggars) [review] [interview]
24. Laurel Halo – Chance of Rain (Hyperdub) [review
25. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away (Bad Seed Ltd) [review
26. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City (XL)
27. Atoms For Peace – AMOK (XL) [review]
28. These New Puritans – Field of Reeds (Infectious) [review] [interview]
29. Gold Panda – Half of Where You Live (Notown) [review] [interview]
30. Danny Brown – Old (Fool's Gold)
31. Fat Goth – STUD (Hefty Dafty) [review] [interview]
32. Daughter – If You Leave (4AD) [review] [interview]
33. Adam Stafford – Imaginary Walls Collapse (Song, By Toad) [review] [interview
34. Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks (Polydor)
35. Forest Swords – Engravings (Tri-Angle) [review
36. Julia Holter – Loud City Song (Domino) [interview]
37. Rick Redbeard – No Selfish Heart (Chemikal Underground) [review] [interview] [track-by-track]
38. Julianna Barwick – Nepenthe (Dead Oceans) [review] [interview]
39. The Field – Cupid's Head (Kompakt) [review
40. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady (Atlantic) [review
41. Grouper – The Man Who Died In His Boat (Kranky) 
42. HAIM – Days are Gone (Polydor)
43. Palms – Palms (Ipecac) [review
44. Baths – Obsidian (Anticon) [review] [interview]
45. Majical Cloudz – Impersonator (Matador)
46. Mount Kimbie – Cold Spring Fault Less Youth (Warp) [review] [interview
47. MONEY – The Shadow Of Heaven (Bella Union) [review]
48. Zomby – With Love (4AD) [review
49. Deafheaven – Sunbather (Deathwish Inc) [review] [interview]
50. The Haxan Cloak – Excavation (Tri-Angle) [review]