Published on October 23rd, 2014 | by Kevin Young0
Run the Jewels: Killer Mike and El-P Collaborate
In 1997, a friend and I sat in his garage/bedroom listening to Soundbombing, a compilation of rap artists featured on the Rawkus Records label. The first track to hit us both in the gut was an on-beat/off-beat hardcore track titled “The Fire in Which You Burn” by two hungry emcees and a DJ known as Company Flow.
One of the emcees, El-P, uttered, “Now we can all become Lord of the Flies / When this industry sees it’s demise / Hold it up and try to destruct, you get zapped with dead eyes.” I was blown away by the lyricist equating the music industry to the self-destruction of the characters in “Lord of the Flies.” I didn’t hurt that I had just recently re-read Lord of the Flies and hated most of mainstream music.
A few years later, around 2001, I was in my then-SUV listening to Outkast’s 2000 effort Stankonia. By the sixth track, I was already knee-deep in the funk of the Georgia duo’s thang, so it was a nice left turn when the track’s first verse was pure braggadocio and trash-talk delivered by a commanding voice of the guest emcee, Killer Mike. When he wasn’t busy referencing legendary album cover artists Pen & Pixel for a violent metaphor or using Black & Decker as a sexual metaphor, he was calling himself “Murder City’s Sergeant Slaughter guaranteed to get more cut than a barber” who would never “swiss cheese for more cheddar.”
Whereas El-P’s lines seemed more esoteric with room for interpretation, Killer Mike’s lyrics were more direct with interpretation being shown the door. Two very distinct styles that shared the same urgency and hunger that would later compliment each other.
Over a decade later, these two different personalities have joined forces to become Run the Jewels. Before then, they were merely blips on each other’s radar screens.
Like most rap fans not from the South, El-P heard about Killer Mike through another legendary duo, Outkast. “Everybody knew that song ‘Snappin and Trappin’; the whole world knew that song. That was the first time I had ever heard of Killer Mike,” says El-P.
El-P’s ears perked up yet again when Mike released Pl3dge in 2011. “I peeped it out and thought this guy sounds like a modern-day Ice Cube,” he says.
Mike is quick to chime in. “The first three days in the studio, it was, like, these are the beats I was born to rap over. I felt like Ice Cube over El-P’s beats.”
It began when El-P (legal name: Jaime Meline) met Killer Mike (a.k.a. Michael Render) through a mutual friend in Atlanta, Georgia. El-P was still going strong all those years as a solo artist, a producer and co-founder of the underground hip hop label Definitive Jux. Over time, the two hit it off in a big way — big enough of a way that El-P put his own project, Cancer 4 Cure, to the side to produce the entirety of Mike’s album, R.A.P. Music. The result was an album that melded the futuristic tone of classic Bomb Squad tracks with the visceral vibe of Southern hip-hop.
Released one week before El-P’s boombastic album , “R.A.P. Music” harkened to an era of Chuck D.booming voice, Ice Cube’s furrowed brow and LL Cool J’s sneer. El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure was equally pummeling but with more of a focus on the dystopian soundscapes and bleak lyricism he’d been known for. In retrospect, it seems like the albums were both primers for their 2013 collaboration.
As their album Run the Jewels hit the net as a free download, Killer Mike and El-P proved a spectacular partnership. Killer Mike’s opening line of sarcasm from the first track, “Banana Clipper” — “I move with the elegance of an African elephant” — summed the album up neatly.
From the Boogie Down Productions flashbacks of “Get It” to the satiric political pulse of “DDFH,” there’s not one moment in the 10-track album that didn’t feel like a speaker breaker filled with mind melting metaphors.
Last year, the dynamic duo took to their microphone camaraderie on the road with former Das Racist member Kool A.D. and one-time Def Jux–signee Despot in tow. It’s odd to hear of an artist, much less two artists of El-P and Killer Mike’s caliber, to have a big cross-country tour revolving around a free album.
Music industry experts of yore would have shaken their heads at the very idea of such a thing, but the duo’s move worked. I witnessed this firsthand last year when the tour’s stopped at the Orange Peel in Asheville, N.C. Not only was the show well packed, but the energy of the show was tangible from the moment the duo stepped into the room. Intense is probably the best adjective one could use to describe the show itself. From the moment Killer Mike stepped on stage ripping through “Big Beast,” a track from R.A.P., and other songs from his discography to the second El-P took over the spotlight to do his own thing, it became apparent that, in addition to a Run the Jewels show, we were being given a Killer Mike show and an El-P show. The phrase “more bang for your buck” comes to mind.
While their solo sets were very good, it was more enthralling watching the two emcees sharply trade verses back-n-forth like a couple that could complete each other’s sentences. The nonstop barrage of bass lines and lyrics were enough to give the even most dour hip-hop curmudgeon a reason to grin.
Since that show in Asheville, Killer Mike made headlines when he wrote an op-ed for Billboard regarding the death of 17 year old Michael Brown and the resulting fallout of the violent situation in Ferguson, Missouri. When asked what it was like to discuss such a controversial issue on international stages like FOX and CNN, Mike was pragmatic. “Going on CNN and FOX was about offering a new perspective and that’s a non-polarizing perspective. Too many people have been pulled into ‘I have to choose a side’ …I don’t care about sides,” he says.
Recently, Run the Jewels recorded a new album titled RTJ2 (to be released October 27). While the new tracks released so far have a decidedly darker tone, there is no mistaking that Run the Jewels is back.
A new release would be enough reason for the El-P and Mike to make news, but it is an idea that was jokingly bandied about as an offer to remake RTJ2 with only cat noises if a fan was foolhardy enough to purchase the 40,000 deluxe edition (known as the “Meow the Jewels Album Package”) that has them in the sights of pop culture. As one of many offers from the free download copy of RTJ2 package to the 10 million dollar “Run the Jewels Retirement Plan Package,” “Meow the Jewels” is the one package that inspired a successfully-funded Kickstarter campaign. As a result, producers like the legendary Prince Paul, Portishead’s Geoff Barrows, Dan the Automator, the Alchemist, and Skywlkr have signed up to lend their talents to the project with all the money going to charity.
With the project officially a go, Mike, a dog person, gave his mew cents: “The second cat I’ve been around for any extended time was El-P’s cat, Mini-Beast, who was definitely a character I loved being around … you guys are kinda making me a cat person. I’ve always liked watching them. I hunt and fish so … I like to watch a cat fuck with a mouse, personally. I never considered a cat might be a cool thing to have until spending time around Mini-Beast. Cats are a part of my life now.”
This Saturday, Run the Jewels will share the stage with Baby, Baby and the Outfit TX at the Music Farm as part of the Red Bull Sound Select Tour. Tickets are free after you RSVP online, and they’ll be $10 at the door. Visit runthejewels.net and musicfarm.com for more.
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