"Run the Jewels Is a Human Operation": An Interview with El-P & Killer Mike

An extensive interview with El-P and Killer Mike to talk their writing process, gentrification, and why dick jokes still matter.

Run The Jewels

Image via Suzi Pratt/Getty

Run The Jewels

In four years, Run the Jewels has gone from shooting poodles and snatching chains to soundtracking the revolution. Run the Jewels 3, El-P and Killer Mike’s third team-up, moves nimbly between raising fists and hurling them, rarely drawing a distinction and celebrating the resulting blur. But because of the urgency of the times, that distinction seems to have been made for them. In headlines, reviews, and profiles, Run the Jewels has been anointed as purely political, an odd choice for a group that is as passionate about dirty jokes as it is about freedom. (“I’m a nut punch wizard, speedbag your ball bag, leave none it,” El-P raps on “Everybody Stay Calm.”)

Here, the group pushes against that anointment, explaining their writing process, revealing why the RTJ3 cover art lacks a chain, and disavowing their authority. The political bent of their music remains salient, but the thrill of shit-talking is restored. Unbridled fun might feel like a luxury in Trump’s America, but Run the Jewels insists that it’s the most fundamental right. Stay gold.

Run the Jewels has been strongly embraced by visual artists, in comics, in graffiti, and in video games. What do you guys think is at the heart of that embrace?
El-P: I’m not sure. When I was a kid I would sit in my room and read comics and draw and that was awesome, so I think in some ways these things are just cyclical. I think we also just make very visual and visceral music.

Killer Mike: My stepdad collected comics so this is just amazing to me. I’m also a fan of fine arts. (I took visual arts in high school.) Even down to the fucking chain I have, I love art. It really changes my mood and wakes me up. The fact that I’m in a group that inspires others artists is just heaven to me.

EP: We’re collectors. In our own lives we have art collections, so to have actual galleries that are popping up that have Run the Jewels art is crazy. We’re like pigs in shit. Or kids in shit and pigs in a candy shop? I don’t know.

Who came up with the idea to reference Godzilla on the Run the World tour posters?
EP: Nicholas Turbo Benson. It wasn’t us. They just presented that to us and we were so psyched about it.

How does Godzilla embody Run the Jewels?
KM: King Kong and Godzilla. With Godzilla and King Kong you just got motherfuckers going ape. Cities represent structure and the status quo and our music sets itself in direct contrast to structure, and I think that’s kind of badass. I used to love watching Godzilla fuck up shit.

You guys toured together as solo artists before you were Run the Jewels. What are some of the biggest differences between that Into the Wild tour and the current tour?
EP: The Run the Jewels touring shit is something that I’ve personally never seen. I’ve never been part of something that’s been received this way, in the sense of energy. We’ve always had good energy, but the energy for the Run the Jewels shows is unbelievable. Even if we’re tired and physically drained, even if we’re not talking out loud for a day, we know the second we get on stage for a Run the Jewels show, shit is about to go batshit insane. And we’re playing five-thousand person venues now.

I’ve always loved performing, but performing with a friend, with someone’s who’s got my back, with someone who’s a showman, someone that you can really flow off of. You’re not gonna find two guys who are more appreciative of it. ‘Cause we’ve been through every iteration of this business. We’ve seen it all. We’ve done our own thing, we’ve seen it get big, we’ve seen it dip, we’ve seen it come back again.

KM: Co-sign.

What made you two decide to open RTJ3 with “Down?” It’s one of the calmest songs you two have ever produced together.
EP: I think that everyone probably expected us to open up with something like “Talk to Me.” But I think “Down” was sort of a preface. We’re talking about where we were and where we were headed. And I think the song is a thank you from us and a recognition that we’re here. And because the album has sort of an epic arc, and it’s longer and meatier, with different transitions, we felt like it was a good spot. It set the table.

KM: I look at this album like a movie, almost like an Escape from New York, with a black kid and a white kid trying

I see this album, I don’t hear this album. —Killer Mike

to escape a modern-day, post-apocalyptic New York. “Down” is right before the door opens and they’re shooting the fuck away. It’s words they say to one another, to themselves, the prayer they say to that inner thing that lurks in us all, the creator. [Then] right after that “Talk to Me” unleashes hell, and we’re in the middle of a fucking gunfight.

I see this album, I don’t hear this album. I heard our last two albums and they were dope as fuck to listen to, but I honestly see this album, visually. So “Down” was perfect because it’s the scene in Carlito’s Way right before that motherfucker comes out the bathroom.

I read that you guys spent a lot of time working on “Thieves,” trying to hone it and get it where you wanted it to be. What has been the most difficult song to write, throughout all three albums?
EP: It depends on what you mean by difficult. We spend time on our jams that we know are from the heart and that we both know that we really want to get it right. And that depends on the jam. For me, it’s not about something being difficult. It’s more about waiting for inspiration. Sometimes Mike will get what we call the “holy ghost” and something will come out of him. And vice versa, where something will happen with me, and you just know that your partner just said something that set the bar in terms of pushing the bravery, the honesty, and the emotion of what they were saying. And you don’t want to disrespect it by just trying to write something. So there have been songs where we had to wait. Not like it’s been difficult, like we’ve been sitting there rewriting and shit.

I had to wait months to put my “Crown” verse down because I had to get struck by inspiration like Mike had been struck. And I know that there have been examples of that in reverse. “Thieves” maybe was a little bit more—I hate using the word difficult—involved, because we talked about it. Both of us had a couple different iterations of what we were saying on it and we refined it because we knew that it was a powerful record. And we also knew that it was a delicate record. We wanted to make sure, as writers and as a group, that we were 100 percent on the way that we were presenting it.

But I don’t look it as difficult. I look it as that’s the process. We’re making art. It’s not a job that you’ve gotta show up to and fill in your slot. This is a dream come true. You get the opportunity to say something, to make a piece of art and hang it on the wall forever. Sometimes you’re gonna have to take your time. 

KM: For me, the harder ones to write are the ones like “Crown.” “Crown” just comes at three in the morning and just pours out of you, except for the last three bars. For those, you gotta wait a month until you get struck again.

There are things that I keep in. I’ve been a sinner and a saint. If you’ve been a saint all your life, it’s pretty easy to sleep at night. If you’ve been a sinner, you’re just as comfortable in it. I’ve walked both sides of the fence, and there are times I can’t sleep and I wake the engineer up and get it out of me. But it usually doesn’t pour all the way out. I have to come back and have the conversation that you usually try not to have with yourself. That’s how it gets

at the end of the day, you look to your partner, you see that he’s being brave, and you look at your heart, and you’re like, Well this is what I do and you just say, ‘F*** it.’ —El-P


EP: The rapping comes pretty easily for both of us. The difficult thing for me, for instance, on “Thursday in the Danger Room,” was when the verse came, it came all at once. The difficult thing for me was wrestling with whether I felt comfortable putting that verse into the world, not actually creating the verse, but putting it out there. Because it was so personal—and I’ve gone really personal in my music before, but with Run the Jewels, it’s a new kid that’s growing—so I had never done it quite as personally in the context of Run the Jewels, and I was a little out of practice in terms of being brave. I was being protective of myself, so putting that verse out there where I’m talking about something that I hadn’t even vocalized out loud with friends, that was more difficult to me than writing.

Mike was very brave and very direct about his verse and it came out in a natural way and he never really questioned it. But there was a moment where I was unsure. But at the end of the day, you look to your partner, you see that he’s being brave, and you look at your heart, and you’re like, Well this is what I do and you just say, Fuck it.

Mike, I’m from Atlanta, Riverdale in particular. You mention Cabbagetown on “Don’t Get Captured.” Can you expand on what’s going on there?
KM: You’re from the Atlanta area, so you get it. In 1995, they started closing these housing projects and pushed these people out of the city. In 1996, the Olympics came and right before they cut bus service to Riverdale. So they pushed people to the Southside—literally—and just cut the service off from the city. People tend to think of gentrification in terms of race because it’s presented that way, and I think it’s presented that way because in poor cities that’s what’s really going on. Beyond that, I think it’s presented that way as a way for the people who are really pushing it to make it just a black problem, so people don’t care.

But if you look at Cabbagetown in particular, Atlanta was a majority black city, but Cabbagetown was a specifically white impoverished area because the cotton mills essentially brought white people in from rural Georgia. And they were essentially slave labor because they only paid them in mill money, then charged them a 300-percent markup at the mill store. So you had generations of people who were in this pocket of poverty, and we grew up next to these kids. We went to school with these kids. We intermingled with these kids. We were the same humans. More than color, it’s class. So when gentrification really hit hard in Atlanta, in particular places like Kirkwood and the Eastside, you got the complaints rising up in Atlanta about it being a race thing, and yeah it was, and it was fucked up. But it ain’t just race. It’s class, because they cleared Cabbagetown out.

You have the hipster movement now, and it’s very vibrant. A lot of people who want to live there live there, but no one ever asks what happened to all these families that were here. And what happened was they got pushed out to places like Riverdale and cut off. Or they’re homeless now. We have an exploding homeless population now, particularly with women and children. No one acknowledges that, so I wanted to say it in a way that defies the race myth. Like, I was in the Oakland museum yesterday looking at the Black Panther exhibit and in pictures that are 60 years old, you see Black Panthers, but you also see Asians, blacks, whites, gays—everyone—in solidarity. And I’m just seeing as I grow older, and hopefully wiser, that a lot of things I see from a race perspective are class problems too, so I should be advocating for all. And that’s why I talk about Cabbagetown, because it’s a different narrative out of Atlanta than you’re used to hearing.

El, what’s your relationship to Brooklyn these days? I still listen to “Drones Over Bklyn” a lot and I’ve always thought of it as a kind of eulogy.
EP: I think you get to a certain point in your life and where you grew up stops reminding you of when you grew up. Everything changes, everything metamorphosizes. My relationship to Brooklyn is probably the relationship that any 40-year-old man has to his hometown, which is that this is where I live, this what I know, yet it’s different, it’s changed. My fascination with the city has maybe subsided and now it’s just where I’m from, where I live. I have a relationship to people. There’s memories and there’s familiarity. I love my city. But at the same time, I’m at the point in my life where I could probably sit on an island somewhere in the south Pacific and write about things that that I thought of or experienced emotionally in Brooklyn. I’m an adult now, someone who has a bit of a larger perspective.

“Drones Over Bklyn” was not really a eulogy, I don’t think. I think I just said “drones over Brooklyn” because at the time—which was a crazy thought at the time—I thought, Hey guys, if they use drones over other cities, they’re probably gonna start using them over ours. It was a very simple concept. Technology with authoritarianism doesn’t isolate itself. And I think the point of that at the time was, if we’re flying drones over a fucking group of civilians in some country, I promise you, even if it’s not here yet, we’re flying drones over our own cities as well. You can’t turn back technology and you can’t turn back authoritarianism. You can’t have one hand in the dirt and one hand in the crystal clear water and say that you’re clean. That’s just the way it is. If I lived in Atlanta, I probably would have made a song called “Drones Over Atlanta.”

There’s a deep distrust of authority throughout the Run the Jewels catalog. Since you guys’ profile has been growing, how do you manage your own authority as artists and public people?
KM: I don’t have any. I’m quick to tell people I’m not a savior or fucking Robin Hood. I am as influenced by Luther Campbell and Larry Flynt as I am Martin King and Malcolm. 

EP: Word.

KM: I am more libertarian than a fucking liberal or conservative. Personally, I just want my human freedom acknowledged, and you can acknowledge that by leaving me the fuck alone. I want my constitutional rights and

Run the Jewels is a human operation. —El-p

privileges acknowledged and given and you can do that by staying the fuck out of my business, letting me say what the fuck I want to say and stop trying to take my freedom. That’s the base of my shit. What I am is an encourager. I encourage all who deserve that to fight for that. And if you can’t win by yourself, then find other people to be in solidarity with. The older I get, the more of an anarchist I become, and I don’t mean in a punk rock way. I believe in this: every human being has the capacity to grow and understand. It’s my job to help people grow into that freedom, on some human shit, like my neighbor did for me as a kid. I’m not your fucking leader. We should be led by principles and morals and not by men.

EP: And that really is it. You’re not looking at two dudes who are placing themselves in a leadership position or a position of piety. You’re looking at dudes who love to rap, who love to smoke weed, who love to make jokes, who love to make money, who have a deep appreciation for art and all the ridiculous aspects of the written word. We don’t have authority, but what we can do is show people something about personal authority, swagger. If you see a king in the street, if you spit on that motherfucker, you have just immediately brought that king down to your level.

Run the Jewels is a human operation. We’re about the fact that you can still be powerful even without societal power. And I think that that’s incredibly important. Our power comes from our solidarity with each other, our love for each other. Our power comes from the fact that you cannot change that about us. You cannot change our hearts. We know who we are, we know how we want to operate in relationship to other people. That is Run the Jewels. That’s the real shit. You throw that sign up and you’re basically saying that it doesn’t matter if you’re in the fucking dirt, it doesn’t matter if you’re fucking poor, it doesn’t matter if you’re rich. This power that you have is about yourself. It’s about agency over your fucking mind and heart. And that’s the reason why we didn’t put a chain on the new cover. That’s why the hands are now gold, because it’s the realization that there is nothing external outside for you to grab. All of these battles, all of this war that we’re waging in the heart of humanity, that’s internal. And that’s the one bit of agency and authority that we’re given, naturally.

When you wake up, you’re given that, the fact that you are allowed to fucking breathe. And that permission is not granted to you by another fucking man. And once you establish that idea, that you’re allowed to breathe, wake up, eat, sleep, fuck, be happy—then all of a sudden everything becomes a bit clearer. Your relationship to other structures of power becomes clearer. Here’s a simple rule: Are you trying to stop me from doing the thing that I’m naturally allowed to do? If so, you are our enemy. If you are encouraging that freedom, that right to happiness, that right to love, then you are our ally. And that’s about as political as we get.

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