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He didn’t want to be there. Three days before Killer Mike delivered an impassioned call to protesters in Atlanta for peace, his mind was fixated on one thing: rest. “I'm happy that we've had an opportunity to sit and be home and reset because our bodies have been beat up after touring,” Mike said during a phone interview the Tuesday before the Friday press conference that went viral. “El picked up a dog. My wife picked up a dog. There's a normalization in re-humanizing ourselves that I can appreciate in this time.”
In 2020, “re-humanizing” oneself can feel like a physically and mentally draining chore. If there was ever a test of human mettle, it’s everything that has happened in the past 150 days. We’ve watched a virus force us into quarantines, social distancing, Zoom calls, furlough days, and learning new TikTok dances. We lost the “Architect of Rock and Roll” and Black Mamba. The Olympics didn’t happen for the first time since World War II.
It didn’t stop there.
Racism in the form of police brutality, good ole boys in South Georgia stalking a jogger, and a Central Park dog owner’s Tony-worthy performance decided to show up to Clusterfest 2020, too. The world responded accordingly: protests, calls for justice, calls to action, and everyone hating Drew Brees for being out of touch with all of it.
In the middle of the chaos, there is Run the Jewels. Their fourth album, Run the Jewels 4, was released on June 3, nearly 48 hours before its scheduled drop. Why? Because it was time.
“Fuck it, why wait. The world is infested with bullshit so here’s something raw to listen to while you deal with it all,” read a message posted to fans on the Run the Jewels Instagram account. At 11 tracks and 39 minutes, RTJ4 might be the most timely rap album of the last decade. It’s also the duo’s best work to date and El-P’s favorite. It was recorded over the last year and a half, mostly at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studio.
From the album’s opener, “yankee and brave (ep. 4),” to its closer, “a few words for the firing squad (radiation),” the duo trade bars about systemic oppression, income inequality, America’s hypocrisies, and absurdities. Thanks to what Killer Mike calls more “bop” on the album, they do all of this without sounding like Debbie Downers. Rather, they’re the intellectual stoner friends who break the ice with a joke about pissing on the shoes of royals while seriously asking if you’ve ever thought about the faces on U.S. currency being those of slave owners.
“I can honestly say the end result of Run the Jewels 4 is exactly what we hoped it would be for ourselves and for what we went into the record wanting to do,” El-P says.
What they did was make an album rich with El’s Vangelis-Esque synths mixed with rumbling bass and drums. It sounds epic, urgent, cinematic even. Lyrically, we’re hearing both MCs at their finest, and most vulnerable. Switching up rhyme patterns with ease, bouncing words off of each other, and sharing stories about loss, love, and the influence—good and bad—of our parents. This is Killer Mike and El-P, rap’s Woodward and Bernstein, but they’re also humans. Husbands. Dog fathers. Concerned citizens.
We spoke with Run the Jewels before the early release of the new album. The two opened up about the magic between them, ageism, and getting high and making the best music of their lives.
On your website, there’s a message to the fans for RTJ4. It reads: "We never thought that when we were doing the first one that RTJ would become our whole lives and honestly we're so grateful that it did." Can you elaborate on why you posted that message and the sentiment behind it?
Killer Mike: I was just going to say I'm very proud to be defined as a part of two different partnerships. There's my marriage with my wife Shay and there's the marriage that is Run the Jewels.
El-P: Run the Jewels was born out of a moment of us hanging out with our friends and making some music. We really didn't have any idea what it would become. Writing that to our supporters was just us acknowledging how grateful we are, and I think that a lot of people try and present everything that happens to them as like, “Oh yeah my plan worked.” The truth is is that we would be fucking lying if we were saying our plan worked. We didn't have a fucking plan. We just reacted to our friendship, then to the music, and then to the impact the music was having.
I think that me and Mike both sensed there was some greatness in it. There was something that we could do together that I don't think either of us would have pulled off or could possibly pull off on our own. Just know that when you're fucking with us, you're fucking with two guys who are excited that this is even happening still and are grateful for this and therefore grateful for people who let us do it.
You've mentioned the magic that happens with you guys. You guys have made your own exceptional solo work, but something is just different when you two come together. RTJ4 is the clearest evidence of that. What is that?
Killer Mike: Who knows why strawberry lemonade got invented? You know, the shit you get at the The Cheesecake Factory? Who the fuck was sitting around stoned like, “You know what? I need to put strawberry puree in a already fucking classic?" So I have no idea why the magic happens. What I do think and I do give myself credit for this: I recognized we had magic within the first three hours of knowing each other. Within the first three hours, I literally was calling my manager like, "Hey, man, I am Ice Cube who's just found his Bomb Squad.”
I knew El and I were supposed to be making music together. I knew R.A.P. Music was supposed to be produced entirely by him, but when we went on the road and we performed as Run the Jewels, I knew that it was something special and magical and I knew that I didn't have responsibility for knowing why people like strawberry lemonade. It was my responsibility to make sure they kept getting strawberry lemonade. I wanted to make sure that through it all Run the Jewels became the prominent driving force because it allowed me to be as creative as I ever wanted to be.
It allows me to be as creative as a 15-year-old who wants to make a record about angst and what I'm angry about with society just to get it off my chest so I don't implode. At the same time, I get to rap about shooting an old lady or a poodle if they don't meet my demands. There's something very freeing about having a partner to balance yourself with. As a solo artist you get locked into a character. Not that the character isn't you or based on you or who you are. I'm just as much as Killer Mike as I ever was, but Run the Jewels enhances the ability for that to be fully me in a lot of ways. I can be both the Michael that smokes weed and doesn't give a fuck on one record, and the Michael that gives a shit on the next record and no one says, "Oh, he's contradicting himself." They simply say, "What El and Mike managed to do is magic.” I don't know why it's magic, but I do know that it's our job to keep making magic as long as we aspire to.
"The truth is is that we would be f*cking lying if we were saying our plan worked. We didn't have a f*cking plan." - El-P
El-P: Me and Mike are very different people. We have very different ways of getting to our points. We have very different ways of expressing ourselves, but there's this fundamental agreement that we have on a lot of things and we agree on allowing ourselves room to be who we are and no matter what that may be. From being silly and jokey to stupid, serious or sad, there's a safety and an agreement between us that we got each other's backs.
The solo stuff I was doing when I met Mike was important to me, and I'm proud of those records. I think that they had their own voice. That's very different from what I do at Run the Jewels, if you were to ask me what's more fun, I would say getting high and rapping with my friend is a lot more fucking fun. Inspiration has to come out of fun, and when you get that you don't want to turn away. Sometimes it's not fun, but even when the hard moments come it just means that we are actually humans and that we're voices that are constantly trying to learn how to work with each other. The result of that shit is something that neither of us can replicate on our own. It's just the truth.
There was chatter about this being the last RTJ album, but you’re both saying there’s too much fun being had to stop now. What does that fun look like?
El-P: Yeah, it was really weird, motherfuckers started being like, "Will Run the Jewels continue?" It's like why wouldn't we? It always baffled me. Like do you hear this shit that we're making? This shit's great!
Killer Mike: When you say, "What's your idea of fun?" Walking in a room to a dope-ass, jamming-ass beat with a joint in your hand having to figure out how to make this motherfucker doper so that you aren't so in awe that you just sit there and listen to it. When you walk in a room and El has just laid the most cutthroat, killer verse ever, you're sitting there like, “Oh I got to fucking step up!” That's fun. That's Michael Jordan's pregame. That's Kobe Bryant shooting a hundred shots after the game. When we say fun we're not talking about doing a dilly dally—we're talking about the work, but the work is satisfying.
El-P: When we met we, I don't want to say we gave up our dreams of success, but we were both individually at a place where we were like whatever fucking happens happens. We had gotten over our stress of that shit. We had gotten over thinking, “What if it never happens for me? What if I fail? What if I've had my time? What if people never pay attention to what I'm doing again?” That's literally when me and Mike both met each other, so from that point on everything that's happened has been fun because it's all in the context of like, man, we're not even supposed to be allowed to be here anymore.
And you’re not slowing down.
El-P: Remember that episode of Seinfeld, “The Dealership,” when Kramer went to the car dealership? They started getting low on gas and the shit went to the empty and they were like, “Fuck it, let's keep going.” They just kept going on the highway and they were screaming because of the thrill of knowing that they were on empty, but they were still going.
We're not running on empty, but from the beginning everything that happened with Run the Jewels was unexpected. It wasn't demanded from us. We didn't demand success, we didn't demand reactions to it. We just literally were like, “Yo, we are making what we consider to be dope-ass rap records and it is putting a smile on our face.”
Let’s talk about this idea that you shouldn’t be here. Some folks think your car should’ve run out of gas a while ago. Age shouldn’t matter, and RTJ4 is proof. You’re two 45-year-old rappers still making music that matters. How are you guys outliving arbitrary expiration dates?
Killer Mike: I don’t even fucking think about that shit.
El-P: Yeah, fuck that shit. If you can do what the fuck we can do, go for it. [Laughs]
Killer Mike: Yeah, but I showed up to rap. Fuck all that other shit. You ain't gotta call me “Unc,” to show respect or call me “OG.” Just know if you put me on that motherfucking track with you, my job is to bust your fucking ass. The rappers that I admire are timeless—E-40, Bun B, Scarface. From a southern perspective, rappers have a longer shelf life anyway.
I'm more surprised by the formula that El and I have. There's something to be said about two guys a month apart in age, both growing up during the same era who don't wish to emulate that era. I don't want to be the Beastie Boys. Their influence is something that I carry over into my music, the comradery, the presentation, whether it's two MCs or one DJ or the style of beat. Rhythmically and rhyme-wise, our patterns have grown crazier every record. We’re not out of line with current patterns. I'm from the south, I'm from Atlanta. Some of the current patterns I helped create. The people who are surprised we're here, God bless you. I'm not here to prove you right or wrong. I'm here to make dope-ass jams and get on stage and tear shit up. It's that simple.
El-P: And by the way, if you don't think we should be here, stop us.
Killer Mike: I told El early on when we became Run the Jewels, I was like, "Yo, my goal for us is to get in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and everything along the way.” My goal is to walk in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with my friend. We got a lot more touring and records to do.
There’s a youthful, fearless approach you guys seem to take on every project. It doesn’t feel or look like two dudes trying to force back us back into hip-hop’s golden era.
El-P: The way that we approach music is definitely not like an old school band. We're not doing no golden oldies and shit. When you are from an era you have two choices: either you can let that be a negative or a positive for you. It can either be that you are outdated because you don't have the same influences as people that are making what is considered to be the new style now, or you can look at it like, "I have a weapon in my back pocket." I have a set of influences that I am really comfortable in and that I really know.
When we do a song like “Ooh La La,” the reason that we know that shit is going to pop off is because it manages to hold and capture, not a sound from before, but a spirit that we know. It doesn't matter what the fuck you're listening to. It doesn't matter what your context is. It's pure. You don't have to be from the same era or have the same references to listen to “The Bridge is Over” and be fucking amped about that shit. We just decided that our influences were our strengths. We listen to what the fuck we're doing in terms of stylistically and rhyme patterns. This isn't fucking “Rapper's Delight” here. We're going for motherfuckers' throats.
I remember that moment watching the Ozark season 3 finale and hearing “Oh La La” for the first time when a major character catches a bullet to the head and the credits roll. That shocking moment on the screen, and the song—everything felt like a perfectly timed punch to the face. Really, that’s what this whole album sounds like.
"You ain't gotta call me 'Unc,' to show respect or call me 'OG.' Just know if you put me on that motherf*cking track with you, my job is to bust your f*cking ass. The rappers that I admire are timeless" - Killer Mike
What separates RTJ4 from the previous releases? Why do you consider it the best album?
Killer Mike: To me, it's the bop factor. Yeah, for me it's straight up the bop. We are every bit Run the Jewels we've ever been in terms of making hardcore shit, in terms of making dope hip-hop shit, in terms of making deeply cutting societal shit. Man, this is really a return to what made us love hip-hop and it’s an element that’s in our music, but I think we magnified it. I don't care how lyrical, empirical, miracle, spiritual, rituals you’re rapping, man, that bop is for real. For me, I take a page out of a group I respect, OutKast. They always gave you dope music, you could always feel something no matter what level it was at, it had that bop. For me, that’s what we brought this time. We were determined to jam.
And do you agree with that, El?
El-P: Look, I'm a harsh critic of my own music and at the end of the day it's not up to us to decide which is the best or anything like that. All I can tell you is that this shit was pure. It came out of joy and a love for the artform and we walked away from this feeling like this is a really special collection of jams. At the end of the day it's up to everybody else to see if it moves them, but we definitely walked away from this one with a gut feeling like this feels special.
I can honestly say that Run the Jewels 4 is exactly what we hoped it would be for ourselves and for what we went into the record wanting to do, which is make it funky, hard-hitting, unpredictable and for us to say what we wanted to say. So, it is probably my favorite album.
The majority of the album was recorded at Shangri-La, Rick Rubin's studio. How was that recording experience compared to albums past? Did Rick get involved at all?
El-P: It's just a good vibe up there, man. I think it was a smart idea for us to get to neutral territory where we could both be having a different experience together. You go up there and it's beautiful out there in Palm Springs...
Killer Mike: Malibu.
El-P: Was it Malibu? My bad. I'm stoned. It's beautiful, it's comfortable, everyone there is really friendly and there's just a really amazing flow to the studio. You can sleep there. I stayed there, Mike would stay there multiple nights. You could just kick it all day and it's important to build a vibe and sometimes that vibe takes time. It was a really cool experience because we have people coming in and out that we admired. We had people coming and just sharing their thoughts. Rick would come in and just sort of plop down in his flip flops and shit, and just smile and nod his head and listen to music. People like Pharrell would come through.
When you fly halfway across the country you know that everybody's on the same page. Motherfucker's are leaving their families and their lives and shit and being like, “Yo I'm making this time about me and my friends trying to make a piece of art,” and so it worked to our advantage.
In light of the pandemic, the pre- and post-album release promotion has to be different. You guys get a lot of money from touring, pop-ups, and selling merch in person. How have you had to adjust your strategy?
Killer Mike: The road is waiting on us. We know when the world opens back up, next year we'll be opening for Rage Against the Machine. We know that something will happen eventually. I want people to be safe. I want our fans to be alive, to be here. Early on, we were playing in rooms with 300 people, so I got memories of fans that were here that aren't anymore. Like our tattoo guy out in Viejo. He literally wanted me to tattoo “RTJ” on him. I remember when that brother died, so I want our fans first and foremost to be here. So, we can wait that part out.
But we got some cool ass shit that people are going to be able to grab and I've been communicating with fans more online so I don't feel a disconnect. We're going to get back on the road. In terms of pop-up shops, even though we won't physically be there, there's still going to be some cool merch dropping and when we do roll back out you'll see the return of that.
El-P: Yeah, we're just along for the ride like anyone else. We don't know what the fuck's going to happen. It was offered to us, like, “Do you guys want to put this record out at the end of the year? Do you want to put it out next year?” We were like, you know what? For us and the energy that we have and our desire to share this with people, it feels wrong. We offer this to the world with full hearts and completely not knowing what the fuck's going to happen, but we don't have much power right now except to give this music to people. If we can get the smiles and we can give someone a soundtrack to this summer while you've been going through all this fuck shit then great, and we'll figure the rest out.
Like Mike said, we know that we're touring in a year. It's a crazy time. It's different. We're not out there earning what we would normally earn. We're sitting here, and all we got is this record. You are talking to two dudes whose first idea for Run the Jewels was, “Let's give this shit away for free.” We always held that spirit with us. I don't really see going back on that no matter what. Any label that wants to fuck with us, any distribution deal we do, the first thing we tell them is, “Hey, not only do we expect this partnership to be real, but we're also giving this record away for free.
We can't hold this shit back, man. It went from like, "Hey, can't wait for Run the Jewels!” to, “Motherfucker! Where’s Run the Jewels?!"
One place where you can see the global impact of Run the Jewels is in the logo. It’s everywhere now. Fans are getting tattoos, politicians are throwing it up. Where did that come from and why do you feel like the message behind it resonates?
Killer Mike: When El suggested the name I was like I'm going to sleep on it. He sent the picture the next morning of his hands, those chubby, little, beige-y, white hands holding a chain doing that point. He perfectly surmised what it felt like riding MARTA in the late '80s, early '90s. If you wore that Starter jacket or you wore them goddamn Jordans you were going to have to defend those motherfuckers. I like that feeling. Not the feeling of being robbed, but the feeling of being 13 on the train. My cousins in the suburbs didn't ride the fucking train. They didn't see all that madness and excitement, so Run the Jewels fed that person in me.
With each evolution of the crew, whether it was a bandaged hand or maybe the chain coming off, we want to symbolize that you truly were the treasure, not just the jewelry. Run the Jewels fans took that logo everywhere. They took that logo mountain climbing, they took it dirt biking, they took it winning 5Ks and running marathons. Like you say, politicians are throwing it up, doctors and lawyers are throwing it up.
That logo taking on a life of its own through the actions of our supporters and fans has been one of the greatest rewards in music. El and I have been nominated for a Grammy together. All that is amazing as a musician, but there's nothing quite as amazing as human beings investing in the music relationship with us and making that logo something I never would've dreamed it'd be.
"There's nothing quite as amazing as human beings investing in the music relationship with us and making that logo something I never would've dreamed it'd be." - Killer Mike
El-P: Yeah, it literally changed the way that we thought about the group. The way that the fans of our music and the people who were vibing with us took that and turned it into something that was more powerful and more inspiring to me than our original idea of it. It was up to us as to whether or not we were going to rise to the occasion and show people that they were right to invest in this.
If I had to define it, the first one was just that Run the Jewels were monsters. We came to kill this shit. The second one, there were bandages on it and it felt like it represented the fact that there was more depth to the record, we were expressing more of ourselves, that there was injury and hurt being expressed in our art. The third one, the bandages came off and there had been a transformation into what Mike said, which is the idea that it was no longer necessary to have a chain, that it was not about taking a chain. That came directly from the fans because we were looking at people to define it.
I mean what logos in music can you think of that have taken a life of their own like that?
El-P: When we did this one I think what we wanted to express was an evolution. It’s not just a band logo. This is not just a logo where we just federally trademarked a drawing and we do merch. It's beyond that for us, and I think it's beyond that for the people who are moved by our music. This isn't a logo anymore. This is more of a symbol. This is an elemental thing. This is something that you might find buried in a remote part of the world that has been there for a thousand years. It actually feels like something simpler and more honest. This is here for you to have and it is unspecified. It's not a monster, it's not a piece of gold. It's a canvas and you can have it.
RTJ 1-4 pic.twitter.com/WEUtSmgVSM— Pigeons & Planes (@PigsAndPlans) May 12, 2020