The original plan was for El-P to do one beat for Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music, but by the end of their first studio session together, they had three songs. Mike quickly decided he didn’t want to work with any other producers on the album. El was planning to scale back his projects with other artists and focus on his own album, Cancer 4 Cure, but Mike was adamant that they keep working together on R.A.P. Music. Given how fast they hit it off, it didn’t take a ton of prying to convince El to devote himself to Mike’s project too. “When Mike came along, it kinda blew me away, just in terms of how quickly we liked each other, how quickly we were working together on music that we both liked,” he says backstage in San Francisco.
A lot of other people liked it too. R.A.P. Music was Killer Mike’s best-reviewed album ever — and probably his most-reviewed album ever — and a new wave of fans started flocking to his tours. Between the acclaim for Mike’s record and his own LP, El-P was riding high too. Both artists’ careers felt reinvigorated, in part because of the influx of new energy and ideas that came from cross-pollinating their musical universes. (“Big Beast,” R.A.P. Music’s lead track, was revelatory not just for its visceral impact but for the world-colliding novelty of mainstream superstar T.I. rapping on a dystopian El-P beat.) “It’s not hurting, you know?” El-P says of their ongoing partnership. “It’s like, people now know Killer Mike and people now know El-P in another way.”
There was heavy demand for more collaboration between Mike and El, and they were happy to oblige, cranking out an entire album together in under a year and giving it away for free. Run The Jewels was the gleeful battle-rap free-for-all the duo’s burgeoning fan base hoped it would be — a compendium of cataclysmic shit-talk set to some of the most contagious cacophony El-P has ever produced. As Stereogum’s review declared, “There’s no fat, no indulgence, barely any outside contribution, precious little in the way of contemplation or introversion. Mike and El aren’t worried about their legacies or the current state of rap or the encroaching surveillance state or their own tortured pasts — all subjects these guys have made great music about before. They just want to make your neck jerk, one way or another.”
It was arguably the best record of both artists’ careers and almost certainly the most popular. But the decision to pursue the partnership wasn’t entirely based on good business or even good music. When I ask Mike what drew him to El-P, he launches into a passionate tribute. “I like his beats, period. He’s just a dope-ass fucking rapper, to second it. And then tertiary, man, he’s just one of the best fucking human beings I’ve ever met in my life in terms of his kindness and generosity to people around him,” Mike says between drags from his joint. “And his exterior is kinda gruff. Like, you’re not gonna guess that about El if you just happened upon him in an elevator for 15 seconds, but he’s just one of the best human beings I’ve ever met. And in terms of people who have a type of focus and talent he does, usually they’re just fucking assholes. And they’re full of themselves, because they know they’re good. He knows he’s that good, and he also recognizes greatness and goodness in other people and he helps them.”
Mike goes on and on and on about his appreciation for El’s efforts to empower those around him, even going so far as to say he wants his son to grow up to be like El-P. El stares at the ground in stunned silence for a moment, but he gathers his thoughts in time to reciprocate: “It’s been the most productive time of my life, and the reason is because it’s been fulfilling on a personal level as well as on a musical level,” El says. “You don’t meet your brother 35 years into your life, usually. I didn’t have a brother when I grew up. And I feel like I got one now. And that’s a fact.”
Neither Killer Mike nor El-P is a hermit. Both boast an enormous number of connections and are active, vocal presences in their respective communities. Yet for two strangers to forge such a deep connection in their late thirties is remarkable, and it’s had a remarkable impact. “I wasn’t in the market for a new brother, you know?” El continues. “But it happened, and I feel like I just let it happen. And since then, there’s been a lot of old bullshit and darkness and shit that I carried around with me for a long time in my life lifted. ‘Cause I think that when you’re doing something that you’re really happy doing, and when you’re really doing it for the right reasons, it just kinda washes over all the other bullshit that you may be carrying around that doesn’t really mean as much anymore, you know? So Mike helped me get to the next stage of who I’m gonna be as a man, and as a grownup.”
That’s a lot of mushy talk from such a hardscrabble duo, particularly one that took its name from an LL Cool J lyric about robbing wealthy people at gunpoint. Lest you think they’ve gone soft from all their success, Mike describes RTJ2 as “darker, harder, funnier, and meaner.” It also touches on social issues in a way that didn’t creep into Run The Jewels’ last album. “I mean, these are strange times, right?” El says. “For the most part, what’s on our mind [in Run The Jewels] is coming up with the funniest way to say, ‘Fuck you.’ But in our solo work we go a little bit further than that, and I think that when we realized that we were doing another record, it was like, ‘Alright, well I better get what I need out of that. I better get that too from this record.’ So we flexed those muscles. And that’s a big part of what we each always do on our records is just sort of explore a lot of different shit that is real to us.”
The return to addressing societal ills did not mean stepping off the gas where braggadocio is concerned. This is the album of “Bunches and bunches, punches is thrown until you’re frontless,” of “I’m the foulest, no need for any evaluation/ I’m a phallus, a Johnson, a Jimmy sprayin’ faces.” For all the attention and accolades that rained down on Run The Jewels, it’s not like Mike and El are superstars. They joke that they’re about $5 million away from their goal of making $5 million in a year off Run The Jewels. But they’ve tapped into something explosive, and they can smell blood. “We’re still on the hunt,” Mike says, eyes widening. “We still got our eyes open for the fucking champs. I’m not happy. Like I said on here, man, there was a line where I essentially said this is the best tag-team ever… I don’t give a fuck if you agree with me or not, I want you to feel like, ‘I gotta compete with that.’ ‘Cause we’re competing with you. Straight up, nothing else. The end of all of that. How the fuck we gonna get soft? We got heads to take.”
They’re also up against each other; what’s the flip side of brotherly love if not sibling rivalry? RTJ2 begins with a ferocious locker-room pep-talk Mike spouted in the studio to get his verbal sparring partner revved up. He says it was inspired by watching a lot of Rocky movies this year. “Apollo and Rocky’s relationship was an interesting relationship,” he says. “They were dear friends. And they were friends based on the fact that like, ‘Hey man, I’m better, I’m better, I’m better.’ You need that dynamic, I think, to make you the best.”
So you guys try to one-up each other?
Mike: “Abso-fucking-lutely. He’s one of the best rappers I heard in my life. I ain’t gonna come behind him with no track chillin’.”
El: “But it’s more like just competing…”
Mike: “…in a good way!”
El: “We’ve already decided the outcome, and it’s that we won.”
The next time I see Killer Mike and El-P, we’re inside a yacht on the Hudson River. It’s a chilly October Saturday night, and Run The Jewels are the surprise musical guest at Adult Swim’s Comic-Con afterparty, a three-hour boat cruise around New York City. As I sit down with them in a curtained-off makeshift backstage area, El is ostentatiously thanking Mike for getting him high. Mike is closely examining the physical copies of RTJ2, which they’re both seeing tonight for the first time. As he pulls the lyric sheet out of the digipak, he seems pleased. Outside the curtain, a DJ is spinning reggae for the audience, many of whom are in costume due to the convention. There’s a Venom, a light-up TRON soldier, and a female Shredder among the hordes. Later, on the outside deck, one of the many bespectacled young men in attendance tells me he’s bummed he missed today’s cosplay session.
In the two months between my encounter with Run The Jewels in San Francisco and our sitdown here on the boat, a lot has happened. As it pertains to Run The Jewels, all of it was good. On August 21, they released “Blockbuster Night Part 1,” a rapturously received single that approximated a lumbering monster snarling and stomping as it waved its middle fingers. (Yes, there is a part 2.) That was accompanied by a tweet from Nas himself announcing that Mass Appeal would be releasing Run The Jewels 2. “Amit [Nerurkar], who’s one of the people that works at Mass Appeal, who’s actually one of the main guys at the label now, worked for Def Jux for years,” El-P explains. “They stepped to us. They had already gotten the seal of approval from Nas. They brought the first one to Nas, and he gave it the thumbs up.”
Nasty Nas is not the only musician whose involvement with Run The Jewels 2 was revealed that day. The tracklist also went public, and with it a surprising list of collaborations. Like the Nas connection, all of them arose naturally through pre-existing friendships. They knew they wanted to recruit Mike’s friend Gangsta Boo to balance out the raunchy aggro sex jam “Love Again (Akinyele Back).” El-P is dating the bassist for Brooklyn psych-pop act Diane Coffee, so when he needed psychedelic elements for “Crown,” he called up that band’s frontman Shaun Fleming. Boots, the producer whose work on Beyoncé’s surprise album made him an instant star last winter, had been talking about working with El for a long time before he contributed ominous magnificent sonic swirl to “Early.” “Boots and I had been friends for a couple years,” El recalls. “Before he did the Beyoncé thing, him and me were talking about doing some music together. I went on tour, and when I came back he was Beyoncé’s producer. So it was pretty incredible. But yeah, we had never really stayed out of touch.”
“Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck),” the Zack De La Rocha collaboration that sets the internet on fire two days after this boat cruise, was more serendipitous but no less organic. More than a decade ago, right after Rage Against The Machine broke up, El produced some tracks for a De La Rocha solo album that never came out. They stayed in touch and ended up bumping into each other on the streets of Los Angeles while Run The Jewels were stopping for juice on their way to a recording session at the Alchemist’s studio. Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, an old friend of Mike’s, was scheduled to be there that day to lay down a percussive blitzkrieg on “All Due Respect,” and they invited De La Rocha to stop by the studio too. Mike recalls a brief flash of concern: “When a rapper comes, you gotta make sure, ‘He ain’t got no beef with what’s-his-name, do he?’ But we had never thought of it then, and all of the sudden El and I were like, ‘Oh, shit! We don’t know if they know and like each other!’ But they were totally cool.”
At least one other old friend had a hand in the making of RTJ2: DeMarco, the Adult Swim music guru who brought Run The Jewels together in the first place. This being an Adult Swim party, he’s here on the boat tonight mixing it up with his buddies. “They both came to my wedding. We’re all three really great friends, and it’s been amazing to see how tight they’ve gotten. It’s just beyond anything I’d imagined,” DeMarco says, beaming. “I’m just jealous because they see each other more than I see either one of them. I live in Atlanta and I don’t see Mike as much as El sees him.” Adult Swim helped fund the making of RTJ2, and in turn Run The Jewels kicked them “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” for this year’s Adult Swim Singles Program.
That song dropped on September 15, the same day Run The Jewels revealed a number of ridiculous deluxe purchase options, including a $25,000 fee for Killer Mike and El-P to attend a show-and-tell session at your child’s school “where we will answer any questions the children have about marijuana, rap music and global politics” and a $10 million offer to “retire from music, making only one song a year for you personally.” One industrious fan immediately launched a Kickstarter to fund the $40,000 “Meow The Jewels” package, for which Run The Jewels promise to remix Run The Jewels 2 entirely with cat noises. By the time we convene on the boat a month later, the project is more than 2/3 of the way to its $45,000 funding goal and an all-star lineup of producers from Just Blaze to Zola Jesus has been recruited to help bring the meow-sic to life. The fact that such blistering hardcore rappers proposed such a gleefully silly endeavor says a lot about their headspace — and the fact that the campaign eventually exceeded its fundraising goal by far shows that a lot of people want to be in that headspace. For all its absurdity, Meow The Jewels is yet another example of Killer Mike and El-P’s burgeoning grassroots appeal. What they’re choosing to do with the money speaks volumes, too: They’re donating it to the families of two black men killed by white police officers last summer.