Three years on from gracing us all with the Christmas miracle of "Run The Jewels 3," we charted the incredible rapport between Killer Mike and El-P that brought their careers to unforeseen heights.
Hip-Hop knows no geographical bounds. Since flying the nest of its birthplace to connect artists and fans around the world, imaginary lines in the sand or coastal divides have became obsolete, allowing for a creative free-for-all that links up MCs with varying backgrounds to compliment one another’s styles.
After crowning themselves the “top tag team for two summers” on their second album, Run The Jewels have become the benchmark for what can happen when two former solo artists from entirely different heritages and traditions consolidate their efforts for a common goal. And on Christmas Eve, 2016, hip-hop fans were rewarded for their patience with the neo-futuristic masterpiece that is RTJ3. Once again distributed to the world free of charge, the album expanded on the mix of bombastic production, mentally stimulating bar-work and healthy dose of satirical cockiness that we’d grown to love from Mike and El. But above all, it stands as a totem to their uncontainable chemistry that leaps off of every track and makes you feel the kinship that’s placed front and center of everything they do.
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Although Killer Mike may have his cut his teeth in the creative hotbed of Dungeon Family era Atlanta while EL-P set the stage for countless hip-hop subversives to come as one half of Company Flow, the pairing radiate an ideological and musical synergy that you never quite got from a Watch The Throne or What A Time To Be Alive. As evident in their playful Tiny Desk Concert, it’s almost hard to believe that one of the greatest duos of a generation is the by-product of El getting the call to produce just “3 jams” for the southern MC & activist. RTJ came about after the two converged for Killer Mike’s fifth and presently final solo project R.A.P Music, introduced to one another by Adult Swim’s Jason Demarco. Their moniker, of course, is cribbed from LL Cool J’s “Cheesy Rat Blues.” Initially hesitant about dedicating so much time to another artist’s vision, all of that dissipated when the two found inspiration in another unlikely crossover. "We were looking at records like AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted and thinking about how Ice Cube left N.W.A. and went to the East Coast," El told Pitchfork. "He hooked up with the Bomb Squad, and that yielded this amazing combination of sounds. That's what we were going for."
El’s description of the record’s conception to Red Bull Music Academy sounds as organic as it comes and would set the precedent from there on out. "I wasn’t just making beats for him and sending them. We sat in a room for three months. There were no managers and there was no one else. There were no other voices, and there was no idea except two fully grown, aging children, just trying to make themselves smile." Even though they were trying to entertain themselves, the ensuing album garnered some of the best reviews of Killer Mike’s entire career and led both men to consider whether their natural rapport equated to lightning in a bottle. Irreconcilable with the success that they’re privy to now, let’s not forget that the straight talking, hard-hitting work on R.A.P Music was crafted by two men that had been struck with the scornful disinterest of the hip-hop world at different times in their careers. And for a tandem that exudes self-assurance from every syllable, the multitalented producer/rapper EL-P— real name Jaime Meline— isn’t afraid to admit that it came during a period of great uncertainty.
"Run the Jewels and me and Mike and our connection and everything came out of a time, a period of time I lost," he informed underground radio legends Stretch & Bobbito. "I had personally lost everything, everything that I had been working on, including any personal money that I had or any, you know, the record label [Def Jux] that I'd been working on for 10 years and all and friends that had passed away. A lot of stuff kind of fell out from underneath my feet completely…. I had a period of time where I was - a couple years where I was really - I had been humbled by the world. And I'd been humbled by the universe." Paired with Killer Mike revealing that he was "a strip club promoter for a year or so when I fell off," both men had nothing to lose. The sense of reckless abandon, described by Mike as "that bad guy shit," billows out of their first project under the banner of Run The Jewels.
Dropped just over a year after R.A.P Music, their eponymous debut is all clattering beats and scintillating punchlines that held hip-hop to ransom. Featuring seminal offerings such as “Sea Legs,” “DDFH” and the Big Boi-flanked “Banana Clipper,” the project set the tone for their take-no-prisoners approach to both production and songcraft and contains some of the finest tracks of their entire careers.
"Musically, I feel like I’ve found my soulmate," Killer Mike said to C-Ville in 2014. "I’ve tried to explain it a thousand different times and given a thousand different answers. But I think it just comes straight down to— it was just meant, you know?" Backed up by El’s claims that it is simply their "relationship extended into the creative endeavour" and that "you can hear the difference," their dynamic is one that’s been eked out to the world in snippets and makes listeners yearn to be a fly on the wall for their studio sessions. On a rare occasion that they allowed a camera crew to get a glimpse of the process, the recording of Run The Jewels 2 in Garrison, NY saw Mike give a little insight into the unorthodox delegation of labour that governs them.
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"You’ve got one player who shows up to practice every day and you’ve got another guy who’s like ‘practice? PRACTICE?’ but yet somehow we win championships and I’m happy about it." As this 6 minute Fader mini-doc proves, the end product is not born of some unspoken telekinesis and healthy debate is more than welcome. Soundtracked by the strains of Mike’s incendiary verse on album opener “Jeopardy,” the duo bicker over whether El needs to hop on it as Killer Mike lobbies to “just put down that long dope ass verse to let motherfuckers know that this shit is real for the next 40 minutes or so.” When the record emerged, the foreboding track arrived complete with standout verses from both Mike and El, while the latter signing off and setting up the fizzling chaos of “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” with a line that’s not only became an epithet for the group, but puts their shared power into perspective: "I been here making raw shit and never asked to be lauded, Run the Jewels is the answer, your question is what's poppin'?"
Incapable of delivering a carbon copy of what had went before, RTJ pushed the formula of the original record to unforeseen heights and bombarded the listener with a heady mix of slick talk (“Blockbuster Night Pt 2”, “Love Again”), social commentary (“Early”, “Crown”) and thrilling sonic experiments ("Angel Duster", "All My Life"). As to why evolution is so deep rooted into their shared psyche, El explained to DIY that it comes from nurturing their relationship from infancy to something self-sustainable and brimming with its own identity. "It’s like raising a kid," El told the publication. "Every year that kid is alive, it has more to say, that kid has more ideas, and more experience. For us as artists, the reason we have managed to stay sharp is because there was never a moment in our minds where we got comfortable with what we’ve done. We were always dead-set on doing the next thing."
When the "next thing" arrived on that fateful Christmas eve, they’d once again re-emerged with another new vantage point from which to launch a gripping assault on the world. Informed by the seemingly inconsequential activities of "smoking weed, eating shrooms and watching Big Trouble In Little China everyday," their third release took their pre-established sound from the previous two outings up to a colourful and purposefully maximal highpoint. Sporting some of the most potent lyricism Killer Mike has ever conjured-- see his emotionally raw verse on “Report To The Shareholders”-- while El-P cavorts around the musical world like a true titan and bends the essence of electronica, boom-bap and other disparate sounds (“Call Ticketron”, “Panther Like A Panther”, “Down”) to his will. Killer Mike stated their post-2016 election record was devised as a “a call to organize, and a way to remain hopeful if you are out on the streets protesting – and I think we did that.”
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Now, as the world continues to spiral even deeper into a state of disrepair, the return of that insatiable chemistry is approaching and couldn’t come at a better time. Although El-P has explicitly stated that there’ll be no Christmas miracle this time around, his freshly tweeted description of the album as a “screaming, careening fireball of a record” is enough to keep the excitement at a boiling point.
Proving themselves to be “the crew you can trust, warranty-plus for fucking shit up,” a recently published sit-down that Killer Mike had for Patreon not only encapsulated their journey and how mutually beneficial their partnership is but reiterated that they’ve not lost sight of the ethos that’s stood them in such good stead to this point. "The overnight success came after ten years of attempting to find the sound that he already had. You stay true to your ideas, but if an idea is not working, don’t be afraid to adjust. Run The Jewels is Run The Jewels because we are our own masters."