Run the Jewels is not El-P’s first inning. The Brooklyn veteran has continued to stay relevant over the last two decades since his Company Flow days, largely due to reign as Def Jux label boss up until its hiatus in 2010. Since linking up with Killer Mike last year, the two joined forces to create one of the stand-out releases of 2013 via their Run the Jewels project on Fools Gold Records. An artist is only as good as his last success in our throwaway culture, and El-P has proved that he’s not willing to let his guard down after all these years.
Rap music has always rooted for the villain, and I think the Run The Jewels project reflects this. What draws you more to the bad guy than the good guy?
I didn’t say that I was drawn towards the bad guy. I like to think that it’s a little more complicated than that. I think that it’s not really about the good guy or the bad guy – in a lot of ways it’s about a dude trying to make sense of both. It’s not quite as easy as just rooting for the bad guy or anything like that.
One of my favourite songs from last year was ‘Big Beast’ that you produced on Killer Mike’s solo album, and it’s one of the songs I think of when I refer to the villain undertones. It really encapsulated that fuck-you, antisocial vibe that made rap music what it was.
For anybody in art or life that you know as the good guy, you know it can change in a flash at any moment. I think we all know that we’re all fucked up and that you don’t have to be the good guy sometimes. So when you’re playing around with ideas you know the bad guy is often defined by the power structure. Rebellion can be the bad guy, so I think that for rap music, it’s more about being a badass in the sense of there’s a mischievousness to the way that we look at things – especially me and Mike.
Of course nothing we say is literal. I will say though that if you were to watch a movie full of just really good people running around being really nice it might be a bit boring.
Do you think rap always needs to have that anti-social rebellion element in it to stay interesting?
No. I think that there’s no requirement for any music or any art. I don’t think rap needs anything except a good idea and that just comes, and a good delivery and a good sound. It’s a mistake to put these different types of ideas on rap music. I know that, with the shit I come up with, there’s a bit of an edge to it… a bit of howling at the world. But that’s just me creatively – that’s me as a person and I think that would be the same shit for me if I was writing novels or if I was making a film, but I’m making rap music and my personality is in there. And I personally was inspired by a lot of the stuff that was like that when I was growing up, but also because I just love it.
I think people can be boring if there is just one thing. I’m a healthy mixture of fuckery and good intent. That’s just the way I am – it’s just the way my mind works.
So you linked up with Killer Mike to produce his entire Rap Music album last year. Was it always your intention for you to produce that album in full?
Nah, it just kind of happened man. You know, we just clicked. We just fell in love and in a few days and we just really fucking liked each other and we really liked what was happening musically. I had no intention of producing that album. You know I was producing my album and I was like, “Fuck it let me go see what’s up with this dude. Let me see if I’ll do a couple of songs on this record.” I went out there to work with him in the studio and I just remember we were all sitting there looking around. We all had this feeling – I kind of had this dread like, “Oh, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to walk away from this that easily.”
On my first day home Mike was harassing me to do the album and I just gave in. I couldn’t resist that wonderful bastard
Why did you guys decide to go one step further and make a group together after that album?
We were having fun working together. We just liked each other – we were fans of each other and we didn’t want to stop. When you find someone who inspires you creatively, which we both did in each other, shit like that can happen. It was just one of those things where at first maybe it was just going to be an EP and we didn’t know what it was, but again it sort of started unfolding and we were look at each other and decided ‘Fuck it – let’s do an album.’ You are really just seeing the result of two people who are pretty much just having the creative times of their lives just working together. It was just like something really fun to do.
I was reading a few articles with you two before I did this interview and I personally thought that your name always referenced the EPMD song, but I just read that you named it after a much less bad-ass LL Cool J song?
What it was, I always had that in my head that I always loved that moment on Cheesy Rat Blues. To me growing up in NYC in the ’80’s, “run the jewels” was a scary term – it was something that was said to you when you were about to get robbed. I always thought that was the most badass shit – it meant something to both me and Mike. I was going to name an album Run the Jewels or something, but when I was in a concert with the group I just threw it out there and it stuck. We felt like we were re-appropriating the idea – we were capturing the spirit of where we came from musically and also it was one of the more bad ass things you can say.
Was there any sort of other short list of names before you decided on Run the Jewels?
Nah, Run the Jewels was pretty much the first and last one. We didn’t have any others, which is amazing because usually when you are trying to name a group, you get caught up in a whirlwind, neverending cycle of bullshit names. Somehow Run the Jewels just appeared to us, thank god.
I’m glad you weren’t referencing the EPMD song. I wouldn’t want you guys to jinx yourselves and have a horrible breakup and rob each other and something.
Oh, that’s my plan – that’s definitely my plan. Mike and I are going to follow the EPMD career path and we are going to have four of the best hip-hop albums ever made, have a huge contentious break up and I may or may not arrange for him to get robbed.
From an outsider’s point of view, it seems like New York has started to incorporate southern aesthetics. Previously, Dipset had that Master P thing, Jay Z had his JD period and so on, but most recently it seems like there has been a resurgence of the east-south collaboration. Do you think that is a correct observation?
I think that the southern sound over the years has really emerged as something really potent and become a huge part of the hip-hop scope in general. A lot of the production, a lot of the styles, really had their day and have really got the respect I think they didn’t get for a long time. The south and a lot of the other regions have been eclipsed for years and years, basically what was the New York sound was the sound of hip-hop. Communities have sort of just grown and emerged and been influenced by each other. I think that when you listen to a record like Run the Jewels there is no one thing or another – we are a real pairing of a Brooklyn dude and a southern dude, but we’re just making whatever we feel. It has nothing to do with any one style or the other style.
For me, I’m a fan of great hip-hop music and I’ve always listened to anything I can get my hands on that I think is great. I think good music is good music and hip-hop always references itself and takes inspiration from different areas. There are people who are biters or people who aren’t original and take things that they see are working in different areas, but you also have people who are just simply fans of music who are inspired by different things in different regions. I don’t see that as a bad thing. I’m not one of those xenophobic dudes who needs to viciously protect a style. I think music is music.
I think that Run the Jewels is as hard as either of your solo projects, but it’s also less confronting politically. Was that a conscious effort?
Well, we are who we are. So our ideas come in a different way throughout the record. Run the Jewels is a different thing than what we are doing to our solo stuff – it’s about a vibe created between us. You can still hear our ideas about things – it’s just probably not as direct. My last album was a heavy record in its ideas because I had gone through a lot: a good friend of mine had passed away, my life had changed, I had a lot on my fucking mind that dominated the record and it was a little more of a political thing I suppose. I don’t see myself as a political rapper – I just write as what I feel and whatever ideas I have.
With Run the Jewels it’s a different vibe: not every record is there to save the world. The most interesting pieces of art to me are not that heavy-handed, so there are moments on the record that I think are more powerful than anything we have done. For me it’s just fun to do different things – we can’t do the same thing every time. It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s make an El-P record and a Killer Mike record and combine the two,’ it wasn’t like that. We’re not being super-obvious with it all the time but if you read the lyrics you’ll see that we are being ourselves and talking about what we want to talk about, but mixing it in with a little pulp.
Why did you two decide to sign to Fools Gold? Run the Jewels would have been a pretty amazing comeback for Def Jux.
Well because I have no intention for a comeback for Def Jux. I’ve transitioned out of that in my life. I didn’t want to be at the head of a record label; I didn’t want that responsibility. I wanted to just have a good time and a creative time. I love what Fools Gold have done – they’re a great label in New York and we had already finished the album when we brought it to them and I’m happy they’re great guys. I think it worked out really well.
Why did you decide to release this first project for free?
There was just something about it that felt right. First and foremost, we had a great year with both of our records, we did a shit-tonne of touring and we both had a lot of success. I really felt grateful to be in the position we were in – we were really excited about the project, and when it came down to what we were going to with it, the idea of taking it to the label, doing some big marketing campaign, signing a deal… for some reason it didn’t feel right to us. We just wanted to get it into the hands of the people who were supporting us. In a big way it’s a thank-you to the fans for being so good to us, and also we wanted to cut the bullshit.
We wanted to compete for the hearts and minds of people and not for the charts. We want this relationship between us and the fans to be a real thing. We want this to grow for years – here’s our contribution to that. Here’s this record. If you want to support it you can, you can buy it in vinyl, CD, you can buy the fucking weed grinder, or you can come to a fucking show or recommend it to a friend.
We’re lucky to be in a position in our careers where we can go off our gut and cut through the hype and bullshit and just release this record for free. We thought people would respond to it. We just wanted to take away all the ‘Oh, are people going to buy this record?” shit. And it worked really well for us, I think it was the right thing to do. We’re not stupid – we know how to make money off of our careers. It just doesn’t have to work like how it used to anymore.
Last month you announced that the new project will be coming out towards the start of 2014. Have you started working on the project together?
Most likely it’s going to be in the middle of the year. Yeah, we’ve already started. We’re in the zone, very inspired, just trying to keep it going. I’ve already done a bunch of pre-production, we are doing a bunch of songs in January. We’re serious about putting it out in 2014.
Lastly, what should fans expect from this upcoming album?
Honestly, I have no fucking idea and that’s why I like doing these records with Mike. We just get in a room and shit happens. It will be more Run the Jewels and hopefully we take it somewhere else. It’s hard to predict – hopefully no poodles will die making this record. [Laughs.]