Hip-hop is often a youngster’s game. The genre’s reigning commercial king, Drake, turned 30 last year and his high-profile peers — from Kendrick Lamar to A$AP Rocky to Chance the Rapper — are all even younger. Which has made the rise of Run the Jewels, the collaborative duo of 41-year-old rap lifers El-P and Killer Mike, all the more exciting.
“Run the Jewels is kind of a newborn child for us,” El-P tells EW. “Every time we do one of these records, the kid grows up a little bit and has more to say.”
That kid has matured further on Run the Jewels’ third album, Run the Jewels 3, which the duo dropped early Christmas morning, three weeks ahead of its planned release date. With contributions from the likes of TV on the Radio singer Tunde Adebimpe and Lamar-approved saxophonist Kamasi Washington, the record continues to expand their cacophonous brand of rap while featuring more of the colorful verses that endeared them to fans long before they joined forces.
“We could do our solo records and say whatever the f— we want, but Run the Jewels is a whole other animal,” El-P says. “Me meeting Mike meant everything to me because it changed my life and everything about it has been good, in the sense that it allowed me to do the music that I love in a new and exciting way. It allowed me to have a friendship and a partnership, someone who’d have my back.”
Mike sums up his Run the Jewels experience more simply: “If my 10-year-old self had all his rap dreams come true, this is it.”
El-P and Killer Mike connected with EW to discuss hip-hop dads, how they’re different from Prince, and the political importance of their music in the Trump era.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Since releasing Run the Jewels 2 in October 2014, you’ve toured a ton and even released a cat-exclusive remix album. When did you dive into Run the Jewels 3?
EL-P: We started making music for the record in late 2015. We basically waited until we were done doing the majority of our touring and then we just hunkered [down] for almost a year.
One signature part of Run the Jewels is its lyrical chemistry. What’s your writing process like?
E: We always write in the same room. We believe in that. We don’t have any interest in doing records that are constructed piecemeal. It’s all about our friendship, it’s all about our vibe. There’s no emailing verses back and forth.
KILLER MIKE: I leave Atlanta, he leaves the city of New York, we go to catch the vibe together. I’ve been a music fan all my life and you know the difference when the musicians care.
E: There’s a depth to the record that reflects the depth of our friendship. There are certain things on this record that we did that I was really psyched about because it felt like a step forward for us as a group. Something like “Thieves,” where we’re actually creating a narrative in a real way together and that narrative being woven out throughout a song. “Thursday in the Danger Room” was an incredibly personal record for both of us.
How did some of RTJ3‘s collaborations come together?
E: I got the feeling that people thought we had this amazing cachet that we could go out and get anyone we wanted. We never thought like that. These records are about Jamie and Mike. When we collaborate with people it really is just out of pure joy. Who do we feel fits into the song? We never hold the idea of a collaboration above the idea of doing a song with us — the two brothers, basically. We know that fate and serendipity will take over and guide our hands toward the right moments where other voices can come in and help bring out what we want out of the record. There’s no secret to it, except that we don’t go out and hunt down big names.
You’ve amassed such a passionate fan base. What is it about your energy that draws in people from all walks of life and all ages?
KM: First and foremost, we make some jammin’ ass music. That’s the attention grabber. When [listeners] hear the music, they suspect it’s two friends making music. When they see the live show, they get to see two friends enjoying the s— out of their jobs together. And in a sense, the audience becomes a third member. Their energy and what they bring to the live show has become a very big part of what we do.
E: There’s a lot of pretense out there. It can be exhausting. When people see something genuine, even if it’s something as simple as two people actually being friends, actually enjoying what they’re doing, or actually standing up for each other, that translates in a big way. We started to realize how much it translated when we saw the reactions. It’s one of the reasons why we kept doing it. We were like, “Holy s—!” We had black and white kids showing up dressed as us with giant signs of our faces.
KM: One of the coolest things I’ve experienced is the amount of hip-hop dads. You know, those dads that are between 35 and early 50s. Some of them bring their children to shows. Children as young as 9 to 13 and children as old as 21 to 22 have come to my shows and have been like, “My dad brought me out!”
E: There is a freedom and a bond that when you witness it, it’s inclusive. You feel like you can be a part of Run the Jewels — and you can, because me and Mike are literally taking cues from the way that people feel about us. You look at Prince and you could be like like, “Prince is a f—ing god,” but you’re never gonna be Prince and you’re damn sure not gonna be in his f—ing band, you know?
E: You’re not gonna dress like Prince. You’re not going to think or act like Prince. But when you see two f—ing dudes in some f—ing denim jackets onstage, laughing their asses off, probably high, just losing their s— and standing with each other, that’s something you can be a part of.
KM: I’d like to cosign everything El said and please note: I’m probably not high onstage, but I am high every other hour of the day.
E: I would also like to subnote that Killer Mike just completely lied to you.
KM: I don’t smoke before shows! I’d forget all my words.
You guys campaigned hard for Bernie Sanders and have spoken out about President-Elect Trump. What role do you see Run the Jewels playing in the discourse going forward?
E: S— fluctuates and it ebbs and flows. It gets dark and then it gets bright again. For me and Mike, our role is to just be true. And to make sure that when something needs to be said from our soul, that we say it, and with clear intention. Nothing is stopping us living. Nothing is changing our perspective — and that is that this world is ours for the taking.
KM: Our job is to make dope-ass rap music. We’re going to continue doing that, touring the world, and reminding people [they’re] already free. Freedom is not something you’re even trying to fight for; you are free. Go. Make sure you live free every day. On a personal level I want to pay attention to what’s going on in my local politics. Make sure your school board is doing OK, make sure your stop signs are where they are, make sure that old people have a crosswalk.
It’s all about coming together as a community.
E: Run the Jewels, our role is this: We can provide some music and some swagger in the face of doom and in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. No one can tell you what the f— you’re gonna do with your life. No one can stop you from taking what’s yours. I’m not talking about material s—, I’m talking about your soul, I’m talking about your joy, I’m talking about your life. Motherf—ers are mistaken if they think they’re gonna crush anyone’s spirit. That’s really what Run the Jewels is about.