El-P on 'Meow the Jewels': 'Let's fight injustice with pure, annoying stupidity'
Run the Jewels dishes about their cat-centric remix album and why their music matters.
One of rap’s buzziest fall releases sounds like a joke: Meow the Jewels is a remix record of Run the Jewels 2, the 2014 collaboration between hip-hop lifers El-P (Jaime Meline) and Killer Mike (Michael Render), but with the beats reconstructed solely out of cat sounds. And that’s because it was initially a joke.
“It was a joke, 100 percent, which I thought was pretty funny at the time, being as stoned as I was at my kitchen table,” El-P, who also made the beats on RTJ2 and the duo’s self-titled 2013 debut, tells EW.
The gag, explained: When Run the Jewels announced RTJ2 last September, Killer Mike and El-P sent an email to the group’s mailing list that riffed on the deluxe packages bands offer for new albums, rattling off their own exorbitantly-priced “options” which included “The F–k Boy Revenge Package” ($100,000), “The We Are Gordon Ramsey Package” ($150,000), and “The Meow The Jewels Package,” which outlined the cat sounds remix project for a smooth $40,000.
Then it happened. A fan started a Kickstarter to finance the album, and though El-P initially called to dissuade him, that organizer convinced him and Mike to do the project and donate the proceeds. “We decided that if there was a way that we could get money to charity, specifically victims of police brutality in America, that is was worthwhile,” El-P says. “We figured, hey, f–k it, let’s fight injustice with pure, annoying stupidity.
And despite suggesting that he says he’s “been slaving away trying to put this record together, which is not something I’d wish on my harshest of enemies,” El-P has recruited a stacked list of collaborators to pitch in, including Prince Paul, Just Blaze, Zola Jesus, Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, Massive Attack’s 3D, and Beyoncé producer Boots.
El-P and Killer Mike chatted with EW about whether or not cats are the best pets, meeting lookalikes on tour, and the larger social impact of their music.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You guys collaborated with some cool producers on Meow the Jewels. How did that conversation go, getting some of these people on board to remix cat sounds?
EL-P: I was going to tackle the whole thing myself. I thought I had doomed myself to having to make an entire record out of cat sounds.
KILLER MIKE: Then he accepted Christ, and Jesus sent a miracle with all the producers to save him. [laughs]
E: Thank you, Feline Christ. Christ heard my sorrowful meows in the night, for real, and he raises his paw… The first person to jump onboard was Just Blaze. He was like “I’ll help out, I’ll do one.” Once he was in, I reached out to friends of mine and people I respected and said, “Do you want to be a part of this thing? It’s for a good cause.” Everyone was super down with it. Thank God, because it was going to be very, very terrible, for me. There’s a lot of really talented people that I always wanted to work with that I’m completely wasting the opportunity with.
That sounds like a ton of fun.
E: Even more fun, though, was explaining to Mike that we’re doing an album of cat sounds. Mike is not a cat guy.
- You’re a cat guy though, right?
E: I’m a cat guy, I’ve had cats all my life. Rest in peace to Minibeast, who I put down about a year ago.
- KM: Being a black guy from the south, cats are kind of necessity only. Like if you stay where a lot of rats [are], you own a cat! You don’t have a rat problem, you don’t have a cat.
- E: Just to warn you, the headline is going to be “Killer Mike says black people hate cats.”
- KM: No, no! Black people don’t hate cats. Everybody I knew who had a cat was middle class or white. More people need cats that appreciate them!
- E: I don’t know what’s wrong with my people. We’re gluttons for punishment. We get these creatures where it’s literally just a one way street, like they can barely even express anything for you except for the desire to be pet or fed. The thing about it is that we lived in apartments, so there was no backyard, there was no grass, there was no nothing. You grow up in New York, you often live on like a third floor, it’s like cats—
- KM: Well, why don’t you get a fish?
- E: Oh, I hated fish.
- KM: Really?
- E: Yeah, there’s something so intensely depressing to me about a fish in a bowl—like a bird in a cage.
- KM: I had fish growing up. Fish made sense to me.
- E: You can’t take a fish out and pet it.
- KM: No, but you can watch it f— up other fish and fight over food. It’s like watching Mutual of Omaha all day, just controlled by how often you feed it.
- E: Well, I’m glad I didn’t have fish and I’m glad I wasn’t attempting to make a fish sound record, because that would be f—ed up.
- KM: That would be way f—ed. [fish noises]
- E: [fish noises]
- When you first announced Meow the Jewels last year you told EW you thought you might get cat sounds from YouTube. What did your source end up being? Do you now have a massive database of cat noises?
E: I do. I literally have a massive database of cat sounds.
- KM: People were bringing their cats on those little hard drive sticks, they were bringing them to the bus. Like, “Please use my cat.”
- E: You could send cat sounds in from your cat and we’d include them on the record. I found a bunch of just random cat stuff on the Internet. I actually found a random sound library with a bunch of cats. I also have recordings of my own cat. Lil Bub, probably the most famous cat alive in the world right now—which is a f—ing demented sentence—the cat literally sent me a whole library of Lil Bub sounds, so Lil Bub is featured on the record. The other producers, I know for a fact that 3D used his cat on the record. Geoff Barrow used his cat. Also, I sampled Snoop Dogg saying the word “meow.”
So it’s a collaborative record between species, really.
E: Yeah, it is a co-species collaboration. We’re trying to break new ground. But really though, it is a collaborative record between us and the fans. The artwork on the cover was done by a fan. The whole thing was funded by [fans]. A lot of the sounds came from fans. Above and beyond the stupidity of the whole thing, it really is a testament to our relationship with our fans. It’s an amazing thing in it’s own weird way that we could get together and do something good for people in a way that appeals to not only the humor of the community of people who involved, but to the heart. The thing happened because people care about humans, not because people really wanted to hear a cat record.
Meow the Jewels sounds like so much fun, but the charity that proceeds are going toward and the politics of your message are more serious. Has that brought out a different crowd for your shows?
KM: Just more of the crazy-ass give-a-f–k human beings that have been coming. Some are white, some are black, some are Asian. Some are Finnish, some are Polish, some are from the U.K. We have more of a crowd in Europe than we thought, we have more of a crowd in Utah. We’ve been to Utah four times this year! Our crowd is people who give a damn. Over the course of [the] last year, I’ve seen a growth in awareness outside of our crowd—like crowd members tell us that their mom or dad or uncle heard about Run the Jewels. The group is putting an imprint in society for just doing what we think good people should do. People are getting introduced to our music that way, but at the end of the day our music is just some kickass rap music that makes people move their ass, but also validates their heart and doesn’t insult their mind.
E: Sometimes I feel sorry for people who get into us through seeing Mike on CNN, and it’s like this incredibly eloquent and thoughtful man, and they’re like, “Yeah, I gotta check out Run the Jewels!” and then they put the record on and we immediately tell them to run backwards through a field of dicks.
But it isn’t just Mike being on CNN or Bill Maher. You had that profound music video for “Close Your Eyes (And Count To F–k)” and a clip went viral of you guys giving an impassioned speech the evening that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson wasn’t indicted in the shooting of Michael Brown.
E: We’re just a part of the story of what’s been happening around us, because we care and we pay attention and it affects us as people. It works its way into what we do. And, like Mike said, we really are just trying to make badass rap records, you know? But, after all the jokes and all the shit talk and all the fun, we also deeply care about a lot of the same things. That’s one of the things that connects me and Mike so clearly. Me and Mike are allies in heart.
KM: I value friends probably more than gold and I am very blessed to have found a friend in James. I’ve had white friends throughout my life, but I never thought me being friends with a white man would mean so much to so many other people and show them a possibility that there’s an alternative to what we’re told everyday: that we have to protect the interest of a team and that we’re fighting to be at the top of a totem pole. That makes me feel good about the music. No one can point and say, “You’re just complaining you’re a black guy” or “You’re just an emotional white guy.” That means the world to me and that’s a big part of why I love being in this band.
E: People respond to it. One of the coolest things we’ve witnessed is that we see little mini-versions of us. The first time that we realized something bigger than we had ever experienced was happening was when we did a show in Nashville and there were these two kids—they both work at like a printing shop together, one black kid, one white kid.
KM: It was like alternate El-P and Killer Mike.
E: Like a shorter, fitter version of us, and they came to the show and they had printed out giant color printouts of our heads and held them on sticks in the crowd. We see more and more of that relationship. There’s something about our relationship and about what we do together and the way that we are genuinely friends with each other that seems to have spread and it has made for a diverse audience. The music, like we hoped, is hard to put into a box: you can’t put it into a regional box, you can’t easily put it into an underground or a mainstream box. I think that ambiguity is healthy because it allows room for people to apply the concept to themselves and for them to feel empowered by it. I’m not trying to put us on a pedestal like we’re saving the world or anything, but it’s been touching for us to see that there has been a genuine effect in that way. I feel like me and Mike really put out who we are. That’s stupid and raw and funny, but it’s also compassionate. Meow the Jewels is a really good example: It’s something that is silly and stupid and should not by any means even exist, but the reason it exists is because it’s about compassion and those things are not conflicts for us. Being stupid and compassionate are not conflicts. Being mean and being funny and having something to say are not a conflict. That’s why this record is not a conflict for us.
KM: I’m crying over here. Like, straight up, man. You’re getting a lot more Shakespearean—
E: I’m just hungover, I don’t know.
KM: [laughs] Real talk.
Something in the hangover brings out the eloquence.