Killer Mike and El-P on Run the Jewels 4: 'It's angry, raw, funny, nasty s---'
April 20 is a three-tiered holiday for Run the Jewels. At the most obvious level, the date is an annual celebration of weed by those who love it — including Killer Mike and El-P, who often use the drug as creative fuel. On top of that, 4/20 is also Mike's birthday and the anniversary of the day El met his future wife. This year's commemoration turned into a four-quadrant event when the duo caught up with EW to discuss their anticipated fourth album ahead of its summer release, along with the heavy internal expectations they had while making it. "We know this is the record we're supposed to fall the f--- off," El-P says. "Having that screaming hawk on the back of our neck put pressure on us to not let that happen."
Killer Mike and El-P had developed loyal fanbases for their respective solo work long before they met in the early 2010s. But, like Dragon Ball Z characters performing the Fusion Dance, they soon realized they could reach new levels of artistry by combining their powers. Their first collaboration was Mike's 2012 album R.A.P. Music, which was entirely produced by El-P; Mike returned the favor with a guest spot on El's own 2012 album, Cancer 4 Cure. Following a combined solo tour, the two merged and released Run the Jewels, their first album as a duo, in 2013. The project proved that El-P and Killer Mike trading verses over El's pummeling, dystopian beats could work just as well for an entire record as it did on isolated tracks. The follow-up, Run the Jewels 2, arrived the next year, and provided a vivid example of the pair's uncanny ability to channel the concerns and needs of the zeitgeist. The track "Early," in which Mike and El rap about police abuse of black Americans from two different angles, made a useful companion to the Black Lives Matter protests that were then flaring up in cities like Ferguson, Mo. and Baltimore.
But don't let the intensity make you forget that these guys have an absurd sense of humor. In 2015 they released Meow the Jewels, a remake of Run the Jewels 2 that replaced all the normal beats with, well, cat noises; it's just as ridiculous as it sounds. Run the Jewels 3 swung in the complete opposite direction. A surprise release on Christmas Eve 2016, the group's third album tapped into the political despair and anger many Americans were feeling after Donald Trump won the presidency. "The devil don't sleep, us either," Mike rapped on the project's closing track. "We the gladiators that oppose all Caesars."
Now, here we are, four years later, nearing the end of Trump's term and trapped inside by a world-historic plague, with Run the Jewels 4 around the corner. Obviously, a quarantine isn't the context in which El and Mike intended to debut the album. The duo had plans for a big rollout, which included a tour with a reunited Rage Against the Machine and a prime spot at Coachella — "We finally achieved the big font!" says El, of the festival's lineup poster — all of which has been pushed back. Rest assured, though: They are still fully intent on doing hitting the road once the coast is clear. "The universe told everybody to go to our rooms and chill out," Mike says. "But the moment they open those doors we are coming to a stage to f--- s--- up."
In a wide-ranging interview, the rappers discuss their approach to making Run the Jewels 4, how to stay raw on your fourth album, the class politics that continue to divide the country, and what it really means to kill your masters.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Run the Jewels 4 is coming out more than three years after Run the Jewels 3, which is the longest stretch you guys have had between albums. Why the gap?
EL-P: We really haven't stopped moving since me and Mike met. We did his record, we did my record, we toured, we did Run the Jewels, we did Run the Jewels 2, we toured, and then a year later we did Run the Jewels 3. We were running and gunning the whole f---ing time. Our bones were starting to strain, I felt like I was gonna evaporate into a cloud of white dust on stage. We needed to chill for half a second and not rush the process. If you don't take time for yourself you're not going to make the best record you can.
Run the Jewels albums are stylized like movie sequels, so there's a consistent throughline. But what are you guys striving to do better with each one?
EL-P: We try to capture a moment or vibe. Ever since the first album, which was totally spontaneous, we talk about what we wanna feel from the next record. I love the first album but it was really just us spitting and having fun. The second was us bringing in a little more of our souls. For the third, we reacted off the turmoil of the times. Mike calls it our "blue record," which I think is appropriate. This time we wanted those moments of introspection to come when they were needed but not permeate the record. We knew it was much more of a fiery, punch-you-in-your-face vibe we were feeling.
KILLER MIKE: The most driving factor is our imagination and determination — once you thought whatever we did was dope — to do something doper. That's the beautiful thing about being in this group. We're constantly trying to outdo us. We'd lay records that were dope, but then we'd come in like, "actually I just want to change the last few bars."
I love the "Yankee and the Brave" TV show parody that opens and closes the new record. Is there a lineage of badass duos you guys see yourselves as part of?
EL-P: In our minds we're just as much the Blues Brothers as we are Run-DMC. The "Yankee and the Brave" ending piece was so silly and stupid. The thing about us is we never want anyone to walk away and be like, "These guys are really self-serious." Because we're not! Within the context of us joking around, we find the space to say things that really matter to us and we don't see any conflict. I think a lot of times people hold themselves back, like "I can't say this, it doesn't work with my persona." Me and Mike don't give a s—t about any of that. We could talk about shooting your poodle in one line, and in the next we'll write a song like "Report to the Shareholders." This is who we are.
KILLER MIKE: Unless you've been to a working-class family's funeral, you may not get Run the Jewels. If you go, they're gonna do an epic eulogy for whoever's lying there. But if you check the corners, there are gonna be drunk aunties and uncles telling the true stories, and they're gonna be f—ing hilarious. I like that about us. Our audience has allowed and encouraged us to be full human beings. I'm always thankful to them for that, because a lot of rappers and entertainers aren't allowed that.
How did you approach the production on this record compared to past Run the Jewels' releases?
EL-P: I'm leaning into all of my Bomb Squad tendencies, making this noisy record you can't predict. I think it's the rawest production we've done. I'm trying to capture the spirit of what we grew up with, the reason we do what we do, and infuse it into a new piece of music. I'm not one of these people who thinks hip-hop peaked in the '90s. But I do believe that if you're gonna be releasing records at 45, then you should be using the things that make you who you are to your advantage.
Zack de la Rocha makes his third straight RTJ appearance on this album. What do you like about working with him?
EL-Pl: He's basically the unofficial third member of Run the Jewels, straight up. I wouldn't be surprised if we f—ed around and dropped a Run de la Rocha record at some point.
KILLER MIKE: That motherf—er's got bars! There's no way of saying that any other way. He raps relentlessly as an early '90s motherf—er about s—t that matters, but his style is up to date. So hip-hop, let's finally give Zack de la Rocha his place as an MC, because this guy is easily one of the rawest MCs ever. Y'all lucky that he got involved in rock n' roll, because a lot of your lists would have to be different.
You guys have a talent for dropping albums right when people need them. Run the Jewels 2 came out during the Ferguson protests, and you even had a show in St. Louis the night it was announced that [former officer] Darren Wilson would not be indicted [for the shooting of Michael Brown]. Run the Jewels 3 came out a month after the 2016 election. What do you hope fans can get from Run the Jewels 4 at this weird time in history?
EL-P: It's not on some kumbaya s–t. It's angry, raw, funny, nasty s–t. But that's the energy we need, man. As I've been in this group, I've been blown away and almost weirded out by how it seems like we're entangled in fate and all this stuff that keeps happening. It's been amazing, and also scary, to witness. We don't want to be in the middle of all this s–, we just want to make music. The Darren Wilson thing opened up another aspect of what we are. Being on stage with Mike, listening to what he said, being able to stand with him in front of people as a white man next to his black friend at that moment in solidarity, and then being able to translate our music into something that felt even more intense and emotional that night than it ever had been before… it was the first time I started to notice this stuff happening. Whether that's delusion on my part or just pure coincidence, we try to handle ourselves with grace and honor in those situations.
There's a power of Run the Jewels that I've witnessed, but talking about it out loud almost seems narcissistic. It's in my head, I've seen it, it's blown me away and actually kind of terrified me a bit. Sometimes you're saying incendiary s–t and wanna go under the radar. Mike and I have had good careers, but our careers have mostly been in a comfortable place where we could basically say whatever the f–—k we want and not be worried that everybody's gonna hear it. That's changed.
I hear that on the new record too: Mike, at one point you refer to the "kill your masters" line from Run the Jewels 3 as the most dangerous thing you've ever said.
KILLER MIKE: I got told [that] by a friend of mine. I was like, "Well I'm in a group with a white man, there's no better way of showing equality than that." Mine and El's friendship is not a political friendship but is a very real human connection. I think it's one of the greatest examples of what happens when the proletariat understands, like Fred Hampton tried to tell us, that we all have the same masters. We all are members of a class, and they divide the classes up like "we'll give these people these many rights," and they keep us in-fighting. The great travesty of that is, we spend so much time mortally wounding each other when we should do like Lucy Parsons says: Every lousy tramp in the gutters should do away with the class of people who would make us slaves. That's what I believe in my heart of hearts, but I also believe it's never gonna happen because human beings look for leadership, and that's why evil men seem to rule.
But what we can do as human beings is stand in solidarity. Right now! If you live in a 150-people apartment complex — and I'm saying this as an owner of housing that people live in — if you guys say, hey we're not paying rent for the next few months and we'll pay after that but we'll only pay an extra $100 until we've paid back, the landlord would have to negotiate with you all. But if you never talk to your neighbors, you'll never have that real solidarity. It's not gonna be done with pickaxes and AR-15s, even though I believe you should own those things. It's gonna be done through sincere love, admiration, and friendship for each other.
EL-P: That solidarity has to be translated into the artistic and creative mind. Nothing is gonna change until even we, who aren't directly affected by oppression the way other classes are, recognize that oppression is our problem too. And that is exactly what me and Mike attempt to do in terms of our friendship on these records. We have this new song "Just," where we go, "look at all these slavemasters posing on your dollar!" To Mike's point about a white guy assuming he's the master: Start recognizing that oppression is happening to you as well because if you are a defender of humanity then violence against humanity is violence against you. That's it, no room for negotiation. You have to be connected to the idea that an insult or injury to one is an insult or injury to you and to all.
El, you have that line on "A Few Words For the Firing Squad": "Ever notice that the worst of us seem to end up with all the chips"
EL-P: "...It really kinda takes the sheen off people getting rich." That's coming from a dude who's trying to get rich! That's something I've noticed about this record: If there's an undercurrent of a theme, there is a discussion about money and what it means. You've got two dudes who are a living example of what it means to be American in the sense that we are on the path to becoming financially stable/comfortable, but at the same time we have not separated ourselves from the discussion, the humanity of it, and the contradiction of it. We say that on this record. We're not saying we're communists, we don't want to be f—ing broke. But at the same time our eyes are open.
KILLER MIKE: If we practice something, it's compassionate capitalism. [My wife and I] buy all our vehicles pre-owned, low mileage, and she researches those motherf—s for months before we buy because she grew up as a kid whose grandma ran a liquor house to make extra money in the projects of Savannah. I married a very frugal woman. As we grow up in stature, fame, and money, we've kept our working class values, to the point we've kinda had to allow ourselves to buy some things that make us feel good. But as valuable as s–t you own can be, or a million dollar home, what these times have shown me more than anything — and there's an undercurrent of this on the record — is that having fun and being with the people you love is the most valuable thing. I've seen my kids grow up, but it's only really been at events or when Dad's not touring.
There are definitely moments on the album, especially on "Pulling the Pin," where you both reference how things are getting weird and nobody's really sure what to do about it. With the solidarity you represent, how do you think music can help people stay connected and think of new political horizons?
EL-P: With "Pulling the Pin" I attempted to write a history of evil. I wanted to explain that the darkness that people are witnessing has its roots in something way older than they may know. If you can look at people who are building cages and acknowledge that they are a part of a lineage of people who have been building cages for humanity for as long as steel and iron has existed, that can give you a little bit of perspective that the battle you're in is not new. It was the same battle when people were being enslaved in this country, the same battle where children are put in cages because they want to access America. And then Mike tells this beautiful story where [he's] sitting on the edge of a bed with a pistol, holding his head in hands. That verse is him inhabiting this character who is going mad because of the injustice around him. That's part of what's going on, I think: We're all going a little bit mad, because as the injustice exposes itself it tears at your heart and your mind.
KILLER MIKE: Eugene V. Debs said, "while there is a soul in prison, I am not free." That quote has deeply affected me, because no matter what I get materialistically and no matter what I accomplish careerwise, I have not done my part if I have not helped to magnify the message of those most vulnerable in need. [El] being a white man, an anarchist, and socialist, speaking on behalf of all classes and colors, inspired me. But this character I'm rapping about, that's how you feel as a human: Why the f—k must I be miserable? To me that is the balance that is Run the Jewels. El is giving you the prequel to who is creating this world —-- people like [late British DJ] Jimmy Savile. I remember landing in London when that story broke, Parliament promised there would be investigations, and since then nothing has happened. The world has not seen Jeffrey Epstein brought to justice. They were told it was a suicide, and to be honest with you I don't think most Americans believe that. We're here to tell the truth and shame the devil. That's the beauty of our music.
Run the Jewels 4 is out June 5