El-P is onstage at a Minneapolis nightclub when the confetti falls. A blizzard of white paper he had no idea was coming flutters from the ceiling onto the crowd as Run the Jewels launch into "A Christmas Fucking Miracle" — Earth's most twisted holiday carol and the show's final song. Stage lights and ironic rhymes ping and refract off the snowy flakes as they blanket his fans, "creating this amazing, surreal moment," he says.
"Sometimes something perfect happens."
Killer Mike is onstage at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum rhyming his face off for "one of those huge-ass crowds" when night falls. He sees the Olympic torch and it hits him. For a moment he wishes inter-dimensional travel were possible, so he could go back to 1984 and visit his nine-year-old self sitting cross-legged, glued to his grandmother's television, watching American track and field stars Carl Lewis, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Florence Griffith Joyner claim a haul of medals at the Summer Games. He wants to warp back 30 years and whisper in the boy's ear: "You're gonna go there. So just keep doing what you're doing."
"You have dreams and ambitions as a kid," the former drug dealer says over the phone from his native Atlanta. "Most people, at some point, put those dreams and ambitions aside or they fade out or wash away in the rinse. But the fact, at this point in my life, I'm reaching these milestones that as a kid sitting Indian-style in his living room watching television dreamed of… I realized I was somewhere I wanted to be."
Where Run the Jewels are now is riding the crest of a tsunami. Both Jaime Meline and Michael Render got their start in respected hip-hop crews (El-P with backpack heroes Company Flow, then Def Jux; Mike with OutKast's Dungeon Family, then T.I.'s Grand Hustle). Both broke solo, reaping critical acclaim and the type of fan loyalty most recording artists would strangle for in the torrent era. Yet both 39-year-old artists are happier now than ever.
The unlikely duo first began collaborating in 2012 — El produced Mike's R.A.P. Music album, while Mike guested on El's Cancer 4 Cure. But when the New Yorker and the ATLien linked more formally in 2013, giving away their self-titled Run the Jewels debut for free, not only did they begin sharing fan bases, they created a new, more fervent sector of hip-hop head: the Run the Jewels fan.
"I was walking out of a restaurant, and this young kid says, 'Killer Mike!' I turned around, he threw up a pistol and fist at me, right in front of his mom and dad. He didn't vibe to Killer. He was fuckin' eight when Killer came out. It's an amazing phenomenon," Mike says. "We're crossing audiences, which is cool, but this new RTJ audience is even cooler."
The number of RTJ fans is swelling fast, says El-P, who's seen the attendance at their last five festivals balloon from 3,000 to 20,000 supporters "freaking the fuck out, knowing our lyrics, 1,000-person mosh pit." When fans arrived at an RTJ concert waving giant, full-colour cardboard cut-outs of Mike and El's heads — and El-P found himself spitting his venomous raps into his own giant face — he had an "Oh shit" moment. Something big is starting to happen. Now they want to be that group you didn't expect to be on Saturday Night Live.
"The reason why we're so hungry is neither Mike nor I have really quite got there yet. For the first time, after many years, we're seeing a whole lot of goodwill toward what we're doing, and it feels like it's opening up in a real way for us," El-P says. "There were fans who loved both of us but never had an excuse to bring us up in the same conversation. All of a sudden, these worlds were not divided anymore. I've seen a whole shit-ton of people who followed me throughout my career become huge Killer Mike fans, real Killer Mike fans. And vice versa."
Expect the Jewels' multitudes to multiply when Run the Jewels 2 drops on your neck like a fucking anvil. (El-P's words.) Maybe to the point where Mike stops getting confused for security at his own shows. The album doesn't just pack a wallop; it totes a duffel bag full of grenades as a carry-on and grabs a knuckle sandwich for the flight. The beats are frenzied, focused assaults that, as is the Meline way, catapult you to the future while harkening back to a Bomb Squadian yore. The rhymes fluctuate between insightful, scathing and hilarious. Preachers, prudes and politicos all get persecuted. Look! El-P is tea-bagging a piranha tank. Watch out! Mike is rallying the convicts to prison-break.
"I'm very proud of this record. We made our version of De La Soul Is Dead or Low End Theory. We took that next step. It's a little meaner, a bit harder, and a little more poignant," El-P says. The trick is finding common ground. "A lot of times that ground is humorous, and a lot of times it's angry. After working on this record with Mike — especially because we pushed each other in new directions — I feel there's nothing we can't tackle if we put our heads together."
El-Producto never wanted to be in a group again. Company Flow dissolved with the '90s, and after overseeing the Def Jux movement — running an indie rap label that gave a platform for friends and likeminded artists — he was content to hole up in his studio and focus on his meticulous solo projects. An artist in isolation, sometimes tweaking a single beat for five years before releasing it to the world.
"I never wanted to attach myself to someone again. When you're in a group, it can get complicated. You're putting other people's careers in your hands and vice versa. It can be very stressful," he says. But the friendship and collaboration with Mike came so naturally, it left him no choice: Why fight it?
"When you're a kid, you don't know what the fuck is happening. You get thrust into the spotlight with a group of other people, you have to then grow in that environment. Me and Mike are fully grown intellects and people," El explains. "The group thing has been amazing. I didn't realize how much I wanted that."
Mike is more succinct. "I was OutKast's little homie; I'm El-P's equal partner. I like this Killer Mike a lot more," he says. "We have an equal partnership and our main job is crushing that motherfucking record together."
The old El-P was a really stressed-out motherfucker — (again, his words) — a control freak who cared what you thought of him, how you received and perceived his music. But working with Mike, a guy who loves nine out of 10 beats he makes, has freed him from your expectations.
"I've gotten into a zone of letting things be what they are, to let them unfold in collaboration — and that's not just affected my music but my life," he says. "I just want to make music I care about, and anyone who wants to get down is invited. I'll be damned if I go out of my way to correct an impression someone has of me."
Sophomore pump Run the Jewels 2 is a 40-minute tornado that changes your perceptions, quickens your heart rate and leaves ear canals in shambles. Painstakingly produced and mixed by El-P, there's nary a throwaway couplet, let alone a filler song. "I made a lot of long records when I was younger: 'Hey, I'm making a record. I'm going to literally stuff every piece of data onto this CD that I can!' As I've gotten more experience as a producer, I like short albums," he says. "I like getting in and getting out and having people feel like they were punched in the gut and then gently kissed on the cheek."
"Crown" is a gut-shot of the highest order — two tales, one highly personal, the other highly political, driving at a singular truth of the human condition: we can't grasp what we must until we let go of the thing holding us back. Mike's verse centres around a character who's an amalgamation of two women he knew when he was doing things he's not proud of. She was pregnant. She wanted drugs. He sold them to her knowing full well he could mess up her unborn child. Mike carried that shame for years.
"The child rapped about is a real child, though he doesn't suffer any learning disabilities. He's a normal young man working a regular job. He's a good guy," Mike says. He graduated from selling hand-to-hand to a street-level supplier — a regrettable past he was afraid to rhyme about in his early songs for fear he'd rat himself out. "Some people that deal drugs become addicts themselves; I used that time to think. I was glad to have the opportunity to exorcise those emotions, to bring those demons to light to rid myself of them."
El's verse smacks equally hard, but from an angle altogether different. It gives voice to the deranged leaders who push their own agenda on young men and women, convincing them to become warriors, to trade their breath for death.
"The people who are in a position to request that soul-changing sacrifice, what they are really asking — if I could express that, if people could understand that, people might be so enraged and insulted by the prospect, maybe you can actually end war." El laughs at his own ambition. "Mike nailed it when he said, 'El's verse is damn near a call for world peace.' And it is, a character-driven one. It's me examining that twisted request for you to put yourself aside, put your soul aside, and become us, become the violent extension of our intentions. You don't even have to know what they are. In fact, it's required that you not know."
The misconception about Run the Jewels is Mikey and Jaime sit around politicizing world issues all day. Not true, says Mike, who fuelled that image when he appeared on Fox News in August to vent his anger on the police state in Ferguson, MO.
"If people would allow us to live free and have liberties, I wouldn't rage the way I rage. I only rage because I love people and I love freedom, and I don't like what I see happening," he says. "It's amazing to me that people think we can sustain that day to day. Most of the time we're just talking shit to each other, drinking, living a buddy movie."
In truth, studio sessions are plump with weed and drenched with booze — two friends trying to make each other giggle. That's why you have El-P, high as the Empire State, writing down his most outrageous pre-order ideas, coming up with a remix project for their first album consisting of beats made entirely from cat noises, throwing it on Kickstarter, raising $55,000 and making it a reality. (Super-producers like Prince Paul, Alchemist and Just Blaze have hopped aboard, the money is going to charity and Meow the Jewels is a real thing.) That's also why you get an entire song about sucking dicks and clits all day, an homage to the raunchy rap songs by Too $hort, Akinyele and 2 Live Crew they grew up listening to.
"We make each other giggle out loud in the studio," El-P says. "That's a big part, to me, of what Run the Jewels is. Everything we say on this record is wrapped up in a healthy dose of ridiculousness. That's the sugar for the pill."