Published Sep 30, 2013Killer Mike and El-P are the best of friends. The chemistry between the Atlanta rapper and New York rapper/producer is evident in their music and in their conversation. Mike started as an Outkast protégé, winning a Grammy for his 2003 debut on "The Whole World." He established his own fan base with his album series I Pledge Allegiance To The Grind. El-P is a NY backpack hero, a founding member of rap crew Company Flow and the founder of independent label Definitive Jux, active from 1999 to 2010. El produced the entirety of Mike's acclaimed 2012 album R.A.P. Music; the same year, Mike traded verses with El-P on the latter's album Cancer 4 Cure. Last month, the duo released their self-titled album as Run The Jewels through Fools Gold Records. Mike and El-P discussed their chemistry, influences, New York's stop-and-frisk policy and the police state.
Do you remember your first time rapping?
El-P: In the '80s I was listening to Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, just rapping along to that shit. That's how I started being a rapper, rapping along to my favourite records. Eventually I started putting my name into their raps, and eventually started writing my own versions of their raps.
Do you remember the first verse you ever rapped?
E: [rapping] "My name is Jam-Jay, the impossible child/ When I tell my tale, all the girls are beguiled/ I got style, grace and six school lockers/ on my birthday party, cakes are made by Betty Crocker"... Ah... fuck, that's all I got. I actually have it framed on my studio wall. My mother found it, I had written it on this big pad. I do remember at the end, I said, "I'll always brush my teeth and never smoke." It's proven to be the inverse — I try to brush my teeth everyday but I always smoke.
Killer Mike: "I am Sir Fresh, I am the best/ I rock the party from east to west/ I make 'em mad, I make 'em sad/ When I rock the party you'll be glad." Did a whole bunch of drug dealer references because that's what my uncle did. [laughs]
On Run The Jewels and both of your recent solo records, there are a lot of '80s references. You had the Boogie Down Productions break from "Poetry" on "Get It," the "South Bronx" horns on "Tougher Colder Killer."
E: That horn stab is one of the preloaded sounds on an old [keyboard]. I always reference that, that's what grounds me. That's the era I come from. So on my records, no matter how futuristic, for lack of a better term, they sound, for those who know, it's laced with references to the records that made me want to be a rapper and producer. That's paying homage to what made me become a fan of the music.
In a way, because I can make those references, there's a group of people who can pick up on them and appreciate it. Because I have those references, it's like a secret weapon. I know how to make that feeling you don't know how to make, but I remember how, production-wise.
You mentioned your music as "futuristic" but that '80s rap production was really forward-thinking. And Dirty South music went on to be used in EDM and dubstep.
E: Exactly. And it all comes from early '80s electronic music. Like the first time you heard Mannie Fresh, you're like, "Oh my god, this is electro from the '80s updated." I think all modern electronic music has roots in that stuff.
Mike, what records from the '80s really grabbed you at the time?
KM: Some of the records that I think influenced my style. Schoolly D, "P.S.K.," Just-Ice's first record, the first couple [Boogie Down Productions] records. Someone who doesn't get the credit he deserves and was a huge influence on me was Ice-T, especially his first two records. I probably pull a lot of my storytelling abilities from studying "6 'N The Mornin'." Late '80s would definitely be Geto Boys. They played a huge part in my development, Scarface's storytelling, and he was earnest.
KM: Definitely NWA, and 2 Live Crew for humour. They were rapping on their first record before they became a call-and-response group. What I liked about the '80s as an era was the attention to authenticity. People were trying to tell the story of what was really going on. The storytelling ability was amazing which is why, to this day, Slick Rick is one of my favourite rappers ever. He's someone I try to emulate when I do stories, I try to make things very detailed and interesting like he did. So "JoJo's Chillin" [off R.A.P. Music] is influenced by Ice-T's "6 'N The Mornin'" and Slick Rick's "Children's Story."
E: Because we came up in that era, it was always about what that next sound was going to be. The spirit of that defined me, that idea of always trying to search for the next style. Being a student of style. From graffiti writers that schooled me on what hip-hop meant, they told me you're a toy if you're copying someone else's style. Reference is one thing, duplication is another. You should be trying to find the next idea. So if you came up in that era as a music fan, I feel you should feel the same way. But I don't feel everyone does.
KM: That's obvious, if you listen to the radio, everyone does it. You get one great style out now, you give it 30 days and every motherfucker has the exact same style.
E: There's no shame in biting anymore, in shamelessly duplicating someone's formula. I think it's every artist's job to make a contribution to the art form they're involved in... to make something and say, "Here, this is for you, this is for the art form."
KM: And my shit is better than yours. Style is grounded in that. Slick Rick called people peasants.
Slick Rick, N.W.A., 2 Live Crew and Geto Boys all had this balance of humour and political or serious content.
KM: All the people who seek to be political are fucking power-mongers. But most good Americans have found themselves defending our rights haphazardly. If you look at [Elena] Kagan, our newest Supreme Court judge appointed by the president, she was a law clerk with Thurgood Marshall. She was the person who defended 2 Live Crew for Broward County. Had Luke [of 2 Live Crew] folded and not held his nuts literally and figuratively, for his right to say that shit... He should be celebrated like Larry Flynt as a true American hero fighting for our right to speak. I feel those people were thinking people and I try to honour that by saying "fuck" and "shit" as often as I can in raps.
How do you two keep that balance of fun and seriousness on this album?
E: That's just in our character. This record is heavy in a lot of ways but never without a touch of humour. That's how we are. It's more powerful to have a heavy moment surrounded by some levity and playfulness, than it is to have an entire record of heavy moments. Any plot needs some sort of arc; you can't watch a war film of simply battles. There has to be some dialogue, there has to be a reason you're invested in it. If we were moved by something, we spoke on it. The thing was letting it land where it landed naturally.
Even in our rapper shit-talking, you're hearing it from aware guys who have opinions. When I did Cancer 4 Cure, there was a real impetus for me writing that record. Coming together for a record, it was about where Mike and Jaime intersected. "Sea Legs," "DDFH," "A Christmas Fucking Miracle." Even on songs like "Get It," we're saying something in our shit talk.
KM: Even when he and I are hanging out together, a third of the conversation is us talking about serious, deep stuff, a third is us shit talking about shit, and a third is just shit talking about each other. Our solo records reflect our individual personalities but this album is a sneak peak at what it's like to hang out with us.
Do you direct each other while recording?
KM: He's the producer, and it's obvious that's what he's supposed to do.
E: We have a good working relationship and Mike trusts me to take that role. There's a give and take in the process.
KM: We talked shit and then when it was time to stick some substance in, we were both there and knew that. It feels good for me as a rapper to not over think things, to be produced. There's a reason why people work with [DJ Premier], [Dr. Dre], Marley Marl, Organized Noize...there's a reason why they excel. Working with El taught me why that works.
What initially attracted you to each other's work?
KM: He can rap his ass off but the beats... for me, I've been waiting my whole life for the perfect sound bed and that was it.
E: I had heard the same songs everyone had heard. I knew Mike from Outkast, but I was also up on some of the [I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind] stuff... I liked his stuff but then I heard people talking about him in the context of a new Ice Cube. I saw him in front of an American flag looking like a fucking gangster. So I listened to the Pledge shit and heard him shining through, a really powerful voice. Still a little limited in what I knew about him. We were both approached by the same person [about collaborating]. We both said yes. It was the guy who signed [Mike] to Williams Street Records, a friend at Adult Swim who I'd done a bunch of work with.
We both knew enough about each other to agree, but we didn't know what the results would be. Once we got in the studio for a couple of days, we clicked so hard, it was so fun and the music was so good that we started working together. We just had a couple of conversations, a couple of jams and we're friends and partners.
KM: Some real fairy tale shit.
E: We're in our 30s. You don't expect to meet your best friend and musical partner in your 30s.
KM: We're going to be 50 and finally break up. "Fuck Jaime Meline!"
E: My plan is, we're going to make four records, just like EPMD, then publicly, horribly break up, then do a reunion record and it'll be really good.
Who's going to jump out the window?
KM: Not me! [laughs]
So you two are going to marry each other. Mike is already spoken for...
E: Why you gotta bring marriage into it?
Going to more serious matters... Mike, I wanted to ask for your thoughts on NYC's stop-and-frisk program.
KM: I think it's unconstitutional, I think it's as evil as apartheid South Africa, as America's Jim Crow laws, as evil as Nazi Germany requiring Jews to show papers. I am in awe of the evilness that the current mayor of New York is going to put his own money up to keep it going. I think all of America should be very aware that our rights have been limited, and whatever you allow to happen to people you don't identify with will soon be happening to you.
E: Isn't that always the case? Everyone sits back and allows these things to be propagated onto the communities that don't have as much power as their community. We're complacent, we're scared and we don't make a connection between one community and the way [this law] affects everybody. When you say, "Hey, we're heading into fascism," people call you a conspiracy theorist. I think there's no excuse for anyone to see this and not feel that this is already happening. Mayor Bloomberg is a complete cunt piece of shit.
[Stop-and-frisk] is just one example of how you lock shit down incrementally. If they tried to pass this as law across the whole country, it would never happen. They will push and push until this is in play everywhere because the people in power want complete power. They want to turn this country and the world into a surveillance Gestapo. It's what I think, and if you have a different opinion, I don't think you're right. Edward Snowden said, "Hey, your government is secretly, illicitly spying on everything you do and say."
KM: And dumbass Fox News who constantly raves about America not being what it was, they say he's treasonous. How the fuck is he treasonous for upholding constitutional rights about letting Americans know their government is spying on you? I'm angry at the American middle class who watch [Fox News] and feels like, "They're like me. They're on my side." No, the cops didn't ask to go into people's houses after the Boston bombing, they broke in. They pull you out, illegally search your house, and in the name of safety, you say, "That's okay." I'm like, "Welcome to everyone being treated like black males." If you want to know how that makes America feel, look at the old lady who gets searched by the TSA. I giggle every time I'm in the airport and I see an old white lady get searched, because there's a shock in her eyes, like "Why am I being handled like that?" I've known that shock since I was 11 years old. And now everyone is about to know that because we placidly sit by and say, "It's alright, because it's going to be safer."
Do you guys like George Carlin? He talked about the illusion of safety a lot.
KM: I love George Carlin, still do.
E: George Carlin was the last of a breed.
KM: I love the fact that we still have a Dick Gregory that expounds on that. I love old Americans, that are 75, 80 years old.
E: They have no reason to tell anything but the truth.
KM: It got to the point where he was like, "Fuck you!" You can't save America, you already lost it. What the fuck are you fighting for? You lost it. Just live, be as free as you possibly can, and fuck it. Jaime introduced me to Bill Hicks, I've been fucking with him as of late.
El, what books inform you rapping about these issues?
E: It was a lot of different writers, just as much William S. Burroughs as Philip K. Dick. Aldous Huxley... I'm attracted to truth and I always found it easy to find truth in fiction. It's always more fun if a flying car is involved. I'm not interested in just any science fiction...The stuff that influenced me and that I hope to continue the legacy of are the people that actually have a socio-political perspective, that can wake you up. George Orwell changed my life.
I don't write science fiction. It's not science fiction to say, "This phone in my hand will not be in my hand in 20 years, it will be in my head." What matters is who will be able to afford the head phone and who will not. What if you refuse to have a phone in your head but they refuse to make phones that don't go in your head. How do you communicate? Only the upper crust of society can communicate with each other and they do it faster. A technocracy, a technological slave state. That's what we're headed toward.
What the powers that be want is a physical separation of humanity. They want a slave class. A slave because you were bred to be a slave, so they feed us and anyone who can't afford to get better gets the worst DNA-distorting, destructive chemicals that dumb us down, shorten our lifespan... And at the same time, accelerate technology to the point where it gets more and more expensive and more necessary.