It was an early Friday morning for me, and my interview with El-P, half of one of 2013’s bigger hip hop bombshells Run The Jewels, was directly preceded by learning of Nelson Mandela’s death. While the sad news could have juxtaposed harshly with the tongue-in-cheek styling of Run The Jewels’ output, our discussion revealed a side to the duo that often doesn’t make the write-up. These are two astute musicians, and while the record is often light-hearted, the role of the joker is always contrasted by a hard edge just below the surface that lashes out at “the system”, sonically and lyrically.
Comprised of El-P and Killer Mike, both highly regarded MCs with the former also well known for his production, Run the Jewels are explosively charged and packed tight, running a sound reminiscent of both ’90s boom-bap and the newer synth-driven sounds to emerge of late. It’s not trap but it’s got a big kick, it’s not grime but it gets dirty, it’s certainly hip hop, and it always packs a wallop to remind you exactly what that means.
This interview was taken verbatim from my tapes, and every time El-P swears, keep in mind that he’s an incredibly enthusiastic guy with a personality that doesn’t lean too far from his musical persona.
MF: I just read about Nelson Mandela dying. As a semi-politically motivated band, what are your thoughts on this?
EL-P: Oh, man, the same that any rational human that has an inkling of justice and humanity. There are few rare people on the planet that, as far as you can tell, exemplify humanity. You know, I think Mandela very much seems to qualify for that. It’s sad, you know? It’s sad to see anybody like that go, and there weren’t too many like him.
I’m not gonna say anything that anybody doesn’t know about Mandela, except to say that I think the man was a very alive, very loving human. He will be missed and he was a great man.
MF: While on the political tip, my favorite track from Run the Jewels, DDFH, has a very counter-culture vibe. What sort of feelings contextualize the hook “Do dope, fuck hope” and does it reference a bigger agenda?
EL-P: No, there’s no agenda. I think, if anything, it’s multilayered and, for the most part, tongue-in-cheek. It’s a few things, it’s a parody of an idea, but it’s also an admittance… These are the two aspects. “Do dope, fuck hope” is something we are trained [to do], whether it be alcohol or a doctor-prescribed psychotropic pill, or weed or a fuckin’ drug. It’s sort of simultaneously admitting the reality of the frailty of the human mind and the spirit.
Motherfuckers like us get so stressed out about the truth, and how we perceive the truth of reality, that the only thing we can think to do is fucking get high. That’s not even a critique, that’s just the truth. Me and Mike get fuckin’ high all the time. It’s certainly not us wagging our finger, it’s a bit of a sarcastic reaction.
The song is really about power, and power struggles. Mike talks about it from a community level and police abuse, and I talk about it from a societal level and governmental abuse. At the end of the day, I think the hook was us throwing our arms up, “Fuck it. What do I know? I just want to get high.” I’m not saying it’s the most intelligent perspective, but sometimes intelligence is a brain killer.
MF: You and Killer Mike seem to be very compatible stylistically. What do you share creatively and do you have similar goals in the studio?
EL-P: Yeah, man. We just want to do dope-ass hip hop music. We grew up at the same time and we are the same age, influenced by the same records, the same movies, songs, ideas and political events…. Our lives, we have similar senses of humour and beliefs in terms of the way we look at the world.
It’s funny, because a couple of years ago people thought it was the craziest fucking combination in the world, but I think that friends are friends, man. We find these lines on the graph that intersect, that make us not only real friends, but also great collaborators. To me the most interesting things happen, you know, when you throw different people with different perspectives and approaches into the ring together, and fundamentally it wouldn’t have worked if we didn’t have a connection. Intellectually, spiritually and the way we look at music, at the end of the day, you’re just looking at two best friends who are inspired by each other.
MF: We use the term ‘mates’ here.
EL-P: I’m familiar with it.
MF: You just stole my next question off me. I was going to ask, if you and Killer Mike are mates outside the studio, didn’t make music, would you still be smoking a fatty together?
EL-P: 100%, we do it all the time. All the fuckin’ time. I’m not kidding when I tell you, literally. And Killer Mike says this all the time, we feel that we got paid to become best friends. We wouldn’t have been doing this, and Run The Jewels would never have happened, if we didn’t become great friends. Mike is one of the great friendships in my life that came at a great time in my life.
Apart from the fact that we have some magic at our fingertips in terms of music together, it all comes from the fact that we genuinely like each other. I’m close to Mike, our girlfriends talk to each other (laughs). We really hang, and it’s something that I think people can feel when they hear the record and it comes through. You can’t fake something like that, and quite honestly, at this point in my life I wouldn’t do that and I don’t have the time.
MF: It’s always more fun making tunes with your friends?
EL-P: Exactly. We both agree that we aren’t interested in doing something that’s not fun or natural, or invigorating to us artistically. So, you know, what else better to do than to create music with someone that you genuinely have respect for? That you genuinely find challenging and interesting? When we make these records we take our friendship and put it into the creative form. That’s basically the Run The Jewels album.
MF: I do a little bit of research sometimes in an attempt to be semi-professional. I read that this was meant to be a cooling-off record. Was there a turning point that prompted you to release the album?
EL-P: Yeah, it was originally meant to be a bridge record… I was going to do an EP, and Mike was like, “Man, I want to jump on that with you.” So I told him he could be on as many songs as he wants. Then we started doing it, and we decided to do a group EP, and we started doing the songs and people around us that were close friends with both of us literally were flipping out like, “You gotta make this shit an album.”
We just were like, “You know what? We do! Fuck it, we really do.” It’s just weird. That’s how it’s always happened with me and Mike. Originally, I wasn’t going to produce the whole album, I was just going to produce a couple of songs, and that wasn’t 100% because I didn’t know what would happen in the studio. Almost immediately, we were looking around, like, “Holy shit, this is really good!” and that blossomed into the whole record.
MF: The album sounds a bit funky, dystopic and futuristic while still quintessentially hip-hop. What were your goals on production?
EL-P: I wanted to take a lot of the influence that I had on both of the records that we’d made individually, Cancer for Cure and Rap Music, I wanted to take elements from the approaches and merge them a bit. I wanted it to have the funkiness and the bop, but also the coldness and the hard edge of the El-P records I do, and see if I could find a cool hybrid that represented both of us.
It was more of a feel, and I started creating this body of work, and before I knew it started to have its own sound. I am very proud of that. I think the Run the Jewels record has its own thing. There’s something about it that stands out, and I think that was important to both of us, that we have a sound for Run the Jewels that wasn’t the exact sound of Killer Mike or for me.
MF: You keep stealing my questions, man! My next one was about the balance of the album – that is, a bit of fun while still maintaining a hard edge. To move this along, how did you approach the writing process as opposed to production?
EL-P: We just basically smoked a lot of weed, did a lot of psychedelic mushrooms, sat in the studio together for about a month and just vibed out. We went back and forth and just built on spontaneous things that would happen. Every track is different. In some, we’d come with a concept or a hook, the beginning of a cadence or a flow. And the great thing about this record is you have two dudes from different styles and worlds musically, but we are coming into the centre a little bit and using each other’s styles and cadences to create a new thing.
When you work with a partner in a duo, if Killer Mike comes with something, I’m gonna work off that so we have these bridges that form a hybrid of our styles. These are ideas and sounds that are occurring only because we are in the room together, and for me, that’s what a group is. The sum total of its individual members is its own creation. It was just really easy. There was a lot of trust, and we both have the greatest respect for each other, so it wasn’t difficult.
MF: When you’re in the studio, is there anything you listen to to get psyched? Do you draw inspiration from similar places?
EL-P: For the most part, when we are in the studio, we are listening to the music we are working on. Sometimes we will pull up a song here and there, that may inspire us. Sometimes an NWA song (laughs). Or a BDP song. We share musical ideas that inspire us in different ways, but for the most part it’s us sitting in a room and kind of living with some piece of music we have started to construct.
It’s pretty much like us getting into our own world, but we are big fans of music, so we are inspired constantly and we are always listening to different things. For the most part, it just emanates naturally from the music in the moment.
MF: I found the album had a real turn-me-up-louder feel. I feel a lot of hip hop at the moment often has that futuristic element, but is very cluttered and tinny when played loudly. Did you want this record to crank on bigger sound systems and play well live?
EL-P: Hell, yeah, of course! No doubt. Look, man, I was raised on fuckin’ BDP and Run DMC, the biggest, baddest fuckin’ production on the planet.
When you put my shit in the car, or hear my shit in the club, it’s going to destroy and completely melt the fucking walls. I’m not fucking around, I’m punching through the god damn brick wall with my shit. If you don’t like that shit? Don’t listen to my shit, because that’s what this shit is. I am not joking around with this shit.
MF: How do the tracks play live? Are there any crowd favorites?
EL-P: Dude, the whole shit just kills live. Honestly, it’s the most fun I’ve had doing a record live in a long time. Crowd favorites? Shit… It’s hard to say, the shit just pops from front to back. It’s kind of built for a show, in a lot of ways, so people freak the fuck out from the moment this shit drops.
Of course, Run the Jewels, Banana Clip, 36 Chain, Sealegs, they all really blow the fuck up. You get a good night and, I’ll be honest with you, the crowds have been losing their minds. That’s just the honest to God truth – it’s straight up moshpits in this shit.
MF: You are coming down to Australia for Laneway Festival in February. Are you looking forward to it? Any final words for the fans Down Under?
EL-P: I’m so excited about it, man. I came out last year just as El-P, and we somehow managed to trick the system into getting us out there again. I am thrilled, man, plus we are doing the sideshows with Danny Brown and Earl Sweatshirt. So, basically, if you aren’t seeing this sideshow you are probably missing the best hip hop show you’ve ever seen. I’m just psyched man! I can’t wait to get back out there.
Run The Jewels are part of the Laneway Festival 2014 lineup, and will play sideshows with Danny Brown and Earl Sweatshirt. Their self-titled album is out now.
Earl Sweatshirt, Danny Brown and Run The Jewels Laneway Festival Sideshows
Tuesday, 4th February
Enmore Theatre, Sydney
Thursday, 6th February
Palace Theatre, Melbourne
St Jerome’s Laneway Festival 2014
Saturday, 25th January
The Meadow, Gardens By The Bay, Singapore
Monday, 27th January
Silo Park, Auckland
Friday, 31st January
RNA, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane
Saturday, 1st February
Footscray Community Arts Centre/River’s Edge, Melbourne
Sunday, 2nd February
Sydney College Of The Arts, Rozelle, Sydney
Friday, 7th February
Harts Mill, Port Adelaide
Saturday, 8th February
Esplanade Park and West End, Fremantle