Hip-hop duo look back at soundtracking protests, raising money for charity, bringing fun to an abysmal 2020
In a year filled with chaos, social reckoning, protests, rage and financial ruin, there appeared to be no light that would save the world from the roiling political issues that had been brewing for decades. There was no Death Star, though it would have surprised no one if the Earth imploded like Alderaan. At least we had the two heroes we definitely needed but didn’t deserve: Run the Jewels.
In February, El-P and Killer Mike were gearing up for what was set to be the biggest year of their career. Run the Jewels had become a tour de force with each of their studio albums (and of course, the cat-themed remix album Meow the Jewels), and opening for Rage Against the Machine on the band’s latest reunion tour would have opened up the duo to a much wider audience.
Then, March 2020 happened. The pandemic ripped up all those grand plans in an instant.
Yet at no point did Run the Jewels lose their resolve.
Despite recording the album in 2019 at New York City’s Electric Lady Studios and Malibu’s Shangri-La — and even aligning with a major label for the first time in their career — RTJ4 felt like 2020. It was universally praised by critics and served as a cultural touchstone in a year where nothing was ever certain. Whether it was showing up as old-fashioned anti-heroes in “Yankee and the Brave,” recognizing class struggle on “Ooh La La,” or just having trippy Ocean’s Eleven good times in their “Out of Sight” video, Run the Jewels kicked ass, had fun and raised awareness — the ideal trifecta for 2020. Mixing the duo’s signature humor, banging beats and unabashedly political message, El-P and Killer Mike created a work that will resonate far beyond this year.
As protests raged following George Floyd’s murder, Run the Jewels moved up their release date from June 5 to June 3, giving people a sorely needed surprise — and soundtrack along with the likes of Lil Baby and YG. They also gave away the album for free, encouraging donations to charities like National Lawyers Guild’s Mass Defense Committee, Black Lives Matter and The Bail Project.
“[BMG] came to us and told us it was possible and we said ‘Fuck yes,’” El-P tells SPIN of bumping up the release date. “They said, ‘Well, if you do that then you’re not going to get the first full week of sales, and it kind of fucks with your chart position since everyone figured it would be near the top…’”
So how did it go? El-P says they had “300,000 downloads” in that first week and managed to raise funds into the five figures for those charities. A T-shirt line in conjunction with the ACLU also helped stem off the fall of the collapsing republic (for the time being).
“It came in No. 8,” Killer Mike says, jumping in. “I was very grateful to be in the Top 10 with only two days of sales.”
The album’s release week — which started with TI and Killer Mike speaking with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and ended with Bill Maher telling Mike he should run for office — encapsulated how Run the Jewels and RTJ4 symbolized fire, rage and hopefulness at the end of a very, very long year.
“We’ve been blessed that we kept our nose to the grindstone with the music we believed in, and it resonated at a time when needed,” Killer Mike says solemnly.
With this sense of duty and purpose, RTJ4 was named one of SPIN’s best albums of 2020. And it’s only fitting that Run the Jewels are also our artist of the year. Here’s our Zoom conversation with El-P and Killer Mike.
(The conversation was lightly edited for clarity.)
SPIN: In a year full of chaos and madness, it seems like you guys looked at it, addressed it and somehow managed to have fun in the process?
El-P: We’re trying to milk it for whatever droplets of fun there is left to be had in this world. I think that the whole project just came out of that. It just started off as fun. When that’s the basis of it, that’s what you want to return to all the time. No matter how serious we get, we have to have fun with each other and the music.
Why the gap between the two records between three and four? What else were you working on before you hopped back into the studio in 2019?
El-P: I’ll let Mike explain.
Killer Mike: You need to live! We spent 123 days doing shows. I worked myself into the hospital twice from dehydration and exhaustion. You just need time to get some space and live life and experience new things. Being away from home affects you. With that said, you want to experience life and get yourself held together. You need to take that break to refine your artistic voice in a different way. RTJ3 was pretty fucking heavy because the world was pretty fucking heavy. For RTJ4, the easy thing would have been to just reproduce a heavy album, feign emotions that you had before, progress the sound, but still stick to the same messaging in the way. RTJ4 did not do that. It did what Fred Hampton did. It combated hate with love and evil with good. It is just fucking fun.
Even at its most intense moments like on “Walking in the Snow,” it’s jamming like a Memphis juke joint at the height of Three 6 [Mafia]. I think that time was needed to properly take a breath, to stand back and to go forward into a way where joy and happiness and friendship prevails over the utter absurdity that is life and touring and being away from your family. So it was rebuilding and reconnecting with a bigger, better, more balanced version in a lot of ways.
El-P: Just to tack on to that, we really hadn’t stopped moving since we met. It was record, release and tour; record, release and tour. I think that we were excited, and we smelled blood in the water. We were capturing something and didn’t want to let go of it. Both me and Mike had been through different types of scenarios in our careers. We have been around long enough to recognize when there’s something special happening, so we just tried to seize it and grab on to it. When we got off the road with RTJ3, I can legitimately say we were both exhausted. Like what Mike said, I think if we robotically went in and did what we did again, I don’t think we would have gotten the record we wanted to get. To be fair, when Run the Jewels tours, we tour for a year and a half straight. That’s not normal rap band shit, and we’re in our mid-40s now.
So what were the goals for RTJ4?
El-P: Neither of us had worked as we had since we met each other in such a consistent way. RTJ4 had to be a little bit of a refresher. It had to be us coming to something new. Even if it wasn’t reinventing the wheel, it just had to be refreshing for me and Mike. We waited around until we had a feeling.
Timing-wise, everything seemed to fall in your favor, despite the maniacal nature of the year.
El-P: There’s been all of this weird synchronicity sort of shit with the release of this record. Some of it was obviously really heavy — synching up with some of the shit going on at the time and relating to that. It can feel very heavy. Some of it was really joyful. We didn’t know when we shot the “Ooh La La” video that within two weeks there would be a lockdown across the country and that would be the last time that you could really even see that amount of people together at the same time. I feel like the video dropped right when everybody really needed to be reminded of what that felt like. So there have been some really cool moments lined up with this record.
Killer Mike: I’m just glad to be a part of bringing people joy during these times. That really is the beautiful part of hip-hop and growing up in the ’80s and ’90s. There were some turbulent times during the Reagan years, and there were some turbulent times in the middle of the drug war in ’94-’95. Music often times just gave you joy — even if it was joy like “Fuck the Police.” It was fun to say that when you knew that you couldn’t do anything about them kicking your ass when you’re 12 [years old]. For me, man, I’m glad to end these terrible, difficult times [knowing] that people have genuinely had joy-filled experiences with our music. I got so many calls and videos from homies that were at protest sites where people would take breaks, give each other water, and you would hear “Oh La La” in the street. You’d hear “Walking in the Snow” or “A Few Words to the Firing Squad.” It brought me joy to know that we were there at the times we were needed.
El-P: I think people look at what is sticking out to them at the moment. If anyone really sat back and looked at our catalog — where we’re talking about smoking weed and shooting poodles — I don’t think that me and Mike can look anyone in the eye and be like, “Run the Jewels is a Very Important Hip-Hop Group.” We’re the anti-heroes. We’re stumbling around, and we’re crashing cars, slapping babies and getting stoned as fuck and saying the wrong thing. I’d like to think that at the end of the day, those types of heroes are obtainable for people. You can relate a little bit to the out of shape stoner who’s crashing a car and then doing the right thing when the right thing is called upon to be done. But the truth of the matter is that me and Mike are having too much fun on these records to really occupy that space of a super-serious group. We’ll never fully take ourselves that seriously because we’re just not those dudes in real life.
How the hell did you manage to get all of those guest spots on the record again? It seems like bringing people ranging from Zack de la Rocha to Mavis Staples to Pharrell to Josh Homme is what you guys do.
El-P: Zack is a brother, man. I’ve known him since ’99. I would say — unless Mike would categorize it differently — I always think of him as the third member of Run the Jewels. He’s always been there for us and always ready to go.
Killer Mike: He’s dope as fuck. As for Pharrell, it was happenstance. He was working and filming in Shangri-La [Studios in Malibu] with Rick [Rubin] and he came in with Rick and liked the vibe of “Ju$t.” KP the Great — who is an original Dungeon Family guy — works with Pharrell now and said Pharrell showed interest [in working with Run the Jewels]. We sent it, and KP made sure the time was found to get it done. He found a perfect balance between saying something that cuts really deep in a cerebral way [“Look at all of these slavemasters”] and something that was jingly enough that when you say it over and over again, you don’t even remember you’re saying it, and it’s just dope.
I wanted to work with Mavis a few years ago. She was actually having me write something for her, and I’d never written an R&B song, so I was just scared. That song [“Pulling the Pin”] was one of the last ones we got done. Rarely do I say, “Nah, man, we can’t do it like this” because I know how much time we both invested — especially El putting it together. But on that record, El wrote the hook, he tried the hook, and I tried the hook. I just hated the hook. I love what it was saying, but I’m like, “Our voices are not supposed to be doing this.” My manager Will [Bronson] knew Mavis, and we got her. I’ve never been so envious in my life that El got to sit in the room with Mavis and do [the song] with her. 2 Chainz is a fan and had been like, “I want to rock with you all,” and that was beautiful.
El-P: I’ve been a Queens of the Stone Age fan — shit, even a Kyuss fan — forever. We have a lot of mutual friends, and over the past four or five years, we started to become cool with each other and really close. I had hung out with Josh a few times, and I just talked to him about this record that I wanted to do. I already had the music, and I was very excited about that one. And then in my diabolical little mind, I’m like, “Oh, shit, who do we get to combine him with?” We had him do these sort of ethereal background vocals, and there was no hook yet, and I didn’t know what the hook was going to be yet. But like Mike said, we struggled for a long time to find who was going to do it. We talked to everyone from Mary J. Blige to Billie Eilish. We didn’t know who the voice was. Mike, to his credit, is the one that said, “Let’s make sure it’s a true soul singer.” When Mavis Staples’ name came up, we were like “Right.” [nods head] Mavis is someone who has something in her soul and behind her voice that me and Mike won’t have until we’re in our 80s — and even then, we won’t have it because we can’t sing. She had something that generationally added to that song. When she brought it alive, it was a different song. Putting her and Josh Homme together was one of the weirdest mash-ups that I’ve ever been a part of — and it was the best hug [from Staples] I’ve ever had.
You guys pushed your record from April to June and were supposed to open for Rage Against the Machine on a massive tour. How quickly were you able to get over any disappointment that the year got essentially yanked out from under your feet and push forward?
Killer Mike: One thing is that our record fits the times. COVID was a reckoning of sorts. Everyone enjoys having fun. I have never valued partying more than now, so you miss just fellowship — whether that’s congregating at church or just being at the skating rink with my wife on Sundays. For me, the record was so in the times — with the exception of not touring — I haven’t felt like we skipped a beat. We were doing the right thing at the right time by staying in the press, by dropping visuals, by engaging our audience. But out of it, look what it brought out. Like Lil Baby’s record — oh, my God! That record he dropped in the middle of the protests. That young man is wise. The times demanded certain things. So overall, I just felt like we were ready for serendipity, and I’m glad we were.
El-P: Run the Jewels has always been this on this weird rollercoaster ride of not knowing what’s next. We’re not really a thinking man’s operation. We’ve never really had too much of a plan. We’re pretty suited for some unexpected obstacles and things to pop up. And in some weird way, it all feels like part of the ride of being in something beautiful and unexpected.
If I’m being honest, I didn’t imagine Run the Jewels to be more than just a cool thing that we did because we liked rapping together. I didn’t think it would become the biggest thing in our careers and didn’t think it would be this whole second career for us. We’re thankful that people give a shit enough about us at this point to listen to our record. When everything came crashing down, I kinda just rolled with it because I was a little stunned like anybody else. It was like this slow sort of galvanizing landslide. The one big regret that I have about this year is that we haven’t been able to go out on that tour. I think that tour is going to be fucking crazy. I think what the world needs is a Rage Against the Machine and Run the Jewels tour now more than ever. And so when we do finally get the chance to do that, I’ll be very excited. But other than that, I feel very lucky.
Certain times call for a certain voice, though.
El-P: It’s a rare moment when people are tuned in and people are really seeing that shit, and then there’s a piece of art that reflects it. I think that that was a really special and crazy sort of lining up of reality and what happened with the music. I’m amazed by the whole thing, watching it unfold. It was a little scary for me. There were moments like, fuck, because I’ve spent my whole life being in the underground. I spent my whole life being where I could say anything I fucking wanted. I was pretty sure that not too many people were going to hear it. And now it’s like, “Oh shit, the world’s paying attention.” And we’re saying shit on here.
How do you feel about how things are going from January 1 of this year to right now? Has there been any tangible progress made from political, social and cultural reckoning?
Killer Mike: The current president did not cause all of the problems. The current president-elect will not solve all the problems. What I’ve been encouraged by is the progressive voice growing in this country. I’ve been encouraged by small acts of seeing the Amish show up in protest. I’ve been encouraged by seeing citizens get in the community and feed and help one another. I’ve been encouraged by the fact that people got active and burnt down three police stations in Minneapolis because they took it directly to the state to say “Enough of this fucking shit.” As an organizing mobilizer for 30 years, I am excited as shit. As a musician, I have been happy with the response and overjoyed that my music in these times met at a moment where people needed it. As a husband and dad, I’ve just been happy to be home with my family. I missed out on millions of dollars on tour, but really learned this year that truly the greatest wealth you can have is health and being able to have the solidarity of family and community around you. And that’s true if you make $24,000 a year. That’s true if you make $2.4 million a year. I’m appreciative in this brutal, horrible year that I’ve been able to help people.
I’ve seen people help people more than I’ve ever seen. And I take that lesson until 2021. I just take the people getting active on these politicians’ asses too seriously. And I’m glad to see it.
El-P: That’s one of the reasons why you’re not going to find me and Mike bitching too much about our situation. People sort of asked us about it, “Oh, it must have been hard that you couldn’t do this and that.” I think hard is out there, and it’s not hitting us. I think you have to just look at your situation. Hard is the service industry getting decimated. Hard is the people on the frontlines of the medical community. Two rappers not being able to tour for a summer is not that hard. I’d like to think that we have a good perspective on that. We’re lucky to have that ability. And when we get the chance, we will run out of the house screaming.
How has having essentially second careers as Run the Jewels make you appreciate the success you’ve had?
El-P: I think that if this had happened to us at any earlier point in our careers — if we weren’t who we were and if we hadn’t gone through the ups and downs of our lives before we met and hadn’t come up with Run the Jewels when we were 35 — I don’t think that we would have had the personal maturity to actually handle what’s happened with how big we’ve gotten. I look at it and I think about it and there’s a lot of kids that get this [gestures up] big and bigger really early in their lives — in their early 20s. When I was in my early 20s, I don’t know if I would have had the sensibility to really be able to carry it, and I was in a group that was blowing up in their early 20s in my early 20s, and we fell apart. We couldn’t handle it. I think that that’s been part of our secret is me and Mike have a little experience under our belts, and it has fucking helped us.
Who gave you the best compliment about RTJ4, and what did they say?
Killer Mike: My kids! They know their dad is a great rapper. They respect and enjoy it. But I don’t chase their brand of rap, and they have diversity in their taste. My oldest kid’s birthday present was the AZ record. My younger daughter listens to literally everything from K-pop to hip-hop. But them saying, “Daddy, this is a dope record” and jamming to “Ooh La La” and bringing up songs themselves — as a dad, I was very proud. But the Grammys don’t think much of us, though!
But you don’t need a little statue for validation, though. That’s not what I think Run the Jewels is about…
Killer Mike: I’m not gonna lie, but it’s like you know that something crazy is going to happen, and then you realize, “Oh, I’m the crazy shit that’s happening!” It’s not about needing a statue. It never felt like a more perfect time to take the stage with my homie and hold the statue and say “Yeah, motherfuckers!”
Would you rather that or people looking back at 2020 and think of this album? Which is more important?
El-P: I feel like they’ve freed us from the responsibility of ever even qualifying for something as civilized as a Grammy. We as Run the Jewels have to be the wild cards. We can’t be in that. We have to…
Killer Mike: We’re gonna burn this motherfucker down. I hope you know how fucking much anger and hostility I got going into the next album. I mean, just from people telling us that our record got them through the year. For me, that’s the biggest reward I’ve received this year.