Built To Last: A Q&A with Run The Jewels

Killer Mike (left) and El-P. Photo by Todd Westphal

Run the Jewels are the reason you got into rap music in the first place: major-league wordplay and body-moving beats delivered with  braggadocio and brilliance. The third album from El-P and Killer Mike, RTJ3, find the duo making some of the most thrilling hip-hop of the 21st century, straddling the line between futurism and classicism, political and puerile.

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When was the first time that you two collaborated as songwriters?

El-P: I think it just evolved naturally. When I produced R.A.P. Music for Mike, which was the first solo album that I’d done with Mike, I did all the music, and it was his solo album. We just worked really closely together and we formed a really easy, creative bond and we just loved each other’s styles. [Run The Jewels] wasn’t supposed to be any big career move. We were literally doing it for fun. We had no plans to make Run the Jewels sort of our focus, it was something that we just threw each other into, and it was enjoyable. It was exciting because it was unpredictable.

How has writing for this project been different from things you’ve done in the past?

Killer Mike: The writing project was different this time around for me because, I mean shit, I was part of a national presidential campaign with [Bernie] Sanders. I was in the public spotlight for something other than music and there was just a lot of tumultuous shit going on in reference to police and their treatment of African-American men in particular, so it made writing this time around not difficult, but it made it trying.

Because what you don’t want to do is let all the anger and grief seep in, because that stuff is for a moment. You always want to provide hope. And dope shit. Some of it was just getting past the bullshit to the dopeness. For me, it was just letting myself not be caught up in the shit-storm of moments of this year. As a writer you want to address it, you want to deal with it. But you don’t want to become consumed by it.

Someone asked us last night why we didn’t mention Trump more. There’s only one Trump mention [on the album]. Well, you know, our music isn’t for Trump. Our music is the antithesis of Trump, [but] it wasn’t made in direct opposition of Trump or anything. When we talk about “master class,” it’s for all the masters. We kind of let them know that this isn’t music for the moment. We don’t want this music just to be a chronicle of 2016, we want it to last.

El-P: It’s about finding that sort of magical place where our lives and our influences and our hearts and our styles cross. And what the result of that crossing is. With Run The Jewels 3, me and Mike had a few moments writing this record, where we went back in and we took a lot of pains to make sure that what we were saying together, and what we represented to the kids, was cracking so [it was] what we wanted to say as a collective.

Do you think there are advantages to being older even though hip-hop is considered a young man’s game?

El-P: I think we have advantages because we’re dope.

KM: Here’s the thing, I don’t even think about age, because it was impossible [for me] to become a rapper when I wanted to become a rapper. I was from Atlanta, Georgia and I wanted to be a rapper at nine years old. That was impossible.

El-P: And I was a white kid in Brooklyn who wanted to be a rapper, you know what I mean? So …

KM: From our inception, we have beat every odd to even become rappers, so we don’t have time to think about age, we have time to think about dope. I just want to be dope. I think that that’s what keeps us all obsessing over anything, you know, the obsession for us is in outdoing whatever we did last. Our point to prove is always squarely focused on how can we outdo our best [past] efforts and undo complacency. We do not wish to remain complacent at any point in our career.

El-P: We’re anomalous in our genre to some degree because of the fact that we’re not in our 20s. That’s a little strange for people, but only in our genre, in the sense that with being a writer, you’re supposed to get better with age. Most of the great writers on Planet Earth do not even start hitting their stride until they’re in their 40s. And, the fact of the matter is, me and Mike have never looked up from the page. We’ve never looked up from the pen.

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