The Story Behind Killer Mike and El-P’s Writing Partnership

Later this year, Run The Jewels will be embarking on their 16-date tour in four different cities (New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and Los Angeles). The tour celebrates their 10-year anniversary as a duo, considering their debut self-titled album came out in 2013. At their shows, they intend to play songs from all four of their LPs, making for some truly special shows for their biggest fans.

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In the last decade over these four projects, Killer Mike and El-P have evolved tremendously both as individual artists and as a group. Throughout this incredible run, they’ve chronicled their growth as songwriters.

At the Beginning

Before Run The Jewels even began, El-P and Killer Mike came together so El-P could produce music for Mike’s 2012 studio album R.A.P. Music. El-P discussed their first time meeting during a 2014 interview with Fast Company.

“In about 2010, we met through a mutual friend, Jason DeMarco, who works at Adult Swim and has the Williams Street Records label,” he said. “Jason had signed Mike to do a record with him and he asked me if I’d be interested in working with Mike on his record. He asked Mike if he’d be interested in working with me. We both said yeah — we both knew each other’s work. … [I] flew down to Atlanta, met up in the studio, and it set off from there. The music was happening immediately.”

Mike went on to say that the first song they made together was “Big Beast,” the intro to R.A.P. Music that featured Bun B, T.I., and Trouble. Their enjoyment of working together on Mike’s album would eventually lead to El-P and Mike putting RTJ together, which they said during a 2017 interview with American Songwriter.

“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,” El-P said. “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.”

Their First Two Albums

Later in their 2014 conversation with Fast Company, El-P opened up about how the creative process for their first album together in 2013 had no rhyme or reason.

“The first record we didn’t really talk about it,” he said. “We didn’t have a philosophy. We just got in and spit. We would talk about songs as they were happening but it was a really spontaneous process.”

Then, after RTJ1 saw success, the duo felt that they set a precedent to continue making music. For album No. 2 the following year, they established a new level of comfortability with one another.

“If we had done the one album it would have been just an album. But in order to be a group, in order to have a legacy, we needed at least another album,” El-P said. “And we knew there was momentum with the way we were working and with people enjoying us — it was clear to us we had something special and that it made sense for us to follow up.

“We both wanted it to grow a bit. We wanted to get more out of it. We wanted to push it into a classic second album realm. [RTJ2] is not about, ‘We’re Run The Jewels and we’re here.’ We’ve already established we’re Run The Jewels. This record had a little bit more room for us to fuck around and say some different things. And I think both Mike and I took advantage of that in certain places.”

With two albums under their belt, Mike and El-P began to realize they prefer making music as a duo versus writing by themselves.

“It’s easier for me when I got El in there,” Mike told Fast Company. “It’s easier because I got someone who absolutely knows me. I got someone to bounce shit off of quickly. With solo projects, you get in your own mind — that’s a fucked up place to be. … The group is just fun, fun, funfest because even when it’s difficult you have someone in there with you. My recording process is pretty much that same: Put on a dope El-P beat, walk around, smoke weed, pace for a few minutes, and shit will start coming.”

El-P concurred with this sentiment.

“I don’t think Mike had ever quite met his match,” he said. “He had worked with amazing producers who did amazing records with him but no one had sat down with him and to create an emotional arc.”

Their Two Most Recent Albums

RTJ3 would eventually arrive two years after their sophomore effort, and just one month after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. This event heavily influenced the creation of Mike and El-P’s third LP, considering they both hold values of the Democratic Party and Mike worked with Democrat Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. In his aforementioned conversation with American Songwriter, Mike explained why the writing process was so intensive for their 2016 effort.

“The writing project was different this time around for me because, I mean shit, I was part of a national presidential campaign with Sanders,” Mike said. “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.”

Additionally, El-P described how they had to bring together a multitude of factors to make the album make sense at the time.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Over three years later for their most recent Summer 2020 album, the duo decided to take a complete 180. Getting back to a more loose and enjoyable writing process, Mike and El-P would just “get as stoned as possible and try to make each other laugh” during sessions, as described in their 2020 interview with NME. This led to high-energy, fun-loving music from the tandem.

“It just had to be jammin’,” Mike said when talking about their motivation behind RTJ4. “It had to be that bop, that hip-hop shit that feels celebratory and braggadocio(us) and audacious. It had to make you poke your chest out and want to nod your head. If you’re from the South, it makes you want to move your ass.”

The Essence of Run The Jewels

Overall, whether it be politically-charged, hyper-focused bars or upbeat, aimless yet head-bopping bangers, Run The Jewels always found ways to bounce off of each other perfectly. During a 2017 profile with Pitchfork, El-P felt that this was the case because opposites tend to attract.

“It’s the George Costanza-reversal theory,” he said. “Remember when George figured out one day that every one of his instincts was completely wrong, so all he had to do was just reverse everything that he wanted to do? … Mike and I are completely interconnected, but we also are not going to ask from each other what doesn’t make sense to ask for.”

Currently, Killer Mike is working on his upcoming album Michael, his first full-length solo effort since R.A.P. Music.

Photo by Zak Kaczmarek/Getty Images

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