Hip-hop is a young man’s game, by and large, and not even its biggest stars are exempt. In an August interview with the New York Times, Andre 3000 of OutKast said, “I remember, at like 25, saying, ‘I don’t want to be a 40-year-old rapper.’ I’m 39 now, and I’m still standing by that. I’m such a fan that I don’t want to infiltrate it with old blood.” That’s partly why the explosive success of Run the Jewels has caught so many people by surprise—both of the duo’s members, rapper-producer Jaime “El-P” Meline and rapper Michael “Killer Mike” Render, turn 40 next year. Even the two of them didn’t expect their partnership to be so potent and fruitful.
El-P first made his mark in 1993 as a member of Company Flow, and in the 2000s he became one of the most recognizable faces on New York’s underground scene, both as a solo performer and as cofounder of the indispensable Definitive Jux label. Killer Mike came up in Atlanta under the tutelage of OutKast—he raps on 2000’s Stankonia, the 2003 double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and Grammy-winning 2001 single “The Whole World.” Thanks in part to that association, his major-label debut, Monster, reached number ten on the Billboard 200 in 2003.
But by the end of the aughts, it looked like the decline of the music industry might deliver fatal blows to both men’s careers. Def Jux collapsed, and when it went “on hiatus” in 2010, El-P hadn’t released a proper solo album since 2007’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. Around the same time, Killer Mike was looking for an out, responding to falling record sales by investing in other businesses—in 2011, for instance, he and his wife opened a barbershop.
Who knows what would’ve happened if Adult Swim vice president Jason DeMarco hadn’t brought El-P and Killer Mike together three years ago. They struck sparks off each other, as friends and as musicians, and they’ve released a dazzling run of great material together and apart—beginning with Mike’s 2012 album, R.A.P. Music, which El-P produced (DeMarco served as executive producer). Now they’re touring behind Run the Jewels’ fantastic second album, and El-P has started working on a remix of the whole thing called Meow the Jewels, whose instrumental tracks will be built from cat noises. Originally a joke preorder option priced at $40,000, Meow the Jewels became real when fans pledged more than $65,000 on Kickstarter; proceeds will benefit victims of police violence, including the families of Mike Brown and Eric Garner.
Interviewing Run the Jewels for this week’s Artist on Artist is 33-year-old local beat maker Adrian Villagomez, aka A-Villa. A bank manager by day, in 2010 he started working on the songs that wound up on his great new debut, Carry On Tradition; Killer Mike is among the dozens of distinctive MCs who appear on it. Run the Jewels play two back-to-back shows at Metro on Saturday. —Leor Galil
A-Villa: I actually have some past and recent history with both of you. El-P, when I was going to school, I used to do street-team promo work for Def Jux. Back in the day. I was out there hanging up Mr. Lif and Aesop Rock posters in the street? I’ve been a supporter since the Company Flow days.
El-P: I appreciate that a lot.
Killer Mike, the first single from my new album is that song with you, Lil Fame of M.O.P., and Cormega: “The Warrior, the Philosopher, and the Rebel.”
Killer Mike: Thank you for making me a part of that, for real.
Congrats on the new album—sounds amazing. What was it like to release your second project, with maybe the added anticipation?
Killer Mike: You don’t want to fall into redundancy and just do the same trick over. And you don’t wanna fall below a bar you set. So that was pressure, and that was exciting—any time there’s pressure, you perform better.
El-P: We knew that we wanted to make something that was worthy of succession. We gave a shit. The first record, we were just chillin’—not that we didn’t care, but we didn’t have any expectation. We didn’t know what was going to happen. And I think that once that popped off, we realized we had a chance to make an artistic statement. So when we released it, it meant the world to us that people actually felt this shit. We were more nervous about this one, because I think we put a little bit more of our hearts and souls into this record.
Mike, do you remember what initially attracted you to El’s beats? Were you familiar with him prior to when you made R.A.P. Music?
Killer Mike: Yeah, we were familiar with each other. Friends of mine from Boston and Cambridge in particular are big Company Flow fans even to this day. But I liked, personally, the Cannibal Ox record [2001’s The Cold Vein, which El-P produced], because I wasn’t used to hearing east-coast stuff be that beautifully soulful.
When I got there in the studio with El, the first track we ever worked on was “Big Beast.” Fuck a sound, it was a feeling! Time I put my voice over his track, I was like, “This is who I am supposed to be making music with.” For lack of a better analogy, I felt like Snoop the day he found Dre. For a long time people had given me some very lofty comparisons to a particular favorite of mine, O’Shea Jackson, Ice Cube. And although it was warranted—by way of I had a passion, I had a great voice, I had a great subject matter—it was confirmed with the music of El-P, the music we made together. When you find your musical soul mate, it’s less of “I like this sound” and more of “This just feels like exactly where I’m supposed to be.”
El, what initially attracted you to Killer Mike as an MC?
El-P: We were aware of each other enough to be like, “Yes, I would like to get into a room with this dude.” I’ve worked with a lot of different people and obviously I do my own music, and you recognize—Mike is a rapper’s rapper. And I’m a rapper.
Mike is a very true, very human and powerful voice. From a production standpoint, the same way that Mike needed someone to bring something out for him or to fulfill something for him, it worked both ways—for me it was like, “I need a muse, I need somebody who is up to the task and who trusts me and who will be able to raise the bar and turn these musical ideas that I have into something powerful.” It was very, very obvious to me that I needed to meet him and we needed to try this. And then when we got into the studio, like he said, the first jam out the box was “Big Beast.” I think we just kind of looked at each other, like, “Oh shit.”
Our friendship built from then on. We liked each other immediately. But it was a meeting of the minds, of creative shit, you know? I was inspired by what this dude was saying—and the fact that it was coming from the music that I had. It was just one of those serendipitous things, where you’re like, “Damn, this dude is a monster, and it would be crazy for me not to work with this dude and just see what we can do.” And it was a real added bonus—really it wasn’t even an added bonus, I would say it openly became the most important thing—that I like the guy. I thought that he was powerful and true, and I also enjoyed the way that he’s fucked-up, because I’m fucked-up too, you know? We really related on a lot of human levels. So it was pretty natural, man, and that’s why we’re still doing this four years later. We’re still running strong, and stronger than ever.
I definitely feel you on Mike as an MC, as an artist, as a person, just being inspired in what he does. We talked about the song that we worked on, and he honestly inspired the concept of that record, “The Warrior, the Philosopher, and the Rebel.” He exhibits all of those things to me, so when I titled the song, obviously I got that from Mike. I can’t imagine making a whole album with him.
Killer Mike: We definitely have to work again too, brother. You fuck with a caliber of MC I really respect.
I appreciate that, brother. We definitely gonna make that happen.
Just on some producer-nerd questions, El-P, let me ask you, man—I’m rocking with that Native Instruments Maschine crazy right now. What’s currently your drum machine of choice? What are you using?
El-P: Maschine is one of the major things that’s been added to my studio over the last five years. I also have a TR-909, a TR-808. I have a Rhythm Master—I collect drum machines. I also collect synths and shit. But I use it all; I have no rules. I like coming up with a combination of things that you couldn’t predict. That’s when beautiful things happen. For me, it’s all just a tool. If I’m stranded on a desert island and you give me a fucking coconut and a fucking stick, I will make a beat for you.
The fact of the matter is, it comes from within us, and we look around to find tools to express that music, and that helps sometimes with inspiration. But nothing’s happening that doesn’t come from within you and your heart, from inside your mind. We’re just on a constant search to try and translate it in a cool way. So that’s why we nerd out about gear. You get yourself in front of Maschine for the first time, you’re probably going to bang out some new shit that you never even thought of, you know? Same thing with finding an old TR-808. It’s all just a toolbox, and ultimately you can’t give all of this equipment to somebody who doesn’t have music in their heart and expect them to make something dope.
Mike, I went to Atlanta for the first time not too long ago, and one of the unique things I discovered was a 24-hour barbershop. It was sort of poppin’ like a club, which was great. But now I understand you have a barbershop! Tell me about it.
Killer Mike: I have a barbershop called the SWAG Shop—it stands for shave, wash, and groom. We do hot-towel shaves, razor shaves. Little boys get a free Hot Wheels with every haircut. It’s probably one of the most beautiful shops you’ve seen. It was painted by Chris Hobé of Artistic Revolt. It just has a lot of dopeness about it. It allows me to give people jobs, it allows me to service the community, and it allows me to make some money. It’s a cool thing.
This record, it came out on Mass Appeal, the last one was on Fool’s Gold—both indie labels. My new album, Carry On Tradition, just came out on the Chicago indie label Closed Sessions. I wanted to ask: What role do you think indie labels play for hip-hop and music in general now?
Killer Mike: I think you see an independent spirit that’s playing a role. It isn’t about labels necessarily as much as the spirit of kids. Kids have a real independent spirit. And then you have some dope indie labels out there, from the XLs to the Fool’s Golds to the Mass Appeals. You’ve still got some long-standing indie labels: Rap-a-Lot down south, Suave House, Cash Money. But I’d just like to say, the cornerstone of rap music is independent, because we’re the stone that was rejected. They didn’t want Def Jam, so Def Jam had to build it on their own. You know what I mean? They didn’t want Cash Money, they didn’t want No Limit—they didn’t want these people to take control, to seize their own destiny. Def Jux, even Rawkus—if it wasn’t for independent labels, you wouldn’t have the quality of rap, you wouldn’t have the culture pushed forward. Because if people that surround the culture are directly out of it, they totally understand it—they’ll take risks on something that others won’t.
I dig that. El-P, you ran a successful indie label with Def Jux—how did that shape how you work within the industry now?
El-P: It made me never want to run a label again. That’s number one. But I’ve been a proponent of the indie label since the mid-90s.
It’s really not to me about the label or the business aspect. It’s about the spirit of doing the music you want to do and cutting through the bullshit—whatever mechanism you can find that will get you closer to the people that are inspired by your music. I decided a long time ago that that’s what I wanted. That I wanted to cut out the middleman. I didn’t want to ask permission. I wanted to just deliver.
No one is perfect, everything is hard, and everything isn’t a science, but I’ve always been a proponent of taking control and taking responsibility for the way that you operate within this music industry. And I do believe that people outside of the larger system have as much if not more to say about the culture and the music that we’re interested in. We’re all just trying to figure out: How can we do what we love and how can we make it as pure and as simple and as successful as possible?
The dream is to make a living, not to spend every day being beaten down by doing something that you don’t love. And if you can make something happen out of the thing that you love, no matter how the fuck, that’s the victory. And a lot of people have the idea on a pedestal of the bigger fame, the bigger money. But I just want to be happy. I don’t need the world. I just need my love of this art to be sustained, I need to keep moving, I want to make progress—but I want to do it with my ideals and my soul as intact as they can possibly be. Look, I just love being involved with the music that I love, and if I can do that and not have to play myself out, and I can go to sleep every night feeling good and wake up with some fucking money in my pocket, then we’re chillin’.
I totally relate to that. Making my album, it was a four-year process, being a relatively unknown producer. I graduated college; I did the career thing in the corporate world. I was that dude in the suit and tie all day. But I was bored. I wasn’t getting that creative outlet—I wasn’t fulfilling my dream, pursuing my passion, which was the music. When I finally got the motivation to do it, it was like, “Man, just go all in and just do it. Just be happy.”
El-P: Let me tell you something—you’ll be more happy trying to be successful at something you love than being successful at something you don’t care about.
That definitely hits home, man. And the motivation at the end of the day was my daughter. Just having my little girl and just having something—we can obviously all be here today, gone tomorrow, but what do we have as far as the memory of us as people? Making an album to me was important; it was my piece of art. It represents me as a person, and I wanted to pass that down to my daughter, so she’ll have something to remember me by—because my music is me, it’s personal.
El-P: Because you’re a real artist, and that shit means something to you, you know?
Killer Mike: I named a record off R.A.P. Music “Willie Burke Sherwood,” because I was like, “I’ll probably never have a building named after him, I’ll probably never get a street named after him, but he was my grandfather that raised me.” I was like, “If I make a record, and this record is dope, no one will forget his name,” you know what I mean? I said my grandmother’s daddy’s real name on Run the Jewels 2—that’s how you make people live forever. So I totally get what you’re saying, with just wanting to leave that legacy for your daughter. That’s dope as fuck. That’s real true shit. That’s what it’s about right there.
Exactly. If you see my album cover, my daughter’s on it—she’s in a carry-on sling. She’s featured on the last song, with Rapsody and Guilty Simpson.
El-P: That’s awesome, man.
It’s a personal song; it’s a personal album. So I definitely feel what you guys are coming from.
El-P: When I was doing Def Jux, I had one philosophy—and I still believe in it, no matter what mechanism you’re involved in. Businesses rise and fall, but I believe in this: Your job is to bring the money to the music and not the music to the money. You know what I’m saying? Bring your career to what you’re passionate about. Do not change what you’re passionate about in order to have a career.