In 2012 Killer Mike’s sixth album ‘R.A.P Music’ was produced by El-P, and Killer Mike in turn guested on El-P’s ‘Cancer 4 Cure’. The two hit it off and started working together as Run The Jewels, named after a lyric in LL Cool J’s ‘Cheesy Rap Blues’. The self-titled LP was recorded in woody upstate New York and a studio in Brooklyn called the Space Pit before it took its rightful place as one of the most thrilling albums of the year. Killer Mike’s Atlanta baritone drawl cuts with El-P’s sinewy flow in a monument to the power of synergy in rap. It’s frenetic, elegant and rowdy with supporting acts from Big Boi and Prince Paul. We meet in the attic of the Ninja Tune office in South London on a autumn day so windy the leaves almost blow through the window to speak about atheism, Thatcher, feminism, body image, steak, cadence and more.
NME: So what’s Mike like on tour?
EL-P: He’s one of the best touring buddies I’ve had in my life. He has certain things that he needs and has no problem getting them.
El-P: Like marijuana on a daily basis (opens tin containing a fair few massive spliffs).
NME: What do you eat on tour?
Mike: I like steak.
El-P: He’s an American meat and potatoes dude. I’m little bit more metropolitan, I like Asian fusion
NME: What’s on your rider?
El-P: It’s not that glamorous. Lunchmeat and cheese. As long as we have the alcohol and the ice I’m usually pretty cool.
NME: Any rules on tour?
Mike: Don’t shit on the tour bus. You can’t take a shit. If you mess it up, clean it up.
El-P: Be discerning with the quality of human you bring on the bus.
Mike: Try not to smoke cigarettes. El can but nobody else.
NME: What’s your process for making a track? Does El do the beats first and the words come after?
Mike: We record together in the same room. But he’s the producer so he composes after we finish recording. He takes that shit back to whatever secret dimension EL-P goes and makes it even more phenomenal. He makes life easy for a rapper.
NME: When did you first meet?
El-P and Mike point to three questions scrawled on a whiteboard that are banned from press interviews. One of the questions is: ‘Don’t ask how we feel about other artists’. I try and get around it.
NME: What drew you first to Mike?
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El-P: I liked his music already. He’s a great, charismatic rapper with a lot to say. There’s not much to not like. He’s a rapper’s rapper. If you’re a hip-hop fan you will respect what Mike does. I was asked to go work with him. I flew down to Atlanta to do a couple of songs on R.A.P Music and from there we became friends.
NME: What attracted you to El-P?
Mike: I liked the way he thought as a human, the conversations he had. We really agreed on the contrasts that we had were interesting enough, so that we wanted to keep communicating. And I’m a rapper, so the fucking beats. Insane maniac beats. I watched a lot of sport. You see a quarterback throwing the fuck out the ball you want to be on that team.
NME: What kind of conversations were you having?
El-P: One day I sat him down and said, ‘I think there’s something bigger in the universe than just us’. He said ‘I know what you mean, man, I think there are other thing happening in the universe apart from just us.’
Mike: We share the same views on religion, government, humans…
El-P: We grew up at the same time, we’re the same age, same set of references and sense of humour.
Mike: The only people who may have something comparable are young people going to the military or college ‘cos you’re thrown into an experience together, you really don’t know one another and that experience bonds you in a different way. That’s a pretty good analogy right there: we went to war.
El-P: Maybe a bit overstated?
Mike: For college?
El-P: I don’t know, I didn’t go to college. We’ve worked with enough people to know when it’s cool. I think we both met at the right time ‘cos we’re at a similar place in our lives. We love doing what we do. We think we have something left to give for a long time. We’re at the point where we don’t want to do something that we’re not enjoying.
NME: You described Run The Jewels once as a ‘burst of rebellion’, yet apart from a few songs it’s not an overtly political album. What are you rebelling against?
EL-P: Did I say that? Sounds like some horse-shit that I would say. Just something being raw and good-spirited is a rebellious feeling especially in the context of other vibes on other records. Sometime something can burst through that has a different energy that even if it’s not necessarily overtly about rebellion its existence is rebellious. Just us even collaborating and being from such seemingly different scenes in the music industry is rebellious and the fact that it’s working and people are enjoying it. It’s a positive rebellion. The record isn’t overtly political but we’re more complicated than that. The one-up straight-up political records have to be that. Some of them have to exist. Me and Mike have a dash of cynicism and humour and just shit-talking involved ‘cos it makes it fun for us.
It’s easier to laugh at your execution rather than beg for your life.
NME: There are a few political songs on the album and you’ve both displayed a social conscience in your other work. You mentioned government and religion. What particularly worries you about society?
Mike: I don’t know if it’s the fear or loathing of government and religion. I can’t do anything to change religion’s 2000 year-long stronghold on the world. I can be a good man, a good human being, good friend and love people. That’s what bonds us.
El-P: In terms of political perspective we both share a legitimate love and concern for mankind. It sometimes comes out in the form of cynicism but that’s just artistic slang, it comes from a real place. We’re not overtly political rappers but we do have thoughts and ideas about what’s going on in our lives. I reserve the right to think many different things and to change my mind and to even be wrong. I’m not running for office, this is art. I don’t have to say the right thing, I just have to say something that I’m impassioned about at the moment and say it well.
NME: What are you passionate about at the moment?
El-P: I live in a constant state underneath it all of deep, deep, deep concern for all of us. It never goes away and it’s not a varying thing, it takes on a lot of different ideas.
NME: Go on..
El-P: I have empathy for the human race and I think we are in dire straits in ways that would take a long time to explain. OK, what about wars? Wars could be a good start. We could start at war and emanate to everything else we’re fucking up. But I very much like being alive and I very much love people.
NME: I heard a lecture the other day about how politicians in the States use religion more as an identity instead of for its values, in a different way to the supposed separation of the church to the state in the UK…
El-P: We were trying to do separation of church and state in the US too. It hasn’t really been followed, has it? The funny and interesting thing is that the so-called religious politicians are actually complete 100% atheists. They don’t believe in a fucking thing. That’s just a fact. The people who talk the most about God are people who are the least like God.
Mike: What made you say Obama? He rarely if ever talks about religion?
NME: He’s the most famous politician in the world.
Mike: But he’s probably the most agnostic politician of them all. We don’t know what he believes.
El-P: No, we know what he says he believes.
Mike: I also know he used to wear a bow-ties and organise in Chicago which gives me the impression he’s Nation of Islam. But he’s not the one who uses religion as that evil. It’s members of the opposite party and I’m not pro any party but members of the opposite party tell you ‘We love this guy named Jesus’ and then they’ll tell you ‘Don’t have a programme and feed poor people’. Well really that’s one of the greatest thing that Jesus mandated: that you should feed the poor, visit the sick, and care for people in prison. They care about doubling prison populations and they do not want to award healthcare. My whole list of gripes about Obama has nothing to do with God.
El-P: I don’t know what religion is to these people. I don’t know what religion is. But if you’re talking about spirituality I don’t think believe any of these motherfuckers. I’m a little bit more cynical about everything. I think everyone is full of shit.
Mike: I believe whole-heartedly that there’s a grand architect but I don’t believe he wrote any of the books.
NME: It’s dangerous when people say ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’.
El-P: But atheists who say ‘we’re right, you’re wrong’ are just as much of an asshole. If you’re telling anyone about an abstract concept that you’re right and they’re wrong then you’re a fucking asshole ‘cos you don’t know and they don’t know. Atheists are just as obnoxious if not more obnoxious than zealots. It’s the fucking yang of the yen of religious zealotry. I say fuck ‘em all and if you can do some good, do some good. And we’ll find out in the end.
NME: So few people are making political music and artistic statements today in music as well as literature and art. Why do you think that is?
El-P: I have a few theories. It takes a long time to change the mindset of a population. I don‘t think that that kind of music is encouraged. I think it’s discouraged and a different set of values are promoted in the music industry ‘cos the power structure got a little freaked out after the 60s. The media conglomerates that own everything have an agenda just like they do with the news. Also music has to be interesting and good to people and you’re fighting an uphill battle if you’re being lecturey.
NME: And there are so many disparate problems..
El-P: It has to be part of something bigger though for it to work. In the 60s it was valid in America and all over the world to make that type of music because everyone in the population was having this moment. You can’t just do it in a vacuum. I don’t think musicians are obliged to do anything. It’s more disturbing to me that there can be atrocities, wars and lies upon lies and constant ridiculousness and the people don’t do anything about it. They’re sitting there taking it in the ass, including me.
NME: There’s still a ton of misogyny and sexism in the music industry and as a female hip-hop fan I find it hard to stomach. Eminem and Danny Brown have been pulled up (again) on their lyrics this year..
El-P: It is your right to feel that way and I 100% respect whatever you feel about that. I don’t really work as an overall critic of music because I think it’s up to everyone to decide how they want to do that.
Mike: It’s a worthless debate because it’s never going to change. It hasn’t changed in 50 years of rock music. It hasn’t changed in 2000 years of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It hasn’t changed in a world dominated by men on a politico-social level so I don’t understand how you expect a couple of kids from Detroit or kids from Brooklyn and Atlanta to transform the patriarchal power machine. I can’t give that shit up in 16 bars. I don’t even know how. I think that’s a question better asked to Barack Obama and the Pope. I just do drugs and rap about the women I’ve experienced who are as virtuous to me as my grandmother.
You know what helped me cure some of my misogyny? I have two daughters. My community – the black community – is rammed by women so the same questions of sexism don’t often apply to me. I can’t see women as less than or not leaders because every leader in my life first and foremost has been a woman.
El-P: That’s another thing we have in common. I was raised by women. The men in my life were either not there or not good when they were there.
Mike: I had good men in my life but the family was led by a matriarch. African-American structure is led by matriarchy not patriarchy.
NME: What was it about having daughers that influenced you?
Mike: They both constantly challenge me on what I think. I was talking to one of my daughters about wanting to be Marilyn Monroe for Halloween. I was like ‘Why would you want to be Marilyn Monroe? There’s Josephine Baker, there’s Earth Kitt, there’s who played Coffee in Jackie Brown? Pam Greer. There’s all these other beautiful black girls’. She pointed at her brother and said ‘He’s going as Michael Myers, you don’t tell him to be Malcom X or Martin Luther King’. I looked at her and said ‘Respect’. Later we had a conversation and I asked her about her obsession with Marilyn Monroe. I felt like it’s a media thing and a brand. And she said ‘Did you know Marilyn Monroe was the first model over 155 pounds?’ I thought ‘Oh shit!’. My daughter’s short and curvy and it was important to her that she identified with someone unlike the waif models in the magazine. She’s smart enough and she figured it out.
NME: You don’t sound hopeless. What about the lyric ‘Do Dope Fuck Hope?’ Is that a mantra?
Mike: It’s a satire.
El-P: It’s an important message to the kids.
Mike: That’s what you get when you turn on your television every day. I remember when there were only three medicine commercials on TV: aspirin, what ever for back pain and feminine hygiene. Now if you turn your TV on you’re sold 10 medicines before you turn off. I’m not telling you ‘do dope fuck hope’, they’re telling you ‘do dope fuck hope’.
El-P: It’s a multilayered joke. It’s half tongue in cheek and it’s half an admittance of an attitude. Sometimes you can’t cope with shit so you smoke or drink something. We are not like self-righteous people. We’re kind of fucked up and that’s a part of our personality. One of things we agree on are that we like to tune out ‘cos we’re too tuned in. That’s why we do drugs. We’re crazy because we’re artists. Artists are unfortunately a bit too tuned into things and it affects us so we run out and go crazy because we have to.
NME: You’ve talked a lot about the influence of EPMD. Though you’re different to Gang Starr, or Erik B & Rakim because you’re both rapping, do you feel like you’re part of that rap duo lineage?
Mike: That’s my aspiration. UGK, Biz and A.G, OutKast, EPMD, Dead Prez… We gotta be there. I see my career now as 2012 having dropped the illest rap record and 2013 having dropped the illest duo rap record. That’s history. If I wanted to be in the hall of fame it’s as a solo artist and a group member.
El-P: I don’t wanna be in the hall of fame at all. I want Mike to be in there though. I started my career in a group which was 100% all about being a part of that legacy. We wanna do that lineage justice and that’s why we’re trying to make it a real group and really create together.
NME: Musically, lyrically have you’ve pulled something out of each other that wasn’t there before?
El-P: We’re a good balance. When we’re alone we‘re being our intense selves and when we’re together we’re finding the points on the graph where our ideas cross and our styles mix and it’s just another thing.
Mike: I’m inspired by his focus.
El-P: Our flow’s changed. We’re bouncing off each other and it’s creating a hybrid of our flows. There’s some more middle ground in the way we’re approaching shit. We are allowing each other to play with each other’s style and you have to be really a fan of the person to do that. We’re both so technically proficient and we’re having a helluva lot of fun flipping that. Run The Jewels flows are not the same as ‘Cancer 4 Cure’ and ‘R.A.P Music’ flows. It’s a third thing.
NME: What’s the difference?
El-P: We’re playing with cadence more, it’s more of a bop. We’re playing off each other more. If Mike does something in a pattern and I’m coming after him I want to make what I do complement him. I’m going to come up with some hybrid to bridge it. It’s like musicians playing together. You can sit in front of an audience with a guitar and play a solo but you sit in with a jazz band and you improvise you’re going to have to see what they do.
NME: You gave the album away for free. Was that a reaction against the music industry?
El-P: It wasn’t against anything. It was for the music fans. We just thought it would be a cool thing to do. We gave the record away because we wanted to thanks the fans for giving us some real love. Saying we want you guys in. Here’s our contribution to this ongoing relationship if it moves us to go to a show and buy something for us or support us or even just share the music with somebody then that’s great.
NME: When you played in London this week you spoke about Margaret Thatcher. What was that about?
Mike: It wasn’t me. I said I’d tripped the fuck out when I first did ‘Reagan’ here. Kids starting shouting ‘Die Maggie Die’ and I didn’t know who Maggie was. I had no idea what people were talking about and then a few months later she died and then I got really freaked out like ‘What the fuck?!’ Because I wasn’t as learned on global conservativism. I knew she knew Reagan but I didn’t realise they were cronies. Working class people the world over despised those two. I was doing Reagan as a kid who grew up in America but these kids who grew up in the UK felt the same way. The feeling I had for Reagan and his regime somehow mirrored their feelings and thoughts for her.
NME: So what’s next?
El-P: We’re already writing part two of Run The Jewels and it’ll definitely be out next year.
The European release of Run The Jewels is out January 13 on Big Dada