On Friday morning, Run the Jewels released their new album, RTJ2, for free download. It wasn’t expected until Monday—the early release was the kind of welcome surprise that has quickly become typical of the rap duo. Already acclaimed individually, El-P and Killer Mike formed Run the Jewels—named for a line in LL Cool’s J “Cheesy Rat Blues”—after collaborating on Mike’s well-received 2012 solo album, R.A.P. Music. Last year, the two put out, also for free, their debut album as a duo, and it was met with critical raves, appearing high on many publications’ best-of-2013 lists.
They plan to follow up their sophomore album next year with Meow the Jewels, a remix of the new record using cat sounds—a project that started out as a joke but quickly turned into a full-fledged project, funded via Kickstarter, with proceeds going to charity. I spoke with El-P and Killer Mike over the phone to talk about the new album, the cat thing, Taylor Swift, and more.
You two have lines in your songs where you finish each other’s sentences. Are you in the same room when you write those?
Mike: Oh yeah, all our songs are written in the same room together. One hundred percent. El writes on his iPad and I just walk around and mumble shit to myself.
El-P: When you hear us complete each other’s sentence, usually what will happen is either me or Mike will get so far in our thought and then pause because we don’t have anything else. And the other person will be like, “I got an idea” and just come write it in.
El-P: And that’s the main way it happens. The other way is we’ll be like, “Aight, let’s do four and eight” and we’ll kind of come up with structures as the song unfolds. But we’re always there vibing off of each other. What we write changes depending on what the other person does. And we don’t really know what’s going to happen either—at least in those songs where we’re sort of trading off, it’s very much about us playing off of each other’s style and thoughts. And then there’s other songs where we obviously sit down and do kind of the more complete individual thoughts—just a straight 16-bar verse from me and Mike. And those are ones that we try to match thematically to each other; usually there’s a general theme and it’s dictated by whoever steps up to the plate and has an idea first.
When did you write most of this album?
Mike: We wrote it over the course of the last year in different places and studios. We recorded in L.A., Santa Monica, Atlanta, and New York. And we only wrote when we went in the studio. So all over this great country.
Are your lyrics ever inspired by the places you’re writing in, or is it all more introspective?
Mike: I was inspired being in L.A.—partially because I have a medical card and that place is the mecca of marijuana. I think most of the record’s kind of reflective of where we were.
El-P: We just like to seek out places where we can kind of shut out the world as much as we can and get into a creative vibe. I think both me and Mike have, over the past year, just been running and gunning so much that we knew whenever we had the chance, we would spend a couple weeks here, a couple weeks there just really getting into the zone and trying to do what we could to really get into that vibe that people hear when they hear a Run the Jewels record. A lot of that has to do with us just being able to zone out and kind of be with the music and each other. Because the records are really just an extension of our friendship and our time together. As much as at it as extension of our artistic desires, the real magic comes from the fact that when we’re together we can create something that we won’t create on our own.
So now you’ve got Meow the Jewels on your plate.
El-P: In my kitty bowl.
Will you have to find cats to represent each of your voices and make them distinguishable?
Mike: People are sending me cat demos.
El-P: Well, first of all, the lyrics are going to be us. We’re doing a remix of the record, so all the music itself is going to be made out of cat sounds. But as far as the logistics go, I gotta be honest, I really don’t fucking know yet. I didn’t think this shit was gonna happen. At one point I started to get nervous, like, “Wait a second,” so I started bookmarking, like, YouTube cat videos basically to sample. But I don’t know what the fuck I’m gonna do. Luckily, I’m not alone in it anymore; I recruited a bunch of my friends to be a part of it. I think everyone’s equally excited to do something for charity and they all get to be a part of what might be the stupidest album in history.
What were those phone calls to Just Blaze and Alchemist like? “Hey, we’re making this album full of cat sounds, you down?”
El-P: “Hey, we’re doing this thing and, uh, it’s for a good cause. Would you be down?” And everybody that I contacted was down, so it was really cool.
Mike: Well I prayed to God to one day work with Just Blaze; I didn’t know God would deliver the prayer like this though. I say thank you God, but I also say you’re a sneaky bastard, God.
El-P: He answered your meows.
Iggy Azalea recently tweeted about how rap music should be global and that the lyrics shouldn’t be “so heavily themed around where you came from.” Do you agree with her?
Mike: I strongly disagree with that.
El-P: I disagree too. I’m sure she has her own ideas but, for me, I think one of the things that makes Run the Jewels interesting is that we are where we’re from and we’re coming together. If me and Mike didn’t have such strong identities and such a strong heritage from the places that we came from, we wouldn’t be who were are, we wouldn’t sound the way we do, and we wouldn’t think about the things we think about. I love the fact that you get two different perspectives, or two different angles, coming in and tackling some of the same ideas.
But, you know, I’m a Brooklyn kid. It’s just gonna be like that, that’s all there is to it. And I guess if I was somebody who wasn’t from America and was here in America doing American music and what I presume is inspired by American culture, maybe I’d have a little bit of a different perspective.
Mike, what do you think? Especially you being from Atlanta, the city whose culture has influenced Azalea the most.
Mike: And let’s acknowledge that we’re connected. You know, we’re both associated with Hustle Gang. Tip [T.I.] introduced me to Iggy earlier, told me she was going to be a star, and he was absolutely right. I love the fact that someone who’s not from America loves rap music. I like the fact that someone who’s not from America has been influenced by Southern rap in particular. And the reason I strongly disagree with her statement—I don’t have a disagreement with her—is because I was a kid 20 years ago in the South when no one gave a damn about the South. No one cared about 8Ball & MJG, no one cared about UGK, no one cared about Outkast except us at that time. So we are a region that is defined by us having to prove ourselves and get on the hip-hop market. And everybody did do that; everyone had to earn it. So I love the fact that A$AP raps like he’s from Houston and uses Houston colloquialism. It’s almost like Southern-rock style: There’s a kid in Canada that grew up on the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd and that’s gonna be infused in his style.
I like Memphis music because if I give them a Willie Hutch sample, it’s gonna be crunk and wild as fuck. If I take that same sample to Houston, it’s gonna be slowed down and mellow and soul. If I take that same sample to Atlanta, it’s gonna be some cruisin’ Cadillac, Chevrolet rider shit. And if I take that same sample to Miami, they’re gonna get every girl in the room to get naked with me.
taylor swifts new song "welcome to New York" makes me want to finally move from New York.— el-p (@therealelp) October 20, 2014
I’m sure you were just joking in your tweet about Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York,” El-P, but have you ever truly considered leaving New York?
Mike: I try to get him to move, but he always says no.
El-P: I’ve lived in New York City all my life. I love New York City, I’ve never moved from New York City. Have I ever thought about moving out of New York? Yeah, sure. I need about $10 million to do it right though.
What do you think would be your breaking point, that one thing that forces you to move?
El-P: If you live long enough and you see the things around you that you grew up loving and have nostalgia about just disappear—and I think that’s obviously a natural progression for everybody. So, sometimes I look around New York and I’m like, well, this city’s little pockets of beauty and rawness and the things that are really unique about my city when I was growing up here are all but disappeared. If New York has just become a mall for the world, then what’s the difference between being here and somewhere else? But I’m a New Yorker to the bone and I haven’t quit yet.
What have you guys been listening to lately?
El-P: I’ve been listening to this group called the Veils, which I kind of discovered late. I’ve been really obsessed with this album that they have called Nux Vomica, and I just think it’s a brilliantly produced and written rock record. And it took me a minute to get into it and once I got into it, I just sort of haven’t stopped listening to it for years. I’ve been listening to Cliff Martinez and his Solaris score. But I love all types of music.
Mike, what about you? Is there anything you listen to with your kids?
Mike: Yeah, I listen to Niggaz4Life with my boys. And I listen to a lot of Sade and Al Green with my girls.
Looking beyond Meow the Jewels, what’s next for you guys? Killer Mike, you told Rolling Stone in March that you’d have a new solo album out by the fall and if it wasn’t out by then, we should worry. What’s the status on that?
Mike: We were gonna work on a bunch of solo stuff, but we didn’t. We just worked on Run the Jewels. But I’ve been doing a lot of freestyles and stuff, like I jumped on the official remix of T.I.’s “About the Money.” And I jumped on some more of those regional records that I think are dope in Atlanta. But more than freestyles and stuff, I wouldn’t expect anything other than this Run the Jewels shit. That’s what we’re about.
Can we expect Run the Jewels 3?
El-P: Yeah, we just started thinking about it. It’s possible. If me and Killer Mike each make $1 million this year, maybe.
Mike: That could be hot.
El-P: I’m just kidding, we don’t care about money at all.
Mike: I like money ’cause I have four children.
El-P: No! We dumpster dive. We get our clothes from robbing people. We’re Communists!