Killer Mike was almost in tears driving through New York City this morning.
As the Run The Jewels bus rolled into the five boroughs, Mike and his partner El-P were moved to remember the first days of their friendship. Having been introduced by Cartoon Network executive Jason DeMarco in 2010, they came together in El’s New York hometown to work on Mike’s R.A.P. Music album, which came out in 2012 on Williams Street Records.
“We drove by where I used to live when we were recording,” Mike remembers, his Southern baritone drifting through a cloud of weed smoke. “It was this little shitty apartment next to my favourite chicken and biscuits restaurant. It brought back a flood of memories. I didn’t start weeping, but I wanted to.”
We’re with Run The Jewels in their dressing room, deep inside the backstage warren of Brooklyn’s Barclays Centre, a mile from El’s old neighbourhood and the high school he never graduated from. The corridors are festooned with framed portraits of pop and sports stars.
The rap group Jaime ‘El-P’ Meline formed with Michael ‘Killer Mike’ Render in 2013, after a joint tour prompted them to team up for good, are about to play for a sold-out 19,000 crowd as main support for Lorde. For Run The Jewels, this represents a huge deal indeed.
It comes during a turbulent time, however. RTJ’s notorious image as fighters for good – a lifelong activist, Mike joined Bernie Sanders’ US election trail in 2016 and has spoken and written eloquently about African-American life, equality and police brutality – has come under scrutiny following an interview with the National Rifle Association (NRA). In the near hour-long video, Mike, who has spoken supportively about the NRA before, defended gun ownership and revealed he’d discouraged his children from partaking in the recent gun protest school walkouts. RTJ faced a backlash, El-P came out in support of his friend and Mike has apologised, but the comments jarred with the young, liberal portion of the pair’s fanbase and feel particularly alien to British ears.
They will play to an adoring crowd tonight, with Mike paying tribute to all the women and young people in the room and preaching against youth suicide. The interview is not referenced, but it prompts much debate in the dressing room beforehand. That’s to come. For now, we return to just how Mike and El wound up here in the first place...
"We were walking these streets, never imagining we’d be playing [somewhere like] Barclays. They hadn’t even built the motherfucker!” Mike says, leaning back and puffing out his cheeks.
Built over a similar six-year period, RTJ’s’ totemic profile is just as mighty as this gleaming arena. Three albums in, 2018’s US Record Store Day ambassadors have conquered the world’s touring circuit with wit, honesty and muscular hip-hop delivered in vibrant technicolour, El-P’s futuristic beats and barrel-chested verses proving the perfect foil for Mike’s ginormous flow. Social commentary and lewd jokes are given equal space in their lyrics, while emotion and spirit ensure their fanbase is expanding ever more rapidly. They’ve notched 125 million combined Spotify streams. Chase Me, their collab with Danger Mouse and Big Boi, was nominated at this year’s Grammys, and they played Madison Square Garden at the behest of Jack White in 2015. And anyone who was at Glastonbury last summer will recall the joyous occasion that was the two-time O2 Brixton Academy headliners’ watershed UK moment. They tore up the place in front of a 100,000 crowd after a speech from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who Mike had pledged allegiance to at Field Day weeks before.
And RTJ by no means confine themselves to exposure live and on record: extracurricular activities range from huge sync deals (Black Panther, Lexus, FIFA ‘18) and collaborations with Marvel Comics, to video game appearances (Gears Of War) and ARTJ, their augmented reality app. In the week we meet, El tweets a link to the “rejected” score he made for Blade Runner 2049, while Mike lectures at Harvard. And, they even brew their own beer. Like it or not, RTJ are larger than life.
They dropped all three albums – RTJ1 (2013), 2 (2014) and 3 (2016) – as free downloads, with lavish physical packages following through Fools Gold, Mass Appeal and current label Run The Jewels Inc respectively. Inherently independent, both members are strong supporters of vinyl, and follow Iggy Pop, St Vincent and Metallica as ambassadors for Record Store Day.
We've always tried to make the physical product really beautiful and special
“Record Store Day is great,” says El, sat snugly next to Mike on a sofa under the dim lights of their dressing room. “We’ve always treated it as a special day, since we’ve been guys who have always tried to make the physical product that we do really beautiful and special for people.”
“And,” Mike adds, “We were punk-ass kids who grew up hanging out in record stores. That’s a very vital part of the culture and of our story, you know?”
For Mike, that story started in Collier Heights, Adamsville in Atlanta’s Westside. Born when his policeman father and florist mother were teenagers, Mike was raised largely by his grandmother, and was exposed to both sides of the law as a teenager. His uncle Anthony was a hustler, and Mike came to know gangsters, drugs, violence and injustice. Obsessed with reading, he won a scholarship to liberal arts college Morehouse (alumni include Martin Luther King and Spike Lee) before his rap career took off via an appearance on Snappin’ And Trappin’ from Outkast’s seminal Stankonia in 2000. In 2001, he featured on their Grammy-winning single The Whole World and Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 2. Five solo albums and several different record deals followed before he “recognised serendipity” and teamed up with El.
Until that moment, rapper and producer El had been content with his lot as an esteemed vet of NYC hip-hop, a founding member of Queens trio Company Flow and co-owner of Definitive Jux, the independent label he started with Amaechi Uzoigwe, who now co-manages the duo with Mike’s longtime manager Will Bronson. Def Jux put out records by a string of acts including Aesop Rock and RJD2, and released Dizzee Rascal’s Maths + English in America. El has spoken freely of the difficulties of running the imprint he put on hiatus in 2010, and is clearly clued up when it comes to the business of rap.
“Coming up in in the late-‘90s, record stores were so integral. You could only get our scene’s music on vinyl at certain stores,” says El, who used to sell his own music behind the counter at Fat Beats. “Underground artists didn’t have record labels or an industry. We didn’t really have anywhere to go except to hang out at record stores. It’s a culture that is amazing and that I’m really glad is still here and even thriving. Everyone wrote it off as being dead and that hasn’t happened. No matter what, someone is going to want a piece of art in their hands.”
Mike, who still spins CDs in his vintage cars, affirms that physical music is huge down in Atlanta, too. Just this morning, he received a text from the owner of the city’s DBS Sounds about Record Store Day (which also falls the day after his 43rd birthday).
I’ll never complain about the way the industry sells music, as long as we keep that art going
Both men point out that DSPs offer no guarantees for the preservation of your music collection.
“There are only two places you can go to get something physically related to the artist you like,” reasons El.
“Go to the show and buy a T-shirt, or go to the store and buy a record. I’ll never complain about the way the industry sells music, as long as we keep that art going. The proof is in the pudding, people are buying vinyl, obviously there’s something beautiful about it that cannot be replaced.”
Run The Jewels’ commitment to physical product continues with their Record Store Day release, a special edition of their Stay Gold single. It’s all part of a bid to push the boundaries that began with giving their records away for nothing and putting the fans first.
“The idea of putting our music out for free was the first step,” El explains. “And then realising that didn’t mean that you couldn’t put out a really awesome physical product, or put it on streaming… I couldn’t say, ‘Put your music out for free and it will lead to the biggest thing you’ve ever done.’ But I can tell you that Mike and I are really happy and we feel that we have a modern grasp on a way to interact in the industry and get to our fans.”
Mike highlights his hometown peers Gucci Mane and Future as fellow exponents of a free music culture that leads to “labels playing catch up”.
“The thing we’ve done in making it more modern was essentially an unwritten agreement with our audience to say, ‘Come see us live, and if you like us buy a T-shirt, if you don’t, fine’. That was what made it or modernised it for us.”
Darren Hemmings, of digital marketing company Motive Unknown, handles RTJ’s global digital strategy and says uploading free music was “their smartest digital step”. Hemmings, who was, believe it or not, gifted a peerage from Uzoigwe and the team, relishes his involvement.
“We’ve been helping the guys reach more people in the smartest possible ways. Frankly, working with them is a gift because they just deliver when it comes to incredible things. It’s like a fire-hose of awesome stuff, week in, week out.”
That bond with their fans continues to be of paramount importance, and is largely down to the crackling energy between El and Mike. “I think people can relate to things that are genuine,” El reasons. “People know for a fact that, if you see me and Mike engage with each other in any way, you know it is genuine. You’re not buying into a scam.”
His words intensify the overwhelming sense of brotherhood that’s been hanging in the air since the pair were frisbeeing records at our camera hours ago.
“All of my plans and the shit I thought I had to do went out of the window when I realised the universe had handed me something I wasn’t expecting,” El continues, reminiscing about meeting Mike. “But when I took stock I was like, ‘I’m enjoying this more than anything else’...”
Mike exhales slowly and picks up on the fans again.
“The novelty of giving music away free is what made it, but it’s the relationship with the fans,” he says, banging his index fingers together for emphasis.
“In those 200-300 people [capacity] rooms on tour, we created a relationship that is growing and growing.
That’s the intangible, that’s what I can’t tell another group how to do. We happen to love rocking with each other and that relationship brings in a tertiary partner, which is the audience.”
We love rocking with each other and that relationship brings in a tertiary partner, which is the audience
WME Entertainment’s James Rubin represents the group outside the US, and first met Uzoigwe 15 years ago, when booking Def Jux acts to play clubs in Australia. “I think they are like the Public Enemy or Beastie Boys of this generation,” he tells Music Week. “When they put out the first project it just exploded, even in the small rooms. Fans were super-excited from the moment they started touring. There was nothing like it out there and the combination of El-P and Killer Mike was such an unusual pairing – yet it worked perfectly.”
Rubin is New York tonight too, together with Uzoigwe, who joins him in praising Mike and El. “Beyond their profound levels of artistry, they embrace creativity and humanity on all levels,” the co-manager says. “They possess instincts about art and commerce that one cannot teach or even learn, unless you’re truly immersed. They have natural sensibilities, and are regularly proven to be right. They also empower and trust me and my team to do our jobs and that is a really great environment to be in.”
Bronson says that team RTJ have always let their beliefs and ideas lead the way in order “never to be at the mercy of any other party”. He says that the modest goals they set for RTJ 1 have now upscaled to the point where, “With great music or a good idea, anything is possible”.
Ian Dutt, co-MD of The Orchard, has overseen UK and European artist services for RTJ since 2016. He delights in their trailblazing, and says the campaign is built for longevity rather than the “traditional highs” of hit singles. “They make no excuses or exceptions to what they want to do and how they want to do it. They pretty much stand outside looking in on the industry cherry-picking what they like. Their understanding of how to interact with their fanbase is light years ahead of everyone else’s.”
In her former role at The Other Hand, Zena White coordinated RTJ’s European marketing, and played a key part in their breakthrough here. Now at Partisan Records, she reflects on those days as “a total career highlight”.
White feels privileged to have worked with an act that moulds the industry between thumb and forefinger.
“The industry struggles with the unpredictable – unless you’re Kanye West and they can earn from it – and Run The Jewels are controlling as much of their own destiny as possible, which the industry has to respect,” she says. “They are as authentic as it comes and that’s essential now, the industry is just a platform for them, not a machine.”
Predictably, Mike and El hammer that point home, too.
“I don’t feel involved in the scope of the whole industry,” El says. “I feel involved with our team and our goal of putting music out and connecting with fans, but in terms of the overall industry, I have a healthy separation. I’ve been doing this a long time in different iterations, we’ve gone through the gamut of every way you can be involved.”
We’ve gone through the gamut of every way possible
We remind El of the time he ducked out of a Rolling Stone interview to go to a music biz dinner with Google. He simply says: “I smoked weed and ate the food. I didn’t know it was a Google thing, honestly. My publicist said the food would be really good,” and shrugs his shoulders.
Run The Jewels, it seems, is an operation honed by nature to suit its members, grizzled OGs who’ve seen it all before. “We have come up with something tailored to involve ourselves the way we feel comfortable,” El affirms.
“Man, if there was a formula… Shit! Record companies would have already recreated us five times by now,” Mike adds, before convulsing with laughter again.
Regaining composure after a swig of icy Coca-Cola, he says, “The truest formula is friendship, kinship and the enjoyment of doing it together. I think when you’re having fun, you recognise where more fun is and you don’t do the things that aren’t fun. That’s it.”
This simple philosophy is increasing their cultural impact considerably. In about an hour, they’ll turn this venue into an ocean of smartphone lights during a supercharged version of Down. It feels like a huge moment, but don’t call them mainstream… Not yet.
“I always thought, as a hip-hop fan, if you get enough people exposed to dope shit, that shit can be huge.We’re in our own pocket, I love the fact we don’t rely on traditional ways to blow up. If we get to the mainstream doing what we’re doing right now, I’ll be mainstream like a motherfucker!” El says, simply.
Mike takes over.
“It’s a blessing. I’ve said before, we’re one or two records away from playing arenas, and I know what that feels like because I was around Outkast at a time when they transitioned,” he says. “I don’t know what mainstream feels like, but we’re definitely having an Outkast moment.
People love the music and are blown away by the shows, so if this is mainstream, I’ll take a lot more of this.”
If there was a formula, record companies would have already recreated us five times by now
Mainstream or not, Run The Jewels will not compromise, and both Mike and El underline that they will continue to do as they see fit. They say they “enjoy smoking weed and making stupid jokes” too much for politics to be a cornerstone of their work, although El acknowledges a “fundamental agreement at the core of our friendship about how we feel about the human race”.
Still, Run The Jewels, and Mike especially, frequently speak out on social issues. “I love the fact we have room to talk about real shit, but it doesn’t contradict the fact that, for the most part, we’re just trying to be the best rappers in the world,” El explains.
Sometimes, though, shit hits the fan. It’s time to address the NRA interview.
“The things I do and say come from a place of honesty and sincerity, and if I’m wrong, you know, sometimes you’re wrong,” Mike says. “A lot of times, because of who I am and how I have been initiated into being an advocate and an activist, I suffer from speaking [about] things on the early [before others] that make people uncomfortable, but you have to do it.”
Mike adds that he largely ignores news coverage when he’s embroiled in such stories and, now the dust is starting to settle, he’s gained further perspective on how his NRA interview could emerge as a positive.
“My original intent was for an African-American and an African-American to have a conversation about what guns have meant to freedom, liberation and equality in this country,” he says. “Because of that, that organisation [NRA] used part of that as fodder against the children’s march, and the children’s march used that for fodder to [make] more people vote progressively. But, ultimately, the success that happened was more progressors are going to vote so the older evil are going to lose their stronghold, and those that are conservative got a chance to see a very real and honest conversation about African-American gun ownership.”
Mike and El – whose opinions differ over gun laws – stress how their support for one another in dealing with the fallout shows “how two friends handle controversy through solidarity, love and friendship”.
As stage time nears, the atmosphere in Run The Jewels’ smoky dressing room intensifies further.
“We are not going to let the original subject get away,” Mike says, eyes fiery with intent. “Black people are living under an empire where it is easy to murder us and that is why that gun conversation was important.
“And no other conversation deserves to be predicated above that, I don’t care if it’s children, entertainers, politicians… The black experience, globally, cannot keep being denied and cannot keep being second rate to other things, because we are being murdered, globally, by agents of the state. And I want people to hear that and to know that.”
Whether you agree with Mike’s views on guns or not, his will to turn the debate into a positive stands out.
That search for good drives Run The Jewels, and before they usher us into the harsh lights of backstage, we ask just how far it might push them.
“I want 25 years of this shit,” Mike says. “I want to go in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame with El, to be rocking like AC/DC, an old man with grey hair and black denim suits.”
“… And shorts and school uniform!” El cuts in.
“I don’t think that fantasy is too big…” Mike finishes.
“I have more faith in us being able to rock for 25 years than I do in the American social system still existing then,” says El, happy to have the final word.
America, the chase is on…