How two 39-year-old rap underdogs combined vulgarity, politics, and cartoons in order to become one of the hottest hip-hop duos in America
Inside the two-story main cabin on board the S.S. Tyrannic—ringing the balcony, posted up the staircase, packed onto the first floor—a crowd of young men and women are clad in spandex suits and masks, beards and wigs, capes and facepaint. One guy carries a huge spear. They shout along to the music, hands chopping through air. A man with a quiver of arrows slung across his back shifts his longbow to make way for an oversized milkshake dancing his way through the balcony. It’s the weekend of Comic Con in New York, and the party is in full swing on Adult Swim‘s three-hour tour up to the George Washington Bridge, then down to the Statue of Liberty.
Right at the center of this torrent of costumed insanity, Jaime “El-P” Meline, in denim and a fitted New York Yankees cap, stands next to “Killer” MikeRender, in all black, on a small patch of hardwood. “We came dressed as Run the Jewels,” El jokes. Behind them, their DJ wears a hat that reads “Business as Usual,” a reference to classic New York hip-hop duo EPMD. And within the large audience of comic book fans, nerds, cosplay enthusiasts, and cartoon aficionados pressed around the pair, there are many young men who know each song by heart, and shout out every lyric.
It’s October 2014 and, in the upside-down free-for-all that is modern popular music, one of the hottest hip-hop duos in the United States is made up of a pair of 39-year-olds who’ve banked off interstitial cartoon music for a rare late-period career renaissance. Not even a second wind, really—maybe a third or fourth. These two are no strangers to critical acclaim, but it’s been years since either artist received as much popular attention as they have since officially joining forces last year. “Something special’s happening,” El tells me before the boat ride. “There’s so much energy, it’s ridiculous—me and Mike have tapped into something crazy.”
Run the Jewels are on the S.S. Tyrannic at the behest of Adult Swim, the fiercely irreverent late-night programming block on Cartoon Network that has played no small role in the group’s success. Although the duo’s new album,Run the Jewels 2, was released this week through Mass Appeal Records—a new independent label co-founded by Nas—Adult Swim has in many ways been the group’s primary patron. The company has not only provided up-front funding, but actually introduced the two rappers, and has consistently promoted their work to a large audience outside of the music industry’s typical outlets.
Run the Jewels upward momentum owes a considerable debt to one man in particular: Jason DeMarco, the Vice President and Creative Director of On-Air for Adult Swim. Prior to the group’s performance, he’s greeted by an unending line of well-wishers and friends; as many people seem interesting in speaking with him as with the artists themselves. “El and Mike have had heights they’ve achieved,” he says once the line has shortened. “But right now, Run the Jewels is as big as either of them has ever been on their own.” This comes with an obvious disclaimer: He’s invested in the group’s success. But he’s either utterly convincing when working the refs, or simply genuine. Forthright and magnanimous, DeMarco explains his role as that of an eager fan—largely because that’s exactly what he is.
He first met Killer Mike when he needed a last-minute contribution to the “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” soundtrack in 2007. At the time, Mike was operating at a creative peak in a commercial downturn, recording what would become 2008’s I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II. His career began in the early 2000s with conspicuous high water marks—a verse on Bonecrusher’s crunk anthem “Never Scared”, another on OutKast’s smash single “The Whole World”. Signed to OutKast’s Purple Ribbon imprint, Mike found his opportunities disintegrating when André 3000 departed, leaving Big Boi to manage the roster on his own. “I was very hurt when André up and left,” Mike admits.
But by 2008, Mike’s independent music felt like a substantial, urgent force in an Atlanta scene driving hip-hop’s broader conversation. His records had an expansive sound that fit snugly alongside established Atlanta stars like T.I. and Young Jeezy. But where T.I.’s music was often implicitly political, Mike—who references Ice Cube’s scathing George H.W. Bush-era touchstoneAmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted as an ideal model—weaved his street stories with an unabashedly explicit political conscience. Most importantly, his pointed rhymes felt organic—a natural extension of the principled rapper’s intelligence and shoot-from-the-hip personality.
Unfortunately, this creative outpour occurred in an era when record sales were rapidly dwindling. “Those Pledge records did good for me and they’re the foundation that this Killer Mike is built on,” he says, “but I was judging myself on physical sales and didn’t understand that music sales were declining overall.” With the industry falling apart, he was ready for retirement. “I was disappointed because I felt like I had spent a career working to still be viewed as a protégé,” he recalls. “So I said, ‘Fuck this shit. I’m gonna join the church.'”
“We drink Hennessy and smoke marijuana,” Mike says when asked about how he prepares for a show now. Run the Jewels are wedged into a small private room on the S.S. Tyrannic’s second floor, just before taking the stage. Seated beside Mike is his wife, Shana, with whom he opened a barbershop in 2011—one of several entrepreneurial moves he’d made, along with voice acting for the Adult Swim program “Frisky Dingo”, as he felt his career drying up. Sitting across the narrow cabin is El-P, who says he’d considered giving up as well. “It occurred to me in a moment of being exhausted,” says El, speaking of his long career not just as an artist but as a label owner. “And I wasn’t just exhausted for the week or the day or the year, it was like, holy shit, 10-years-exhausted.”
As much as the end of the 2000s seemed to spell the end for Mike’s career,Definitive Jux—the indie label El-P founded in 1999 as an alternative to the then-ubiquitous major label system—was in the process of breaking up, increasing his stress. But music was the last thing he’d leave behind. “The thing that saved me was that I never fell out of love with making music,” he says. “So I just threw myself into that and said ‘fuck everything else,’ and all sorts of good shit started happening.” Not that he had many options. “I didn’t graduate high school, you know—I’m gonna have to be a rapper for awhile.”
When his solo debut, Fantastic Damage, was released in 2002, El-P and Def Jux were the toast of hip-hop publications coast to coast—even if, like many indie labels, their sales only peaked in the five figures. This was an era when commercial hip-hop had substantial aesthetic breadth: With any move an independent artist made, the marketplace could respond in kind, either co-opting the artist (El-P and Eminem both placed songs on onetime indie hip-hop bellwether Rawkus’ Soundbombing II compilation before the latter took off for the pop stratosphere) or finding a grander gesture to eclipse it. (Was there an independent rapper with as much manic star power as Busta Rhymes or an independent producer with Timbaland’s chops?) Hip-hop’s future was pop music’s future, too.
In contrast to the aesthetic idealism of the mid-’90s underground, Def Jux explicitly took a stance not against mainstream music—Clipse’s “Grindin'” was a live concert staple for El’s DJ in 2002—but against its business model; all artists were promised an even split on royalties. Nonetheless, El’s music was heavily influenced by his nonconformist inclinations, his production approach eschewing traditional underground East Coast styles. To El-P, the formula is pretty simple: “I was trying to make EPMD records, but apparently I’m too weird and it just came out as this other sound.”
Influenced by ’80s hip-hop and film soundtracks, he blended his nervous grooves with robotic textures and a general ominousness. (“i swear to god i could make a beat with a banjo and a church organ only and someone will call it ‘dystopian sci fi’,” El once tweeted.) His music also offered a particularly confrontational, masculine brand of righteous political anger, a distrust of the system and the compromises it extracts in exchange. A record on his debut describing his upbringing in Koch-era New York, for example, is titled “Squeegee Man Shooting“, its centerpiece lyric about a police-involved killing complicating its nostalgic frame.
Def Jux certainly wasn’t the only independent label of the era, but it was the most press-savvy of the bunch, intentionally or otherwise. The label appealed to a trend-conscious audience, and give or take a few regrettable branding decisions (circa 2003 merch included Def Jux trucker hats, and they momentarily joined forces with alt-pornography site SuicideGirls), to a certain subset of young men invested in hip-hop in 2002—including this writer—it seemed like the only one that mattered.
Another devout Def Jux disciple was Adult Swim’s Jason DeMarco. “After [Fantastic Damage], I just followed him forever,” he says. In 2007, DeMarco started Williams Street Records, a company that would release all music from Adult Swim’s properties. One of the first projects they worked on was El’s “Flyentology” music video. “From there, El and I realized we were very similar people with very similar backgrounds,” DeMarco says. “We became friends.”
El continued to work with DeMarco and Adult Swim, remixing Young Jeezy for a project called ATL RMX in 2009. “When El was making that track, he told me, ‘No one ever thinks of me to work with these Southern MCs, but I want to work with everybody,'” DeMarco recalls. “So I said, ‘Would you be willing to come down and get in the studio with Mike for a day, we’ll fly you out and just see what happens?’ He said, ‘Yeah, why not. Fuck it.’ And within an hour of meeting each other, they were both high and laughing, and I just left. I came back a couple of hours later, and they had three songs.”
After El returned to New York to work on his 2012 album Cancer for Cure, it was Mike—a fan of El’s since hearing his ‘90s group Company Flow—who insisted they return to the studio. “Mike and I bugged the shit out of him until he agreed to do it,” DeMarco recalls. Backed by Adult Swim’s weight, Mike 2012 album R.A.P. Music—produced entirely by El-P—was critically well-received; the duo’s partnership had begun in earnest.
Run the Jewels 2 is the sequel to the pair’s spontaneous debut, which was recorded in a month and released last summer. “With the first record, we didn’t have any grand plans,” says El. “We didn’t know what the future held.” Leading up to that album, El-P and Mike’s audience skewed older—many of their fans had followed the rappers for years. But as their partnership took hold, with El and Mike bringing out the most vicious and immediate version of each other, their audience seemed to snowball—and get younger.
Of course, this is partly thanks to their exposure via Adult Swim, which attracts about 1.5 million viewers on weeknights, many of them college-age men. “[El] has told me that when he goes anywhere, people now tell him, ‘I first heard your music on Adult Swim and had to look it up, and then I discovered Run the Jewels,’” DeMarco says. “I don’t think we’re responsible for El’s success, but I do think his music being on television every single night doesn’t hurt.”
Two almost-40-year-old rappers making music that resonates with a young audience is no small feat, even with Adult Swim’s metaphorical megaphone. Nonetheless, both artists can’t help but indulge in a bit of wishful thinking about what might have been had they joined forces much earlier. It also points to why their success isn’t merely a matter of marketing, but a result of undeniable interpersonal chemistry—which most often manifests in free-associative riffs. For example:
Mike: If I’d met El earlier, we could have changed the face of music by this point, but he always says it wasn’t supposed to happen.
El: It wasn’t. We had to go through all the shit…
Mike: In 2003, if I could have made something to rival AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, we’d be 50 Cent rich! We’d be broken up by now! We’d hate each other! [laughs, high fives]
El: Fuck you! Separate chefs! [laughs]
Their personal relationship is intertwined with the music: a blend of humor and principled aggression, coupled with the general impression that they’re simply good people. Also not to be underrated is their career-long consistency. El’s production remains one of the sharpest tools in Run the Jewel’s kit, idiosyncratic but functional, the gradual refinement of an evolving artist. “The thing I love about music is, if you do it long enough, you get better and better at translating what’s in your head to a medium,” says El. “That’s why I keep doing it.”
This consistency is a feature, not a bug. “Not only have they picked up a new audience entirely, they’ve also never lost their original audience,” suggests DeMarco. “That makes people want to root for them—because they’re just doing it the right way and they seem to be having fun doing it.” Fun is also what enables the group’s politics to flower without consuming the whole.
As writers, they’ve continued to push themselves, rapping with studiously dense internal rhymes, a baroque, wordy style that has the muscular punch of a comic book; somewhat juvenile and often over-the-top, it helps explain their appeal to young Adult Swim viewers: “I Jake the Snake ’em, DDT ’em in mausoleums/ Macabre massacres, killin cunts in my coliseum!” Killer Mike is direct and explosive; El more impressionistic. Both dig the comic potential of vulgarity; “Love Again (Akinyele Back)” is a tribute to the sex rap of 2 Live Crew and ‘90s MC Akinyele, of “Put It in Your Mouth” fame.
But it’s not all about glorious pulp punchlines. Their strategy for Run the Jewels 2 was an intensified version of the first record. “We wanted it to be meaner and darker, and say things close to our hearts,” El says. The laser-focused “Early” features a police-shooting narrative from Mike, who has recently spoken out on the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. And the most compelling moment on the record is “Crown”, a song that complicates the group’s usual point of view, as Mike confronts the regrets of his past—the moral compromises he felt he needed to make. “I carry around a lot of guilt,” says the father of four. “I sold drugs and I was successful at it. If you have any type of humanity or morality, that’s going to fuck with you the rest of your life.” On the song, he raps about selling drugs to a pregnant woman—a character based upon a composite of two women he’d known in his real life. “The child that I rapped about is not mentally disabled for real,” he says, “but I needed to add a weight of gravity and the sum of my fears.”
Mike had struggled to finish the track, getting caught up at its conclusion. “I would get to a point and just get so fucking sad,” he says. “Then my wife reminded me that one of my grandma’s favorite records was ‘Lay My Burden Down’, a negro spiritual. That’s what my grandmother had tried to get me to understand my whole life: put your responsibilities to other people and your worry and your shame down. As humans, we carry our hurt and guilt, and until we put all that shit down, we can’t pick it up.
“People don’t accredit Killer Mike and El-P with having the humanity that we do,” he continues. “They don’t understand that the darkness and the anger that we rap about comes from a place of love, care, and concern. Everything about that song is just so human. You can’t turn away from it.”