Taking a Victory Lap With Run the Jewels

RunTheJewels_by Vic Michael
El-P (Jaime Meline) and Killer Mike (Mike Render) of Run the Jewels. Vic Michael

When I call Jaime Meline and Mike Render—better known by their monikers El-P and Killer Mike, the brains behind hip-hop dream team Run the Jewels—I am a bit early, and they're wrapping up another interview. Before I mute our conference line, I hear the pair chortle as Mike drawls: "Run the Jewels is really a comedy group."

Don't tell the masses. Upon the release of their free album Run the Jewels II—the second the duo have made—the Internet exploded with praise. The album topped dozens of year-end lists, with critics and listeners digging its irreverence and El-P's imaginative production work. It was equal parts poignant (Mike raps that he respects "the badge and the gun," while fearing the death of his children from police brutality) and punchy (this is the same guy who rapped: "Top of the morning / My fist to your face is fucking Folgers").

They didn't have time to relish in the album's success, though—immediately, they went on an extensive international and national tour circuit, from clubs to major festivals to opening for Jack White at a sold-out Madison Square Garden performance (all that touring explains why their Newsweek interview has been scheduled and rescheduled many times since November). During their coveted downtime, they offered life advice to late-night stoners on Adult Swim, and heart-wrenching tales of love and loss to teenage girls on Rookie's Ask a Grown Man video series online. In the process, Mike became a favorite media pundit, offering salient perspectives around the tensions surrounding race and politics following the Ferguson conflict. Then they'll turn back around with a smile and bring the house down. And even making music for 20-plus years, they insist they're just ambling through it all like the rest of us, as El-P puts it, just relishing in "eloquently stating confusion."

Today, the fellas have released the video for the single "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" featuring Zack de la Rocha, of Rage Against the Machine fame, through their website. Featuring two people locked in an endless stalemate, the gripping video is intended to "highlight the futility of the violence, not celebrate it," according to a statement from director AG Rojas. Run the Jewels, though, are something to celebrate.

Where in the world are you guys calling from?

El-P: I'm in Brooklyn.

Killer Mike: And I'm in Atlanta.

El-P: A very rare week at home.

Are you kicking it or preparing for the next big thing?

El-P: He's hunting for barbershops, I'm hunting for peace of mind. We tour all the time, and when we get home, while it's technically your down time, there's so much shit that you have to do to maintain your personal life and real life [laughs]. It's hardly ever downtime.

I saw that you were recently in the studio with Massive Attack?

El-P: It was amazing. Those guys are legends and are super smart and down to Earth and funny and great people. They reached out to us and we were like fuck yeah, man. Let's get together!

Is your collaboration with them something we might see on Run the Jewels III?

El-P: I don't know if it's going to be on their record or we're going to something for our record or both. We had a great time in the studio, and we're going to get together and do more.

How have the songs from RTJ II been resonating with you now that you've taken them on tour and played them in different size rooms?

Killer Mike: I thought that when we went into bigger rooms, we gonna lose some of the energy. On our first few runs out [Run the Jewels I], those shows had a real punk rock energy to them. The audience was in our face, we were in their faces. We were literally together. And I worried—is that connection going to be lost? 'Cause a lot of times, there's a gap or area or space [between us and the audience]; and what I've seen happening is that the crowds have grown, but the intensity is still there. And growing with larger crowds. Which at times, scares the fucking shit out of me. We've had shows where there are four mosh pits going at the same time, and yet our audience still knows how to take care of each other. But it's just...amazing. I'll say this: All my fears and self-doubt have been dispelled. Run the Jewels has made me feel like any and everything is possible.

El-P: I mean, we just played Madison Square Garden! So there's no better place to test your material and see if it holds up in a big room. It was fucking unbelievable. On the low, we were really nervous about it…

Killer Mike: We were nervous as fuuuuuck!

El-P: Let's be honest here: this show was sold out before we were even announced to be on the bill. This was a Jack White show. So we didn't know if there was enough of a crossover fan base or whether or not what we were doing would be appealing enough to the people who didn't know us in that situation. But that's pretty much the biggest room that has a roof that you're going to play, you know? About three songs in, I felt that we were playing just a regular club. I felt that energy in the same way. That was very pleasantly surprising to me—that, Wow, this music really can hold up in this environment.

It's funny, because we made [the album] just really humbly. It was never conceived as something that we thought could be played in a stadium. We're kind of like these wise guys dudes who aren't even supposed to be here. I feel someone fucked up, left the key under the mat, we found it and went, oh shit! We can open the door.

Do you ever wake up sometimes and can't believe this is your life?

Killer Mike: Yes! I do. Maybe five times a week, I look in the mirror and think: "Oh, shit. This is not a dream. This is really going down."

El-P: There was a real moment when we first dropped the record [Run the Jewels II]. We had a tour set up already, and there were a lot of rooms that were not filled up. Maybe 50 percent sold. We dropped the record, and a week later everything was sold out. Our careers have not been quick, we've been doing this for a long time. But that moment was one moment I will always remember. When we first started those shows, and seeing what was happening, me and Mike would just look at each other…

Killer Mike: Yep.

El-P: We would just look at each other, without saying anything, and just burst out laughing nervously. As if saying oh, fuck! What's happening? And that's a thrilling feeling, you don't want to question it too much. We would have been happy doing what we were doing; we liked our careers, and could sustain ourselves.

It's really kind of crazy: You go through a 20-year period where you're happy but kind of in the back of your head, you think, It's never going to get much bigger than this. OK. And then, I swear, the second you let go of that desire or feelings nagging in the back of your head, that's when it happens! Once we gave our record away for free, that's when it started to really happen.

Sounds a lot like dating—when you check out, things start to actually happen.

El-P: Oh hell yeah! No one wants to fuck you when you desperately want to get fucked. That's just a fact.

Killer Mike: He put that so poetically....

El-P: That's something men learn early, like, goddamnit! How come every time I am finally in a relationship that other women want to [be with] me? Because you're relaxed, you're chilling, you're cool. You're not desperate. People can smell it on you. And it's something you cannot fake, either. It's intangible, has to be a real thing. It seems to apply to everything. There's probably some mystical lesson in all of this, but I'm probably too stoned right now to understand it.

Killer Mike: I marriage counsel on my Instagram. First rule of marriage is: You and your wife should do stuff together, like Mambo [dance] classes and strip clubs. You have to do that.

Hard-core and casual hip-hop fans alike immediately connected with Run the Jewels II. I can't help but think partially it's because the album came out at a time when there is quite a bit of unrest and unease, and people responded to that honesty, that confusion.

Killer Mike: Absolutely.

El-P: Yeah. But Run the Jewels is not engaged in explaining to you how things work. That's not who we are. But we will be honest how we feel about it, that's all. What can I say? I don't want to be lectured about anyone about anything, period. Maybe it's just a personality trait I don't like. Unless you're Stephen Hawking lecturing me about the cosmos, I pretty much don't like you doing that.

Killer Mike: Check this out: Stephen Hawking is to white people what Jesus is to black people. That is amazing to me. He is the new messiah to white people in America. Shout out to Stephen H.

El-P: Not to me, I just think he's cool.

Killer Mike: But I mean, thank God for his intelligence. There are a lot of batshit crazy people talking out here.

On a different note, what's the last thing you listened to that truly electrified you?

Killer Mike: The second beat that Massive Attack played in the studio for us. We're going to put drums under it and it's going to sound like God is coming back.

El-P: Super, big, heavy, synth-heavy. Massive Attack is making some really dope shit.

Killer Mike: I had a religious moment when I imagined the drums El is going to put under it, I believed in all three religions at the same time.

El-P: For me, no bullshit, no nepotism, but the best thing that I've heard lately is the new BOOTS [a collaborator on Run the Jewels II] record. I've been listening to that, it's beautiful. That's the shit that's been blowing my mind recently.

What was the first album you bought with your own money?

Killer Mike: Rhyme Pays by Ice-T.

El-P: I grew up in a family where my dad had a record collection, and so vinyl was always around us. He would buy me things like the "Monster Mash." That was one of the first records I had. But the first piece of vinyl I ever bought in my life was the Star Wars score. It was gatefold, had a picture of Darth Vader on the front…

Oh, what's up with Meow the Jewels [the remix of Run the Jewels II crowdfunded to be made with all cat sounds]?

El-P: Meow the Jewels is in production! Officially. We're getting all our ducks in a row, and I released a few snippets of me putting it together. But that's one of our main focuses for the next few months, that record. So we're getting all of the a capellas and things. So we're in the process of wrapping our heads around it, I've already started on music. It's definitely coming this year.

How do you even go about wrapping your head around making an album of purely cat sounds?

El-P: It's been a lot of cat action, I've got to be honest with you. Or cat-ion, as we call it. Wrapping your head around the stupidest possible idea ever is not that hard. You just have to get really stoned and dive in with a bunch of cat sounds. That's really all it is.

In that vein, what are each of your spirit animals?

El-P: I always thought that I'd be a squirrel.

Killer Mike: I'd definitely be a tiger. Because you get to chill by yourself. My wife says that I'm a gorilla, but I would like to imagine myself as a tiger.

El-P: I think you're a very elegant, beautiful tiger… I'm not that grand in my imagination. I just like squirrels.

Killer Mike: You do have a nice tail.

El-P: Thank you. I don't know what means, but thank you. But squirrels are cool. Growing up in New York City, I always liked squirrels—they're grimy and they're native New Yorkers.

Killer Mike: You know what they call squirrels in Alabama?

El-P: What?

Killer Mike: Good eating.

Taking a Victory Lap With Run the Jewels