“Move ya ass” music. Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt music. Or, and this is quite specific: “The most frigid of New York days, and you’re walking out of Katz’s with a pastrami sandwich, and somebody punches you in your face” music.
This is how Run the Jewels’ two members, El-P and Killer Mike, have described their latest album, “Run the Jewels 4.” They added two more during a recent interview conducted over Zoom: “Having fun, and still punching and robbing every kid for their Starter jacket in the park” music (that’s Mike, talking from his home in Atlanta), and “armed robbery with a moment of self-discovery” music (that’s El-P, speaking from his place in upstate New York).
Confidence is a foundational element of hip-hop, but the members of Run the Jewels have turned cartoonishly talking about their music into an entertainment of its own. That’s partly because they’re defining the record in real time. “Sometimes it seems like people want to know there’s some sort of really great concept,” El-P said. “I hate to break it to people that it’s like, We’re just making music. We don’t know what the [expletive] is going on.”
This self-deprecation was a slight deflection: Run the Jewels does, in fact, know what is going on. Across three albums, and this fourth due June 5, the rappers born Michael Render and Jaime Meline have chronicled the running adventures of Killer Mike and El-P, lovable outlaws and best friends tasked with guarding each others’ backs in a world gone mad with corruption and greed. They threaten exaggerated new ways of visiting justice upon criminals (the unlovable kind) and the deeply corny, and spit passionately over adrenalizing, glitched-out production about the importance of remaining clearheaded inside our normal American nightmare.
Killer Mike has the booming voice and moral authority of a preacher, while El-P is the wiseass who doesn’t miss a thing. On “Run the Jewels 4,” the raunchy machismo of their earlier lyricism has flaked off to reveal a less puerile righteousness, and the production is funkier while remaining hard-hitting and densely textured.
EL-P and Killer Mike credit the sonic adjustments to financial security, which has afforded them the privilege of sampling more freely now that they can afford the clearances. (While all Run the Jewels albums are released as free downloads, the duo makes money from touring, merchandise and licensing.)
The group’s name is a reference to an LL Cool J song, and “Run the Jewels 4” strengthens a musical dialogue between the classic hip-hop records they grew up with and their own work: “Out of Sight” samples the Foster Sylvers song “Misdemeanor,” which itself is sampled on the D.O.C.’s “It’s Funky Enough,” while the bouncy single “Ooh La La” is built around a vocal from Gang Starr and Nice & Smooth’s early ’90s track “DWYCK.”
This golden-toned production is counterbalanced by the pair’s sustained contempt for society’s inequities — Killer Mike has been a visible advocate for Bernie Sanders, whom he calls a “good man in a very crooked game” — and a bracing clarity about their feelings, which they’ve slowly excavated with each release. Both men are in their mid-40s, and have the emotional fluency to match their age.
“It’d be a lie if I told you that I ever disdained the fortune and fame/But the presence of the pleasure never abstained me from any of the pain,” Killer Mike raps on “A Few Words for the Firing Squad,” before a moving verse about the death of his mother in 2017, and how his wife prodded him not to turn into “another junkie flunky rapper fiend” while dealing with his anguish.
“This record, I got deeper,” he said in a separate interview. “The first few layers of scabs you pick are kind of dead-skinned, and as you get closer to the cutting and healing, it starts to tingle a little. I’m still alive under there.”
Run the Jewels was founded in 2013 with no expectations beyond making “a [expletive] mixtape as friends,” as El-P put it, and now they’ve toured the world, put out multiple records to sustainable commercial and critical acclaim, and seen their insignia — a gun pointed at a fist holding a golden chain, demanding it be handed over — tattooed on bodies and thrown up by presidential candidates. They’re even in talks to film an actual buddy cop comedy.
Plenty of talented solo rappers have teamed up, but not permanently, and especially not in their late 30s after spending most of their careers on their genre’s commercial periphery. Before Run the Jewels, Killer Mike was a satellite member of Outkast’s Dungeon Family collective, guesting on other people’s hits and releasing a few near-hits of his own. His association began when Outkast was the biggest rap group in the world, and he learned eagerly within their orbit. During our conversation, he proudly cited some of those lessons, like to never rest on the laurels of his past work and to “stay swagged the [expletive] up, and look like something when you’re on camera.”
Outkast’s Big Boi recalled in a phone interview that Mike was “smart, witty, and he was hungry,” adding, “He was very serious about his craft, and I admired him a lot.”
Mike also wasn’t a perfect fit for the world of major labels and corporate boardrooms. “I was not making the music on a consistent basis that I wanted to be making, and I was living for the expectations of others,” he said. After independently releasing several well-regarded mixtapes and solo albums between 2004 and 2011, he accepted that he was working mostly to solidify his “underground status,” so that he could occasionally tour.
Likewise, El-P had won underground acclaim with the group Company Flow, founded the pioneering independent rap label Definitive Jux and released a few well-regarded solo albums of his own. At the start of the 2010s, however, he found himself at a personal crossroads. Def Jux had wound down; the viability of his recording career seemed doubtful. “Everything I had worked on for a decade prior had fallen apart epically — all the relationships I had had drifted away, friends of mine had died and I didn’t know what my next step was,” he said. “There was a huge sense of holy [expletive], did I just squander everything?”
Then, destiny, or the next best thing, intervened: a mutual introduction by a friend who worked on the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming. El-P produced a few songs for Mike, which somehow turned into producing his entire 2012 record “R.A.P. Music,” which came out a week before El-P’s own “Cancer 4 Cure,” which Mike also appeared on.
Though they got along from the start, El-P didn’t plan to fully commit himself to their collaboration. But the partnership kept growing.
“I’ve got to confess: When I was making ‘R.A.P. Music,’ I knew El and I should never not make music together,” Killer Mike said. After the first Run the Jewels tour ended, “I remember my manager said to me, ‘So what are we going to do next, work on your own solo album?’ It’s like, for [expletive] what? I’m in a rap group. I literally said that. He understood, but he didn’t get it, and I don’t think anyone got it.”
El-P cut in: “I got it,” he said fondly.
Mike continued: “I became one half of Run the Jewels, and that’s what I am.”
This fraternal affection was palpable throughout a group interview, and over two individual Zoom calls. About 40 minutes into the group conversation, El-P cut himself off while talking about his relationship with the ongoing Run the Jewels collaborator (and reclusive Rage Against the Machine singer) Zack de la Rocha to call out Mike — the way only a dear friend could — for audibly sipping from an oversize Crystal Geyser bottle: “Mute it, man, we’re hearing you gulp fluids.”
“I’m drinking my gallon of water!” Mike replied. “I’m trying to stay healthy!” (For the record, it wasn’t distracting.)
Their joviality was a byproduct of some much-needed time off following a lengthy album cycle for “Run the Jewels 3,” which came out just after the 2016 election and a spate of police shootings that killed black Americans. It was described in interviews as their “blue” album, and took a lot longer to make than their first two, relatively stakes-free records. At times, an emotionally exhausted Mike was unable to make the trip to El-P’s home studio.
“That was not just, ‘let’s allow ourselves to be moody,’” Mike said. “I was genuinely [expletive] up.”
But this turmoil further transformed Run the Jewels from a casual project to the creative endeavor that would occupy them for the next several years. The duo argued about the finer details of the music; they worked out how to represent themselves as two parts of a whole, not just two parts; they continued deepening what was already a strong friendship into an unambiguous brotherhood.
“When you clash with somebody, and you don’t walk away, that’s when they make the transition to something that you’re going to regard a little more than just being a friend,” El-P said.
They toured for more than a year and a half, performing over 100 shows. When they got off the road at the start of 2018, in some ways it was the first time they’d stopped working since they’d first met. “Mentally, spiritually, physically — I was fried,” Mike said. He relaxed by pursuing what he called “stuff that my grandparents used to do that I thought was silly,” such as maintaining a garden and fishing, which he’d also returned to during the coronavirus quarantine.
By contrast, El-P relaxed by working some more: He recorded the score for the recently released movie “Capone,” and got married that fall, to the comedian Emily Panic.
But there was no doubt “Run the Jewels 4” was happening. “Look, you’re not going to find two guys that are more aware that every moment that they’re allowed to do this on a big platform, and actually be relevant, and actually have people listen to them, at our age and where we’re from and the whole [expletive] in our careers …” El-P said, trailing off, before concluding, “it’s not lost on us, even for a moment,” which Killer Mike punctuated a beat later with a firm “no.”
“That’s one thing you’ve got to understand: I get a chance to rap over El-P beats. This is Ice Cube and Bomb Squad. This is Mike Dean and Scarface,” Mike said. “This is Snoop and Dre. Why would you want to do anything else?”
Though the group’s vocals are always recorded in person, the music is conceived beforehand by El-P and the brothers Little Shalimar and Wilder Zoby, who released music on Def Jux and have served as his collaborators since “Cancer 4 Cure.” Once a large pool of beats has been recorded and a lot of pot has been consumed, Killer Mike helps guide the selections.
Mike, who called smoking marijuana “a very spiritual experience,” compared his instinct for El-P’s production to the feeling he got attending church as a child. “The things that want to come out are always there,” he said. “The music unlocks and allows what I call the Holy Ghost to happen.”
Their deepening collaboration propelled some of the album’s most absorbing cuts, like “Pulling the Pin,” which features a haunting chorus from Mavis Staples, who sounds like she’s coming in over an extraterrestrial radio. Originally, El-P had recorded the verse himself before Mike insisted on finding “a real soul voice,” which eventually led them to Staples. The result is one of the album’s emotional centerpieces, forming a direct connection between two different generations of protest music, as both rappers contribute incendiary verses about the existential grief generated by watching evil ravage good.
“It was a part of what I’ve been doing all my life, trying to bring the world together,” Staples said over the phone. “The youngsters today — they need to be educated about what we’ve been going through all our lives.”
Though they meticulously worked to get the record — which also features Pharrell, 2 Chainz, Josh Homme and DJ Premier — just right, they never considered postponing its release over the pandemic. There is something bittersweet in acknowledging that three-and-a-half years after recording your blue album, things have only gotten bluer. But if protest music cannot force the perpetrators of injustice and inequality from power, it can serve as a galvanizing reminder that millions of people feel just as you do, and are burning for change.
It can also, at least, give you something to move to inside your apartment while waiting to see what’s next. “Without getting too preacher-y, it’s been heavy for black people for 400 straight years in this country, in some form or another,” Killer Mike said. “We constantly remind ourselves that the best fight of hate is just the love of this [expletive] that we do.”
As we talked, he turned increasingly rapturous about the group’s potential. Rap music as a genre is less than 50 years old, he pointed out — the rules of what you can and can’t do remain unwritten. Nobody would have guessed this kind of success for him or El-P, and here they were, defining themselves in real time.
“I’ve seen this mountain,” he said, his outstretched arm tracing an arc through the air, “and now I get to go over the peak and there’s another mountain. I feel like no one’s ever been here, and me and El are explorers. We’re looking for the North Pole.”