The collaboration between Killer Mike and El-P, the two indispensable and bomb-throwing emcees who form the uncompromisingly raw and forward-thinking rap duo Run the Jewels, has been as perfect as it was unexpected.
They seem, at first, like odd bedfellows: El-P’s a noise-loving Brooklyn firebrand with an independent streak as long as Bedford Avenue; Atlanta emcee Killer Mike is a boisterous Dirty South soldier who’s flirted with major labels and burst into consciousness via his Outkast guest features. But their similarities run deep—they both make loud, abrasive rap music that often features painful introspection alongside pointed political and societal critique.
While searching for beats for his superlative 2012 record R.A.P. Music, Mike was so enamored with El-P’s skittering, synth- clamored instrumentals that he enlisted the former Definitive Jux head to produce the entire project. Mike returned the favor by dropping a guest verse on El-P’s “Tougher Colder Killer,” from the latter’s own stellar 2012 record, Cancer 4 Cure.
The two have been seemingly inseparable since, in the process creating one of music’s most potent partnerships.
“Musically, I feel like I’ve found my soulmate,” Killer Mike said. “I’ve tried to explain it a thousand different times and given a thousand different answers. But I think it just comes straight down to—it was just meant, you know?”
“There’s no mathematical equation to friendship, you know?” El-P added. “And beyond anything, I think both of us really fucked with what was happening when we combined our influences and combined what we were doing. That was exciting to us, because we were making music together that we weren’t making ourselves. It wasn’t just, like, this works with what I do, it was like, we might be creating a sound that’s completely different for us.”
Run the Jewels was supposed to be a low-stakes, shits-and-giggles slack-off, a free download victory lap following a banner year for both. It turned out to be the most cohesive hip-hop team-up in recent memory, a hysterically hyperbolic and baldly menacing shot of rap adrenaline by turns playful and polemic and set to bumping, boombox-shredding beats. It was also perhaps the most affable thing either emcee had done: Mike and El catapulted off one another, trading eight-bar verses filled with back-and-forth, knuckles-first smack talk and upping the stakes with more protracted 32-bar stanzas filled with rich storytelling (Mike’s psilocybin-induced love story on “No Come Down”; El’s poignant coming-of-age confessional on “A Christmas Fucking Miracle”). Throughout, there’s a palpable sense of friendly, unspoken one-upsmanship between the two emcees, and their rapport’s enough to raise questions as to why this team-up was supposed to be unusual in the first place.
“This whole thing is our relationship extended into the creative endeavor,” El-P said. “It has to be about that. And I think you can hear the difference when you hear our music. You can hear it. We’re not mailing it in. We’re vibing off each other.”
RTJ2, Run the Jewels’ late-October sophomore release, runs louder, harder and nastier than its predecessor. “Last album voodoo/proved that we was fuckin’ brutal,” Killer Mike boasts on “Blockbuster Night, Part One,” before reminding us what Run the Jewels is all about: “This Run the Jewels is murder, mayhem, melodic music.” It’s angrier, too, pointing its invective at any and all authority figures: “Fuck the law/they can eat my dick,” El-P seethes on “Darling Don’t Cry.” “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)” evokes the blistering anti-cop ethos of N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police,” at one point, Killer Mike wonders aloud to various prison gangs, “When you niggas gon’ unite and kill the police, motherfuckers?”
But any resemblance to a direct response to the charged riots in Ferguson, Missouri—despite CNN making Killer Mike a key voice in the political crisis—is purely
“I mean, the album was done when that was happening,” El-P said. “The fact that it sort of has become more relevant to more people on a national scale who maybe weren’t keyed in or tuned in to that type of thing just is a coincidence to some degree. We always weave that stuff in and out of our music. So [RTJ2], I think it’s still a Run the Jewels record, but there’s a little bit more of that, you know, fuck-the-system vibe than there was on the first one.”
But RTJ2 nonetheless keeps what made Run the Jewels’ eponymous effort so winning—the rapid-fire rapport between two beastly rappers who really enjoy each other’s company. Hip-hop’s storied lineage is filled with tremendous tag-teams—Eric B. & Rakim, Gang Starr, UGK—that have remarkable chemistry. Just two albums in, Run the Jewels is already etching its name in those annals.
“I think that me and Mike have a very rich sort of fandom of all the stuff that we grew up on, and a lot of it was during a time when groups were way more common,” El-P said. “So, you know, someone growing up right now, maybe they’re looking at Run the Jewels as that. That’s what I hope. And I think that it would be cool if we could spark that idea. My hope, secretly, is that we can become the EPMD for a kid listening to hip-hop now.”
Sunday 11/2. $20-23, 9pm. The Jefferson Theater, 110 E. Main St., Downtown Mall. 245-4980.