El-P Talks Run the Jewels 2

Ron Hart

By Ron Hart

on 09.10.14 in News

At the beginning of the month Run the Jewels — the duo of El-P and Killer Mike — announced that their second record would be released October 28th on Nas’s Mass Appeal imprint. The 11-track LP reportedly has a darker tone than its predecessor, and features a diverse array of guests, among them Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against The Machine, Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, Beyoncé collaborator Boots and Foxygen’s Shaun Fleming. El and Mike will also be embarking on a U.S. tour this fall in support of RTJ2, bringing three of New York City’s brightest new hip-hop talents to open for them: post-rap crew Ratking, Bed-Stuy mic prodigy Joey Bada$$ and Def Jux alumnus Despot.

We asked El-P about the creation of RTJ2, and how world events influenced its mood and tone.

You mentioned in a couple of interviews that the second Run the Jewels LP is going to be darker in tone.

I think this new record, though we didn’t plan for it to be this way, is a little more punch-you-in-the-face — a little bit more aggressive, a little meaner, a little more angry. It’s a proper second record in that you listen to it, and while it retains a lot of the shit you loved about the first one, it definitely ratchets it up a notch. It’s definitely a little bit more challenging, even.

Did the reality of our nation’s present socio-political surroundings, expounded upon by Killer Mike’s poignant op-ed on the Ferguson situation in Billboard, play a role in the tone of this new album?

Me and Mike always talk about different shit, and sometimes it eerily applies to the times. We stepped into this record knowing we wanted to angle it more toward some of the things we think about on that level. So in that sense, it’s a little more poignant, more fuck-the-system-ish [laughs] if that makes any sense. So that anger you might hear on this record eerily matches up to the times. There are songs on the album that, when the Ferguson shit was really popping off for everybody and everyone was really seeing what was happening for the first time over there, we had to bite our tongues to not leak certain songs because they fit so well. It’s still a Run the Jewels record, so it’s playful in the way we’ve set the tone, but there’s more to it than that. Maybe it’s even less digestible, I’ll say that.

Did you ever think some of the dystopian imagery you’ve rhymed about in your songs over the years would come to actual fruition the way it has in recent months?

The answer is yes. To me, it’s not like what I was writing I thought to be fiction. It was always my perspective, the inevitability of what’s happening, and also my reduction of what I saw to be real already. And I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, me being right about that shit is terrible [laughs]. It’s the worst. I don’t want my perspective on where things are heading to come true, because I’m not excited about that. But as an artist, it seeps into you and those things are reality to me. And reality exists whether or not its predominantly accepted by the rest of the world or whether or not its grasped.

Zack de la Rocha guests on Run the Jewels 2. You and he had worked together many years ago on a solo album he had been putting together but never materialized. Is there any correlation between his appearance on RTJ 2 and those unreleased sessions with you back in the early ‘00s?

Well, it stemmed from that in the fact we have kept in touch and we are friends. I hadn’t spoken to Zack in a couple of years, and we had randomly bumped into him while I was in L.A. recording the album. Me and Mike were just like, “Hey, come through the studio.” And the next day, we were doing a song. It was really just that natural. It wasn’t something that was planned; I didn’t reach out to him. It just happened, and that’s the way we’ve been doing these records.

What ever happened with the material you and Zack were working initially?

There’s nothing going on with it. We worked on some rough sketches and stuff, and then he worked on other tracks with other people, but that project never got to see the light of day, because it never got finished. But we are talking about working on some stuff in the future, so I think that’s more likely to happen now than it ever has been.

Perhaps one of the most interesting characters to emerge from these Run the Jewels sessions has been Brooklyn indie act Little Shalimar, aka Torbitt Castleman Schwartz. How did you link up with him and does he appear on RTJ2 as well?

Hell yea. That’s my right hand man, you know? He’s amazing. You know, for years and years and years I did everything myself. I wouldn’t let anyone in on the process. And it got so overwhelming at one point I realized I needed another set of ears. I needed a buddy [laughs], someone to be involved in the records with me, because I wanted to pick up the pace about how quick I did it. It’s so much cooler when you have someone to be like, “Yeah, this is good” or “What about this?” Taco, aka Little Shalimar, is absolutely one of my best friends in the world, so we work really well together. He’s just a great person to be a part of these projects. And, you know I was going to him anyway to play stuff. He does the majority of the guitar and other random shit. Any time I need stuff played live, he’s the go-to guitar guy, he’s the go-to percussion guy, live drums and shit. I just love working with him, so he’s been involved in these records pretty much since day one.

How did you guys wind up on Nas’s Mass Appeal label?

From what I understand, nothing gets signed to that label without Nas’s approval. And someone in his crew brought Run the Jewels to Nas and he gave it the thumbs up, like, “Yeah, I’ll fuck with this shit.” For us, it was a pretty big deal. We are obviously, like anyone, huge fans of Nas. And even beyond that, we are fans of the guys at the label and love what they are trying to do. They got great ambition and great enthusiasm for Run the Jewels, and it seemed to be a good place for us to do our next thing. It seemed to be a good home.

And they were cool with you guys releasing this one for free online like you did the first Run the Jewels album?

Correct. We are releasing it for free, but we are also putting it up for sale on vinyl and CD and digital all at the same time. That’s something that was really important to us for anybody that we were going to do the next record with, that they be cool with that. And they were, so for us that’s just the way we wanted this shit. You can talk about it for hours, the business models of things and digital downloading and all that shit. But really, at the end of the day, it’s just something that we want to do, what we think is the right move for us. And so for them to come in and invest in us and do it the right way, even with [our free download clause] being the case, it’s a really cool thing and you gotta give them your ear.

Fans seemed happy to pick up the first RTJ LP when you released it on hard copy regardless of if they downloaded it or not.

They did, and that cemented our belief that if you give the fans some shit that they’ll like, then they’ll support you. And the ones who didn’t pay for it, maybe they can’t afford it right now or maybe they’re not inclined to pay for stuff or whatever it is, they’re gonna get the record anyway for free, right? For us, it was really about embracing it and making a statement. We want everyone to have it, because we want everyone to hear it period. And the people who are gonna support us are the people who are gonna financially support us, and that’s the way I look at it.