We like to attach simplistic stories to our music, molding artists and albums into forms that are easy to discuss and in turn accept or reject. But music isn't as simple as that. Even El-P and Killer Mike -- who set out to simply make quality raps on their new free release Run The Jewels -- know that things aren't always what they seem. It's why Killer Mike can compare cops in the ghetto to the Gestapo, even though his father and cousin both walk the thin blue line. It's why he can decry unjust wars and the tyranny of our state despite having lost family fighting for this country. Contradiction is everywhere on Run The Jewels, and that's partly what makes it human.
In the paper this week, we looked at El-P and Killer Mike's new collaboration and its contradictions. The two rappers are equally obsessed with refining their craft and subverting oppressive authority, projects that can be compared to both Watch the Throne and, um, the study of classical piano. But, in bringing some of these ideas up directly with them, especially Jay Z and Kanye West, Mike argues that even some of the most pointed references aren't what they seem to be on the surface. Here, ahead of their show at the Independent tonight, July 31, El-P and Killer Mike give an in-depth discussion of their favorite track, and explain what "niggas will perish in Paris" really means.
I want to talk about some of your guys' favorite lines -- personally, El, your verse on "Job Well Done" is my favorite. Mike, I love the verse on "Sea Legs" -- what are your favorites from each other?
Mike: Man, my favorite verse from El is "Christmas Fucking Miracle." ["They can never take the energy inside you were born with/Knowing that, understand you could never be poor/You already won the war, you were born rich"] I was that kid he's talking to, even if the kid he's talking to is him. I totally absorbed that verse. That verse is what I felt in my bones at 14, 15, 16 years old when teachers and parents and everybody told me what wasn't possible -- and I stand here today, that possibility. And I've never "made it"; I'm not quote-unquote rich in rapper terms. But I'm very rich in the type of friends I have, the life I lead, and my ability to live my dreams. El's verse resonates with me in a way that rap should resonate with listeners.
Yeah, I think that verse probably resonates with a lot of people and is El's most revealing verse on the album, don't you think?
El-P: I mean, yeah. For me personally, that song has my favorite verses from both of us. It's rare that you make a song where you feel moved by it [laughs] you know? And I usually don't let myself feel moved by my own song because I'm connected to it, but because Mike balances it out, it lets me be a fan of my own music. For all the fun we had on the record, ["Christmas Fucking Miracle"] comes from a different place, from our hearts -- in a way that I'm proud of maybe more than a lot of things I've ever done... I was proud to be saying something genuine, and that wouldn't have happened for me if I weren't in the room with Mike, and us sensing what the right move was. We both knew that ["Christmas Fucking Miracle"] was something special.
Yeah it adds a whole new layer to the album.
El-P: Well sometimes powerful songs are more powerful if they're not surrounded by a bunch of other songs shooting for equal measures, and I think that that song in a way really made Run The Jewels a real album, because it could have just been a mixtape; Me and Mike could have just talked shit all day long, you know?
I think "Sea Legs" is a really powerful song too; Let me ask Mike, about your verse on it, because I think there are some subtle comparisons to be made between you guys and Watch the Throne. And Mike, you say some pretty intense, almost threatening stuff on that track. What were you thinking when you wrote that verse?
Mike: I don't respect royals. It ain't hard. I don't respect royals, in any form. 'Cause I'm not anyone's subject; "no master will ever master these bones." And I'm not talking about any rap royalty people running around calling their selves kings or queens or whatever. I'm talking about the royalty on your 5 o'clock news.
When I say "niggas will perish in Paris" -- I just left Paris. I was just standing in front of the Eiffel Tower with my wife, watching black men who were trying to sell Eiffel Tower souvenirs for a dollar get chased away by the police. I didn't see nobody popping corks, I didn't see nobody popping bottles, I saw niggas in these ghettos that they call suburbs, for black men and women and children. I saw black men trying to sell souvenirs to feed their families being chased away by police. That's the reality of Paris. That ain't selling you no bullshit.
So you can or cannot contrast my words with another rapper -- I don't care! What I care about is the actual black people that are in Paris, and the poor worldwide. If people choose to try and parallel this to Watch the Throne, I'd simply like to say: Just know that this thing called the Black Renaissance happened; Black people really were in Paris; and they were never called niggers. Josephine Baker, Du Bois was there. You have a history in particular of black people being free thinkers, being artists, being everything except a nigger. So if you say "Michael was somehow outraged," then give it that credible excuse, and not just a cheap rap pitch, at two rappers, that's not who I'm talking about. I'm talking about the real royalty that really wants your life, and I'm being very disrespectful of them, and anyone who chooses to associate with them.
Yeah, the [Jay Z and Kanye] references are subtle. I'm not exactly interpreting it as though you're striking out at anybody--
Mike: If somebody did, that's okay, too. I can't control how anybody interprets things. But people who know me know, when it's time to say shit I say it.
On "Twin Hype Back," you call yourself arrogant. I was thinking about arrogance, and it's role on this album. Do you think it's important to be arrogant?
El-P, Mike: Hell yeah (Yeah!).
Mike: When you ain't got nothin' that's all you got! [laughs]
El-P: Yeah, arrogance is part of it. That's what "36" Chain" is about. It's like, we're not saying we literally have a 36" chain on -- we may or we may not. But Run The Jewels is about an attitude, you know. We're two guys coming out saying, we're not fucking running the world, we're running ourselves.
I wrote that as heist films go, Watch the Throne is like Ocean's Eleven and Run the Jewels is like Dog Day Afternoon.
Mike: No doubt! I was just reppin' that movie.
El-P: And it's true, this album is about sticking our chests out, as normal people. Everything we say is in the context of normal people shit, you know; anybody can walk around like they've got a 36-inch chain, and should! And where me and Mike come from, our history is about being of relatively humble origin, and knowing that, and walking with that, and being cool with that. Being who we are, still, to this day, we're not about disrespect, we're not about being better than anybody else -- we're just saying "you're not better than us." Me and Michael can talk at any level you wanna throw at us because, you know, we're men, and we're pretty damn secure.
Secure enough to put out the album for free. Could you talk about that?
El-P: Yeah, we didn't have a grand-master plan or anything. We've had a great couple of years, and gotten a great response, so it was to do something for the people who listen and support us. It takes away a lot of the bullshit, you know? How many people didn't buy R.A.P. Music or Cancer 4 Cure because it was fuckin' for sale and they don't know if they're the type of person that buys that record? And we're saying, "Don't worry about it! Here's [Run The Jewels], listen to this shit, and if you like it, we're gonna be here, and we're gonna give you dope shit."
Killer Mike and El-P perform Tuesday, July 30, and Wednesday, July 31, at the Independent.