Business

After Years as Indie Heroes, Here's Why Run the Jewels Signed With BMG For Its Fourth Album

Run the Jewels
Timothy Saccenti

Run the Jewels

With its biggest release to-date looming, the hip-hop power duo joins BMG's roster looking to leave its mark: "This [album] is going to march through the motherf---ing world like a beast," says Killer Mike.

Run the Jewels has a new partner. After seven years, three albums and a number of clever marketing ploys to help the independent act grow its ever-widening fan base — including an unforgettable cat-themed remix project and frequent partnerships with Adult Swim — Run the Jewels will release its next album with BMG, the fourth largest record label in the world.

The decision to introduce a label partner comes as mainstream recognition for the hip-hop duo comprised of Killer Mike and El-P continues to take their careers to new heights. Both longtime well-respected figures in the industry — Killer Mike as a rapper, El-P also as a producer and label CEO — the two first linked when El-P produced Killer Mike’s 2012 album, R.A.P. Music. After the two found a natural chemistry, they officially formed the group and dropped the debut self-titled album as a free digital download in 2013. Its follow-up, Run the Jewels 2, was hailed as one of the best projects of 2014 and led to performances at major festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo and Pitchfork. Two years later, the duo's third entry, Run the Jewels 3, earned a No. 1 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and brought about a yearlong, 11-country global tour.

So why, after its most commercially successful album to-date, would such an adept independent act sign with a label now?

"The truth of the matter is, [Run the Jewels] outgrew our capability to handle it correctly," El-P tells Billboard. "You just have to acknowledge what it is. This is way bigger than we ever expected it to be and I think we’re still amazed by how big it got."

Manager Amaechi Uzoigwe adds that after Run the Jewels 3, “We knew it was time to take a step up. We didn’t hit all of the marks that we set out to hit yet and we realized, at a certain point, you need that sort of [label] muscle behind you.”

Until now, the Run the Jewels team has operated as something of a skeleton crew, bringing in smaller groups to assist on projects as needed. Independent labels Fool’s Gold Records and Mass Appeal Records partnered on the self-titled LP and Run the Jewels 2, respectively. For Run the Jewels 3, the group worked with distribution company The Orchard, and, importantly, also utilized hip-hop indie RBC Records — which BMG since acquired in 2018 — for additional services.

"We’re such a tight crew that it really matters to us that we've got good people around who are genuinely rooting for us and understand what we’re about," says El-P. “That connection with RBC was very strong.”

When word spread within the industry that Run the Jewels was looking for a larger partner, labels came knocking. "Anyone that could write a big enough check was interested," says BMG senior vp, recorded music, Brian Shafton, who co-founded RBC Records and helped usher the Run the Jewels team into meetings with its parent company. But both he and Thomas Scherer, BMG executive vp, repertoire & marketing, Los Angeles, point to a pivotal date in December 2019 when they heard Run the Jewels 4 for the first time and knew they couldn’t let an opportunity to work on the project slip away.

"We were in my office and we cranked it up and listened to it and the windows were shaking," says Scherer. "You have these moments when it’s like, 'Hell, this is why we’re doing it.'"

"The second they left the room, it was like, 'How can we be a part of this?'" continues Shafton. "We want to be a part of history. This is a message that needs to be delivered on a global basis."

Run the Jewels and BMG reached a tentative agreement in February, though both parties mention that there were alternate versions and various revisions to the contract that was eventually signed. Combined with the impression that "everybody from the intern to the top tier of BMG was ready to fight for RTJ," says Killer Mike, the group ultimately valued the artist-friendly terms (a one-off licensing deal), as well as BMG's plan to cement the group as an an international juggernaut.

"I want to bring the energy in our music everywhere from Mexico City to Melbourne [and] from southeast Asia to Africa," Killer Mike continues. "I'm into having partners that understand what I see when I see Run the Jewels. I see a global force. I’m glad that they share that vision with us."

"The vast majority of their consumption has happened domestically," Shafton adds. "What they were lacking was feet on the ground in multiple territories. BMG has offices around the globe — each gets involved and puts their own unique stamp on it to make it that much more appealing for the territory."

While an international tour is tentatively planned for 2021, Uzoigwe notes that they’re looking to capitalize on BMG’s global reach to spread the album until Killer Mike and El-P can make it overseas themselves. Collaborations and remixes with South American artists, lyric videos translated into at least 15 different languages and a multilingual Run the Jewels T-shirt line are just a few of the preliminary ideas in development.

The signing of a bonafide rap group in Run the Jewels serves as the latest diversification in repertoire base for BMG in recent years, as it continues its effort to become the "fourth major." Since 2018, the company has acquired RBC Records and Nashville-based BBR Music Group, as well as launched classical, jazz and electronic label Modern Recordings and the Americana-focused imprint Renew Records. In its year-end earnings report released in March, the company reported 10% revenue growth in 2019.

"I know that they’re building their profile, and they want people to know that they mean business,” says Run the Jewels manager Will Bronson. "We understand and are going into this process like we’re the first shot for them to say, ‘We’re f---ing taking shots and we’re here.’ There was a lot of excitement about that many people rallying."

Run the Jewels 4 has shown some promising early returns: Per Scherer, in its first four days, the music video for single "Ooh La La" surpassed a million views, which he says is more than double the amount that Run the Jewels 3 single "Legend Has It" accrued in the same time frame. Uzoigwe adds that the album passed $1 million in sales in less than 48 hours after pre-order became available.

The deal also frees up opportunities for the hip-hop group to "build out the Run the Jewels universe,” as Uzoigwe puts it. Without having to focus on the day-to-day label responsibilities, he teases that they have the freedom to explore a number of other exciting projects, including a cannabis partnership with Los Angeles-based company Cookies’ founder, Berner; a new song that’ll debut in the fall on the soundtrack for much-hyped video game CyberPunk 2077; a quarterly subscription service for the fans; and a Run the Jewels coffee table book, due to arrive in 2021 (BMG parent company Bertelsmann also owns a full stake in publisher Penguin Random House). Uzoigwe even teases that Killer Mike and El-P have been working on a feature film loosely based on a real experience from the former’s junior high school days.

But for the time being, the focus is Run the Jewels 4, which will arrive digitally on June 5 — the physical release will follow in September due to COVID-19-related backlogs.

Says El-P: "More than anything, we’re excited to get the chance to take some of the shackles off the bureaucracy of what we’ve been doing and do what we do best, which is make art and serve this community of people that love what we do."

"To me, this is just the beginning of the race," adds Killer Mike. "It's not a payoff of all the work we've done. It's the start of all the work we're about to do."