Run the Jewels & Adult Swim: Inside the Hip-Hop/Cartoon Bromance

Before Run The Jewels stole Christmas Eve headlines with the surprise release of its third album, RTJ3, fans had been starving for new music from Jaime “El-P” Meline and Michael “Killer Mike” Render. 

To that end, there was one man the 41-year-old MCs had given a sneak peek: Jason DeMarco, the 46-year-old vice president/creative director for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, and curator of the Adult Swim Singles Program.

“If Jason calls, we say yes,” says El-P. “He’s like family to us.” The rappers have made good on their word by giving a song to the Adult Swim Singles Program -- a set of new tracks by underground artists, released on Adult Swim’s website for free since 2010, and thus far kept fully separate from its original TV programming every year since Run the Jewels’ inception, in 2013. In 2016, the duo offered perhaps its most highly anticipated contribution yet: “Talk to Me,” RTJ3’s vicious lead single, released in October. “I hope we don’t have to ever do [a year] without them,” says DeMarco.

Adult Swim’s unofficial lifetime contract with Run the Jewels is as much personal as business: The Atlanta-based DeMarco introduced the two rappers in 2011. But the program has earned similar loyalty from other artists with less familial connections, including R&B cult figure Dawn, who has appeared the last two years, and experimental producer Flying Lotus, who has been involved every year since 2012. DeMarco cites Metro Boomin’s “Forever Young” and Earl Sweatshirt’s “Balance” as the tracks he was most excited to feature in 2016, and considers dubstep maestro Burial to be his white whale.

Launched in 2001, Adult Swim was designed to expand its grown-up-friendly cartoon programming, which included college-dorm favorites like Sealab 2021 and Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and is now anchored by both animated shows (Rick and Morty) and live-action fare (The Eric Andre Show). The singles program has grown from nine songs released in 2010 to 31 in 2016 mostly a mix of metal, electronic and hip-hop. So what exactly is the business strategy? 

The brand launched a proper label, Williams Street Records, in 2007, but stopped issuing for-sale albums in 2015. Rather than vend products, says DeMarco, the goal “is more ‘Please like us,’ which hopefully translates to money somewhere down the line. But if nothing else, it translates to goodwill, which is a valuable thing.”

For 2017, DeMarco hopes to release up to 52 tracks, “so that all year round, every week, there’s a new song coming from Adult Swim.” While he won’t give out names yet for upcoming collaborators, Run the Jewels seems a safe bet. “Adult Swim is not typical of TV culture — they seem to understand counterculture,” says Killer Mike. “They’re cool enough to put some faith in us. I’m appreciative for that.” 

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 14 issue of Billboard.