It was October of last year, a month before Run the Jewels 2 was to be released, and El-P, the group’s producer and one-half of its formidable rap arms, was sitting in his kitchen, smoking weed, brainstorming pre-order packages varying in insanity.
The album was available for free digital download, but for $5,000 a supporter would receive a load of master disc vinyl, a signed poster and other rare memorabilia. For $10 million Run the Jewels offered to “retire from music, making only one song a year for you personally.”
did we make the silliest, occasionally most grating possible remix album? of course. and we did it for you, mike brown and Eric garner.
— el-p (@therealelp) September 26, 2015
Between those, though, was a $40,000 package promising Meow the Jewels, a recording of their second album using “nothing but cat sounds for music.” Preposterous as it was, a Kickstarter campaign was created, 2,828 backers raised $65,000 and now, nearly a year later, El-P continues to live a baked joke realized.
“As a guy who grew up with cats all his life… I’ll put it this way, I underestimated the power of the cat on the Internet. “
Meow the Jewels album finally arrived on Friday, Sept. 25, and is available for free download here. All money raised will go to charity.
El didn’t shoulder the burden himself, enlisting other producer and DJs to churn out the madness. But it’s a dazzling twist for a group that’s spent the last eight months touring, playing for crowds that neither El-P nor Killer Mike had seen previously.
During a brief pit stop home, El was suddenly stricken by impending illness. “I feel like I could submit my body to science for that. It’s mind-blowing how dependable that is,” he says.
Resilient, as any road warrior and meow-mechanic must be, El spoke on the crescendoing wave they’ve been riding, his personal history with felines, including the loss of his latest pet, and what awaits the Run the Jewels locomotive that just keeps steaming.
Run the Jewels 2 came out last October, the first one the summer before that. How have the crowds been growing since then?
It’s quadrupled. It’s bigger than anything that we’ve ever been a part of. For sure. We’re getting a chance to be in front of more people on a more regular basis than we ever have. And that’s thrilling. People are reacting really well to what we’re doing. And we’re having a great time. We’re loving music and the friendship and the experience.
Seeing it blow up and being a part of that, it’s humbling too because we’ve both been in this biz a minute. But I think that in our minds and in our hearts, we were pretty cool just being where we were at a certain point. We had kinda lost some of the desperate ambition. And then all of a sudden, it exploded in front of our eyes. It’s weird. The second that we were just like whatever happens, happens, we’re gonna just make sure that we have fun, everything started to pop off.
But I think it’s cool because luckily we were already at peace. A lot of people, when you’re young, you have this idea of what the world owes you. You think you deserve something. When you get a little bit more experience under your belt, you start to realize that those ideas aren’t really true. So when you get something that’s beautiful. When you have the opportunity to experience something like we’re experiencing, being able to be connecting with more people. And being able to have this sort of thrilling moment in our lives, you just kinda like it more. You experience it more. You appreciate it more.
You’re pretty active on Twitter at times. Do you find that you have more time to be so when you’re on the road or at home?
When I’m at home. When I’m on the road, I actually don’t really engage as much. Everyday, I’m flying, doing a show. We spent at least a couple of months in Europe over the summer and it’s just not the same. I tweet when I’m sitting down making a beat and I want to take a break. Or I have a day off and I get into it again. When you pull yourself away from that, it’s almost like you forget it even exists and then you get back in and fall into that world again. For me, it’s just amusing. And sometimes heartbreaking. And sometimes really important. There’s a community on there of people that I think are interesting that keep me updated in terms things that are happening now.
What’s your take on rampant cat Internet culture and being a part of it now, or soon?
My inevitable entry into that world. It’s interesting. I’ll tell you, I wish I had considered it when I made the joke about Meow the Jewels. If someone had told me, like, “Dude, don’t play with that shit. Cats are huge on the Internet.” It didn’t occur to me.
Lil Bub is sampled on the album. Are you aware of these memes or sensations as they’re out there?
A little bit, yeah. I knew about Lil Bub. The Meow the Jewels thing, really though, as much as it is a cat-based thing, the only reason we’re doing it is because it’s about people, it’s a charitable project. That was the only reason and the only way that I would get involved in something like this.
The thing that I love about it is it’s something that this community of people that is online that talk to each other and interact with each other and have a humor that has become something of their own and our own made it happen in a way that it couldn’t have happened. There are not a lot of examples of this type of thing happening where people rally together under the banner of humor to make something good happen. And I like to think that because something good was associated with it, that’s the reason it’s happening. Not because people find cats amusing. Cats are infinitely amusing, don’t get me wrong. The truth of the matter is that I wouldn’t be wasting my time putting out a remix album with cat sounds if there wasn’t money going to victims of police brutality.
You had used a cat sound previously on “No Come Down,” right?
Oh no, that was just me pretending to be a cat.
That’s your voice?
Yeah. It’s a testament to the fact that I had a very vocal cat for many years. I can do a pretty good cat sound.
We’re sorry to hear about the loss of Mini Beast. The original idea for this was to connect your own cat to the production of this out there project.
And that’s absolutely a part. No question. My relationship with my cat had a big influence on that, that even that would occur to me. Especially because I’m pretty sure that if you were to go back throughout my records, with a musicologist and break down every track, there’s probably cat meows all over that shit. I made a lot of those records in my apartment with my cat meowing in the background. The cat sound has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My cat died about a year ago, this is probably the longest I’ve gone without a screaming cat in the background.
You’ve said you owned cats all your life. Is there any kind of memory or story that sticks out through the years?
I’ve had two cats that were my cats. One of which was Murphy and Murphy I got when I was 7 years old. My best friend. He lived for 18 years. He died right around the time when we did the last final farewell Company Flow show in about 2000.
But yeah, there’s a whole lifetime of memories of my cats. One particularly good one was we had, for some reason, I forget, we had to take our cat to our dad’s place. He lived in New England at the time, cause he moved out of New York when I was a kid. We had to leave the cat there for some reason. We were moving around. I don’t think we could have a cat at our apartment at some point. After like six months or whatever, we got the cat back. And on the way, going through the airport, my father put the cat through the luggage scanner. Straight up. And I was a kid. You’re looking at these dudes that are looking at the luggage, right? And they’re just like “boop” looking at it “boop” then all of a sudden they start screaming and jumping around because they’re seeing a cat skeleton. And of course I’m freaking out. And then the dudes, the bastards, which I actually appreciate the humor now but at the time I didn’t, they ran up to me they were like, “Yo man, your cat’s gonna f—ing die man. I saw a lady put her arm in there and she came out and she had no flesh.” They were straight up f—ing with me. And I’m just sobbing in the airport like, “What did you do dad? I f—ing hate you.” Yeah that’s a good one. I’ll be honest with you too, the cat was really never quite the same after that shit.
You only produced one song on the album, but was the process therapeutic or difficult at all? Is there any kind of connection to the loss of Mini Beast that this is bringing out?
It wasn’t therapeutic. It was mostly just funny and entertaining. There is a connection. I did have this very real relationship, friendship, whatever you want to call it, however close a human and a cat can be. It was real. This little Beast was a part of my family, so there’s a sense of pride. There’s like a wink and a smile. It has to do with just honoring that a little bit. And this Beast that was with me for so long. I think it would be easy “Eh, f— it, the cat’s dead.” [But] it was cute. I liked it. Now it’s not here. But yeah, there’s something cool about it. I feel like I’m honoring the little f—er a little bit.
Are there any other cat owners on Meow the Jewels?
Yeah. Jeff Barrow definitely samples his cats for the record. 3D from Massive Attack definitely samples his cat for the record. I’m not sure how many other people did. We also used some sounds from people who donated to the Kickstarter campaign. One of the levels was for a certain price [$500 or more] you pay for the Kickstarter, that you get to send in your cat’s sounds and we’ll use it in the track. There were two people who did that and I ended up using both of their cat’s sounds on the track that I did. There’s definitely real cat sounds with people who have actual connections to their cat.
The cool shit about it is the record ranges from shit on there that straight up just sounds like beats. There’s shit on there that’s literally dope. Then there’s shit on there that’s just hilarious because it’s just so clearly cat sounds. Like me and Just Blaze and Boots kind of took the approach of trying to not make it sound like cats, really as much. There’s cat shit in there, we just used only cat sounds to try to create as close as we could to a dope beat as possible. But there’s different takes. It kind of ranges from straight up head bob to really weird and psychedelic that’s just hilarious.
Run the Jewels 3 is coming up in 2016. Is that going to be it? Are you guys thinking about finales?
[Laughs] Um, nah. We haven’t figured that out. We don’t plan ahead quite that far. I think the furthest that we get is us deciding to make another record. And that just comes organically. I always imagine us being like EPMD. Four just crazy rap classic records and then break up. Possibly contentiously. Who knows?
I think it does lend itself to being a series. And I think that both me and Mike feel like we don’t know what’s going to happen but we know that it needs to go, at the very least, there needs to be a Run the Jewels 3. Cause we feel like it’s a story being told and it’s a musical story and it’s unfolding and we want to be a part of that so we’re going to see what happens. We haven’t discussed much past that.