Even though their third LP was scheduled to be released in January of 2017, it wouldn’t have felt quite right for 2016 to pass without a new album from Run the Jewels. 2016 had been so plagued with death, strife and general upheaval that countless fans looked to the hip-hop superduo of Jaime “El-P” Meline and Michael “Killer Mike” Render — underground solo veterans who’d already teamed up for two albums that confronted all of that unpleasant stuff, rising to stardom in the process — to help them make sense of it all. And sure enough, on Christmas Eve of ’16, Jaime and Mikey came creeping down the Internet’s chimney to drop RTJ3, their longest and most ambitious set of truth-to-power bangers to date.
But despite some obvious thematic timeliness — Mike goes to lyrical war with a “bad toupee and a spray tan”-wearing devil in lead single “Talk to Me,” and references his own misconstrued comments about Hillary Clinton (“‘Ooh Mike said “uterus”‘/ They actin’ like Mike said ‘you a bitch'”) in closer “A Report to the Shareholders” — Run the Jewels say they’re more concerned with reflecting themselves on RTJ3 than current events. “We’re not, like, Public Enemy,'” El-P tells Billboard over the phone. “I love Public Enemy, but the fact is that Run The Jewels made our name because we were basically acting like two kids in a room, high, making the dopest rap music that we could make.”
To that end, the duo took the longest they’ve ever taken in the recording studio, and set out to make an album that was “darker, harder, heavier” than their first two. “That doesn’t mean all emo and shit,” Mike qualifies. “It really means I wanted our beats to be heavier, our analogies to be darker. [On “Legend Has It”], Jaime puts a gun to a bunny’s head… That’s how I initially meant it, and we ended up going to a place that was greater in depth.”
That greater depth encompasses songs like “Theives! (Screamed the Ghost),” a chilling, poetically framed account of the duo “surrounded by the souls of the dead and defiant,” and “Thursday in the Danger Room,” in which both rappers attempt to come to grips with the circumstances of deaths that hit way too close (“I guess I’d say I see you soon/ But the truth is that I see you now/ Still talk to you like you’re around”). But it also covers cackling mic-handoffs like “Legend” and “Stay Gold” (which coins the compliment “Brain-with-an-ass girl”) — and yes, a healthy amount of dick references. “We also strive for greater stupidity,” El-P proclaims. “There’s nothing funnier than a well-executed dick joke, in my opinion.”
Billboard talked with Run the Jewels about the full spectrum of the duo’s new album, and about how they don’t feel the obligation to provide running commentary on what’s going on in their fans’ Twitter feeds. “Our responsibility is just to make dope-ass music to help you push through this bullshit every day,” Mike says. “And that’s it.”
How long did it take you guys to record the album, start to finish?
El-P: It took about a year. We started doing music and beats in late 2015, and then we started really recording and writing me and Mike’s vocals in about February. And then we were done like two months ago.
Mike: The first record was done really quickly, because Jaime already had the beats. Essentially, it was a mixtape project that he had, because I was like “Let’s partner up, we having fun doing it,” and it turned into a rap group. It turned out to be so good, the second time, we were like “Oh shit, we have to take ourselves really seriously”’ and make sure we put a little more of us into the jams… After you finish that, you say to yourself, “We’re a group for real. How do we make it [even better]?” For me it was darker, harder, heavier. I wanted the classic rap stuff.
I think Jaime and I [were] dedicated to this process taking as long as it needed to take. It took a long time this year, just because there was a lot going on. I was running around for the part of the year with the presidential candidate [Bernie Sanders]. More than anything, we were just trying to patiently make sure that we gave the very best that we could possibly give on the album.
How do you think the longer recording process changed the energy of the recording?
El-P: There’s more songs and there’s more of an arc. Like he said, we really just took our time, and it really was just because we could. We had the time to do it. And there’s an arc in the record, because you’re getting a year’s worth of our mind and our hearts. So there’s moments on the record where you can tell where the energy shifts, and you can tell where the mood shifts.
A lot of it is very indicative of just where Jaime and Mike were at different months of the year And there’s a lot of sort of hype, silly, fun, nasty energy on there. And then there are jams that kind of are reflective of the fact that… we were being pulled in a lot of directions, in terms of our souls.
Was there one song during the recording/writing that kind of mapped the identity for the album?
El-P: There were a series of jams that really became the heart of the record in different ways. There’s a song called “Thieves!” — it was one of the hardest songs that we had ever pulled off. It was a time that we had to really push ourselves to create a narrative together, in an intertwining way that was about something really heavy, that honored not only our perspectives but also honored the weight of the topic. We worked really f–king hard on nailing that, so that we could walk away from that being like, ‘We feel good about putting this out there.’ Because we knew had something potentially special there.
Me and Mike are past the point of getting in a room and just rapping, like “Hey Mike, you do your shit, I’ll do my shit, we’ll play off each other a little bit.” We’re heading to territory where these records have gone from being a side project to being our main creative outlet.
Mike: I totally agree with that. I tell a lot of old friends that knew me from my solo run that’ll be like, “Hey, I want to book you for this”… I don’t even do that anymore. Not to look down upon it, but it’s just like, I’m in a group. My creative existence has expanded with this group.
I never would have done a record like “Thursday in the Danger Room” [solo]. You wouldn’t have heard a record where I was forgiving someone that murdered someone that I loved. I had probably carried that in my heart since I was a teenager, and it’s just not easy. With Jaime rapping about having to see a friend die in front of him — I didn’t experience that, but I experienced it with my wife, with her niece, just last year. So when he dropped that verse – and I hadn’t even told him that – after hearing that verse, I just cried, because I had felt the emotions that he was talking about in that verse.
And that record started just as a verse for me as needing to forgive someone. I reached the point in my life now that I understand as human beings we’ve all done some very horrible things to other human beings, and at some point, I came to grips with the fact that whoever murdered my friend is now an adult, and all I can truly hopefully pray for is that in murdering my friend it bettered their life. And I don’t mean that they gained things, but just that they grew up, they regret their decision, they found a place of spirituality or God or whatever people call it.
So having that [verse] and thinking that’s just going to be that for me, and then hearing my friend pour his soul out about a friend, [and] that helping me reach greater empathy for what my wife went through… that’s a record that wouldn’t have gotten to me as a solo artist. I could’ve attempted a deep record — a record, emotionally that meant something — but that record is special, and what it is, because it’s a result of a friendship and a rap partnership that is Run the Jewels.
Do you feel like fans are really looking to you guys to go deeper, darker, heavier? Maybe more so in 2016 than the last time you guys were around?
El-P: To be honest with you, we do not think in those terms… as a basis of what we do, it’s really just two dudes in a room trying to make each other laugh, and trying to come up with a dope-ass rap style. And the rest of it is the stuff that’s coming out of this friendship, that’s sort of poking holes in the darkness.
We’re naturally just constantly f–king joking around with each other, and obsessed with style. When we add a layer of depth, it’s something that’s a little bit new to us, but it’s not dominating everything. And if you ask me what people want from us, they would probably just want us to be true to what we’re doing. And I hope that’s the case, because that’s all we’re offering.
Mike: As a rap group, I think we’re just supposed to be a dope rap group, that raps with an array of styles, that goes as hard as humanly possible. I think that we added depth, care, concern, and I’m glad that as a rap group, that progressed us.
Is there a part of Run the Jewels that kind of wishes that you could take a record and just make a pure escapist kind of album?
El-P: Well, that’s what we do. This is our version of [escapism].
Mike: I love the group just because, as a human being, as you go through the course of your day, you might wake up with the shittiest day, and by noon something f–king historically funny happens around the water cooler, and you’re about to fart yourself you’re laughing so hard. And then you might have to think about something seriously for a minute.
For me, being in Run the Jewels has allowed me to display my full humanity. I think that it is an escape, this record, because it does acknowledge every kind of aspect that you [have in your day-to-day life]. And that’s not something that’s contrived, it’s just us being together and making music.
El-P: I’d like to think of Run The Jewels as letting out a fart in front of your executioner. There’s an absurdity and ridiculousness and a swagger, in the face of huge things. And that’s what’s inspiring to me about the records. Like, in spite of the fact that you clearly have two guys that who obviously give a shit, and we obviously care, and it makes its way into our music – we’ve also found a space for joy. And I don’t think that any of us are going to make it through this shit if we don’t find the joy.
What do you think the funniest line on the album is?
Mike: “I got a unicorn horn for a cock” [from “Legend Has It”] is pretty good! That’s me complimenting my rap partner right there.
El-P: And I personally think that “We kidnap moms from jazzercise” [from “Stay Gold”], that’s the funniest shit. That’s the one that I think about every day and laugh.
There’s a line on “A Report to the Shareholders” where Jaime, you talk about your fear of being dragged away for speaking your mind. Is that something that you guys seriously consider that as we go into the next four years, the possibility that free speech might start to be limited?
El-P: I think that even if we weren’t looking at the specific political reality of what was happening right now, I think that’s a prescient and real thought. And of course, you’ve got two dudes who are absolutely outspoken, and I think that part of the point of what we do — and part of the thing that maybe is empowering for people to get down with us — is that we are unabashedly down with each other. We unabashedly stand with each other. And we are not here to beat anybody over the head with anything, but when it comes time to say what we feel, we do do it.
Yeah man, on that record, I’m being honest about a thought that runs through my head, for sure. And I think that it extends way beyond me. But no doubt, there are times when I’m like “We have all gotten really used to saying whatever the f–k we want to say,” and it’s something that I really take seriously, whatever that may be.
And I don’t know if that’s a luxury that we’re all going to be able to afford forever. I would be surprised if that wasn’t challenged. But in the meantime? Suck my dick, I’m going to say everything I want to say.
Mike: In matters of “Do you wonder what could happen?…” Rappers have been popping up in government files since before 2Pac. But I don’t think the real thought or concern is about two rappers being able to say [what they want]. It’s about, I want regular Americans to know: We travel the world, and our right to free speech is precious. And I would just like to say to all of us: Our feelings can be hurt, but you can take a yoga class, you can pray, you can play some basketball — you can figure out things for your hurt feelings. But the freedom of speech and the freedom of press, it’s just precious man, it really is.
So I would just encourage everybody, beyond Run the Jewels, to just talk your opinion more, allow other people and fight for other people to [express theirs]. Because as entertainers, you’re afraid [about] loss of income – but if other people start going to jail for free speech, then we’ve lost this great thing that America is, and I’d like to keep that. I like being able to say whatever the fuck I want to say.