Run the Jewels interview part 2: El-P

Our talk with the rapper, producer and Def Jux founder on working with Killer Mike, navigating the new music industry, Meow the Jewels and that time he lived in MTL.



Meet Jaime Meline, aka El-P, the New York half of juggernaut hip hop duo Run the Jewels. You may already know him from the earliest Rawkus days with Company Flow and later as the founder of iconic indie rap label Definitive Jux. Perhaps you saw him headline Rainbow in 2002, at the National in 2007, or hanging around skeevy dives on the Main when he briefly lived here in 2003.

But you’ve never heard him as much as we’re hearing from him these days. Here’s what El-P had to say in the weeks before his new group’s first-ever Montreal appearance.

Darcy MacDonald: At some point in the early 2000s, you spent time in Montreal. Why?

El-P: That was me trying to desperately escape my life in New York City and work on my record. That was me trying to start I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead.

And I was such a fuckin’ maniac that I basically thought it would be a brilliant idea to come out to Montreal in the dead of winter and start a new record. So I rented a loft out there and basically just fuckin’ hung out and lost my mind. And made some music! I mean I actually did start the record.

But yeah, that was it. I was just so fuckin’ sick of all of the other shit going on in my life that I couldn’t get any head space to make an album, you know? And I was just like, fuck it, I’m getting outta here. So that’s what happened. I was there for about three months.

DM: Why did you choose Montreal?

El-P: I mean, it was the easiest way to get out of the country! (laughs)

And I could drive there. I was like, maybe I could just drive to Montreal — I had an old friend of mine staying out there — and I was like, yeah, actually, that seems like a brilliant idea! Drive out in the middle of winter and hole myself up in a loft. It just seemed like a really cool way to change scenery. I really wanted to get out of the fucking country. And Montreal really does, in a lotta ways, feel like a different world. I really like the city. So, it was…you know, it seemed logical at the time.

DM: So this interview has been a long time coming and I certainly didn’t think at the outset that we’d be talking about cats, but here we are.

El-P: About…about…about cats, did you say?

DM: Meow the Jewels, if you will. I hope you aren’t already sick of talking about it. (Author’s note: The MTJ crowdfunding campaign had hit its $40,000 target the night prior to the interview.)

El-P: Well…I asked for it, I guess (laughter). I made my bed, I’m not gonna complain about the fact that I have to lie in it.

DM: So yeah, more blessing than curse?

El-P: I mean, I think it’s a real cool way and silly way to do something good. And I think it’s kind of amazing that everybody got together and made this happen. It was never something that I had planned on. I never expected it.

But I think it’s a testament to the fact that there is some power out there. People can make things happen. Even if they’re ridiculously stupid, which this is, by definition.

But there’s something good behind it. And that was why I got involved.  I saw it as an opportunity to do something in that way, and I’m totally excited, and I think it’s awesome that people made it happen. It’s cool as fuck and also, I’m very glad that I don’t have to produce the whole record now. I’ve recruited enough producers on the record where basically I only have to do like one song now. So, I’m great. (laughter)

DM: I have to say, that email with the different offers is the best thing to hit my email inbox ever, of all time. And the more I kept reading and it just went on and on, I could kinda just picture you there going “lemme say this,” “maybe I’ll say that,” and there it was.

But so, were any of those offers serious — like the 10-show guest-list, for example?

El-P: So that one actually stands. No one has bought that one yet. I was surprised, I actually thought that maybe someone would buy that one.

I did not, however, think that someone would fund Meow the Jewels. That was not, you know, on my, like…if I’d had my druthers, it would have been the We Are Gordon Ramsey package. That would have been my personal fantasy. I’m happy with Meow the Jewels, and I think the Gordon Ramsey package would be a great thing. I hope some Saudi prince decides to make that happen.

DM: If I could, I would found a detective agency up here with you guys, but I don’t have the means.

El-P: And you know, I understand. It’s a big investment of both time and resources, and uh, we don’t expect it to happen, ya know? But we will start a fuckin’ detective agency with you.

DM: Do you remember the first time you heard Killer Mike?

El-P: Well, I don’t remember it like I was sitting somewhere and it happened. I mean it was with Outkast, you know? It was “The Whole World.” And that was the first time I knew who Killer Mike was, I think along with probably a lotta the world. Obviously that was a huge song and won Grammys and so on.

(But) I didn’t really discover Mike and his solo stuff until he was doing the PL3DGE series. Like, I kinda missed his first record, you know, and who knows why? I was probably just wrapped up in my own world doin’ my own music or whatever but I missed it. So by the time he got to the PL3DGE series is when I started to pay attention, and it was really PL3DGE 2 that got me because I happened to be tuned in.

DM: I’d read a recent-ish quote from you where you were saying something about Cancer 4 Cure taking two years to make and then R.A.P. Music taking you and Mike a month, and I couldn’t tell if you were being tongue-in-cheek about it.

El-P: No, that was completely true. I mean, it took about a month to record his vocals. It took maybe a half-year to make it come together as an album. But yeah, me and Mike together, we work fast, because there’s just a whole lot of inspiration, and we’ve got the bases covered. It’s a lot harder to make a record when you’re producing the whole thing, and writing all the songs, and it’s just a more laborious process. Simple as that.

With me and Mike in the room together, we’ve sort of found this energy, and I think that that energy is the reason we keep going. Because we’ve been around long enough to know not to squander something like that. It’s kinda magical. And it happens in a really easy and quick way, a lotta times. Sometimes (less so) but for the most part it’s just this really nice chemistry that we both have, musically and as friends.

So it’s made making records with each other possible relatively quickly. We did RTJ1 in a similar way. Really the vocals for RTJ1 happened in sort of two or three weeks. The music took longer. And this new record took longer to make strictly because we were dealing with our schedule. We were on tour. So every time we would come off tour ,we would hole up for a couple of weeks, work on some music, go back out, y’know.

But yeah, my records have traditionally — and I don’t really wanna go back to this formula, if I can avoid it — but they’ve traditionally been these long, painstaking sort of processes. And that’s just, I think, y’know, probably because that’s just me losing my mind alone in a room.

DM: Well, I mean, they aren’t slapdash records and never have been, either.

El-P: No, there’s a ton of detail, I put a lotta detail into my records. It’s something that, for me, I’ve worked a long time on. But I’m fuckin’ 39! I don’t have any more five-years-in-between-records! By the time I do like my sixth record I’ll be on a walker.

DM: Did you find that, when making the second record, there was a certain pressure to keep up the momentum of the first? Or was it just like, “That was fun, let’s do it again!”

El-P: It was sort of, that worked, let’s do it again, but we also upped the ante a little bit. We both went into it thinking that way, like, let’s inject more of the shit that we give a fuck about into this record. So we stepped into knowing that we wanted to make a classic second album, in the vein of an Outkast, or a De la Soul or A Tribe Called Quest.

It was always with these second albums that you could tell they took a step, a logical progression that was heading somewhere. They were really gelling and there was really something else coming out. And the first records are always these moments that capture everyone’s attention, but in the legacy of hip hop groups, it’s often on the second album that something else happens that’s interesting. It may be a little darker, and it may be a little bit more complicated, you know.

And that’s what we both strived for, to some degree. We both went into it knowing that we wanted something else. Not to take some huge departure. But to take a step. Because it’s a new legacy for us. We have an arc to our careers, and this is a new baby that we’re raising. A new child. And we have a chance to create a seperate legacy for this group. So we took that seriously.

To some degree the singles are a little bit of a lark, like, here’s the shit that you’re just immediately gonna get into. And then it builds, and it opens up. There’s an arc to the record that, hopefully, by the time you leave the record, you went into it going, “It’s Run the Jewels,” and you come out of it feeling something else, maybe. That’s my hope.

DM: You guys are kind of an anomaly in hip hop like that. I’ve been following your music in particular for a long, long time, and you guys have both been at it for so long, and yet this feels so new.

And you know, critics and artists alike (in hip hop) are constantly talking about the “top of the game”, which I am starting to think is ridiculous in the sense that falling off doesn’t take much these days.

But I’m wondering if you guys feel like you’re at the top of your game right now, or did you get handed a lucky stick to be able to play on a fresh platform?

El-P: Well, to be honest, I don’t think luck plays into it whatsoever, not to sound like an asshole. Neither Mike nor I have ever stopped. We’ve never stopped loving music and we’ve never stopped pushing ourselves and we’ve never really got what we wanted yet, y’know what I mean?

We’ve spent years putting records out that were well-received but we’ve both always felt like we were pushing and pushing and pushing, and we never had that moment. We’re still hungry as fuck and I think that that hungriness has kept us sharp. I also think that we just are who we are. Despite the fact that we have not had crossover success, really, in our careers, we’ve had consistent output.

You know, there are a lot of people that we’re in the same bracket as. We’re the same age as Big Boi and Dre. There’s a lotta people out there, but those muhfuckas went platinum, ya know? For us, we just stayed savagely hungry, and we’ve never looked back and lamented on our careers too much. And we’ve never found something that we wanted to stick to, we’ve always wanted to take the next step and do something different for us, creatively. So I feel very grateful that we’re able to make music that is relevant to people, still. But at the same time I’m like, man, we worked for this. And if there’s an example of a slow-burn career that can still pop off, then I wanna be a part of that!

When you get in this game, you only have a few options. You either have a moment and you blow up, and that happens, or you stick around and sort of peter out. And I don’t like either of those options. The first option I don’t like because it didn’t happen (laughter). The second option I don’t like because it’s just real bleak. Neither of us wants to leave this game, and leave this scene, and leave the thing that we love and have dedicated our lives to without making a real mark. And I’m not saying the real mark is success. It’s musical. We want to keep being involved with this thing that we fell in love with as kids and has been the guiding principle of our entire adult lives. So the prospect of being able to have another 10, 15 years in music is incredibly exciting to me. And that’s all I’ve ever wanted and it’s probably all that I will ever be good at.

DM: I could never picture you becoming the guy that ends up going on shitty tours of like, Alberta, for $1,500 a show. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody but I just can’t see it for you.

El-P: I can’t yet either because it hasn’t been that trajectory. It’s been better and better all the time and right now we’re doing great. And that’s a wonderful thing to experience. But you know what – who knows?

You know, my father was a piano player for his whole life, and I’ve watched him singing in bars and restaurants all of his life. And he did that because he loved playing piano and singing. He didn’t have any huge desire to become famous and he didn’t even really have any of his material. And I sat there and I watched that man play in front of disinterested people in a restaurant requesting shit songs. And I saw him just kill it, you know?

And it’s inspiring to me because when you’re a musician, it’s really not about anything more than that. And to get the opportunity to be heard and to be a part of that, it’s…you know, music can be a very private thing but music is really not fully complete unless it’s heard. And I think that’s really just what drives me, that memory and that knowledge that you can be happy (in that) being a musician is a very sacred thing. It’s a love that escapes what happens as a result of your career. I’ve never based my involvement in music on some expectation I’ve had about my career. And I’ve been lucky enough to actually have a solid and vibrant career without having to compromise myself. So I feel very, very grateful for that.

DM: When someone tells me that they’re at the top of their game, my ears implode. It’s like, how the fuck could you say that about yourself?

El-P: It’s like saying that a writer is at the top their game when there’s always something else to write. There’s always another idea and approach. You get into something as huge and expansive as art, there is no final product. There is no final result. It is a perpetual and ongoing relationship that you have to an expression. And that’s never gonna die just because it dies. It may die for other reasons in your life but it’s not just gonna die because you didn’t get somewhere in your career. It’s bigger than that.

DM: Word. This is more a business-y question I guess. Free music is nothing new anymore. And the success of the first release will in all likelihood steamroll with the new one. But can you see — and you of all people, having run a label — the result on your bottom line, by giving it away free?

El-P: I look at the whole thing as the path of least resistance. People are constantly asking why we’re giving it away for free when we could probably charge for it. Well, we are charging for it. And people who wanna support us, who wanna buy it, they are. They can, and are, and it’s a beautiful thing. But I think that that’s the fuckin’ case no matter what! It’s just whether you choose to acknowledge the truth of the industry or not. I mean, I can’t put another record out — well, I could, but it would suck — where I was pretending that everyone didn’t have it for three months. (laughter)

I mean, let’s be real man, I ran a record label, and I put out so many records, and every time there was an anticipated record coming out, something that someone wanted, that shit got leaked. That shit was out for months and yet we were still playing this twisted game of being like, “Hey, everybody! Buy the record when it comes out! It’s gonna be such a surprise when you hear this record!” And it’s like, well, it’s not, and can we all stop demeaning ourselves by playing this game?

So for me, it was like, not only did it feel like a good way to say to our fans that have been following us and supporting us, and who are ushering us into this new phase in our lives and and our careers, “Here’s our contribution to this relationship that we wanna have. We’re serious about this, we’re gonna back this up. This is a trust thing. Take the fucking record.”

And it is us being romantic and thinking to ourselves, look, if you like this shit, you’re gonna support it. I think that that’s the case anyway. There are people that support by buying music and there are people that just don’t. And it doesn’t mean that they’re not fans of you, and it doesn’t mean that they’re not real fans. It’s just not a part of what they do, you know? Maybe those other people will come to a show, maybe they’ll buy a t-shirt. Whatever the case, I don’t think the method changes if you say, “Hey, I’m gonna give you this,” actually.

And for me as an indie business guy, it’s like, gimme your email so I can alert you when we’re in town, or tell you when our next shit is out. It’s valuable for me to do this. It works. People respond to something that they like, and if we give them something they like, then I do believe that people will support. And now that we’ve done RTJ1 and that’s what happened, you can’t stop that belief in me.

The first time it was a little bit of an experiment. This time it’s like, this works. It might not work for everybody — I don’t think there’s any one model that works for every career. A lot of people are constantly searching for that industry, boiler-plate, new model. But that’s never going to happen. That’s not what the new industry is about. The new industry is about being maleable, and figuring out what’s right for you and your fanbase. And for us, it feels really honest and really fun to give our music away. It’s so much less fuckin’ stressful than this sort of cynical attempt at trying every other way to get you to buy our music.

If the Internet didn’t exist, then I’m sure that we’d all probably still be doing shit in the same way that we always were. At a certain point, the debate is over. Can we all just agree that the Internet does exist? And that’s reality now, the same way the telephone exists. I’m sure there were plenty of businesses that hated when the telephone came out. The carrier pigeon business was probably completely fucked. ■


See our interview with Killer Mike here.