Trotting through a pack of struggle teens on my way to interview Killer Mike and El-P at Stubb's in Austin, I checked my purse to make sure I had the weed. Festival press is so un-chill—everyone's hungover or fucked-up and it's more inconvenience and repetition in a day already stuffed with both—and it was raining hard out, and Mike had come straight from the airport, having gone back to Atlanta to see a doctor after being jumped onstage at a previous SXSW showcase. Now I was showing up last-minute, right before their set, intruding upon a duo I feel an unreasonable love for, and I hoped that the three little jewel-colored boxes I had in my purse (more like Nug Container Store, am I right) would smooth over the situation.
Call it a fan gift, anyway. Both RTJ and RTJ2 were instant top-tier for me, electrifying juggernauts of an album, hot and trendless, constantly on repeat. For a girl from Houston whose first musical loves were emo, thrashy electro and Southern rap, Run the Jewels is a genre paradise: El-P's grinding, minor-chord, anvil-heavy, abstract percussive fire against Mike's potent, reckless, playful Geto Boys-esque flow. Their lyrics—which are so tight and plural in cadence that I used RTJ's first album to teach classical meter in my intro poetry class last year at the University of Michigan—are remarkable acts of doubling; a slick, hard surface with a forest underneath; unapologetically aggressive and also honestly self-conscious; dissonant, ecstatic lamentations that flip from stupid to prophetic in a blink.
Best of all, Run the Jewels is a rap act that prioritizes their incredible live show: their verse trade-off slips to bar by bar, word by word. Their friendship in practice is the definition of aspirational, and the immediacy of their sound goes straight to the bloodstream. Right after our interview, Killer Mike and El-P would come onstage to "We Are the Champions" and then deliver a set that prompted full raucous minutes of applause and one of the best crowds I saw all week. Mike would talk about his new rotator cuff injury, and say that he told his doctor (who is also the Atlanta Falcons doctor, apparently) that he was gonna stay on tour anyway.
But before this, they had to talk to me. I went into the green room where Mike and El-P were sitting and handed them my "jewels" sheepishly. They gave me generous smiles. "Shit," said Mike. "Well, these cases are so goddamn cute. I'll roll some of this up and we'll smoke it right now." Mike passed me the joint he was finishing and rolled a couple of new ones.
The first time I saw you guys, it was a day set at Laneway in Michigan, and you guys passed us down a bottle of Grey Goose from the stage "for the children."
Killer Mike: That explains why I think I saw you before.
That was such a good set. So fun. The festie cops were trying to fuck with my boyfriend and I pretended I didn't know him so I could keep raging—like, "Bye!"
El-P, laughing: "Sorry, I really can't leave, sweetie!"
El-P: You guys are still together?
Yeah. I mean, he's got to put up with what he's got to put up with.
Killer Mike: Men could never say that in relationships. I wish I could.
You can say that! We all have to put up with stuff, right?
Killer Mike: Nah, I say that to my wife and she would punch the fucking shit out of me.
So: what's touring for this album like compared to the first one?
El-P: It's just gotten crazier. It's kind of amazing, we're kind of wide-eyed about it to a certain degree; the rooms are bigger, the shows are sold out. It's what you hope would happen, but it's still really cool.
What's the best crowd you've played to recently?
El-P: We just started up again, we had a little bit of a break. We've done New Orleans, Dominican Republic…
Killer Mike: It was surprisingly fun as fuck. We had people down there who knew our shit. And I definitely gotta say, the women of the Dominican Republic: they found a whole new groove in a lot of the records. They was groovin like a motherfucker.
El-P: That one was interesting, because that culture, they don't really have a strong rap scene out there. So it was one of those things where there were maybe 100 people who knew Run the Jewels and had T-shirts and knew the words, but there were maybe 3,000 people who were there to just watch. And they were dancing.
[I'm suddenly stoned, get that SXSW thing of "Hmm haven't eaten in about 24 hours" and can't control what's coming out of my mouth] What's your favorite local spot to eat?
Killer Mike: You mean here or just from home?
Killer Mike, instantly: Miss Ann's Snack Bar.
Is that in Atlanta?
Killer Mike: On Memorial Drive. It's run by a 70-something year old black lady who's the equivalent of the Seinfeld Soup Nazi. She'll tell you, like, if you go in there on the phone, she'll be like, "Don't be on your phone. Fuck that." She'll say, "Leave." You're like, "What are you talking about," and she's like, "LEAVE. You not gettin a burger today, go eat at McDonald's."
She can even send you out of the place?
Killer Mike: Yeah, you come back in there beggin' and shit.
What's the food?
Killer Mike: The Ghetto Burger. Like two huge damn near half-pound fuckin' patties with some shit: bacon, chili, cheese. Everyone eats there, from the mayor to the top of the street people. And she treats everybody the fuckin' same.
[I am so hungry now and can't stop with the food thing] On tour, are there any things you guys gravitate towards, food-wise?
El-P: Mike always needs a burger, I need some Vietnamese food. That's my shit, everywhere I go. I'm getting Mike slowly on board. When I met Mike, he was like, "Fuck Asian food!"
Killer Mike: I was not like, "Fuck Asian food." I was, "Fuck white people's Asian food." I was like, "This is never what the fuck Asian people are eating." And when I started eating that, like he took me to an authentic Vietnamese place, I was like, "This is my shit."'
El-P: That's my comfort food, basically. I'm a dude who grew up in a coastal city. New York is very much that: I grew up with a Chinatown, knowing and learning what the real stuff is. Mike's always looking for barbecue, burger spots.
[Food questions keep coming out of my mouth] Mike, it's important for me to know, what's your favorite regional barbecue style?
Killer Mike: I like Texas-style beef and Carolina-style barbecue.
Do you write on the road?
Killer Mike: No.
El-P: I have trouble being that musically productive when I'm on the road, but I'm kind of always writing. I'm always jotting little stupid things down on my phone. Things from conversations, me and Mike will talk shit and I'll write down some ideas. But I've never been that dude that sets up his studio after the show. Wish I could be, but I'm not.
You guys put these records out fast, though.
El-P: Yeah, to be fair, whenever we have off time, we're in the studio.
How often do you write anything that ends up in the other person's verses?
El-P: We collaborate. We write our own shit, but because we're a group—
Killer Mike: We merge our minds—
El-P: We'll throw each other lines—
Killer Mike: We'll finish each other's—
El-P: That's really the way it ends up being: since we're always in the same room when we do this music, as a rule—
You never do it remotely, sending parts?
El-P: Never. We want the music to be reflective of our friendship, and it really comes in the form of us finishing each other's thoughts. Like often, Mike or me will get to a point in our rhyme when we'll sort of stop for a second—and then Mike will come in, or I'll come in, and make it happen. We help each other, for sure.
Yeah. One of the things I love about your music is that it's direct and hard but there's so much joy about it. It seems like a lot of that comes from your friendship—that you're never attacking any idea solo. Onstage, trading out word for word, that comes out even more. Do you guys come out conscious of that live playfulness as a necessary part of your thing, or—
El-P: That's just the way we are, man. I don't know if you can simulate that. We enjoy the presence of each other. We enjoy performing together. We enjoy writing together.
I think there's something really important about being a full human, especially in your art. A lot of people will artistically focus on one aspect of their personality. It takes finesse and skill and attention to make everything else can coexist in a song. And we find it really important to be able to be stupid and to be able to be serious at the same time. That's the way we are as humans. There's not one person that I know, or that I like, that's serious all the time.
You have to know when gravitas is the right sentiment, but for us, humor is an ally to truth. We use it as a weapon to get to truth. And the truth is often silly.
Oh, I feel that so hard.
El-P: And that's the hope of the thing.
So as soon as you guys were in the studio together, it was obvious to you guys that you were going to make great music. When was it obvious that you were also going to be great friends?
El-P: It was kind of simultaneous for me.
Killer Mike: We had an hour-and-a-half long conversation in the middle of our studio session the first time. We just fucked around. He didn't walk off on a break, go get on the phone. We set our phones down and talked to each other. And after coming out of a conversation like that, you're like, "Damn, I could be this guy's friend." Not even that you're looking for a friend, but it's like, "Wow, I want to holler at the homie again."
I had new perspectives [after talking to him] and also felt like my concrete perspectives had been re-certified. He felt like someone I could learn from, and a person I just also felt like was cool as fuck. I knew from the first day that the music was dope, and I was gonna activate the shit out of it, and then [snaps fingers] I was gonna activate him as a friend for the rest of his life too.
El-P: I wasn't planning nor did I think I'd have the time to really work on a record that wasn't the record I was working on for me, and the thing that really pushed it over the top was that connection. We got into a room and it was just me and him, for a month. But it wouldn't have happened—none of it would have happened—if we hadn't taken an hour to talk in Atlanta, and smoke a cigarette.
Killer Mike: I smoked a joint.
El-P: I'm going to put you on blast right now. He had a drag of my cigarette. He's not supposed to.
Killer Mike: Don't tell my wife!
I'm also not supposed to smoke cigarettes! But last night I was like, "Well, I have to stay alive, don't I?"
El-P: Right, we're not savages here.
What's the most stoned you've ever been onstage? Either of you guys.
El-P: I know it for him. [Laughs] This motherfucker. Fuck it, I'm telling it. It was Denver.
Killer Mike: No, it wasn't Denver, it was fucking Washington.
El-P: It was Washington, for Diplo's shit, what's his festival?
El-P: Yeah, the block party. And someone had given us edibles. I refuse in my adult life to take edibles; they're too unpredictable to me. But this motherfucker was so lit that he had to announce it to the crowd, just as a precaution.
Killer Mike, laughing to himself: I ate a whole brownie.
El-P: It was very much not definite that he would remember any of the songs.
Killer Mike: I got too high. I was like, "I don't know the rest." And the crowd rapped it, they ad-libbed. That's how we got through that set.
El-P: Let me tell you something. Since 1994, literally until I met Mike, I would not smoke weed before a show. I'd had some shitty performances like, in 1995, when I'd smoke weed before a show and just couldn't—because I was a kid, mostly, and I was smoking way too much. So for decades, I was like, "I don't do that. As a rule."
And then I started fucking with Mike…
You're like, "Well, I'm gonna."
El-P: I was like, alright, maybe this is fun.
Killer Mike: I figure, if Bob Marley could do it—
El-P: I'm just careful at this point not to smoke so much that it affects my energy.
Killer Mike: Yeah. And I'm not eating no weed. Fuck that.
El-P: Never. Noooo.
Killer Mike: The doctor told me, too. "We gonna keep you off the sweets."
El-P: Tell her the real reason.
Killer Mike: I went to the doc with my wife to get my medical license—
Killer Mike: California, and the doctor asks me, "Do you smoke?" And I'm like, "Absofuckinlutely, as much as I can." He's like, "Do you eat marijuana?" I'm like [pauses] and he's like, "No."
I'm like, "I'm a big guy," and he's like, "No, you need to just smoke."
Hey, if the doctor says smoke weed…
Killer Mike: Then my wife came in, describes the same shit, and we come out and we're talking about it and I tell her he said no eating weed, and she's like, "For real? He told me to eat weed."
El-P: Basically what the doctor's saying is—
Killer Mike: "You're fat."
And your wife can do whatever she wants.
Killer Mike: It was hilarious.
El-P: You'd probably be okay if you took a handful of weed and just chewed on it like it's broccoli.
So you guys have been on the road—not just together, but separately—for so many years. Are the stops you liked to hit individually before the same ones that you like to hit together now?
El-P: There's been shit that's altered for me. Shit that I hadn't experienced that maybe Mike had; places where shit that I was doing wasn't popping, but now it is. Like, Houston—I never personally had great shows in Houston until Run the Jewels. I think a big part of it is Mike's influence. And also realistically, on the other hand, I probably had much better experiences on the East Coast than Mike did.
Killer Mike: I always had good shows in New York. The New York mecca was always good. But I never caught, like—what I have fun in now—is Boston, Connecticut.
El-P: For me, Boston was almost one of the livest. And so that's what's so exciting about what's happening: as long as we've been doing this together, we've been having new experiences. For me, Nashville.
Killer Mike: And San Diego. The cities of Canada, that's some real shit. Toronto, Montreal, Quebec. I really got to shout out our northern neighbors, the enthusiasm just keeps growing.
El-P: [In Canada] we went from 600-person venues to 2,000-person venues within the space of a year. We've got a really amazing group of people that come to our shows. I think our shows are a little bit different from other rap shows in terms of the vibe. In the crowd, it's very rare to have people hold up their cell phones. If you're trying to hold up your phone in the pit, your phone is gone. People are just jumping around too much.
It comes off a little weird when artists say "My fans are the best," but now I really know what people mean by that. When people seem to have real love for it, when people really come to let go, come to be a part of it—particularly these days, when you can't even do an interview without motherfuckers on their phone [stares at Mike]. Not mad at you, just saying.
What's the best fan gift you've ever gotten?
Killer Mike, putting down his phone: Hot Wheels. Hell yeah. I put it on my Instagram.
El-P: People give us some amazing fan art. One time someone gave me this six-foot tall framed drawing of Philip K. Dick, and it's in my house. It was beautiful.
Killer Mike: Yo, shouts out to Taterman. I'm a huge fan of Chip Foose, the car builder—and one day I walk on the tour bus in San Diego, and there's a box on the bed and I open it up and it's two Foose cars, little cars I collect. I'm like, "This is dope!" and then I see the signature on them, and realize it's real, and I lose my motherfucking mind.
El-P: I was there. He was like a child.
Killer Mike: I was yelling "Chip Foose! Chip Foose!" And so Taterman is a fan of Run the Jewels and a visual artist, and he knew how much I loved Chip Foose, and he got Chip to sign and brought that to me. I was fuckin touched. I'm a fan of something, and my fan knew that, and he went out of his way to do that, and that shit was touching as fuck. I almost cried.
When you guys are doing a set and someone in the audience catches your eye, what's it about them?
Like, hot ones?
El-P: No, no, no. Like, honestly, I'm just interested in how that is—I love how Run the Jewels has a strong female audience. I never liked the idea that rap shows, dope rap shows, aggressive rap shows, shouldn't be for women. That they could get uncomfortable enough for women to not want to be there. And the really amazing thing about a Run the Jewels show is that it's almost wilder than almost any rap show right now in terms of what the audience does, but it's also safer. Women feel safe there. I was raised by sisters and a mom and so it's important to me that my music isn't exclusionary to them.
I have always liked the way women show up in your music—fully formed characters that are off around the stories doing their thing—and I think it's clear from your collaborators: I mean, the Gangsta Boo verse on the new album speaks a lot to what you guys are doing. I remember reading a past interview where you said that just because something happens to be dirty doesn't mean it's misogynistic: that's such an important negotiation here.
Okay, let me ask you quick either-or questions before we go. Indica or sativa?
Killer Mike: I like hybrids.
El-P: Sativa. All day. I need that shit.
Me too. Bourbon or tequila?
Killer Mike: Bourbon.
El-P: I can't drink either of those, I turn into a raving Irish idiot. I stopped drinking whiskey and tequila years ago because I was not being the person I wanted to be. I'm mostly a vodka dude, even though it has literally no flavor.
Barack or Michelle?
Killer Mike: Hey, man, Michelle has the most amazing legs.
El-P: [long pause] I gotta pass.
Pizza or tacos?
El-P and Mike simultaneously: Pizza.
Thanks, guys, I'm really excited for your set.
El-P: If you're close to the front, we'll try to pass the Goose down again.
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Image via AP