Maybe hip-hop duo Run the Jewels are like the new Avengers, marauding to improve civilization. Or maybe it's just a couple of guys who get along really well.
Either way, they're a force to be reckoned with. El-P, even before striking out on a solo career, was a sizable underground force as New York indie-rap godheads Company Flow's principal talent, in addition to running the Definitive Jux imprint and producing work by folks like Cannibal Ox. And Killer Mike is an adjunct of Atlanta's Dungeon Family, the collective that also includes Outkast and CeeLo. So any sort of collaborative activity from these guys was bound to attract attention. As the duo's sophomore album, Run the Jewels 2, moves closer to realization, with a release date sometime this year, it's still a mystery whether the disc will be issued as a free download, like the first one, or come with a price tag affixed. But regardless, the recording is poised to further disperse the MCs' grim critique of American life and culture.
"I would say that this record is pushing toward the center of what me and Mike do in our solo stuff," says El-P over the phone. "If it was Run the Jewels on the left and our [solo] albums on the right, we're coming closer to the center—in some places into a different type of material." Mike, also on the line, quickly adds that the new disc is simply "darker, harder, funnier."
However it shakes out, Run the Jewels intends its work to stand alongside hip-hop's definitive recordings. El-P cites De La Soul, Outkast and Brand Nubian as touchstones. Beyond the combination of El-P's Northern credentials, Killer Mike's Southern connections and the release of a roundly lauded recording, a real-life friendship has sprouted since the pair first worked on 2012's R.A.P. Music, Mike's solo dispatch. But the duo's relationship did more than enlarge each performer's career and personal doings.
"It gave us a break from being the intense El-P and Killer Mike, which we're known and loved for," Mike says. "It was a musical departure, with the intensity of some of the [solo] records that we do. It turned into a club—this weird club. And I like being a part of it.
"Our records involve conversations," he continues. "I don't say, 'Yo, go in there and knock that shit out in 20 minutes.' We'll talk about it, sit around and smoke a joint, come back the next day and talk about it again."
"We spend a lot of time talking and bullshittin' about everything," El-P adds. "That's why the records are what they are."
But passing off the collaborative effort as a meeting of two disparate worlds—the North's underground culture and the South's erudite urbanism—might be a bit disingenuous. On "DDFH," both MCs delve into a sort of universal oppression, whether it's from local law enforcement or something more sinister and broad-based, as El-P's malevolent, electronically inflected production courses behind the performances. "Right above the clouds/There's a shroud there to smother us," he intones.
"I think that people always miss it, if they think El and I rap differently," Mike says. "It's the same government, it's the same corporations. So we're talking about vastly different things, but the root cause is what we're both aiming at."
After targeting a spate of festival dates this summer, including MusicfestNW, and completing RTJ2, though, each performer has other business to attend to.
"I'm going to go back to making an El-P record, and Mike's going to go back to making a Killer Mike record," El-P says. "Those ideas existed before Run the Jewels. What you're seeing now is two friends just running with it."
Run the Jewels plays at 6:25 pm Aug. 16. Music and info at musicfestnw.com.