If 2014 was RUN THE JEWELS foray into rap stardom, then 2015 has undoubtedly been the after-party. Killer Mike and El-P are currently in between projects but it hasn’t stopped them from embracing the grind and dominating this year’s festival scene – including trips to Coachella, Bonnaroo, Sasquatch, and Primavera Sound. The best part about it is it’s August and they’re not quite finished. L.A.’s FYF Fest, Reading & Leeds, and Austin City Limits are still on deck, not to mention a short U.S. tour that’s already been outfitted with BOOTS and some incredible Blade Runner artwork (via Ian Klarer).
It’s not unusual for artists to live on the road, but in the case of El and Mike, you’d be hard-pressed to find a concert that can go toe-to-toe with a Run The Jewels show. In fact, an RTJ set will win 9 times out of 10 as there’s no rap gimmicks or overblown hype. It is what it is – an electrifying performance that grabs you by the ears and leaves you reeling for days on end. For proof, we recently caught up with the duo at WayHome Festival to talk about Run The Jewels fans, tour essentials, and why they’re both fine with being the “cool, fucked up uncles that curse”. As El-P noted later on, “I love coming to these beautiful places just to get these beautiful people to scream ‘She got that dick in her mouth all day’.”
This year has been pretty busy for you as you’ve played festivals across Europe and North America. What’s your most memorable story from the road so far?
EL-P: I dunno, what do we got? Mike’s walking away…
KILLER MIKE: I don’t even know for 2015. Shit.
EL-P: I mean, it’s all been a crazy blur. The whole thing has been amazing though. The travel has been insane in general, but it’s not the type of insane that makes for an interesting story.
KILLER MIKE: We’ve pulled a couple kids on stage. There was a girl who tweeted at us for a month to play “Angel Duster”, but she wasn’t holding her sign at the show because her friend was. So we called her friend up and then realized we called on the wrong girl and she spazzed.
EL-P: She freaked out. She lost her shit, like crying…
KILLER MIKE: So we ended up bringing them both on stage. Then we pulled another kid on stage about a week ago – a chubby kid with an afro that kind of looked like if El and I had a kid – and when he got on stage, he ran straight for us. I think the kids who have had an opportunity to get on stage and connect have created some of the funniest spectacles I have seen this year. They “arts and craft” things that are bewilderingly good, like how can you have that much fucking time on your hands? The kids that have been jumping on stage though have been crazy.
EL-P: Not that you should think that’s something that’s condoned. We bring people up on stage on occasion. Jumping up on stage doesn’t work.
KILLER MIKE: Crowd surfing is funny to watch though. A lot of bearded white guys who look like hippies or Jesus like to watch the show while laying on their backs.
EL-P: And listen to it looking at the sky (laughs). This is not that exciting, but there are some people who are world record champs when it come to crowd surfing for multiple songs at a time, and there was this one dude who refused to get down.
KILLER MIKE: There have been kids in wheelchairs whose crew brought them to the show just to pop them up, and I’m like, “Please don’t let this fucking kid fall”. But the homies put them up for a song or two and get them down to enjoy the rest of the show. I’ve also been amazed at how many pretty girls just jump into mosh pits. That shit is crazy.
What would you say is your favourite thing about Run The Jewels fans?
KILLER MIKE: They’re wild, but they take care of each other. It’s not like they come to hurt people. They literally mosh but if someone falls they pause, pick them up, and keep moshing. They make wild ass pieces of art that they send us on IG and there was even an art show. It was unsanctioned but we ended up sanctioning it, so there was an Art The Jewels up in Frisco last week.
EL-P: A whole gallery. Like a lot of artists were doing pieces inspired by Run The Jewels
KILLER MIKE: And that inspires us. We appreciate it because you could pick a dozen other bands or a dozen other people for a dozen other reasons. It’s just very cool they do it for us. Hopefully you’ll see a coffee table book of the art in the future.
Well, recently you also had the opportunity to perform with other artists such as Jack White at MSG. Is there anything in particular that you’ve learned from other musicians?
KILLER MIKE: From Jack White, it was “own your own shit”. He let us go to his facility and it was amazing, I was overwhelmed. You think you’re independent but then guys like him and Tech N9ne are like dope independent artists that really control their own shit.
EL-P: I think at this point we both have done a lot of touring over the years, and the things you learn are the things that seem natural, but when you see it in action it’s reaffirming. Something I learned a long time ago just from observing is that touring is a job and you have to be a professional, but it’s also a joy to be a part of and you have to hold onto that as well. That’s just something that I’ve discovered to some degree over the years through personal experience and that’s something I try to emanate to people around me. We usually bring people on the road to open for us, so we try to set the example.
Sometimes people tend to indulge in bitterness where bitterness isn’t earned. You’re lucky to be on a bus, you’re lucky to be on a stage, you’re lucky to be in front of people who care about the music that you’re doing, so enjoy it and don’t destroy yourself. If you destroy yourself, then you’re cheating your fans out of a performance and out of that moment. So, you know, we try to be relatively sane, as much as we can. We’re definitely bursting with insanity, but as you get more experience, you learn to only allow yourself little bits of insanity when it’s not affecting anyone else.
KILLER MIKE: Have production buy your weed; Danny Brown says buy underwear as you go, so don’t worry about having it all packed and never worry about having a toothbrush and toothpaste because you can always ask the hotel for some. Those are my three tour rules.
EL-P: I would definitely recommend getting your own solid toothbrush.
KILLER MIKE: Nah, we’re in better hotels now bro (laughs).
EL-P: I’m not giving that much props to the festival, we’re at the Sheraton
KILLER MIKE: I like Sheratons and Hiltons.
EL-P: The toothbrush is like three bristles of toothbrush glued together on a stick.
KILLER MIKE: Marriott does good toothbrushes, I like those.
What’s your favourite strain of weed to have on the road?
EL-P: We don’t bring weed on the road. We get it when we get there.
KILLER MIKE: Here it’s been Jack Herer and it’s been pretty cool. In New York, you pretty much get Diesel but it’s the best Diesel around.
EL-P: We’re at that magical phase in our lives where weed just appears. It’s all we’ve ever wanted.
KILLER MIKE: But you look forward to going to certain places for their weed though. You can get some very good outdoor weed in the north, so when you get to Canada, you get some cool stuff that comes from outside. When you get down to the West Coast, you know that shit was grown in a house. It just depends on where you are. That’s the cool part about being a smoker though because you get to go to different places and smoke different strains.
EL-P: Don’t take weed with you on your tour bus, that’s another tip.
Yeah, border crossings aren’t that fun. With things being so non-stop, how do you deal with the pressure of sustaining the hype for future projects?
EL-P: There’s no hype, so we don’t have to sustain anything, man. We are just honestly riding a rollercoaster and we are not about sustaining the hype…
KILLER MIKE: Prince Rogers Nelson is on the new album! (laughs)
EL-P: We’re just having fun doing shows. We’re at the phase now where we’ve hit a sweet spot – we can do a lot of touring and do a lot of shows, and that’s what we’re doing. The only thing that we ever try to do is maintain the high grade level of our show, really give it our all, and make sure that everyone who ever watches a Run The Jewels show walks away having had a great time. That’s the only thing you can do and that’s all we want to do. But we have a timetable, so at the end of this year, that’s going to be it. We’re going to disappear for a while and then make another record.
How do you handle being part of a genre that puts such a high premium on gossip and feuds? Do you think it‘s just an easy way to distract the public from the bigger picture?
KILLER MIKE: Artsy kids fight – it has nothing to do with rap. If you think about your time in high school and you think about some of the dramatic arguments you walked across, it was the fucking theatre kids and the choral class. That’s just what artists do.
EL-P: Some of the biggest gang fights I ever saw involved the choral class – bloody, drag down, knock-out fights.
KILLER MIKE: My choral kids were from the projects, so they were rough. But artistic people see stuff differently; they have different opinions and rap is now a popular genre that you hear on the radio. It’s usually black men going back and forth, but artists argue all the God damn time. If you find yourself in a museum and the critics are in there, it’s usually the critic who yells the loudest.
EL-P: We personally don’t do it (laughs). We’re on our own shit.
KILLER MIKE: Rap beefs have always made shit better because you push yourself to a point where someone from the outside comes in and pushes you back. You either get better or you leave.
EL-P: There are a lot bigger culprits out there that are distracting us from the bigger picture.
KILLER MIKE: Yeah, like the news, the other news, institutions like schools (laughs). There’s lots of stuff that distracts people from the truth, but I wouldn’t get all riled up like Bill O’Reilly and say rap music is the villain we’re looking for. What’s destroying your kid’s attention is the fact that you’re not turning the television off to read with them and discuss certain issues. It has nothing to do with us.
What do you hope your new fans can take away from your upcoming live performances?
EL-P: I want you to put your fucking phone down because it’s going to get knocked out of your hand and into the dirt, and then someone next to you is going to gleefully stomp on it “by accident”. I want you to not come to our show with your favourite pair of sneakers and then think that you’re going to come into the middle of the pit. Nah man, look – everybody who comes to our show, for the most part, they’re going to have a great time. Honestly – like real shit – they are. We have a great time up there and we feed off the energy out there. There are some people who have never seen us and they walk out offended, like dads as we’re a big dad offender. There have been a couple of dads who have walked out on us because some people don’t get the subtle complexities of a song like “Love Again”.
KILLER MIKE: Yeah, there have been a lot of people bringing their kids to our shows for their first concert. I’ve seen a lot of prepubescent kids with their dads.
EL-P: We’re like the cool, cursing, fucked up uncle (laughs).
With Meow The Jewels, the profits are going to those affected by police brutality, correct?
EL-P: The main thing was that it was going to victims of police brutality, but what we we’re aiming to do is get it directly into the hands of a couple of different families of people who have been killed. We’re still trying to figure out the exact organization but it will be announced soon. For the rest of it, we are probably going to do the same, but we are talking about the possibility of setting up a scholarship fund. There are a lot of things that we’re looking to do. All we know is that we’ve got $40,000 to do what we want right away. Everything that’s made off the record, including merchandise, is going to charity.
Have you ever thought about hosting your own festival or event for a similar cause?
KILLER MIKE: We’ve been asked about doing a festival for a minute and even though it feels like the thing to do, we’re just trying to figure out the best way to do what we can. I don’t feel like everything I do is for a cause, but I don’t think we are the type of guys who need to socially prop up the cause we’re trying to support. We’re just trying to be good people. I’ve found it easier for me personally to just be a good person who supports a few different causes for a few different reasons.
Like we did a photo shoot in a magazine to help cats at shelters and we did Meow The Jewels to help families affected by police brutality, but I don’t necessarily want to become one of those groups that has their champion cause to march along to. Because that becomes a part of the deal and you can get married to something you may not want to be married to all the way.
EL-P: We just kinda carve our own lane. The Meow The Jewels project is our way of contributing and we contribute in small ways that we feel makes sense for us. We’re not an activist band; we’re just people who do what we can because we have hearts.
KILLER MIKE: If we do a festival, I want it to be one with a kickass lineup of dream bands that I’ve always wanted to see. Like make some dough and talk some shit to the mayor of the city (laughs).
EL-P: We’re musicians and we’re rappers. We like getting drunk and smoking weed, but if there’s an opportunity that makes sense for us to give in a certain way to somebody, then we will do it.
KILLER MIKE: We do stuff year round as individuals. My wife goes home every year for a week or two and she does a back-to-school giveaway out of a barbershop. Like she makes sure at least 300 kids go back to school and we also feed the homeless during November. I just want to make dope shit and if we choose to help people, then cool. But I don’t want to be that artist that’s telling everyone to wear Toms because they help kids. I fuck with that idea but it’s not us.
I’m more of a Larry Flint activist. I don’t want an organization to get so married to me that I destroy them because I’m definitely gon’ end up drunk in the strip club with my wife cursing me out (laughs).
EL-P: In other words, we’re not your mascot.
Given the impact you’ve had on kids since RTJ1, is there a live show that stood out to you when you were younger and also helped you get to where you are today?
EL-P: For me, I would have to say seeing BDP when I was a kid. Seeing KRS-One was big because I was so amazed of how he managed to control the whole crowd even though he was just this one guy. Like I realized that was such a big part of being able to be a performer. That was a big deal for me.
KILLER MIKE: BDP was one, of course – absolutely amazing on stage. I don’t think there’s anyone better. But I was really into groups, like Run DMC, EPMD, Public Enemy, NWA, and Outkast.
EL-P: I just never saw Run DMC play, I never saw Public Enemy play, and I never saw Outkast play back then. I just saw Outkast this year but not back then.
KILLER MIKE: Even with ‘Kast – as dope as they are – one of the illest live shows you’ll ever see is Goodie Mob. Their shit is subtly choreographed, like the Temptations. Like when each rapper raps, they two-step a square and they always find a way to dress alike on stage. Like in those Adidas suits or those robe-y type get-ups… like wizard robes.
EL-P: The wizard robes! We’re going to enter the wizard robe phase of our career pretty soon. That’s Run The Jewels 5. By the time Run The Jewels 5 comes out, we’re just wizards (laughs).
KILLER MIKE: Coming out like Grandmaster Flash with the boots and shit!
EL-P: If you’re writing a video treatment for us and you write the word “wizard”, you’re either going to get immediately approved or immediately rejected by Run The Jewels (laughs).