Killer Mike and El-P, together known as US rap duo Run the Jewels, are having a moment. A very big moment. Their ascent has been unconventional for many reasons, one of which being they're giving away their follow-up album Run the Jewels 2 for free. I talked to them a little bit about why. (By the way, if you haven't listened to Run the Jewels 2 yet, stop right now and go here and fix that.)
Killer Mike and El-P are by no means new to the music industry. But they've always been the underdogs. Mike (Mike Render) is an ATL staple, although in his own words, in spite of having a long career, he was always seen as somewhat of a protege to the likes of household Atlanta names (and friends of his) like Outkast or TI before he linked up with his New Yorker cohort, Jamie Meline, or El-P. El, too, has put in his fair share of years. He once ran the now-defunct label Definitive Jux, and has a couple of excellent solo albums under his belt at well.
So conventional wisdom might tell you that putting out a free album is a big fuck you to the industry, borne out of a long-brewing jaded cynicism. It's not! In fact, Killer Mike and El-P, right now at the very peak of their careers, are giving away music because they love what they do, and they love their fans. By rejecting the model, they're creating a new model – and they're giving credence to the idea that "free" doesn't just mean "mixtape".
I caught up with El and Mike on the road somewhere in Arizona in the middle of their tour…
What made you guys want to do a free album in the first place?
Killer Mike: Why fuck up a good formula? Our goal was giving something to the people… like El said early on in the first one, why go into it with anything that the album's not gonna be? Why go into it trying to fight with these big companies and their marketing budget? Why don't we just go straight after the hearts and minds of the people?
To give them the record initiates and offers a certain type of trust. And if you like the record, you'll come out, and you'll rock the record. And that'll be enough for you to want the next record. And now, they bought merch, they gave us a year of great shows, and then they asked, "When is the next record?" It just makes all the sense in the world for us. It doesn't work for everybody, but for us, it's probably the best thing to do.
El-P: We did it originally for those reasons and also for the idea that we thought it would be a cool gesture as a thank you to the fans. We had had a couple of great years and we were feeling very excited about the music we were doing, and it just dawned on us that it would be a really cool thing to cut out the middle man, and it goes directly to people. As much as it was based in intelligent thought, it was also based in sentiment. After a really successful run and really feeling like it had worked, we couldn't imagine at that point, doing the second one any differently. Except we did make it available in more formats right from the jump as well.
El, how did your experience running a label influence the idea to give music away?
El: I think it was probably one of the reasons I did it. I was sick of that game a little bit. On the one hand, you know, I enjoyed running a label for a while. But on the other hand, I don't really think that it, the traditional record label, is the type of model that I'm interested in right now... even me starting a record label back in the day, my intent to get directly as close to the supporters of my music as possible. I think for the first time in a long time, now all of those mechanisms are coming together in a way that we always imagined.
We knew that it was gonna change. We knew that the internet was gonna change everything. We knew that potentially the industry was gonna have to metamorphose – I think now we're just starting to pick up on how it's happening. But it's a cool time because we're actually able to help define that. And I think that happens project by project. It takes a successful project, like maybe Run the Jewels, done in an off-kilter way, or at least off kilter to the traditional style. But for me, also you know, just focusing on, stopping doing label stuff and focusing on music just felt so good that anything more complicated than that, or too complicated, was just not appealing to me.
I think a lot of people are really cynical about the relationship right now between the people who support music or listen to music, and the people who make the music. I don't feel that way. I don't feel cynical at all. And I know that Mike doesn't either. Especially now! You know, there were questions, but any cynicism I may have entertained, which was very little, has essentially just been washed away. Because we've seen people react! And I think people like being treated well. I think people like being given options. I think people will come out and support you if you can make music and conduct yourself in a way that touches them and touches their heart and means something to them.
Again, it's not necessarily some sort of technical model that's applicable to everyone else. But I think the spirit is applicable. I think coming closer to the people that you're engaging with and really being tuned in and actually talking with them, as opposed to this sort of weird, cynical game that we would all play, like, "Hey, even though I know you've had the record for three months, can't wait for that release day, right everybody?" Like, no. Let's not do that anymore. It's demeaning to everybody and ultimately it doesn't work.
It's like that saying: "You get more flies with honey."
El: Absolutely. The music industry to some degree has been based on the idea that the fanbase is the enemy, in a sense. That they're a group of people that you have to sort of wrangle together and hypnotise into doing what needs to be done in order for your financial plan to work.
I think kids are just beyond that at this point. The fact of the matter is that anybody can hear your music before they buy it no matter what. So kids respect being treated like equals. We let anybody – we don't think that somebody who doesn't buy music can't be a fan. You might not buy music, it might not be a part of your life. Maybe you have to prioritise, maybe it's not your thing. Doesn't mean that you're not gonna love our music, and we wanted everybody who would ever get a chance to hear it. And that's mostly what it was about.
These days more artists are giving away music for free. Radiohead have done it. Others have as well. But not everyone does it… effectively. So it was funny, in light of you gifting Run the Jewels, to see U2 hand people a free album, and make them really mad, while you guys have made people really happy.
El: I've said this before: you can't break into somebody's house and leave a present on their kitchen counter and expect them to not get mad, and expect them not to get mad about the fact that you broke their window.
Are there any artists that you, in doing the free thing, borrowed ideas or strategy from? Or was the model about messing up the model?
El: Obviously we're not the first ones to release a free record. I think that there has been ground laid there and you have to give credit to everyone else there who's done it. You know, Danny Brown did a great job of releasing XXX for free, and that's one of the reasons we worked with Fool's Gold on the last record. We felt like they understood the idea of doing a free record.
It wasn't until recently, until probably Danny Brown, Chance the Rapper and Run the Jewels that people started to look at free projects not as just mix tapes, but actually as real pieces of work and albums. Which, of course, makes sense. Look, if I tell you it's an album, it's an album. It doesn't matter if you got it for free or not. I think we owe a debt to everybody who's put it out before then like that or tried to come up with an alternate method. But we also carved our own lane in terms of the way we structured our deals and what we wanted to do. So it's a combination.
You speak a lot about putting something positive out there and getting a lot of positive back. In what ways have you been surprised by the response to Run the Jewels?
Mike: I didn't expect to see paintings and murals going up across the world of Run the Jewels. Inspired paintings. I think at this point, we're 9 or 10 shows into a tour, that all except one has been sold out. And that one was packed. I didn't expect that. It's not that I didn't want these things. I've always wanted these things, I just want to have an impact on people that moves them.
You know, what moves an artist to create art, that moves kids to come out to shows. But for us wondering if it was going to happen and how it was going to proceed. Literally overnight we could feel the different energy. It's been an amazing thing. For me, man, I've always felt like, as a rapper, I wanted to give those type of shows that people were different. And the greatest compliment I've gotten in the past year but in the last.
Run the Jewels mural by Frop & Rosso in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
There was a couple that got married that threw up the Run the Jewels logo with their marriage licence and their honeymoon, they're coming to four different Run the Jewels shows: Philadelphia, DC, Virginia, North Carolina. That was just amazing. To have that type of cultural relevance to people is an amazing thing because it means more than "hey I like your song and I'll forget about you tomorrow". It means that the energy is something that's gonna continue and it's a symbiotic relationship and that's all I ever wanted with my audience. You know, I don't want whatever other people have. I just wanted to make a connection, and I'm glad we have it.
El: I think Mike and I, you know, we didn't just come into this industry. We've been doing this a long time. We've had careers. We've had good careers! But there's something really special happening with Run the Jewels right now that both of us are going into uncharted territory to a degree. We're constantly amazed and thrilled at what's happening. We've been around and in different types of situations enough that we know really what to appreciate. We didn't blow up as kids. We blew up as adults. [laughs]
This is happening now for us, after years and years and years of putting in work, and years of fulfilling work, and work that we love, and careers that we love. But I think there's a difference for people like us who just like all of the sudden, all of those mythical things that happen to groups that are blowing up start happening to us, that we just felt were this rare unicorn that you might like, spot in the distance. Like, "Oh yeah, I've heard about it when people sell places out and they have to add another show the next day. Yeah, that's… that makes sense." Now that's happening to us and, you know, we're level enough to just be able to sit back and smile and really appreciate it. It's not lost on us. I think that just comes with the territory of [being] fully-formed people.
We've been through every type of phase that you can be in your career and this is some brand new shit and it's really mind blowing and the energy that's coming back to us every night that we step on stage, it's enough in quiet moment to really actually choke you up. I say that with all honesty.
It's really clear you guys really enjoy interacting with your fans, on Twitter and in person. You've both been around for a long time, and worked really hard to get where you are, and this is sort of a philosophical question but why do you think this is all happening now?
El: I think it's a snowball effect, personally. I think we caught a wave of energy and creative energy and it's translating to what we're doing and it's just, you know… I have no fucking idea.
Mike: I just know that if you keep showing up and you keep doing good work they say good things will happen. I guess that's true. I refuse to stop showing up. That was my thing. I'm gonna keep showing up. I just thank God that it works. And again, with that said, I have no fuckin' idea, but I'm not gonna waste a day of it.
You guys released Run the Jewels 2 a few days early. Was that a planned surprise?
Mike: Not planned. We were in Birmingham, Alabama, and my family's from Alabama, so let me qualify this: you wouldn't want to be in Birmingham when you drop a planned drop of a record. Trust me, you want to be in maybe a city where the strip clubs stay open a little later and get a little louder. Birmingham, we gave a great show, the audience was great and we heard that another site was already streaming the first minute off every record, and we were like, "We're not going to let anybody do this wrong. We're gonna do it right." And we argued for about an hour in the bus about what time to drop it and we said, "Fuck it, drop it."