Hip-hop isn't supposed to be this much fun anymore. When cult legend producer/Brooklyn rapper El-P teamed up with Atlanta rapper Killer Mike to form Run the Jewels on last year's eponymous debut album, it was a breath of fresh air: hip-hop that was widely accepted by both rap purists and indie music fans, from a fierce yet playful duo with a dynamic straight out of a buddy cop movie.
Run the Jewels returns to the Bay Area this week — marking the duo's first time back here since its excellent Outside Lands Festival set earlier this year — with a new record in tow. Titled simply Run the Jewels 2, the record has been out for just two weeks and has already received praise as one of the best — if not the best — hip-hop releases of the year.
In anticipation of their Nov. 14 show at the Mezzanine, we caught up with Mike and El-P to talk about their memories of S.F., their love of weed, and the early success of their sophomore record.
SF Weekly: The first half of the record really seems to be about energy. Is that the focus? To get people bouncing, moving, and feeling like they just wanna punch a speaker?
El-P: Hell yes! We want people to feel shit. There are movements on the record like you mentioned. The first part is really high-adrenaline, and then we start playing around with different points of energy. We're just two dudes sitting in a room going off of each other's energy, that's why it's palpable. We're not manufacturing the energy, it's just happening. And obviously the music is driven towards that in a lot of ways. When the album opens up into one of the later tracks like “Crown” you feel that type of energy. It's well-deserved. You know how you got there a little bit when you listen to the record. And that's why people are responding to the record so well, 'cause it's making people feel something. That reaction of people saying they wanna run through a wall? I love that.
I like that that you mention “Crown,” because it seems like the deepest track on the record. On a line like “Can't pick up no crown/Holding what's holding you down,” what's the symbolism there?
Mike: That's my grandma's favorite verse, man. It's about being able to love without shame. It's the spiritual crown of being able to love yourself. You can never adorn yourself with the crown if you carry it around hurt with pain and shame.
I could go down a rabbit hole on that one, but I want to ask you about the Bay Area too.
Mike (interrupting): Yes. The Bay Area has the best marijuana in the world!
So you still look forward to coming here for the weed even though there are [medical marijuana] club cards everywhere now?
Mike: Of course! I've said it in the past, from Amsterdam to L.A., the best weed in the world is in the Bay, man. Shouts out.
Well, we're mighty proud of that. So Run the Jewels played the Independent on the first album tour, as well as Outside Lands a few months ago. What can we expect this time around? Are the new songs gonna hit harder?
El-P: We're just starting the tour … we haven't had too much of a chance to perform that shit live, so it's new for us too. We got into a rhythm with the first album, but we're just gonna start running through the new record. The energy on that record is gonna be fucking crazy. The way the crowd reacts to the first album is insane, so we're really excited to hear these jams loud and see people respond to them, 'cause I don't know what's gonna happen.
El, I heard a story once about you being in the Bay way back at some party, and giving [Bay Area turntablism pioneer] DJ Qbert a record to spin, and no one knew who you or Company Flow were at the time — and it just blew up.
It's a true story. I was out there in '95 or '96 with the first Company Flow 12-inch, “Vital Nerve” with “8 Steps to Perfection” on the other side. I was doing some radio interviews … first time out there on some rap shit. A friend of mine took me to a party and downstairs in the basement where we went was Qbert and all of the Skratch Piklz. These dudes were gods to me. Anyone who knows, knows … They re-defined everything in terms of turntablism.
Now, I was high as fuck. My first time smoking Cali weed. Chillin' by myself and just happened to have a 12-inch in my bag and I see Qbert get on the turntables. There's really no one in the room besides the Skratch Piklz and me and maybe a few other people. It's this dark room, they're playing records and Qbert looks up and says “Anyone got anything?” like he was unsatisfied and just wants a record. And I'm sitting there, he doesn't even know me and we hadn't even met, and I was like “I have something.” I handed him “Vital Nerve,” which was the first big Company Flow record.
He puts the record on, listening on his headphones, and then looks at me with this look on his face … and then he's fucking with it, he puts the fader over it and he just starts killing it, destroying and cutting it, flares and shit … it was just mind-blowing. All of the Skratch Piklz dudes were like “Oh shit!” and they all rushed me with “Do you have another copy?” And I'm just high as fuck, like, “What's happening?”
And that's kinda what I feel is happening with Run the Jewels right now. Like that moment, on a bigger level. It's like you're handing people a record and they're just losing their shit. There really couldn't be a more wonderful feeling for a musician, to get that type of response from people. Because music is one thing. We do music, but it's not complete until it's heard, and it's not complete until it connects with people. No one is gonna be happy as an artist if their art doesn't connect with anybody, so … to have it connect is something that I don't take for granted.
Did you even think you were gonna release a second record this quickly? Two records in two years that really hit. I mean, this doesn't feel “sophomoric” at all; it's a straight continuation of what the first one did.
Mike: I don't see myself making music without El-P. I'm constantly thinking about what's next. I'm trying to enjoy this moment, we're gonna be on tour, and I'm trying to be inspired for what comes next. For me, it just never stops. I like making music with this motherfucker, and it sounds dope.