In the Magazine: El-P of Run the Jewels
When Killer Mike and El-P released their debut album together as Run the Jewels in 2013, they tapped into an unexpected energy that has reverberated beyond just music. It’s almost become a phenomenon; a unique something that is perhaps at the heart of their friendship and creative collaboration. “We weren't looking for anything,” El-P told me. “We just found each other and everything that has happened out of it has been this roller coaster of unexpected cooperation and synchronicity.”
What manifested itself with RTJ over the past two and a half years is the response to the hand gesture featured on the album covers that has become emblematic. That is where we begin our conversation with producer and rapper El-P about art becoming bigger than its creator, taking on new meanings in a specific moment in time and culture.
Alex Nicholson: Let’s start with the logo. It's rare that a band logo or album art takes on a life of its own. Wu-Tang, The Rolling Stones’ tongue, Black Flag, and Public Enemy's logos are among the few.
El-P: It came spontaneously. I had the name, Run the Jewels, and I was trying to figure out how to express that in different ways. It was just something that occurred to me. We were about to put together the artwork, and I took a picture of my hands doing the symbol and sent it to Nick Gazin. It just felt really direct.
You recently posted those original photos on Instagram.
Exactly, I put that up there for archival purposes. It just came to me, and it felt like it was the easiest, most distilled signifier of the idea behind Run the Jewels. You could look at it, not even speak English, and know what it was. And it was something that people could have physically connected to. That's how it started, man, like so many things: me sitting on my couch, probably high, just coming up with this idea. And of course, it was brought to life by the artist Nick Gazin, and subsequently, all of the amazing fans and artists who have connected and turned it into their own thing. It was not something that we really expected, but how can you possibly expect something like that?
It seems like the way it spread through social media sets it apart from viral band logos and artwork of the past. The closest comparison I can think of is throwing up the Wu-Tang “W” at a concert, but this is a whole different animal. Not only your fans, but everyone you meet, including presidential candidates, throws up the gesture for an Instagram photo-op.
I think that has been a huge part of it. It is something that turned into a gesture and went way beyond what we had even thought it was. People are throwing it up, sharing and applying it to situations that are lending it gravity, you know? Someone throws it up at their wedding. Someone throws it up when graduating from school. It’s become a signifier of empowerment, a signifier of pride and a kind of attitude. I think that once you get into that territory, you can't really claim too much control over it anymore.
It’s fascinating to watch it expand and transform from album cover into so much more. When did you realize that it was growing into something you hadn’t anticipated?
It became something much more as people started to throw those things up on Instagram and on Twitter. It just got bigger and bigger. Because it had grown and because all these people were taking it into their own lives, applying it, and saying, "This is what it means to me," it also grew for us and expanded who we felt we were in terms of the type of things that we were about. I like to say that we're learning from the people who follow us, and the people who have been into our music. We're learning what Run the Jewels is about, what it can be, and about what it can mean to people, which is humbling because, in a lot of ways, we have something to live up to. When someone is throwing Run the Jewels up at the birth of their child, it means more than “this is a rap record,” you know?
It's not really for us to dictate that much anymore except, hopefully, to hold up to it. We are there to guide it a little bit, and provide a soundtrack for something that I think is becoming a bit of an expression, almost like it has its own zeitgeist. You can't really ask for anything more than that, and you also can never try and control that too much, apart from maybe trying to control who is making money off of it.
You have had the graffiti project, Tag the Jewels, in addition to entire traveling gallery shows based on Run the Jewels.
There have been entire galleries launched based on that idea, with really amazing artists. There's something about it, something about the way that we want to be and the way that we want to interact with our fans that really makes sense to us—the idea of it being everyone's, the idea of it being the people's group to some degree. It becoming a part of something that other people are creating is a big deal to us. We're sort of sitting here, wide-eyed, and watching it all unfold, and just trying to try to hold up our end, you know?
You guys definitely tapped into something. It feels like a unique point in music and culture where it can strike a chord with lots of different people.
It does feel that way, and we're fuckin' amped about that because having your music connect is a feeling that doesn’t always come your way. We've been in this for a long time and there are levels of that, but it's rare to experience something that is relating on a bigger level than just your fans or others who like the record. It's something bigger that you cannot fake. You can't manufacture that or decide to make that happen; it just naturally happens. As a guy who's been around for a while, it's rare.
Symbolism and the way we communicate with each other is malleable and meant to be defined, and redefined further, to be taken, and to be made, and to join people. So, I don't know what the fuck is going on, but I do know that it's thrilling. We're kind of living out this demented fantasy because that amount of engagement with people is just something... it's amazing! Seeing it every day, seeing people relating it to their lives, is incredible, and it also puts some pressure on us to be worthy of that, you know?
You're right, and it seems like it's happening a lot more in music recently—many genres working together, and a variety of people coming together.
There are things that are happening in music that represent a lot of different people, and I think that because Mike and I naturally found a common ground with each other, that extends and becomes empowering for people. We couldn't be happier with that aspect. We want to be on the side of dope shit, and I think that's what the Run the Jewels thing is. When they throw up that sign, people are just telling us what the dope shit is in their lives. Dudes are throwing the sign up after winning fuckin' metals in whatever sport they're doing! It's turned into, "I'm taking my shit. I'm taking my life. I'm enjoying this and I'm taking it." It's not aggressive towards other people, it's not fuck anyone else. In a lot of ways, it's just a war cry for being strong and being excited about life. That's what I'm getting from a lot of people that are reflecting back.
I know that sounded a little hippie but it's hard not to get a little bit sentimental when you see it. When you're surrounded by that energy, it really affects you, and it's why me and Mike can tour for fourteen months straight and not get tired, because we're addicted to that energy. I don’t think, at the height of both of our solo careers, we've ever seen anything that radiated that type of energy.
Do you think some of that comes from how you and Killer Mike have connected? You can go your entire life doing your own thing but sometimes you meet somebody who has similar ideas, and it can lead to places neither could have gotten to alone. How important is collaboration and how has that been a part of the success of RTJ?
I like to think that part of the reason why it means something, and what people can take it for, and have it mean something for them, is because they see that there's something genuine going on between me and Mike, and there's nothing manufactured about it. It is a real friendship and a real creative moment for both of us. I think there are a lot of factors in that. There's something pretty powerful about seeing people find, not only joy, but also like a creative apex with each other.
That's one of the reasons why we wanted to be a group. The idea of it being bigger than just one person could never really happen otherwise. There are no iconic, connective logos or gestures with just a person because it's just a guy, it’s just a girl, it’s just an idea. You either dig what they're about, or you don't, and me and Mike have found something in each other that has allowed us to be a little bit more, for both of us, in the way that we think, and the way that we present our music and have our styles. But more than anything, we weren't looking for anything, we just found each other and everything that has happened out of it has been this roller coaster of unexpected cooperation and synchronicity.
I think that people do see it as people connecting, if anything. Even on it's most base level, that’s what it is. This isn't one guy that you're rooting for, this is people from different backgrounds and perspectives who actually found and are continuing to find common ground, and are actually not so different. And maybe they created a bigger picture for each other in terms of the way that they can approach music.
There has been a lack of that recently. And that's what people need—real people connecting with one another.
One of the things that I love about what has happened with Run the Jewels is that we've seen a lot of little versions of me and Mike coming to our shows! I don't mean little pejoratively, but there are a lot of friends, there are a lot of white kids and black kids coming together on some Run the Jewels shit! That's something that makes us smile quite a bit.
We are aware that there's something unspoken and somewhat powerful about people being able to recognize a genuine friendship, and genuine success with each other when everyone is so regionalized and so divided, and everyone has been so separated to some degree, picking a line. Are you on this side or are you on that side? Whatever it may be, whatever the sub-genre is, whatever the idea is, whatever the music is. To some degree, we're opening a door. We're giving an excuse for motherfuckers to be down with each other! That's my romantic perspective on it. I hope that that's the positive effect of it. It feels that way sometimes, especially for us. We're just doing our shit, we're just doing our music, but we'd be fools to not notice that there have been some really cool reverberations from it too.
You're right and it seems like it's happening a lot more in music recently, different genres working together, and different types of people coming together.
I agree. I think we're at an amazing point right now in music where a lot of those lines that previously had been drawn, abstractly, but based on the wrong ideas—obvious ones, and then clearly not the understandable ideas—some of those things are getting just shattered.
There are things that are happening in music that are representing a lot of different people, and I think that because me and Mike naturally found a common ground with each other, that extends, and becomes empowering for people. It becomes a way for people to enjoy things together and that's really evident in our shows, which are incredibly diverse, fun shows.
You guys met kind of through Jason DeMarco who works at Adult Swim and Cartoon Network.
Yeah. DeMarco is actually a great example of the type of fan that we are too. He listens to everything. He listens, and respects, and likes the best, in his mind, of everything. He was the one that opened that door for sure, he was the one who said, “You should meet up with this dude.” I think that it took someone outside of the music industry to do that, to even think like that. Usually it's, “You should meet up with the dudes who do the type of stuff that the people in your region do.”
Let’s talk about comic books and how they have influenced you personally, as well as Run the Jewels. You recently had those Run the Jewels and Marvel collaborations!
The Marvel thing was crazy. Obviously, we grew up reading comic books. I think that almost anybody who's in art or music, and has been doing it their whole lives, has always been into shit like that. We grew up on it. That whole thing came from the editor at Marvel watching his kids. This is a perfect example, actually. He was watching his kid's football game, and his kid scored a touchdown, and the whole team started chanting, "Run the jewels fast, run the jewels fast," and throwing up the logo! And he was like, "What the fuck is this?" He investigated, and he got into it, and he liked it, and I think he saw that there was something there that meant something to kids. That's exactly what someone in his position is interested in, symbolism and art, and what is relaying an energy, a meaning, or a purpose, and he saw it firsthand. It really had nothing to do with us. It had to do with his kid.
It was pretty mind-blowing, man. I mean, there's not much you can say about it, except that you just kind of feel like you're living in some sort of demented nerd fantasy. I grew up all my life reading comic books and Marvel. I grew up on Robert Crumb and Vaughn Bode, and comics were always a huge part of my life.
They were always right there with music and movies. People who are creative, people who go into these fields, it doesn't just happen by accident. We're sucking all this shit up at a rapid pace from when we're young. Some of us go on to try, inspired by all of the things that we're into, to make our own thing.
This is an extended interview from the February, 2015 issue of Juxtapoz Magazine, on sale now!