The sound of Run the Jewels is crafted from El-P’s beats. But Killer Mike’s singular balance of brash confidence and vulnerability—not to mention his love of ’80s and ’90s rap from all regions—has vaulted the duo to a level of popularity that would’ve seemed improbable back when mutual friend Jason DeMarco of Adult Swim initiated their unlikely union five years ago. Listening now to Mike’s Pledge Allegiance to the Grind series a decade later or El-P’s Fantastic Damage 15 years after it detonated this month back in 2002, there isn’t a straight line to draw between the two. How do you blend Alec Empire and T.I., Trent Rzeznor and Sleepy Brown, Mars Volta and Young Jeezy? Obscure yet joyous moments—like 2002 El-P rapping over Missy Elliot’s “Gossip Folks” and 2011 Mike floating on Flying Lotus’ “Swimming”—predicted how they could inhabit each other’s worlds. But many left-field rap collaborations are one-time novelties, not dynasties.
Now that Run The Jewels has become a staple of festivals, Marvel comic book covers, and soundtracks for TV shows and video games, it’s worth noting how much Mike and El’s work ethic hasn’t changed in the combined 38 years they’ve worked in the music industry. Mike’s discography pre-RTJ was 10 deep (counting studio albums and mixtapes) while El-P was at nine (if you include the two Company Flow albums). Their unifying love of Ice Cube, EPMD, Public Enemy, Wu-Tang, and Run-DMC has crystallized into subwoofer H-bombs as a duo, while their individual catalogs are snapshots of young rappers proving themselves. El-P’s biggest single in the Def Jux days featured a video of him being flanked by shotguns and hand cannons in post 9/11 New York during a neighborhood trek for smokes. Killer Mike was shoehorned onto hits by Outkast, Bone Crusher, and JAY-Z, but his biggest single was about the urban myth of Adidas’ namesake.
El-P stated his intention early, back in 1997 on the inner artwork of Company Flow’s debut album Funcrusher Plus: “Independent as fuck.” Killer Mike concurred, starting in the mid 2000s with his eyeopening mixtape series after stalling out with major labels. El-P came up during the great indie rap boom of the late ’90s/early ’00s: Stones Throw, Anticon, Def Jux, Rawkus, Fondle ‘Em, etc. while Mike was slangin CDs hand to hand, everywhere from strip clubs to barber shops to mom and pop record stores, in the vein of Atlanta success stories like Ludacris, DJ Drama, Lil Jon, and Lil Flip. The models of independence varied wildly between New York and Atlanta, but the idea was the same: Your career has to be earned.
Now that they’re playing Made In America Festival this year, it’s interesting to look back at their best work (compiled in the YouTube playlist below) and hear a redheaded maverick from Brooklyn holding his nuts while making Philip K. Dick and Vangelis into viable hip-hop ingredients, and the son of a Southern police officer running through brick walls with a Bible and a blunt in his hands.