The hip-hop producer and rapper known as El-Producto (El-P for short) says he never considers listeners first. Instead, he's guided by whatever inspires him and his musical partner, Killer Mike. What makes them giddy to lay down spontaneous raps?
“If we feel giggly and fucking excited about something we’re pulling off, then that’s my barometer,” El-P says.
It must be a good measure, because they’ve been absolutely lighting it up since forming the hip-hop duo Run the Jewels in 2013. Previously, El-P (real name Jaime Meline) and Killer Mike (Michael Render) toured together and frequently contributed to each other’s solo albums.
“We already knew the love was there,” Killer Mike says.
“We were already a team,” El-P echoes.
Their first, self-titled album blended El-P’s futuristic production and dense rapping style with Killer Mike’s beastly, catch-me-if-you-can flow. And it seemed like a perfect partnership from the get-go. With their follow-up albums — Run the Jewels 2 (2015) and Run the Jewels 3 (2017) — they continued trading cartoonish, chest-thumping verses over increasingly insane beats. All three albums are considered modern rap classics.
Speaking ahead of Run the Jewels’ opening set for Lorde at American Airlines Arena April 12, El-P and Killer Mike acknowledge that opening for one of the planet’s biggest pop icons isn’t anything like playing a nightclub for a few hundred people. They realize most people aren’t there to see RTJ. But don’t expect them to tone anything down for the young teens and families in attendance. Nor will they pull punches while delivering lyrical gems such as, “No hocus pocus, you simple suckers been served a notice/Top of the morning, my fist to your face is fucking Folgers.”
Lorde is certainly an odd touring partner for a hard-rap group, but she’s been tight with RTJ since they toured together about four years ago. Ahead of this run of concert dates, her management team offered RTJ the main supporting slot and the opportunity to remix one of her songs. But as one of world’s leading producers, El-P always has plenty of original compositions in various stages of completion, so he initially hesitated to commit to the project.
“I don’t really do remixes anymore,” he says. “I used to do a lot of them, but I don’t like to do them for the most part unless I’m really inspired and it’s a challenge... If you’re going to remix a song, you turn it into something it wasn’t before you got your hands on it.”
What’s more, the song — “Supercut” — didn’t immediately seem ripe for reimagination, but El-P eventually heard something in the track that he was able to tease out and manipulate.
“At first I was like, ‘I don’t know if I have an idea for this,’” he says. “But I slowed it down a bit and started playing around with it, and all of a sudden this dark, funky sort of thing came out of it. You can look at lyrics a lot of different ways, but the production of the music around the lyrics is what gives you the context. Her lyrics are sort of mournful and a little bit dark, and the background vocals — the high part she sings — is what I used for the hook, but it wasn’t the main hook in the original. It had almost like a funky, Prince sort of feel. So, yeah, I just recontextualized it.”
The result is a filthy, twisted take on “Supercut” that bears little resemblance to the nostalgia-inducing original. El-P’s version includes blasts of static, swells of sinister synthesizers, and, of course, absolutely nasty flows from both MCs.
“El-P laid down this crazy dope remix, we laid down verses, and the rest is history,” Killer Mike says.
As a producer, El-P concentrates on setting up the duo’s verses to hit as hard as possible. Take, for example, “Blockbuster Night Part 1,” a single off Run the Jewels 2. It’s half an exercise in hilarious braggadocio, half a bone-chilling battle track. Killer Mike proclaims, “Last album? Vodou!/Proved that we was fuckin' brutal/ I’m talking crazy, half past the clock is cuckoo.” Then the beat drops as heavy as an anvil, like the Iron Giant playing staccato piano, and the song becomes a furious game of lyrical one-upmanship.
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The way Killer Mike tells it, he was destined to join forces with El-P.
“I was born to rap over these beats,” he says. “I feel like me and those beats were separated at birth, and when me and El got our group together, I was finally rapping on the beats I was born to rap on.” As for El-P, he was half of the hip-hop duo Company Flow earlier in his career, so finishing another MC’s sentences is second nature.
“Getting into a group with Mike felt like coming full circle, except this time I’m an adult and I know how to talk to people,” he says. “This time, I’m not going to fuck it up.”