Just five years ago, Killer Mike and El-P seemed to have reached their respective peaks in rap music. Mike had gained traction in the early 2000s, first as a guest lyricist on some of OutKast’s mid-career projects—“Snappin’ & Trappin’” from the Grammy Award–winning album Stankonia (2000) and the 2001 track “The Whole World”—and then as a member of the short-lived Atlanta-based group Purple Ribbon All-Stars (with Southern luminaries like Big Boi and Sleepy Brown). He also enjoyed a nice run as a solo artist with the albums Monster (2003), two editions of I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind (2006 and 2008), and PL3DGE (2011). But the relentlessly energetic rapper still never broke through as a mainstream rap star.
El-P’s trajectory dates back to the mid-1990s, when, as one-third of the rap group Company Flow, the Brooklyn-born MC/producer became a staple of New York’s alternative-rap scene. The group’s 1997 album, Funcrusher Plus, is a widely heralded gem that recalls hip-hop’s golden era—largely due to El-P’s idiosyncratic break beats, which put an edgier spin on the electro rap-funk hybrid that Afrika Bambaataa pioneered in the 1980s. In 1999, El-P co-founded the indie label Definitive Jux, where he released his solo debut, Fantastic Damage (2002), a set of chaotic, rapid-fire rhymes and spacey instrumentals. He shut down the label in 2010 to focus solely on his own music.
From afar, it might not seem like the two rappers have much in common. They hail from vastly different rap cultures, each based in its own local context and history. But both knew the other’s music, and after meeting through a mutual friend, El-P flew to Atlanta to work with Mike, who was recording his 2012 album R.A.P. Music. After just three hours in the studio, Mike asked him to produce the entire project.
El-P’s bombastic tracks brought greater urgency to Mike’s searing indictments of police brutality and the legacy of former president Ronald Reagan; R.A.P. Music turned out to be one of the best hip-hop releases of the year. El-P released his own album, Cancer 4 Cure, just a week after Mike’s project, and it also garnered mass critical acclaim. Both albums signaled an upswing for Mike and El-P, and what had looked like peaks would soon prove just to be temporary plateaus.
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The two officially became a duo in 2013, releasing their first album as Run the Jewels that same year. On the surface, their formula is simple: El-P makes the beats; he and Mike rap aggressively about pretty much anything. Smoking weed and political rebellion are some of their enthusiasms; Christianity, racism, and all manner of American injustices are a few of their bêtes noires. Theirs is a no-frills, no-nonsense approach, which runs the risk of becoming stale with each subsequent release.
Yet since their inception, Run the Jewels has been a strong voice of irreverence and political dissent. In August 2014, two months before the release of Run the Jewels 2, police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, setting off a series of protests throughout the country. A year prior, a jury had determined that neighborhood-watch coordinator George Zimmerman was not guilty in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.