The Run-Up to Run the Jewels

How Killer Mike and El-P became an unstoppable tag team

Run the JewelsDan Medhurst

Rap careers often have the shelf-life of a bowl of potato salad on a picnic bench in July. But Jaime Meline and Michael Render—aka El-P and Killer Mike a.k.a. Run the Jewels a.k.a. the greatest thing to happen to hip-hop this decade—have managed to navigate the snake pit that is the music industry for 20 years and come out with blood dripping from their fangs.

It was an unlikely collaboration: a brainy rapper/producer from New York who came up during the late ’90s backpack era and a lyrical beast of the Dirty South who broke out in 2000 team up in 2012 (for Mike’s R.A.P. Music). They’ve held the rap game at gunpoint with their unapologetically brash boasting and political burns ever since. Now they’re on damn-near every late-night talk show, rocking damn-near every music festival and getting interview requests from damn-near every music writer (this one included).

As we get ready for their blistering Brooklyn Bowl performance on October 20, it’s important to know that their success wasn’t overnight. What you hear on their eponymous records is a result of determination, growth and two decades of remaining unflinchingly true to their art.

El-P’s Company Flow Years

El-P, shorthand for El Producto, formed Company Flow with fellow emcee/producer Big Juss and DJ Mr. Len in the early ’90s. Their first full-length, Funcrusher Plus, dropped in 1997 on Rawkus Records, the label that would also release early works from Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Give it a spin (if you can even find a copy) and you’ll hear just how ahead of their time the trio was with their funky, futuristic soundscapes and their prophetic punchlines. On “The Fire in Which You Burn,” El raps: “Now we can all become Lord of Files when this industry sees its demise.” That line in particular would foreshadow the next phase(s) of his career.

The Def Jux Days

After splitting with Rawkus, El-P launched his own independent label, Definitive Jux, in 1999. It featured artists of his own ilk, helping launch the careers of acts like Aesop Rock, Cannibal Ox and Mr. Lif. Other indie artists, like west coasters Murs and Del the Funky Homosapien, also filled out the roster. It became one of the seminal underground rap labels of the era, alongside the Midwest’s Rhymesayers Entertainment and the Bay Area’s Hiero Imperium, before shuttering in 2010. It also saw the release of El-P’s glorious solo debut, Fantastic Damage, whose “Deep Space 9mm” chokeslams his former label (“Signed to Rawkus? I’d rather be mouth-fucked by Nazis unconscious”).

A Monster in the Making

“Player, I grind.” That’s the opening line to Mike’s verse on Outkast’s Grammy-winning “The Whole World,” his first exposure to the mainstream masses. And damn if he didn’t stick to it. Mike’s put out five solo studio albums and five mixtapes since, along with three LPs with El-P. His 2003 solo debut, Monster, is a southern rap classic that didn’t get the credit it deserved. In fact, Mike didn’t get his rightful due until recently. Now he’s being recognized as one of the best lyrically—Kendrick Lamar referenced him on 2015’s “Hood Politics,” rapping “Critics want to mention that they miss when hip-hop was rappin’ / Motherfucker, if you did, then Killer Mike’d be platinum.” He’s also become one of the most socially-conscious voices in hip-hop, using social media to call to action, including urging fans to deposit their money in black-owned banks. He’s a frequent guest on talk shows and a supporter of Bernie Sanders. During Sanders’ political run, Mike hosted video interviews with the former presidential hopeful from his Atlanta barber shop.

R.A.P. History

Mike has always been a vicious silverback on the mic. But he’s one of many artists the industry failed. Ghetto Extraordinary, intended as his sophomore release, got shelved in 2005 and was self-released three years later. His subsequent albums and mixtapes kept his buzz going. But it was his 2012 album, R.A.P. Music, that would change the course of his career. Produced solely by El-P, the pummeling beats were the perfect compliment to an emcee at the top of his game. Mike rapped whirlwinds on songs like “Go!,” put the government in check on “Reagan” and still kept it country playa on “Southern Fried.” As Mike says himself on “Untitled”: “You are witnessing elegance / in the form of a black elephant.”

The Run-Off

Since El-P assisted on R.A.P. Music, Mike returned the favor by appearing on his Cancer 4 Cure, which dropped a week after R.A.P. Music. They decided to tour together, birthing Run the Jewels. They dropped their first eponymous album in 2013, followed by Run the Jewels 2 in 2014, a remix album made entirely of cat sounds called Meow the Jewels in 2015 and Run the Jewels 3 in 2016—all available for free. According to the men themselves, none of it was planned. “We just did a record, a dope record that we liked, and the shit kinda blew up,” El-P told Vegas Seven during a backstage interview at Life is Beautiful in 2015. “We were just like, alright, fuck it, let’s do another one. I swear to God, it’s never been any more planning than that. … We’ve just been along for the ride.”

Run the Jewels

8 p.m., Friday, October 20, $35-55, Brooklyn Bowl, 3545 S. Las Vegas Blvd,