Five reasons to see…. Killer Mike and El-P

Hugh Leask

Run+the+Jewels 200x300 Five reasons to see.... Killer Mike and El PThe US hip-hop duo of Atlanta rapper Killer Mike and New York producer/emcee El-P—collectively known as Run The Jewels—are in London this week. The pairing’s first collaborative album, also called ‘Run The Jewels’, was released in June this year initially as a digital download on hip-hop/electronic label Fool’s Gold Records and later on limited edition marble green double vinyl, garnering universal acclaim from fans and critics.

1. The duo’s roots in the rap game run deep. Killer Mike made his debut on fellow ATL-iens OutKast’s modern classic ‘Stankonia’ album in 2000, and he stayed firmly at the forefront of Southern hip-hop’s blossoming during the next few years. That movement, which drew the focus away from the genre’s traditional east coast/west coast, New York/LA axis, has defined a sizeable chunk of rap music over the past decade, with Mike’s own home state of Georgia in particular throwing up some truly memorable moments from the likes of T.I., Ludacris and Bubba Sparxxx.

Brooklyn-based El-P—also known as El-Producto (or just plain ol’ Jaime Meline)—was one-third of the celebrated New York group Company Flow, torchbearers of the east coast underground scene that emerged during the mid-to-late 90s. Co-Flow’s abstract, offbeat musical style, angular beats and fiercely anti-commercial manifesto (plus strong ties to both Rawkus Entertainment and Fondle ‘Em Records—two independent record labels that came to define the independent era) placed El-P and pals in sharp contrast to marquee names such as P. Diddy and Jay-Z, who at the time were peddling predictable sugar-coated pop-tinged rap—which scored huge commercial success but attracted critical scorn. After Company Flow split up and independent hip-hop began to disintegrate as the 2000s kicked off, El-P kept his name out there by setting up his own Definitive Jux label, home to envelope-pushing acts like RJD2 and Cannibal Ox, as well as producing and remixing for the likes of Dizzee Rascal.

2. Hailed in many quarters as the best hip-hop album this year, ‘Run The Jewels’ picks up largely where Killer Mike’s stunning ‘R.A.P. Music’, released last year and produced entirely by El-P, left off.  With Mike rapidly switching between street-level brag-raps and politically-charged polemics, providing the ideal foil for El-P’s high-powered, block-rocking beats, the album drew immediate comparisons to Ice Cube’s ‘AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted’. That’s no bad thing—‘AmeriKKKa’s…’ was the famed LA rapper’s first post-NWA effort and, masterminded by Public Enemy producers The Bomb Squad, remains as relentless and high-octane today as when it was released in 1990.

3. The ‘Run The Jewels’ project has seen a remarkable turnaround for El-P as an artist. After Co-Flow disbanded, El-P’s subsequent output was (somewhat unfairly, it must be said) dismissed as ‘alt.rap’ or, worse, ‘blip-hop’—all jarring synths and squelching drums. But over the past 18 months, he’s enjoyed a critical rehabilitation among listeners, with his production sounding re-energised and evolved. Cuts like ‘Big Beast’, from last year’s ‘R.A.P. Music’, and ‘Get It’, the first song released from ‘Run The Jewels’, pack the kind of pounding distortion and invigorating punch that made so many of those mid-‘90s underground bangers so vital.

4. Killer Mike himself has insisted he is not a political rapper, more a social commentator. Either way, it’s when he places Capitol Hill and Wall Street under the microscope—as he frequently does—that he truly excels. Take ‘Burn’, a solo effort from 2009, which is an impatient, angry study of recession-struck U.S. society. The breadth is incredible—Mike touches on unemployment, police brutality, overcrowded prisons, the collapsing school system, bank bailouts and home repossession—and the track recalls a period in the late ‘80s when political rap still had some bite, and hadn’t yet lapsed into the tiresome mish-mash of dry lecturing and daft New World Order conspiracy theorization it so often is today. Last year’s ‘Reagan’ meanwhile was a razor-sharp dissection of ol’ Ronnie’s eight-year presidency—complete with audio clips of double-R’s now-infamous early denials of the Iran-Contra affair. You won’t find that on a Trinidad Jame$ record.

5. In the modern era, a rapper’s album will frequently feature a stack of guest appearances by other rappers from all over the place, and just as many producers handling the beats. It’s a somewhat scattershot approach designed to maximise returns by catering to as many different sub-strands of the genre as possible—but often it leaves albums hamstrung, with the music lacking focus and pulling in too many different directions. Run The Jewels’ self-contained approach—El-P handling all production duties, with guest spots kept to a minimum—makes for a much more cohesive listen. It also carries echoes of the one lead rapper/one producer set-up that served legendary ‘90s hip-hop duos such as Gang Starr and Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth so well. Or as Killer Mike so deftly put on ‘Banana Clipper’, the second single from ‘Run The Jewels’: “A producer gave me a beat, said it’s the beat of the year/I said, ‘El-P didn’t do it, so get the f*** outta here.”

El-P + Killer Mike = Run The Jewels play the Electric Brixton in London on Tuesday 26th November.

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  • Benedict Edwards

    I get the impression that all this stuff came from Wikipedia about half an hour before deadline. Better not let El P hear you call it abstract dude…

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