Ever since it blossomed into a cultural force, hip-hop has been cursed with wandering eyes and interchangeable affections. One minute you’re heralded as the next breakout star in the vein of Mims, Jibbs, and Cassidy, the next you’re persona-non-grata on the charts and etched into the unending pantheon of artists that “fell off.” Elsewhere, there’s the mile-long list of artists that once stood at the top of the proverbial mountain only for their seemingly firm-footing to be swept away.
Plying their trade in a genre where transience is the norm, what the current crop of hip-hop artists should treasure isn’t the breakneck ride of overnight success but the winding road of sustainability. Or better yet, study the allegory of patience and persistence that is Run the Jewels’ journey from tertiary concerns to total world-beaters. Rather than finding fortune early on, Killer Mike and El-P (two MCs from seemingly irreconcilably different backgrounds) hit their commercial stride at an age when most artists are gradually receding from the spotlight.
Both of them first burst onto the scene in the early to mid ’90s, and aspiring rappers that were of a less resilient disposition than Mike (alias Michael Render) or El (the former Company Flow/The Weathermen/Definitive Jux figurehead Jaime Meline) would’ve surrendered to the call of some dreary 9-5 long ago. No matter how much they excelled in their respective strongholds, both artists were burdened with the stigma of being dependable journeymen that catered to their hardcore fanbases alone. Then, in a case of complete happenstance, the two of them were aligned by mutual friend Jason DeMarco and an unbreakable bond was established.
Enlisted to provide “three jams” for Killer Mike’s 2012 record R.A.P Music, El-P was initially reluctant to devote more time to the project but an interview with Noisey made the impact of their union all too clear:
“Hanging out with Mike… and working on his record. Having that type of positive, breezy fun and also intellectually interesting experience you know? Hearing the shit that’s he saying, it definitely transferred over no question. I’m literally kicking double time styles on this shit now.”
The adoration was very mutual, with Mike claiming that he was “happy as a kid locked in Toys R Us all night.” From there, what seemed serendipitous became the focal point of their careers and skyrocketed the wily veterans to unfounded heights. As for the lessons that any artist with dreams of such a rabid following can extract, they begin with a point-blank refusal to compromise on their ambitions.
Like many before them, there came a point where both Killer Mike and El-P felt entombed by their own careers. Embroiled in a bitter feud with long-time mentor Big Boi and left to work as a strip club promoter when he “fell off,” Killer Mike explained to Believer that he’s “fueled by a dream“ but his work ethic is anchored by colliding with the industry’s curb and knowing that “I don’t ever want to feel that again.”
By the same token, the multi-talented El-P endured “a year that I was flat broke” but had the foresight to know that he couldn’t keep his label Def Jux afloat as it became “too much of a bubble.” Driven forward by his desire to “get the chance to try and make something great if I could,” both EL-P and Killer Mike’s gritted-teeth temerity would finally pay off with a project that’s never emitted so much as a tinge of stagnation. Across the RTJ trilogy, they have refused to steer off-course and remained themselves in every conceivable way but reaped the rewards all the same. As a result, Killer Mike drew a parallel to his ATLien kinfolk and the exponential rise that they’ve been on since their union began:
“I am in a moment that I saw my friends go through. I saw OutKast shift from 1000, 1500 people rooms to 3000 peoples and I just experienced that shit for my own life.”
Heart-warming as this may be, the approbation that they’re receiving was more than the product of stubbornness. Instead, it was birthed by realizing that their unique trade off between common ground and contrasting viewpoints was a goldmine ripe for plundering.
Formed by Killer Mike’s urge to create his version of Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, this jumping-off point gave way to an unanticipated scenario where El-P would meet his “best friend at 35.” But while their camaraderie is a crucial spoke on the wheel, it’s their working methodology that makes RTJ tick. Conjoined by a commitment to the craft, their unique delegation of labor was described in typically eloquent fashion by Killer Mike prior to their sophomore album’s release:
“You’ve got one player who shows up to practice every day and you’ve got another guy who’s like ‘practice? PRACTICE?’ but somehow we win championships and I’m happy about it.”
On the other hand, El-P explained to Fast Company that conflict resolution veers between attempts to “understand what the other person is doing” through to “sometimes we just fucking yell at each other.” But beyond the verbal disputes, El stumbled upon the true pearl of wisdom by remarking that “this context forces two very strong, opinionated people with artistic direction to actually sit down and deal with the fact this is our record.”
As much as their rise is anomalistic, their records stand as a testament to the benefit of surrounding yourself with contrary opinions rather than a fleet of hangers-on that do nothing but service an artist’s ego. Dialed in on a groove that has yet to misguide them, another exemplar that modern artists can take from RTJ is the emphasis they’ve placed on creating a brand that far surpasses their likenesses.
Just like their forefathers Wu-Tang Clan and Public Enemy, Iron Maiden and Ramones, Run the Jewels have an instantly recognizable logo that has taken on a life of its own. Brought to life by Nick Gazin, El-P’s vehemence that it must hinge on a hand gesture has proved to be foresight at its finest. Since its appearance on their cover art and tour merch, the iconic “gun and chain” has been parlayed into high-profile crossovers including clothing collabs with Rick & Morty and Volcom, beer, art exhibitions and variant Marvel covers.
Armed with a level of cultural ubiquity that was cordoned off to them beforehand, the imagery’s quality of endless reinterpretation has paid off, and will continue to do so in dividends for years to come. A status that any artist should aim for in marketing terms, this is not the only shrewd business move that the new breed could learn from these astute elder statesmen.
After years of toiling away, Killer Mike and El-P were already coming to terms with the importance of not being “dependent on the shallow pool of the hip-hop world” as their only revenue stream. Proprietors of a deli and barbershops in their own local communities, rap fame’s intrinsically precarious nature has meant that they have also planted their flag in as many subsets of culture as will have them. Whether it’s El-P licensing his productions to soundtracks or curating scores for Hollywood blockbusters and even gangster flicks such as Tom Hardy’s forthcoming Fonzo or Killer Mike’s political activism and Netflix series Trigger Warning, there’s no shortage of avenues that the pair have diversified into. When they reconvene as a tandem, their willingness to hop on bills alongside such disparate acts as Lorde, Mitski or Bring Me the Horizon demonstrates their commitment to superseding any idea of a target market and should be taken onboard by anyone that’s looking to carve out an enduring career as an artist.
Steered by a belief in propagating their art as far and as wide as it can possibly go, it’s fitting that a hip-hop group conceived as an “homage to rap legacies” are now carving out such a stellar one in their own right. A living refutal of the industry machine, Run the Jewels are outliers teaching future generations that instant gratification doesn’t last, but investing in your talent will ensure that you’re always in-line to make it when the time comes. As we wait for RTJ 4, it’s hard to imagine that they’ll do anything but the define the moment once more.