Run the Jewels: The Definitive History of How Killer Mike and El-P Became Hip-Hop’s Favorite Odd Couple

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On Killer Mike’s “God in the Building II,” a deep cut off 2011’s Pl3dge, the former Outkast associate raps about meeting a devil at the crossroads who offers him success in exchange for his soul. When Jaime Meline heard Mike’s soulful screed looking back on his life choices, it tapped into something deep inside of him. “God in the Building II” became the song he woke up to, the song he showered to. Meline, better known as the rapper and producer El-P, played “God in the Building II” so much, his musician girlfriend, Emily Panic, eventually grew annoyed.

“Why are you playing this over and over again?” she asked.

“Baby,” Meline said, “Sometimes you just get it right. This motherfucker got it right on this song.”

Killer Mike and El-P are kindred spirits. Born within a month of each other in 1975, they lived similar but parallel stories, as Michael Render of Adamsville, Georgia, and Jaime Meline of Brooklyn, New York. When they finally did meet four years ago, it was through Cartoon Network/Adult Swim’s Jason DeMarco, an underground hip-hop head and quite possibly the most chill TV executive on Earth, and it involved the cartoon Frisky Dingo. Eventually DeMarco put the pair together to record “a few jams” for a Killer Mike LP on his network’s boutique label. The chemistry was immediate.

“Within ten minutes of knowing each other, they were both high, they were both laughing,” DeMarco tells Flavorwire of the meeting. “And they started working.”

Now an official duo, Render and Meline released Run The Jewels 2, their second LP in as many years, this past October. An assault of classic hip-hop braggadocio, elite-level rhyme skills and intricate, cranium-cracking beats, Run The Jewels 2 has been more critically acclaimed than anything Killer Mike has ever released, and has achieved a level of mainstream recognition previously unbeknownst to El-P. These days, even SportsCenter anchors implore highlight-reel stars to “run them jewels fast.”

A pair of 39-year old rappers from opposite ends of the eastern seaboard are now touring the world together behind one of 2014’s best albums. How did they get here?

Read our comprehensive timeline and exclusive interviews with El-P, Killer Mike, and Jason DeMarco on the following pages, and scroll over the interactive graphics for more info and quotes!

Killer Mike and El-P’s parallel paths begin in earnest in 1999.

By 1999, Render was a dropout from Atlanta’s historically black Morehouse College. After meeting Antwan Patton, aka Outkast’s Big Boi, he decided to pursue a career in music, performing as Killer Mike. Almost immediately, he catapulted to the spotlight. His first appearance on record was a guest verse on Outkast’s 2000 quadruple-platinum LP Stankonia, trading rhymes with Big Boi on “Snappin’ and Trappin.’” By 2001, he was one of the hottest new rappers coming out of Atlanta, and had won a Grammy for his performance on “The Whole World,” the single from Outkast’s 2001 greatest hits collection. His debut album as Killer Mike, 2003’s Monster, was certified gold by the RIAA (500,000 units sold), thanks in part to its Big Boi-assisted single, “A.D.I.D.A.S.” Killer Mike was solidifying himself as a major-label rap star, but suits at the label had higher expectations. Like many young stars, he would find the success to be fleeting.

Render released Monster on Outkast’s Aquemini Records, a Virgin Records imprint. Once Andre 3000 left to pursue other artistic pursuits, Big Boi took responsibility for the label and renamed it Purple Ribbon Entertainment, eventually signing a new distribution deal with Sony/Columbia. The result was that Mike’s second album, Ghetto Extraordinary, was shelved as Render feuded with Big Boi and Columbia. So he founded his own label, Grind Time Official, and put out the first of his “Pledge” series: 2006’s I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind. Killer Mike, who essentially started his career with a Grammy, was no longer ballin’ — he was grindin’.

Meline was also a dropout. As a teen, he left high school and studied audio engineering at a trade school. In 1993, he pooled resources with some friends and started the seminal underground hip-hop group Company Flow. By 1997 the group had released its first album, Funcrusher Plus, on the nascent Rawkus Records. Far from embracing the world of big-time advance money and substantial marketing dollars, the group threw up middle fingers at it, coining the phrase “Independent as Fuck.” But they didn’t just talk it, they lived it. After disagreements with Rawkus over business, Company Flow left the booming label, which by then was home to budding stars Mos Def & Talib Kweli. Instead Meline founded Definitive Jux (Def Jux) with his friend, Amaechi Uzoigwe.

Meline quickly made a name for himself as one of the preeminent underground hip-hop producers in New York. By 2001, Company Flow had disbanded, but Def Jux was thriving. Cannibal Ox’s 2001 LP The Cold Vein, produced entirely by El-P, put Def Jux on the map. In 2002, Meline would release his first solo album as El-P, Fantastic Damage, to a similar reception. As Mike was releasing coke-rap mixtapes like Home Alone Wit Dat Crack, El was releasing instrumental jazz albums and collaborating with pianists. Both were successful hip-hop artists, but their paths were unlikely to cross, even accidentally. They might as well have been in different galaxies.

It’s at this point that Jason DeMarco emerges as the connective tissue in Render and Meline’s relationship. The two found themselves working most closely with DeMarco as their careers were stagnating, but in 2007, everything was stagnating, including the music industry. Traditional revenue streams were drying up, and DeMarco had become their friend and patron, commissioning art from them on their terms.

A diehard hip-hop head who walked in his wedding procession to a J. Dilla beat, DeMarco was in the process of establishing himself as a patron of the musical arts. As the VP and creative director of on-air at the Turner-owned Adult Swim, DeMarco’s responsibility is to program all of the music on the late-night (mostly) animated programming block on Cartoon Network. Adult Swim had developed a reputation for seeking and promoting forward-thinking underground music, releasing compilations and incorporating songs into their trademark “bumps,” the 15–30 second interstitial clips with white text on a black background that promoted Adult Swim shows. When the network started to commission new music, DeMarco formed a boutique record label called Williams Street Records, named after the company that produces Adult Swim’s original programming. It would prove to be a breeding ground for the next acts in the careers of Killer Mike and El-P.

DeMarco first connected with Render while compiling the soundtrack for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters, a 2007 feature-length spinoff of the popular Adult Swim cartoon. He needed a replacement track when an artist backed out at the last minute, and a fellow Turner executive suggested Render from the voice-acting work he had done on Adult Swim’s Frisky Dingo. Render had played Taqu’il, a world-famous rapper who serves a brief term as President of the United States.

DeMarco is a rare bird: an executive in the music industry who’s not a music industry executive. “J’s a little bit of an angel,” Meline says today of his friend and patron. Even if the money was smaller, he gave Meline and Render outlets to get their music on television during an era when most independent artists needed a car commercial to do so. He’s the one who paired Killer Mike with Flying Lotus and El-P with Young Jeezy. He was becoming a hip-hop tastemaker through television. Animated television.

When he met DeMarco, Render’s career was on life support. The follow-up to Monster was languishing in Columbia Records purgatory as he squabbled with Purple Ribbon. Render’s days as a major-label rapper appeared to be numbered, and his life was beginning to spiral out of control.

Pledge II, my wife and I had broken up, I was just philandering on some bullshit, just too much drugs,” Render tells Flavorwire. “I was really fucked up, man. I was fucked up on the inside.”

With Ghetto Extraordinary gathering dust on the shelf, Render walked away from his deal with Big Boi and Purple Ribbon, going so far as to tell the press that he “fired his boss.” Tensions came to a head when a member of Big Boi’s entourage reportedly assaulted Render. But far from making him quit, hitting bottom and being on his own helped give Render some new perspective. He finished recording I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II, releasing it independently on Grind Time Official.

The Pledge series had become, for Render, “motivation music,” hip-hop made to give yourself a kick in the ass, in order to “git up, git out and git somethin’,’” as Outkast had so eloquently implored a decade earlier. He meant to change lives, and he did — people still approach him to tell him how the record helped them. But the undertone of the Pledge series is an internal monologue, as if Killer Mike is trying to convince Michael Render that he’s still worthy.

“That record really helped motivate me out of a depression,” Render admits. “And in turn, people responded, like ‘You changed my life with that record.’ I just remember sitting there looking at a $300 royalty check like, ‘Why the fuck ain’t my life changed, then?’”

The forced growth made Killer Mike a better rapper, his verses now imbued with a newfound intensity and sense of urgency. If he was going to continue to have a career, he was going to have to make it for himself; no one was going to give it to him. (By 2008, in part thanks to their respective children, he and Big Boi had reconciled.)

“I’m sure [leaving Purple Ribbon] made him a better man, and it has allowed him to open himself up for self-growth and sustaining who he is artistically,” DeMarco adds. “That probably wouldn’t have existed if he had just floated through major labels having 20 PR people and an agent and five handlers and just not really ever having to make those important decisions to control his own career.”

In New York, Meline was going through his own tribulations, losing his close friend and collaborator Camu Tao, who died of lung cancer in May 2008. Meline was struggling to keep his indie record label afloat amidst a brutal recession. He had also taken notice of Mike’s newest music, and it hit close to home.

“I was really the dude who was affected by the Pledge,” Meline says. “It really did work. Whatever he was going through, that record connected with a motherfucker like me. And I had no real reason to connect with him, except that I’m a fan of music.”

DeMarco’s connection to Meline was less coincidental. An underground hip-hop head, DeMarco sought out Def Jux for Adult Swim’s compilation series and commissioned Definitive Swim, a 10-track compilation album featuring Def Jux artists including El-P, who also served as its creative director. Definitive Swim was the first time Meline and DeMarco would meet. The project went well enough that Meline decided he wanted to use some of the money to make a video for “Flyentology,” the Trent Reznor collaboration that served as the lead single for his new album, 2007’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. DeMarco connected El-P with director Daniel Garcia to make the video, thus solidifying their friendship.

Meline’s music was reaching new heights artistically, but he was struggling with the responsibilities of running a label while also being an artist. He had to flee to Montreal for three months just to focus enough to complete I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. Despite licensing the Def Jux catalog to Adult Swim for use on bumps and other promos, the label was still hemorrhaging cash. By 2009, Meline was lost.

For the first time since he founded Def Jux, Meline was seriously struggling. Broke, overwhelmed, and missing Tao, Meline didn’t know what to do next.

“I lost everything I had,” Meline says. “I had a very, very humbling year. The year before I met Mike, really. I didn’t have any money, I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Def Jux had been his labor of love for more than a decade, but in 2010, Meline made the painful decision to put the label on hiatus. Refraining from taking on new projects, he served only as custodian for the back catalog of previous releases. Having poured his own cash into the business in its final years, Meline himself was dead broke, forced to downsize from his upscale three-bedroom duplex in Brooklyn’s Ft. Greene neighborhood, to a more modest one-bedroom in Clinton Hill. Now freed from his albatross, he was ready to focus on his art.

He was saved, in part, by a Mississippi blues label. Matthew Johnson, who built his Fat Possum label on the foundation of obscure blues artists, was taking the imprint in a new direction, having released the second and third albums from the now-world-famous Black Keys. Johnson advanced Meline enough money to complete his next solo album, Cancer 4 Cure, and he hit the studio with a renewed vigor. El-P, the artist and producer known for torturing himself for years as he painstakingly crafted his solo records, would be taking a more zen approach.

“I made a very conscious decision not to keep trying to control everything that went on around me,” Meline says. “That was a big deal for me, because it helped me in my personal life and it helped me sort of reset myself, as a human and as an artist. And I really fell in love again with music more than anything else. I think that was why I said yes to working with Mike, because it felt like a moment. It felt like the crossroads, almost.”

Render, for his part, was making moves. He had signed to T.I.’s Grand Hustle imprint and was set to release Pl3dge, the third in his I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind series. He was playing small-time shows to make ends meet, and the love he was getting from the audiences inspired him to keep growing.

2011 would prove pivotal for Render. With his new wife Shana, he opened up Graffiti’s SWAG Shop, a barbershop in Atlanta. It solidified his roots in the community, but also provided a sustainable business independent of record sales. It signified a greater shift in Render’s life, one focused on developing his humanity, as well as his rap skills.

Though moderately successful, Pl3dge didn’t make the splash that Render had hoped for. But he took just the tiniest smidgen of recognition — the single “Ric Flair” had made Rolling Stone’s Top 50 Singles of 2011 — and ran with it. He knew that Adult Swim and DeMarco were just the folks to help him make the album he wanted to make, 2012’s R.A.P. Music. They had already bonded over their love of Ice Cube, but when Render admitted that he wanted to make his own AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, DeMarco knew exactly who they needed to call.

“If you want AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, modernized,” DeMarco told Render, “The only producer I know who comes close to the Bomb Squad-level of production is El-P.”

DeMarco got Meline on the phone and flew him down to Atlanta.

Ice Cube’s solo debut was important for several reasons, not the least of which was its placement on Render, Meline, and DeMarco’s all-time favorite albums list. AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted signified the blending of distinct regional cultures: Ice Cube was the biggest star in the West Coast’s biggest gangsta rap group, N.W.A., and he had gone to Long Island to record with the Bomb Squad, the production team for East Coast militants Public Enemy. Musically, it was the starting point for Jaime and Mike, and therefore, Run The Jewels.

It was, however, hard work convincing Meline that he should produce the entirety of R.A.P. Music. They campaigned for months, eventually wearing him down, in part, due to Render’s relentless personality and enthusiasm, and in part due to Meline’s newfound maxim of relinquishing control. They met each other halfway.

Once Meline had committed to the project, their friendship began to coalesce quickly. DeMarco was right — they really were in the same lane, they just needed a nudge to connect them. They were both inheritors of the ideas that Ice Cube and the Bomb Squad had formed in the early ‘90s. Just like Cube in 1990, there were naysayers that couldn’t picture the two transcending their own histories. And just like Cube in 1990, they were ready.

“People were completely shocked, and in some cases even appalled intellectually at the idea that me and Mike were about to do a full record together,” Meline says. “There was never one second where we — Me, J nor Mike — didn’t know, that we didn’t have an evil grin on our faces, knowing. Like, ‘Oh these motherfuckers just don’t know. That’s the only reason. Trust, after this fuckin’ album, no one is ever gonna say that shit again.’ And they didn’t. And they never will.”

DeMarco saw it in 10 minutes, then got out of the way and let them work. In that first day of sessions, they recorded three songs — the first was “Big Beast,” which would become the album’s lead single. Meline stayed for a few days, then flew home to New York to get back to work on Cancer 4 Cure. But Render had other plans. He had found a creative muse, and he wasn’t about to let anyone take it away from him. Meline had already made it clear to DeMarco that he didn’t have the time to produce the entire album, but that mattered little to Render.

“I knew when I left the studio, I was like. ‘This mo’fucka’s gonna produce me the rest of this album, and the rest of my career,’” Render says.

Both R.A.P. Music and Cancer 4 Cure were released on back-to-back weeks in May 2012. The positive response was near universal, and the subsequent tour, dubbed “Into the Wild,” sold out shows across the country. Killer Mike and El-P may have become a dynamic duo in the recording studio, but they became Run The Jewels on that first tour.

“Seeing each other perform material onstage, being together for that long, just deepened their friendship,” DeMarco says. “It allowed them to understand each other in terms of each of their styles, not just as rappers but as humans. I think that’s what allowed them to get to that space.”

Feeling invincible, Render was ready for the next step. Having already decided that El-P would be producing the rest of his career, Killer Mike wanted to know when R.A.P. Music II was on deck. El-P has produced for countless artists, but only a lucky few have had the privilege of his skills for an entire album, let alone more than one. But both El-P and Killer Mike have been consistently prolific throughout their careers; the only difference is that now, all the music they want to make just happens to be with each other. It didn’t hurt that Meline no longer had a record label to run and could laser-focus on the music. The way Meline was making music with Render was different, and maybe Meline was, too.

Render strikes the careful balance of challenging Meline to do better and being easy enough to work with creatively. Plus, eating mushrooms in the woods with Killer Mike sounds way more pleasant than the old El-P production process. “People would be knocking on the door and I’d be [screaming], ‘GET OUT!!! LEAVE ME ALONE!!!’” Meline recalls.

“El has changed as a person,” DeMarco says. “And maybe his creative process is different now, and not as painful.”

Meline says he believes that he and Render have lived parallel lives. Both were born in the same year, and each experienced a late spiritual renewal that gave them a newfound positive perspective. When they met, they just went with it, and by the time they got back from the Into the Wild Tour, they already seemed like best friends.

“It was very serendipitous,” Meline says. “I think that’s the reason why we both recognized it at the time. That’s the reason why we threw all of our plans out the window.”

Those plans included building on the momentum provided by their solo releases in 2012. Render even had plans to release a group album with Big Boi and the rapper Pill. But the vibe Render and Meline had created was infectious, and they wanted to keep working together. So they fled to record in the hills of upstate New York in April 2013, and named the project after some robbery slang on LL Cool J’s “Cheesy Rat Blues”: “Just throw your hands in the air/ And wave ‘em like you just don’t care…/ Keep ‘em there/ Yo, run the jewels, run the jewels, run the jewels.

Rather than endure another stressful physical release and gauge success tied to first-week sales of an album that would leak online anyway, Run The Jewels released their first self-titled LP as a free download in June of 2013 via Fool’s Gold. (They would later offer CD and vinyl packages). The album was everything R.A.P. Music and Cancer 4 Cure were not: outlandish, snotty, even hardcore. Run The Jewels was 95 percent braggadocio, and the other five percent was dick jokes. But it all sounded so tough — hard, even. It’s as goofy as you can get, but the technical brilliance is undeniable. Always a gifted writer with a thesaurus-sized vocabulary, El-P now held his verses with a looser grip, strengthening his diction and clarifying his rapid-fire multi-syllabic bursts. Always nimble on the mic, Killer Mike had soared to Big Pun-levels of verbal dexterity, and was showing off his mastery of alliteration and metaphor:

“The beat breaks and your teeth break/ Keep your canines embedded in my knuckles as a keepsake/ It would seem your veneers just mere souvenirs/ Fallin’ out your mouth and on to the landscape/ Me and El-P do the secret handshake/ Then I pummel-punch a pumpkin-head punk in his pimple face/ ‘Til he’s punch drunk ‘cause he’s sweet as a pound cake” – Killer Mike, “A Christmas Fucking Miracle”

Run the Jewels wasn’t supposed to be the next step in their careers, just something fun that was coming easy to two new best friends. But they were having so much fun, they just decided not to stop.

For a pair of 39-year-old rappers, Run The Jewels have a decidedly modern business model. They understand that if people want to hear your album for free, they are going to do so, and so Run The Jewels albums have always been completely free to download. For the follow-up to Run The Jewels, Meline and Render signed a deal with Mass Appeal, the legacy hip-hop media brand that recently got a cash infusion from the rap icon Nas. This time around, when they dropped the album a few days earlier than planned in order to combat a low-quality leak, vinyl and CD copies were available for superfans to buy almost immediately.

People still bought physical copies. And merchandise. And concert tickets. In an economy where very few want to buy music, Run The Jewels got their fans to buy into them. When they announced pre-orders for Run The Jewels 2, they sold out their pre-order stock. Tour dates across the country have sold out, and dates have been added or bumped up to larger venues. The recording industry is a mere fraction of what it was in 2003, when Mike’s debut went Gold, but RTJ2 still debuted at 50 on the Billboard 200 chart, selling more than 12,000 copies in its first week, despite being released legally for free online. This wasn’t just about critical praise from mainstream outlets like Rolling Stone and Pitchfork — people were listening. Run The Jewels 2 was legally downloaded 150,000 times in the first 12 hours alone.

They’ve also done away with the mystery that often went along with rap stardom in the era when Meline and Render came up. The barrier between Run The Jewels and their fans is thin. Got something to say to Killer Mike? A bone to pick with El-P? Hit them up on Twitter; chances are, they’ll engage.

When they first announced the pre-order for Run The Jewels 2, El-P jokingly promised to remix the album using nothing but cat noises for $40,000. He was high and thought it was funny. Except an enterprising fan launched a Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $60k to fund it. El-P recruited a cast of super producers to help, including Just Blaze, Alchemist, Zola Jesus, and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow.

When Meline’s partner in Def Jux (and current manager) Amaechi Uzoigwe paired with FatCap’s Anne-Laure Lemaitre to invite 30 artists around the world to tag the Run The Jewels logo on the street, the response inspired even more tags, and Tag The Jewels had a second life on Twitter and Tumblr, organically. Kids who just learned about Outkast at Coachella and have never heard of Company Flow are coming to Run The Jewels shows. They’re not coming because they liked R.A.P. Music — they’re coming because of RTJ’s “Blockbuster Night Part 1.”

So what, if anything, can explain Run The Jewels’ popularity? How are two OGs pushing 40 able to connect with the youth? It’s possible that they’ve stumbled upon the same formula that has helped Kendrick Lamar achieve commercial success: make nuanced, socially conscious music wrapped in brash, in-your-face gangsta braggadocio. The same way Lamar has drunk club kids singing along to his ode lamenting alcoholism (“Swimming Pools”), Run The Jewels can slip poignant vignettes about American incarceration in the same song they talk about waterboarding a warden (“Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck)”). If you choose, you can ignore the lyrics’ idiosyncrasies and focus on the “fuckboy jihad.” It’s the measured approach of wily veterans.

It’s hard to say what’s next for Render and Meline, other than making more music together. As soon as the Run the Jewels 2 Tour is over, production on Meow The Jewels starts; the album’s proceeds will go to the families of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Both Mike and Jaime have been making some of the — if not the — best music of their careers, at a prolific rate that hardly seem sustainable. When you consider how fair they’ve come, who knows what’s possible at this point. El used to torture himself — or in his words, “put hot burning coals to [his] eyeballs” — while making his own music, but Run The Jewels features a new and improved El-P, standing next to a new an improved Killer Mike. The fact that they’re getting better with age should terrify any number of lesser rappers whose days are numbered.

“Jaime is rap,” Render says. “He’s done production for some of the illest rappers I’ve ever heard in my life. He’s done some of the best projects I’ve heard in my life. With that said, I don’t think there’s a human being born that was born to be on a Jaime Meline track more than Michael Render. That’s my honest-to-God feeling. And I hope that that’s what I express every time I get on a track.”

Words: Matthew Ismael Ruiz is a writer, editor, and photographer based in New York City. He tweets.

Illustration and interactive design: Wesley Fulghum is a graphic designer, coder, and photographer. He lives in Queens, NY, and was born in Augusta, GA.

Contributing illustrators: Darnell White and Stephanie Zeni

(Original Run The Jewels album art by Nick Gazin)