El-P reveals how he produced Run The Jewels’ incendiary fourth record RTJ4

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El-P reveals how he produced Run The Jewels’ incendiary fourth record RTJ4

Words by Will Brewster

Any new Run The Jewels record is a momentous occasion for the culture - but nobody could have predicted the impact of RTJ4.

Originally slated for a June 5 release, RTJ4 would arrive days ahead of schedule amid fiery civil unrest in the wake of the widely-televised murder of George Floyd. A brutal video of Floyd’s death, gasping for breath while Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin forcibly knelt into his neck, initiated mass protests that saw civilians engage in clashes with police in the US in opposition to racism and police brutality – the intensity of which was only exacerbated by the severity of the global pandemic. By all accounts, it was one of the most turbulent social upheavals in recent memory, and for listeners, RTJ4 acted as a salve to what has happening in the world.

Created with crunchy 16-bit sampling keyboards and bearing a potency unlike many other records, RTJ4 hit all the right spots in all the right places when it arrived two days ahead of schedule amongst all the chaos. The album sees Atlanta trailblazer Killer Mike and El-P, veteran architect of the Brooklyn underground, unite for what can only be considered their finest release to date. Lyrically poignant, impeccably produced and speckled with standout features, it’s an album that many are heralding as a hot contender for album of the year.

“It’s an interesting time,” says El-P, who executive produced the entirety of RTJ4 in addition to rapping on every track on the album. “I think we’re all just trying to wrap our heads around what’s happening right now… There’s a lot going on. I’m just trying to keep my sanity.”

El-P, or Jaime Meline, has been considered a king in underground hip-hop circles for decades now, having produced and rapped with several Brooklyn acts since the ‘90s. He’s perhaps best known for his gritty, experimental beats that fuse abstract instrumentation with classic hip-hop timestamps, yet his husky flow and slippery wordplay is worthy of its own acclaim too. When paired with Killer Mike’s radical lyricism and undeniable aura, it’s a match made in heaven: Run The Jewels represent the essence of a timeless hip-hop duo, and RTJ4 is living proof – even if El-P’s is just as taken aback about it all as the rest of us are.

“I’m still soaking it all in, you know. We’ve been blown away by the response,” he says, touching on the timing of the early release.

“Technically, we released it early but it was actually late for us – we originally had it slated to drop for April. But because of the Coronavirus, and because of all that madness, we ended up changing things and pushing it back. For us, releasing the album early was like ‘finally’, because we finally just got to fucking drop it this thing. It didn’t feel early to us. It felt long overdue, to be honest.”

The product of two years of intensive labour in the studio, El-P notes that he made an intentional turn back to his early production methods when making RTJ4. An age-old disciple of crate-digging and sample culture, for El-P, returning to these methods wasn’t so much a return to his roots, but a strategic creative weapon to approach the new release with.

“I definitely very intentionally took a turn back to more sampling for this record, which is something that was how I really stared music. Back in the day, the majority of my older catalogue was really just like a great collage of samples: chopped up, turned on its head, picked apart and reassembled, El-P says, noting that his growth as a producer inevitably saw him adopt more experimental approaches and shift away from sampling.

“This time around, it just felt right. It felt like a refreshing and cool way to to reproach our sound. It was a little bit of a dip back into the historical roots of how I produced, but through the lens of who I am now as a producer. I wanted to specifically reference some things that were not obscure, and thought that it would be cool to make Run The Jewels put our treatment on some things, just to see if we could flip things on their heads.”

For El-P, much of the creative process for RTJ4 came from him and Killer Mike ‘just letting it all go’ and embrace all possibilities when curating samples for the record, which led to the making ‘The Ground Below’, which features a prominent sample from Gang of Four’s ‘Ether’. Beneath all of his beats lays an underlying passion for nothing but the artform of sampling and hip-hop itself.

“The Gang of Four sample that we used is something I’ve been plotting on as a producer since I got the record from a dollar bin,” he confesses, admitting his belief towards the track eventuating finally. There’s the Foster Sylvers record (‘Misdemeanor’) which is a sample before by a lot of people, but the most popular one is Dr. Dre and The D.O.C. it’s a known piece of music through hip hop. One of the great challenges – one of the great joys of being a hip hop producer, one of the traditions – is taking something thats known and familiar to people and turning it inside out. Presenting it to them in a way that they haven’t heard of.

“I knew that I wanted to bring it back a little bit into that realm for me, because I had really separated from that for a long time. When you hear Run The Jewels 3, it’s really the peak and culmination production-wise of me getting away from that to a degree – really shying away from that stuff. So it kind of added a breath of fresh air for me. I broke old the old sampler, the Ensoniq EPS 16 +. I’m always looking for new ways to keep things fresh for me, and sometimes, keeping it fresh is dipping back into your closest of goodies and thinking ‘this could be fun to play around with again.’”

Like most hip-hop production purists, El-P has a fond place in his heart for classic samplers. Crusty, rudimentary machines formed the foundations of rap as we know it, and for many producers, they still form the heart and soul of the genre – if not in practice, then surely in attitude. El-P understands the importance of these machines, yet has grown to encompass all aspects of the production process: from running studio sessions and writing string arrangements to curating such a diverse list of features and coaxing them to deliver career-best performances has equally proven to be his forte these days.

“The first three or four records of my career were made literally just on that sampler,” El-P says, reminiscing on his early canon. “But as things grew, and I started making music on a computer and got nerdy and collect synths and get outboard gear, everything kind of changed. I can’t make full albums on a sampler these days – it’s just not happening.”

“I look at those pieces and know they’re vintage gear – I know they’re just as interesting and imports as the old Yamaha CS-80 that I have, which is the gold standard of polyphonic synths. They all have their place. When you start to become familiar with the sonics of them, you start to look at them like records, in the sense that when you’re sampling records and combining moments from different records from different genres that are mixed and approached differently,  you’re getting this unique combination of things that doesn’t naturally exist in most recordings. That’s how I look at using some of the older samplers I have, as well as samples in general.”

Produced between a number of high-profile studios, including Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La (El-P shoots down speculation that he assisted with the production of the album) and New York’s Electric Lady Studios, RTJ4 is pieced together with an Avengers-level roster of feature artists, each from their own unique field in music. Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme appears with soul legend Mavis Staples on ‘pulling the pin’, 2 Chainz delivers one of the year’s most memorable verses on ‘out of sight’, Dj Premier makes an appearance, and perhaps most surprisingly, the song ‘JU$T’ sees Run The Jewels unite none other than Pharrell Williams and Rage Against The Machine frontman Zack De Le Rocha.

“Pharrell came into the studio when we at at Shangri La to talk to Rick Rubin, and we knew he was a fan, so he came in and listened to music, and saw what we we’re doing and was psyched about it and just said ‘if you need anything, let me know’,” El-P says of the track’s recording.

“We had this thing we were doing called ‘JU$T’, which we had Zack on, who’s been a good friend of ours for years. We had laid our verses on it, and it was a monster of a track, but we just didn’t have a hook, so we said ‘Maybe we should reach out to see if Pharrell is serious about this’ because we’re such huge fans and the vibe was good. We didn’t know what he would write. In my mind, I thought he was going to be some huge commercial hook, but when he sent it back, it was like ‘Oh, this is the hardest fucking shit on the planet.’ It wasn’t what we were necessarily expecting, but we were so glad that was what it was.”

As fully realised as they may be, El-P makes it clear that the guests on RTJ4 weren’t as meticulously curated as some of the samples that appear on the album. Throughout our conversation, he affirms that Run The Jewels is, and always has been, a primarily creative endeavour – one that wouldn’t exist without setting a strong vibe for artists to tap in the heat of the moment in the studio.

“All of these collaborations all come from being in the moment and the people in our world who just pop through the studio. None of this is really thought out ahead of time, it’s more like ‘If you’re in our world, and we’re inspired by you, we might reach out and ask your to be a part of the song if we can hear it,“ El-P says, maintaining the spontaneity of the studio sessions that formed RTJ4. 

“I love putting people out and taking people out of their element. As a producer, that’s something I find quite joy in and that I try to do on these records. Whether it’s to put Josh Homme and Mavis Staples on a song, or Pharrell and Zack De La Rocha together on a song.  I get a real joy out of that because I love showing people that all these artists are humans. They’re people, they’re multi-faceted, they have multiple things to say and multiple ways to say it.

“When you’re agreeing on an idea or an invention, beautiful stuff can happen that you cant predict if it’s just simply on your own. The Pharrell thing is a perfect example – he really tuned into what we were saying and came with something that was something that adhered to our vibe, and I was really grateful for that. He wrote that hook for us, and there aren’t a lot of of people that we could go ‘hey, write a hook focus because we think you will nail it – we write everything. We just had a feeling that Pharrell would be special.”

For Killer Mike and El-P, the success of RTJ4 is undoubtedly one of the biggest moments in their careers to date. Each artist, while previously broaching the mainstream at times, never fully captured the attention of the masses until they first united ten years ago, and it seems like they’ve now perfected the formula. Despite fully understanding the pertinence of releasing the album in its current context, El-P credits the time and effort he and his collaborators spent crafting RTJ4 as the defining factor in its success: above all, it’s a testament to the power of music.

“In one way, there was some magic in the air with this record. It felt like everyone who was involved and who came to the table and got down with it really understood it as something special, and really gave everything they had,” El-P explains. “For two guys who started our career being underground and never really compromising our sound, we never really imagined this. For us, it was always like the only ones who really cared, in our minds. But everybody came through and really gave it everything.”

If anything, RTJ4 represents exactly that: a unified effort of genre-defining artists pooling their talents to create a fast and furious release that will undoubtedly go down in history for more than one reason. Perhaps then, it should come to no surprise that the majority of the features on the album are delivered by artists in the latter stages of their career. Killer Mike and El-P themselves are both in their mid-40s, yet continue to navigate hip-hop (traditionally known as a young man’s genre) with elegance and expertise. It demonstrates the veteran skill and legacy of both artists while underscoring their incomparable chemistry and creative genius.

“I look at this record as a collection of veteran excellence,” El-P proclaims. “Everyone on this record is at the top of their game and has put years of effort in to do that – no one more than some one like Mavis Staples, who is what, like 80? To her, we’re kids!

“Really, everyone on the record comes together to make a collection of really seasoned people, who are really fucking good at what they do. At best, that’s what you want to be as musician when you get older. You don’t want to be someone chasing the glory days in your mind and chasing what you did when you were young. What you want to be is further along in developing as a person, and you want to be in tune with that, and that’ll make you really good at your craft. That’s one of the untended things with this record. When we looked at it, we laughed and said ‘ Wow, this record really  is a collection of people over 40’. But, we all know that Run the Jewels isn’t the light contemporary adult crap. This is punk shit.”

Right now, El-P says he can’t answer what will come next for Run The Jewels. The duo were supposed to open for Rage Against The Machine on their highly anticipated reunion tour around America, which has now been pushed back till 2021, and given he’s just released a record he worked on intensively for two years, it doesn’t seem like we’ll be receiving new material any time soon. El-P doesn’t rule out anything else, however – after all, these are unprecedented times. He mentions, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, the prospect of a Run The Jewels movie, among other projects to arrive in the future.

“Me and Mike are a creative team. When we come together, we create things we love,” he says. “We’re looking at doing our RTJ stoner buddy action comedy. There’s going to be a lot of shit. We wanna be like The Blues Brothers if they smoked weed all day. But we literally just released this record, I worked two years on it, we have a tour with Rage Against The Machine coming up, which has now been delayed until next summer, we’re excited about that. We’re just going to keep pushing this music out and just living our lives. We have no idea what’s going to happen – but then again, I don’t think any of us do, right?”

RTJ4 is out now via Jewel Runner / BMG.