El-P is more than just one-half of Run The Jewels; whilst his project with Killer Mike has led to him receiving more acclaim and praise than ever before in his career, his story before the duo is equally fascinating. He was one of the most acclaimed indie rappers of the 2000s but an esteemed producer as well, and it wasn’t just in the hip-hop world that he dipped his toes.
His musical journey began back in 1992 with Brooklyn hip-hop trio Company Flow, who released three albums before calling it a day on amicable terms in 2001. The following year El-P started to make a name for himself as both a killer producer and rapper after he released his debut solo album Fantastic Damage. The record was the recipient of wide critical acclaim, and it wasn’t just in hip-hop circles that word started spreading about El-P’s talent.
He then released a jazz-fusion record in 2004, which led to even more underground buzz around him, and Trent Reznor was somebody that he could now count as a fan. Although the two of them had never crossed paths, Reznor reached out to him to ask if he’d be willing to remix Nine Inch Nails’ 2005 single, ‘Only’ and El-P was more than happy to oblige.
That wasn’t where the collaboration between the two ended, and they linked up once more for ‘Flyentology’ on El-P’s second proper studio album, I‘ll Sleep When You’re Dead in 2007. Reznor wasn’t the only figure from the rock world that El-P recruited for the record, however, and he also enlisted Cat Power and The Mars Volta for the project. These collaborations are an early sign of how he revelled in bringing these two different worlds together — something he and Killer Mike have done beautifully with Run The Jewels.
Speaking to Revolver in 2018 about his relationship with rock, El-P said: “I just like heavy music in general from heavy rock and heavy metal to heavy rap and heavy everything. Anything that gets to the more emotional and dark side of music. I grew up on Gang Of Four, Suicide, The Melvins and The Clash, as well as all the hip-hop music I grew up on. Run DMC was heavy, EPMD was heavy, Public Enemy was heavy, Ice Cube was heavy. The stuff that got me going was the stuff that kind of punched you in the gut a little bit.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of people that I admire from other worlds than other than just rap and people who’ve dug what I’ve been doing. Anyone from Zach De La Rocha, Reznor to The Mars Volta,” the RTJ man added.
His Run The Jewels co-star Killer Mike in the same interview, remembers his fanboy moment when Reznor and El-P were enjoying a surprise airport catch-up. “The same thing with Trent Reznor, Trent Reznor said ‘Hey Jaime’, I turned around saw Trent and screamed like a girl then asked for a selfie,” he reminisced.
El-P then discussed the links between rock and rap, adding: “There are through lines in the aesthetic, definitely in terms of production. It’s allowed me to be lucky enough to get to know people outside my genre and to work with them. A lot of it is friendships, but stuff like I did with Reznor that came out of him just reaching out.”
El-P and Reznor’s work further proves that these two genres are cut from the same rebellious cloth. That renegade spirit that gushes out of both rock and rap is much stronger than the perceived differences on the surface. A key part of RTJ’s success has been their openness to collaborate with artists from far and wide, whether this is Zach De La Rocha, Josh Homme, Royal Blood on the rock side of things to the likes of Pharrell Williams, 2Chainz and Danny Brown from the hip-hop world.
All these figures from across the musical landscape thrive seamlessly on the same body of work together inside El-P and Killer Mike’s universe.