A Recap of How Run the Jewels Got So Huge

Run the Jewels are the hottest duo in hip-hop, but both men have been around a lot longer than you'd think.
Run the Jewels are the hottest duo in hip-hop, but both men have been around a lot longer than you'd think.
Photo courtesy of the Windish Agency

If you had asked me who the hottest rappers in the game would be in 2015, I'd never have guessed two previously underground dudes like El-P and Killer Mike, aka Run the Jewels. Yet, here we are as the duo keeps exploding, making the covers of Marvel comic books and raking in enough funds to make Meow the Jewels, a cat-themed remix of last year's breakthrough album, Run the Jewels 2.

Obviously, El-P and Mike are seasoned underground-rap veterans who have put in years of work at this point, including 2013 debut album Run the Jewels. But what some newer fans might not realize, especially the kids I see walking down the street wearing their T-shirts, is that these guys have been around for ages, and RTJ2 is only their latest masterpiece.

A Recap of How Run the Jewels Got So Huge

Let's start with Killer Mike. He got his first big break guesting with OutKast on that duo's 2000 album Stankonia. The song that really put him on the map, though, was "The Whole World." It wasn't a huge hit, but it was a single and Mike's feature was probably the first time many heard his voice.

He popped up Jay-Z's sequel to The Blueprint soon after, before finally starting his solo career with an album called Monster. A few other great rap albums followed, but for Run the Jewels fans his 2012 record R.A.P. Music is probably most relevant to your interests.

Produced by none other than El-P, R.A.P. Music was a mammoth album that put Mike's name back on the map after years of catering only to those underground heads who still remembered him from those OutKast guest spots. Though he never broke into the mainstream, R.A.P. Music reminded fans that Mike was still out there, producing (pardon the pun) killer raps.

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Then there's El-P. Before Run the Jewels, around the time he was producing R.A.P. Music, he put out his own record called Cancer 4 Cure. Mike showed up on one track on that record, which they still perform live as Run the Jewels called "Tougher Colder Killer."

But El-P's career started long before that too. He initially got in the game with the group called Company Flow, which also featured rapper Bigg Jus and DJ Mr. Len. They released one iconic full-length album, Funcrusher Plus, which has since become a classic in the underground.

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Funcrusher is just as depressing as its name implies, with songs like "Last Good Sleep" discussing subjects such as spousal abuse. Company Flow broke up soon after, managing only one more instrumental record. Then El-P struck out on his own and formed his own label called Def Jux.

There, he made his mark as a producer, sitting in on albums like The Cold Vein by Cannibal Ox. By the time his debut hit in 2002, Fantastic Damage, El-P was already a hot commodity in the indie hip-hop community.

He really broke out with 2007's I'll Sleep When You're Dead, featuring guest spots by collaborators like The Mars Volta, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Aesop Rock and Cat Power. The album was a breakthrough, spreading El-P's name around the blogosphere.

Yet because of long delays and interminable periods of inactivity, El-P continued to be a well-kept secret among indie-rap fans, just like his future collaborator Killer Mike. So it was that they joined forces and created Run the Jewels.

The first album hit big, but it seems that their second self-titled release, which came out only a year after the first, is the one that is finally breaking El-P and Killer Mike into the mainstream. It's something of a shame that it took two such talented artists this long to break out, but it's long overdue and well deserved. Though those of us who have followed them for many years will feel slightly burned as ticket prices rise and rise for these guys, it's still great to see them getting the credit they deserve.

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