When the news emerged last year that El-P was working with Killer Mike rap fans did a collective double take. That El-P? That Killer Mike? Even more surprising? R.A.P. Music turned out to be one of the finest hip hop albums of the year. In this excerpt from his 2013 lecture at the Red Bull Music Academy, El-P explains how the collaboration came to be – and why the duo worked so well together.
Killer Mike and I met through someone that we both knew at Adult Swim on Cartoon Network. I knew Mike from the Outkast songs of course, and from some of the PL3DGE mixtapes. And he knew me from Company Flow, and he knew the name Def Jux. But he was open, and they flew me out. I went to Atlanta, and we sat in the studio together. And after about three hours, Mike was just like, “So you’re doing the whole album, right?” And I was like, “No. Not at all, man.” And he was like, “Alright, cool, so you're doing the record.”
It’s really hard to say no to Mike. He’s like the cuddliest, smiliest bastard on the planet.
I’ve been around for a minute working with other people, and I’ve had a lot of experiences doing albums with different people. And when you get to be in your 30s you don’t really expect to be surprised anymore. You have to fight against getting – I don’t want to say jaded – but the idea that collaborating with someone is predictable. That you’ve done it, you know, and there’s only a few ways that it can go. You have categories in your head. There’s the difficult guy, then there’s the guy who falls in love with the first shitty version of the demo that you give them and won’t let you change it. There’s the guy who thinks that he’s producing and I'm just a mechanism for his [ideas]. You get to a certain part in your life where you kind of figure, “Well, I’ve kind of made all my friends,” you know? You’re not expecting at 35 to meet your best friend.
It’s really hard to say no to Mike. He’s scary on record, but don’t let that shit fool you. He’s like the cuddliest, smiliest bastard on the planet. And so I said yes, and we went in and did R.A.P. Music. Mike had been doing amazing stuff throughout his career, and he’d come really close to kind of blowing up a couple of times. He was on Bone Crusher’s “Never Scared.” He was on “The Whole World” by Outkast, and that went platinum and he got a Grammy. And yet it didn’t quite happen for him because when he was doing his solo stuff he ran into label troubles, different things.
One of the records that inspired us when he started talking to me about what he wanted out of the project was Ice Cube’s Amerikkka's Most Wanted. When that record came out Ice Cube was known for NWA. He was the quintessential West Coast artist, and Dr. Dre was God of the West Coast. The Gods of the East Coast were the Bomb Squad who produced Public Enemy’s records. So when Ice Cube had a falling out with the whole NWA camp he did a really surprising thing: He went East and he worked with the Bomb Squad. Even though we all look at it now like a classic record, at the time everybody thought it was crazy. At the time it didn't make any sense to anybody. Me and Mike were like, “That’s what we can do. We can take people’s expectations and flip them.”
When you have a career and it spans a course of records, you’re not only working with the idea of trying to make a new record that is relevant, but you are also carrying expectations of how people perceive you. Even though it was very natural and it made all the sense in the world to do this record together – we were the same age, we both bonded over all these records and have all the same sort of memories of hip hop unfolding and falling in love with it – we knew that it would play with people’s expectations.
Sometimes it’s not just about making music. The music has to be great, but also you have to understand what you are playing against. You know, what is the idea that you are putting out in the pantheon of the way that people listen to music? And it unfolded exactly how we thought it would: People heard that me and Mike were working together and everyone was like, “Well, that’s just a fucking mistake. Clearly, that's wrong, so sorry you’re doing that, Mike.” It turned out that it worked for us, because people liked the record.
We knew that it would play with people’s expectations.
But, beyond that, we were really pleased. We had a lot of fun. I have been through a lot of recording processes – mostly my own – that are miserable. For forever and ever, I was making records and it was always about me. My record, my idea, my thought, my life. This is my statement. And when you collaborate with somebody, the biggest lesson for me was to learn how to let go of some of those things, and to just realize not what you're trying to do, but what is [actually] happening.
I felt very honored and very grateful that my collaboration with Mike was of pure trust. Mike gave me a lot of freedom to guide him, and that allowed me to be a real contributor to what he was doing. I wasn’t just making beats for him and sending them. We sat in a room for three months. There were no managers and there was no one else. There were no other voices, and there was no idea except two fully grown, aging children, just trying to make themselves smile.