As they neared their fortieth birthdays, Killer Mike (a black rapper from Atlanta with close links to OutKast) and El-P (a white Brooklyn b-boy and proponent of experimental rap) formed Run The Jewels, a rap supergroup which could easily have been yet another addition to a long list of hiphop misfires. But on the contrary, they are now an institution, a group that delights audiences and awakens consciences. Their new album RTJ4 is their most political and devastating. Let us take a look back at Killer Mike and El-P’s story.

Jamie Meline aka El-P is among those who perfectly suit the “underground rap” epithet; his golden age came and went at the turn of the century. The group Company Flow, which was formed in Brooklyn by MC Bigg Jus and DJ Mr Len bridged the gap between hardcore New York hiphop (which was then losing momentum amidst the growing popularity of materialist and hedonist rap) and a hardline experimental tidal-wave which the label Definitive Jux (founded by El-P in 1999) significantly contributed to its start.

Released in 1997, when the flashy rap of Puff Daddy and his Bad Boy Records label reigned supreme, Funcrusher Plus, Company Flow’s unique album is a rebellious work. Both hardcore and abstruse, urban and dystopic, the album is to science fiction literature and cinema what Wu-Tang Clan are to kung-fu movies. With a reduced line-up (Bigg Jus had decided to start a solo career and create his own label), Company Flow released in 1999 Little Johnny from the Hospitul, a second, entirely-instrumental album which proposed an alternative to trip hop and the turntablist records which had started to invade the collections of more open-minded hip-hop fans.

Before the release of his first solo album Fantastic Damage in 2002, El-P mentored and produced for, through Definitive Jux, a group of iconoclastic rappers like Mr. Lif, Aesop Rock and the duo Cannibal Ox, who’s debut album, The Cold Vein, was produced entirely by El-P and is considered a landmark record in the New York underground rap scene.

At the same time, more than 6000 kilometres from Brooklyn, Killer Mike was making a grand entrance into the Atlanta rap scene. Before he had even released a mixtape, he featured on a track in Stankonia, the fourth album from the city’s biggest group (perhaps even in the Southern States): Outkast. Mike, a native of the Adamsville district in North-East Atlanta and who knew Big Boi at university, was again called upon by the duo for The Whole World, the first single in the Big Boi and Dre Present… Outkast compilation which bagged a Grammy Award in 2002. Killer Mike’s athletic street rap didn’t progress far in the competitive Southern rap scene which was yet to achieve glory on a national and international level (Outkast’s platinum records were an exception in this market largely dominated by New York and Los Angeles).

The album Monster, which was released in 2003 on Outkast’s label (Aquimini Records, a subsidiary of Columbia), was the calling card of a very gifted rapper forged in fire and bottle fed on stories of gangs and real commercial success (he reached number 10 on the Billboard). The album’s successor, Ghetto Extraordinary, should have been released two years later but disagreements between Big Boi and Sony, the parent company of Columbia, forced Killer Mike to go underground and launch his own label Grind Time Official in order to release a series of increasingly heavy, audacious and political records (the trilogy made up of I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind I and II and PL3DGE).

It wasn’t long until comparisons with Ice Cube had become legion and while it’s true he shared the ex-NWA rapper’s social commentary and use of Dirty South software with a G-funk aesthetic, he still needed someone who might help him create his own AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. This producer would be El-P.