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Killer Mike, the mayor of Atlanta underground rap, is mercilessly teasing El-P, Definitive Jux founder and reluctant New York indie-rap mascot. "El, tell him the acronym I suggested for our group record!" Mike is giggling, an infectious sound that only grows louder as El-P's face grows more pained. I'm gathered with them over drinks on the Lower East Side to discuss the particulars of Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music (Williams Street), produced entirely by El-P. Apparently, the collaboration was so fruitful that discussions of future projects are under way—a follow-up to R.A.P. Music and the one currently under discussion, a hypothetical dual-MC project. El, looking like a man forced to order the "Cheesy Gordita Crunch" by name, sighs and tells me, "M.O.M." Mike's giggling rises. "Tell him what it stands for!" I watch El sag inwardly: "Mad Old Men." Mike loses it completely. El's grimace quivers, and after a beat, so does he.
Ten years ago, this endearing scene would have been impossible to imagine. Back then, Mike was a member of Big Boi's entourage and a fixture on the Atlanta strip-club circuit, while El-P was still struggling under the weight of his image as indie-rap's severest and most unforgiving idealist. Witnessing these two carry on like old college roommates, then, is as good a sign as any: The underground-rap scene as we know it has finally imploded. Or exploded. Or something. Whatever tectonic plate has shifted, it has allowed R.A.P. Music, the miraculous kind of "Marvel What If . . . ?" collaboration (to borrow a metaphor El himself uses) often dreamed of but rarely realized, to slip through.
Both artists talk about the album as if it is a new lease on life. "We found each other at a very ripe time for both of us," El-P says. "Either of us could have potentially faded into obscurity by now. It happens all the time." Mike, for his part, says that after the third installment of his celebrated I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind underground-album series, he faced a crossroads. "I was in a precarious place of having gotten what I wanted," he says. "With Pl3dge, the third volume from last year, I wanted the critics on my dick. And I got it. Finally, the world understood me. So I was like, what the fuck do I do now?"
The answer came from Jason DeMarco, founder of the Adult Swim–affiliated indie label Williams Street. He introduced the two, who hit it off in the manner of all rap nerds—discussing the latter-day pursuits of the Fu-Schnickens, debating favorite Scarface LPs. The potential for a collaboration dawned on both of them simultaneously. "We are aware of how we're perceived as artists, and to be honest, it kind of lent this sinister-grin aspect to the collaboration," El says. "As a culture, we have finally talked ourselves into such homogeneous little pockets of criticism and interaction that the natural idea of two dudes who love hip-hop music and grew up on the same records making a record together is actually a curveball now."
The result doesn't scan quite as a collaborative album or as a straight-ahead "Killer Mike solo album." What R.A.P. Music provides is fusion, and it throws off the face-shielding sparks and light that true fusion produces. El-P surrounds Mike with decades of gangsta-rap history—Bomb Squad, Dr. Dre, BDP, Suave House, Screwed Up Click, and more—stripped for scrap metal, and Mike offers his most focused and personal performance, meditating on family and responsibility as often as he lashes out at corrupt cops or war profiteering. Both artists, in each other's presence, sound like bigger, better versions of themselves. "This album was made entirely by Jaime [El-P's real name is Jaime Meline] and Mike," goes a vocal tag at the beginning of "Jo Jo's Chillin," and the inclusion feels pointed.
"As a rapper, I always wanted to be produced," Mike says. "Most rap artists don't want to be produced until they meet Dr. Dre, and then they shit themselves. But there are a lot of good thinkers and producers out there that people haven't given themselves over to.'" I ask El if cooking up something like the RoboCop-in-candy-paint futuristic UGK homage "Southern Fried" was a stretch for him, and he responds simply: "I'm a producer. Ten years ago, maybe I wasn't. Ten years ago, I was a rapper who made dope beats. But I've had a lot of experience since then. I've been getting better, I think. This was my favorite manifestation of producing for someone else. It may be a breakthrough point in my head." Mike nods solemnly: "Well, I'm an excellent teacher, and it was my pleasure putting you in a better place."
At their root, of course, Mike and El share qualities that transcend both geography and rap politics. Whether it's El-P demanding to know "who owns police" on "Deep Space 9mm," or Mike snarling that "This album is meant to be a soundtrack to your success" on the intro to his underground classic I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II, both traffic in music as urgent communication of necessary truth. Both place belief in the kind of anger that builds things instead of razing, the kind of purifying gale-force rant that only loving something moves you to. In other words, Mike and El are two of rap's truest believers: The fact that they have persisted in a cultural nether zone for as long as they have without letting it darken their hearts is part of what led them to this table.
You can hear their minds melding on R.A.P.'s most outspoken tracks. To wit: "Reagan," a complicated dance between rant and confessional where Mike recounts the evils of the War on Drugs, Reaganomics, and the Iran-Contra scandals—gangsta-rap catechisms—before pivoting into a startling self-recrimination and indictment of rap's glorification of gang culture and drug sales. The song concludes with the exceedingly blunt last line "I'm glad Reagan dead." When I ask Mike about this line, his eyebrows shoot north. "I threw a barbecue when Reagan died," he says. "Straight the fuck up—a Reagan's Dead Barbecue. Kept it negro as a motherfucker." El notes: "We took that from KRS-One when he did 'Aw Yeah': 'You know, I'm kinda glad Nixon died.' To me, that was the hardest shit anyone could say. Because, you know, so was I!"
This honesty braids through the record, and it is the undergirding of their obviously real friendship. "Mike is a real person; that's why I fuck with him," El says. "He's not a caricature. He's a man who has experienced a bunch of different shit. He's taking on a lot of responsibility right now. And people are listening to him because he's someone who's seen and done some shit. I mean, let's be honest. You don't want to take life advice from a priest. You want to take life advice from a fuckin' thief. You wanna tell me why stealing's wrong? I wanna hear it from somebody who's actually stolen some shit."
I ask both artists what they want to prove with R.A.P. Music. "That I'm the lyrically one of the top MCs on earth right now," Mike says. "Straight up. Eminem, Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Andre 3000, Big Boi, Cee Lo, Kanye—you put my album next to theirs, and that shit is getting seriously debated." El-P wants something similar. "I want to prove that I'm one of the top five best living producers. I want my goddamn recognition; I'm not even gonna front. I'm not running around tooting my own horn. But the fact of the matter is, shit, why the fuck not, man?"
R.A.P. Music isn't the end of the story for El-P. He is also re-emerging from semi-exile to release his first solo record since 2007, Cancer4Cure. In the interim, he had been more or less absent: In 2009, his legendary group Company Flow reissued Funcrusher Plus, but otherwise, he had receded from view. In a recent Pitchfork interview, he referred to Cancer4Cure as "fight music," but El's music has always been a little too internal for that; if there's a fight on Cancer, it's between a man and his own shadow. "When I say 'fight music,' I think it's a little more abstract," El says when I reach him on the phone weeks later. "I think I'm fighting for my sanity, fighting my own instincts, as much as I'm battling any outside force."
The alternate universe of the gorgeous, gloomy Cancer4Cure—one where El is the sole, often-unhappy inhabitant—might feel familiarly claustrophobic, but the recent story of El-P's career has been one of slowly letting in light. "I feel like I've been given yet another chance to do what I love to do, and maybe I don't deserve it," El says. "But this is a rebirth record for me."
Back in the bar, El seems comfortable, basking in the simple glow of his newfound friendship. He and Mike engage in a bit of mutual admiration. "You know how your mom tells you, 'Pick good friends'? 'Hang around people that know more than you,' 'find someone smart'?" Mike says. "El is genuinely that. He's someone I respect—I just really love the guy. He gives a damn about making me better." El, for his part, relates an anecdote that seems to summarize everything about their dynamic.
"The other day, I witnessed Mike scream on someone on the phone," he says. "I would say it was probably one of the most epic screaming-ons that I've witnessed in the last decade. It was to the point where he was almost dancing. Now, if it was anyone else, I would have told them to shut the fuck up, please go away. But I just sat there watching, and I couldn't help but grin ear-to-ear and laugh. Because everything this motherfucker was saying was true. I didn't even know the situation, but you could hear it. He didn't scream on this person because he enjoys hurting people or because he likes to play power games. He was screaming at someone because the truth needed to be told. That's who Mike is to me. I needed a friend like Mike right now in my life."
El-P performs at Santos Party House with Despot and other guests on May 21.