El-P And Killer Mike Talk Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Anger As A Positive Force, And The Unlucky Fate Of Their Favorite HBO Shows


A few drinks into my conversation with Mike and El-P about their new collaboration R.A.P. Music (Williams Street), the tone shifted, as it tends to under the influence of multiple makeshift White Russians. EL-P’s drink-ordering became relentlessly efficient. Things became a little more candid. The conversation veered on-and off-record, and, by the time the night was over, they ended up “covering” almost everything. From the fate of HBO’s Luck to the future of Earl to what El-P originally thought of Jay-Z, here are the (publishable) highlights of The Drunken Reel.

On Killer Mike and alcohol:

El-P: Let’s try and get Mike drunk. That’s always fun. He’s a dedicated marijuana smoker, so drinking to him is still new. When you drink with Mike, it’s like drinking with a college freshman trying to pledge to some shit-eating frat. I’m like, “Mike, I’m thirty-seven, and I’ve been drinking way longer than you, somehow, even though you’re the same age.” But somehow I always end up chugging things with Mike. Just like stupid, infectious amateur alcoholism.

On Netflix gorging, the pathos of the cancelled drama, and Nick Nolte:

LP: Yeah man, I’m always looking for Netflix series that I can watch every single episode of in two days alone on my couch and naked. It sucks when you get to that one B-level BBC sci-fi series that was kinda awesome, but only lasted six episodes. I would say that maybe one of the biggest tragedies of modern television was the premature cancellation of Carnivale. That show ended on the world’s most infuriating cliffhanger. Oh my god, man. Horrible.

Killer Mike: They did the same thing with Rome.

LP: HBO’ll fuck you. Even when everything seems to be going right, like with Luck? The Dustin Hoffman shit? And then they cancelled it because they kept killing horses! When they canceled Luck, two horses of my heart died. They’re lucky Nick Nolte didn’t die. Once Nick Nolte breaks his leg, you have to shoot him.

KM: When a show is canceled, they should be required to give you a one-hour last episode.

LP: Here’s my thing: if a show is done—if it’s canceled, or if it ends ambiguously—why do people never just tell you, “this is what we figured would happen?” That’s what fucking kills me.

KM: Let me tell you a show I made a mistake of getting too invested in. It was not a good show; but I got too invested. How To Make It In America. And then it ended, and I thanked God quietly.

LP: IF you have nothing left to lose—if Deadwood‘s over, if Carnivale‘s over—why not show your cards? Even if you don’t know, make it up! You could at least make some more money! If I had to Paypal $5 to the show’s creators to let me know “what happened,” I’d do it in a second.

Actually, Mike and I had this idea that we were going to pitch with me and him as detectives. We just wanted to be detectives who fuck people up but never solve anything and have no idea what’s going on at any time. We’d have a congratulatory drink at the end of every episode, pat each other on the back, when all we really did was just beat up the first person we found.

On favorite records of the year so far and the fate of Earl:

KM: No shameless plug, El’s album. I actually got mad he didn’t give me some of those beats. He’s on his Kanye shit.

LP [Mischievously]: Hey, you know? We made Mike’s record in a month, and I made mine in two and a half years. Straight up.

KM: Also, I’m anticipating loving Exquire’s album, and I’m anticipating loving Kendrick’s album. And, I’mma tell you what—mixtape, album, whatever—I’m looking forward to Earl. Earl is the shit. I want Earl’s shit to be produced. I don’t want him to come out with some random shit. I want Earl to come out with a solid piece of work. I believe in that kid.

He looks like somebody just came out of jail right now. I think he’s just getting acclimated. He’s going to the same places he used to go and now there’s a hundred kids there. That has to be freaky. The real comparison, I guess, is to some of my homeboys that have been in jail on some gang member shit. They came out, and the little set they had with twenty kids and now they’ve got two hundred kids waiting on them. And they’re like, “Oh, shit: now I’m responsible for two hundred lives.” People look at him, “We know you. And thank god you’re back.” And it’s like, “Well, I didn’t know you were here for me!”

LP: I love when people say, “El-P sounds like Odd Future.” That’s how I know I’m really, really old now.

On Mobb Deep, Prodigy, the Young Black Teenagers:

LP: Did you know that I actually submitted some beats for Juvenile Hell? I knew Prodigy when I was fifteen. We were all the same age. We had the same manager. I was fifteen, sixteen years old. They were Poetical Prophets then. Actually, when I met them, they were already Mobb Deep, but when I listened to their music, they were Poetical Prophets. I was hanging out with Havoc and Prodigy when I was sixteen. Bones Malone was the A&R. I submitted some beats. You know, I scored a film where Bones was the star: Bomb the System. It was the only film I ever scored. The director went on to do the Lil Wayne documentary.

I still have in cassette form, the original Poetical Prophets demo, which got them signed, which got them in The Source. It’s a nineteen or twenty-song cassette tape, on some straight-up fly shit. That’s what they were on back then. The first single I ever put out, “Juvenile Techniques,” it sampled the Poetical Prophets demo. And it was Havoc saying “A juvenile/ delinquent living foul.” There was a brief moment where I used to hang out with Tommy Never from The Young Black Kids.

On Jay-Z, Reasonable Doubt, and the birthplace of double-time rapping:

LP: Yo, I’ve been listening to Jay-Z since when it was him and Jaz, doing The Originators. The Ski shit. His shit with Original Flavor. He had like, four, five joints. I loved that. When him and Jaz started double-time rap.

KM [interjects]: Well they didn’t start it. They started it for you guys.

LP: They started it for us, man, and for a lot of people.

KM: But not for us! We’ve been doing it since the beginning.

LP: Well, for me, definitely. It was the first time I ever saw double-time rap.

KM: Yeah, I mean you know, Chicago has a whole style called sniping. That’s the way they’ve rapped since they started rapping. Twista’s been doing that forever. In the South, we had that shit coming out of Memphis; we had the shit coming out of Chicago; Mississippi. That’s why I liked Jay, though. I didn’t hear dudes on the East Coast going in that way.

LP: And I’m not even gonna front! I’ll admit it. At the time it came out, I didn’t like Reasonable Doubt.

KM: [Snorting] You’re crazy.

LP: No, listen! I loved Jay-Z before he put out Reasonable Doubt. In my head—and in a lot of people’s heads, actually; this is lost to the sands of time, but it was a real thing for some New York people—when he came out with Reasonable Doubt, he sounded mad different than he had sounded before. I felt weird about it. It took me two to three albums for me to be like, “Nah, it’s still Jay, and not only is it still Jay, but he’s better than ever.” I was a hyper-critical kid who had listened to him when he was doing shit with Ski, with the Originators. I was pissed at Jay until, honestly, The Blueprint, and I was like “Fuck this, this is the illest shit ever.” And then I went backwards.

On audience perceptions:

LP: It always killed me, in my career, that one of the questions that I would get asked, one of the things that would get thrown at me, especially in the late-90s to the early 2000s—people would use Jay-Z as a weapon to throw at me to start a conversation. They thought my reaction to “Jay-Z” and what he represented was anger or was disrespect. Because people would interpret the things that I would say, and blow it out of proportion and make it like this sort of heartless super-philosophy, which it wasn’t. So people would ask me about Jay-Z almost snarkily, in some weird classist, almost-racist way: like “Oh—that stupid Jay-Z shit!” And I would be like, “Yo, actually Jay-Z was a huge influence on me and my rapping.

That was a twisted perception of my music meaning something other than it did. My music was just my music. Once you make music, you have almost no control over it anymore. And if you’re making anything that means anything, you’re going to divide people. You’re going to make people fall on one side or the other. It reminds me of how Public Enemy drew in a giant audience of college-educated, smart, cool white kids who eventually all became writers because of Public Enemy. It appealed to their rebelliousness and their intellect, but they literally haven’t liked a rap record since Nation of Millions.

VV: It’s like going to a restaurant where you have the best meal of your life, and you decide that this is not only the best plate of food ever, but it’s clearly the only good plate of food in the universe. And you order that same plate of food at the same restaurant for the rest of your life.

LP: Yeah. Or you go to another restaurant and you say, “Fuck this restaurant. It’s not The One Restaurant.” Where everyone else is like, “Really? We’ve been going to all of those restaurants for years, man. So I’m glad you’re excited, but that’s not how I feel.”

VV: You guys must have both have had experience with people seeing themselves in you.

KM: I’ve got a perfect example of that from South By Southwest. I was looking for the Life or Death showcase, and I stopped to ask a cop directions. I don’t fear cops; two of my family members are currently police officers. So the cop gives me directions, a kid rolls by, and says to me, “Killer Mike, you’re fucking talking to the cops!?” And I turned around and said, “Yeah, my dad’s a cop.” And he was just struck completely speechless, like “Oh, shit.” The look on his face was amazing. It’s like, “I’ve never thought about it.”

VV: People have very magical beliefs about music.

KM: They do! They do! Like Ice Cube grew up in a two-parent household. I related to him as a kid because he grew up much like me. It’s amazing how much you think you know about your idols. I don’t want to know everything about idols.

On anger as a positive force, the death of reaction:

KM: Good anger comes from the right place. Anger is healthy. My grandmother died 32 days ago in my arms. When I was a kid, I thought she was the meanest motherfucker on Earth. I remember being young and yelling, “I don’t wanna be here!” “Who else wants ya? Don’t nobody else want ya but me!” But I had to realize: my grandma was 43, 44 years old. So her life went from having a 16-year-old daughter that just had a kid. I just finished raising my child; now I have to raise another child. So the first half of my life, when she was 44 to 54, her first priority in life was making sure I prioritized education above all. So her first role in my life was that of a teacher.

Now, I lightweight-studied kung fu, and depending on your instructor, you don’t get coddled. You get treated harshly. My grandmomma was that kind of teacher. She had such a righteous anger at all things ignorant. The second half of your life—you know, ten to twenty—is when you do all the dumb shit. And she would just go on me, but it was always from a real and caring place. I remember pretending to be asleep, and she’d come in and kiss me and say “Lord, cover him,” because I was on some nutso shit. But what I learned from my grandma was, “Get it out. Don’t let it back. You know you love this person; if you feel he’s being an asshole, say it. That way you can go back to loving him without carrying that around with you.” So my lessons in how to safely be angry came from my relationship with her. There’s nothing wrong with anger that comes from a place of love.

LP: I just want motherfuckers to be alive. It ain’t even about anger to me. Sometimes you just have to sound an air horn at a funeral. Everyone’s walking around with their eyes glazed over. And so am I, some of the time. You know how when you wake violently from a dream? You’re asleep, and you can’t quite jiggle your way out of it. You’re trying to get conscious. The only way to do it is to fuckin’ flail your arms around and scream a little bit. My records aren’t anger-based. If anything, it’s desperation. The death of reaction freaks me out. It’s happening. People can’t even fucking react anymore to anything, anymore in any way. When I do these records, somewhere inside me, what it is about is a reaction.

KM: I was watching Bill Maher and they were talking about unemployment. Someone said, “Well, black male unemployment is almost double that.” Everybody just moved on to the next topic. Everybody just shrugged, like it was a given.

LP: And yet your community is expected to remain calm! Let’s only panic when the next tax bracket starts to feel it. But it’s not about politics for me. It’s not about anger. Sometimes it really is just me slapping myself in the face just to feel something.

KM: That’s what “Reagan” was for me. Being able to admit that I, too, have participated in perpetuating the bullshit. That first verse is as much for me as anyone else.

I think both El and I both see certain evils that are going on. I consider myself a hopeless optimist. My friend here is a shameless New York cynic, and I think we balance each other.

On doing interviews, hating the sound of your own voice, Rick Ross:

LP: Doing press with you is so much more fucking fun, Mike. I should do every interview with you. You’re basically the only other human who will talk as much as me, and I get to just shut up. It’s just such a beautiful thing. Because I hate the sound of my voice. I’m definitely at the point in my life where I, for the most part, hate doing interviews. When I was young I was so psyched to hear myself talk to someone. So excited. I was like, “Damn, I’m smart.”

KM: You know who the best interviewer in the game is?

VV: Nardwuar. Obviously.

LP: You know, I’m really actually kinda pissed that Nardwuar’s never done me!

KM: No, I don’t mean interview. I mean interview subject. And the answer is: Rick Fucking Ross.

LP: You know who was the Rick Fucking Ross of interviews before Rick Ross? Redman. Have you ever fucking seen a Redman interview?! He’d get asked about a record, and he’d just be like,”Yo, we just went in, and we did the shit. And it was dope!” And that’s it. You’d be like, YES.

VV: Remember that legendary MTV Cribs interview?

LP: Yo, he had his cousins sleeping on the floor.

KM: Even Red, though, he was joking, and he knew it. Rick Ross, man…he’s on another level. “So Rick, you were a correctional officer. Now you rap. How do you explain that?” Rick: “Real niggas do real things, for real reasons.” I just stood up and shouted: “YES RICK! THAT’S WHAT YOU DO!” I’m a huge Rick Ross fan. HUGE Rick Ross fan. Deeper Than Rap: That was the best rap album of the year.

VV: I remember you tweeted that, back in 2009! My friends and I for-real emailed that to each other in excitement. I remember, post-Trilla, post-Smoking Gun, he released this song called “Cigar Music.” Which is a hilarious song title. But it’s a fucking jam. I heard that, and I had this feeling.

KM: “Cigar Music” took him into his zone.

VV: Then then asked him about his CO business. After he said “That’s not me,” they came back with a signed document. And his answer made my heart grow ten sizes. He said, “The truth is not always what it seems.” And he literally intimated that he was a CO to be get closer to Noriega.

KM: Real niggas do real things, for real reasons.

LP: Did you see the thing where they filmed him in Vegas. He was, like, smoking a blunt on the deck of some shit, looking at, like, the wind. And he was like, “Yeah, I’mma have a casino. I believe I can do it, too. Look at this blunt. This blunt cost five hundred dollars. Five hundred dollars, for a blunt. And you’re gonna tell me me I can’t own a casino?” And the minute he said that, I was like, “No. I’m not gonna tell you. Because your life is working.”

KM: I love him. Motherfuckers can’t tell me shit about Rick Ross.

LP: I literally had a line like “I need a bitch with Rick Ross tits,” and I didn’t put it on the album.

El-P performs at Santos Party House with Despot and other guests on May 21.