Run The Jewels’ EL-P and Killer Mike speak so vividly about vinyl it’s evident why the two were chosen as this year’s Record Store Day Ambassadors — an honor previously bestowed upon Jack White, St. Vincent, Chuck D among others as part a symbolic tradition dating back to 2009, a year after the inaugural Record Store Day.
Since taking flight in 2008, Record Store Day has grown into a worldwide celebration independent record stores that takes place on the third Saturday April each year. The day features in-store performances, signings, and — best all — a hand-picked list limited-run RSD exclusives that can only be purchased from participating retailers, who sign the Record Store Day pledge, an agreement that says they will sell the commercial RSD releases to their physical customers, on Record Store Day, and not hold product back to later sell online.
This year’s list includes hundreds exclusive titles from Madonna, Fleetwood Mac, Sufjan Stevens, The National and, course, RTJ, who have been involved in RSD every year since dropping their first record in 2013.
“We always try to do something special and we have a really good relationship with all the indie retailers, “ says El-P, citing his long background in independent music. “I ran a record label for 10 years, so when they came to us with the idea it was just a no-brainer, like, course. This is important to us.”
Before making music his full-time job, El-P worked at Tower Records, “So I have a real affinity for that culture,” he says, recalling how he would stand behind the counter and recommend his own album to customers. “Mike and I are] collectors and fans and we love being able to put out pieces tangible art. We know how much we owe to this culture. It’s a real honor for us, it’s mostly symbolic, course, but the symbolism is powerful.”
Both El-P and Mike became collectors early on, influenced by their parent’s colorful crates vinyl. “I was intent on being a DJ, and I scratched up every single one my non-biological dad’s records] — from Parliament-Funkadelic to Roxanne Shante. I ended up being a rapper instead a DJ, but I still got my love hip-hop through that.”
El-P also found that digging through his father’s collection was a great way to discover new sounds. “As a hip-hop producer, you’re more familiar with vinyl and every other genre music from every decade than your average producer,” he says. “Especially if you came up at a time that was really about discovering gold in vinyl — you were going through the dollar bins, and the idea was always matching up the cover with the instruments on the back and trying to make a good guess: ‘There might be a cool sound in here, or a great idea that can inspire me that I can use in this sonic] collage that I’m making.’ So it’s always been a huge part my life. I’m not a collector in the sense where everything is super precious, I’m a collector in the sense where everything is being used.”
El-P’s relationship with vinyl only grew stronger as his career took f. He started releasing vinyl in 1996, at a time when “you could potentially sell 30-35,000 copies just on a 12-inch and all a sudden you were self-sustaining,” he says. “You had money and room to make your art and a way to pay for it and you didn’t really have to ask permission. It was so powerful.”
Since Record Store Day’s inception, vinyl sales have surged — in 2017, U.S. vinyl album sales were up 9 percent, totaling 14.32 million, a Nielsen Music-era record high. El-P and Mike affirm the format is here to stay. “No matter what, someone is going to want to have something tangible,” EL-P says. “There’s nothing wrong with getting music the way you get it, but there’s this other experience too where] somebody might actually recommend something, opposed to an algorithm, that you would have never in your life have bought if you hadn’t spoken to that person.” Mike agrees, adding how he will always appreciate that human connection that record stores allow for, and the established relationship between customer and clerk.
“A lot people kick and scream about change, but I don’t think that’s really right,” EL-P says.” I think the right thing to do is put energy and love into supporting the things you care about, not to be upset about the things that aren’t your world or don’t make sense to you. That’s what this feels like to me.”
The pair also shared the first piece vinyl they bought for themselves. El-P: the Star Wars film score; Killer Mike; Bigger and Deffer, LL Cool J.