DJ Shadow Dives Into the Details of His Second Collaboration With Run the Jewels

My first collab with Run The Jewels, “Nobody Speak,” turned into a success story I don’t think any of us could have predicted. Given the song’s preeminence, we all felt compelled to work together again, but we were also aligned in not wanting to make “Nobody Speak Part Two.” We sought to do something completely different, and that agenda set the stage for the genesis of “Kings & Queens.”

The basic backing track came together quickly, which is uncommon for me (but is usually a good sign). It was heavily inspired by mid ‘00s southern trap-rap such as UGK and Three 6 Mafia: kinetic drum programming with an undeniably soulful sample as the basis. It’s not a texture I had heard RTJ really utilize, and with Mike’s Atlanta roots, I thought it might appeal to them. As it turned out, I was right. It took a few months to lock in everyone’s respective schedules, but in February 2019, we took to a studio in Queens to cut the vocals. 

As usual, El set the tone by writing first. After 45 minutes or so of listening to the beat and typing in silence, he said, “I don’t know how you’re going to feel about this, but this is what came out. It’s a story I’ve wanted to tell for years, but never felt like I had the right track. I hope you’re cool with it.”  Of course, I was. It’s classic El-P, personal, defiant, unyielding. 

Mike vibed off of El’s part and realized, “Ok, we’re going in on a family story here.” In his unorthodox, improvisational style of writing, Mike crafted what I think is one of his finest verses. Vivid, rapid-fire, and just the right blend of humor and emotion; a classic story rap. 

Upon returning back to California, I was faced with a problem: two fire verses, but what am I going to do for a hook? The subject matter and music called out for something big and majestic to happen, but I couldn’t come up with anything. Several times on this album, the following thought had occurred to me: “When in doubt, turn to family.” And that’s exactly what I did. Reaching out to longtime Quannum associate and friend Vursatyl, I said, “Irv, I need a hook. Something with a gospel feel, but not preachy.  Something uplifting.” I also suggested writing something around the concept of kings and queens, since the guys mention them in their verses. He said he was on it. 

There’s been many times like this in my career when I’ve tried a Hail Mary and handed the keys over to someone, having given only a modicum of direction, and hoped for the best. More often than not, I’ve been disappointed, but a handful of times, I’ve been rewarded. This was one of those times. I knew on first listen that Vurs (and his friend iamlashell) had nailed it. I was, and am, incredibly grateful for their contributions to the track, without which the song would be incomplete. 

As with any tune, a million things have to go right in order to make something truly great. While only time will tell whether that objective was accomplished, I can definitively say that RTJ and Vursatyl gave me everything I needed to do the job, and more. Regardless of what happens, I’m as proud of this collab as I was with “Nobody Speak.” They both stand alone, and speak to different strengths we bring to the table collectively.