Run the Jewels Is Turning Hip-Hop Success into a Global Beer Empire
When Run the Jewels burst onto the hip-hop scene in 2013, the supergroup duo needed little introduction. El-P was already an underground legend dating back to his days with Company Flow and as co-founder of the label Def Jux. Meanwhile, among Killer Mike’s laundry lists of accomplishments was winning a Grammy with Outkast. So, no, success in the music industry is never guaranteed, but the path was clear. Success in the beer industry, however... that was far more unexpected.
Musicians working with beer brands has an established history: just ask The Rolling Stones and Budweiser. But the modern explosion of craft breweries has democratized these relationships. Instead of billion-dollar brands seeking arena rock tours, a small independent brewer can team up with their favorite indie artist and vice versa. As a result, collaboration brews with smaller acts like NOFX, Less Than Jake, and Guided by Voices have become more common. (Sorry for the sudden ‘90s flashback.) And more than just a way of providing an official intoxicating liquid for fans at concerts, these partnerships can elevate both parties: music is art; craft beer is an artisan product. There are synergies between the two.
That’s what Run the Jewels discovered with their very first branded beer, released by Goose Island back when the duo was just getting started. “We just thought it was kind of a cool promo thing to do at the time, for sure, but we were both surprised at how much fun we had,” El-P told me last year between working on their RTJ4 album.
“One of the things that I immediately understood about the people that worked in that field was that they really reminded me of us,” El-P continued. “They loved doing it, and it was an art to them. It’s a craft and a form of expression for these guys way more than a typical liquor company. That really appealed to us. We understand what it means to do the job you love and to take pride in creating something from scratch. The connection was really there and when we got a chance to do it again we were like, ‘Fuck yes,’ just because we had such a blast, and the reaction to the first beer was so great.”
But as great as that reaction was, the accolades were just getting started.
This week, Run the Jewels will embark on their largest beer project yet. Timed to coincide with last week’s release of their newest single “No Save Point” from the soundtrack to the upcoming video game Cyberpunk 2077, the duo have teamed up to release 12 different iterations of a No Save Point beer from 13 different breweries across seven different countries: City Built, Horus, Interboro, Mason, Modist, Pipeworks, and Weathered Souls in the United States, Deviant & Dandy in the United Kingdom, BRLO in Germany, Minerva in Mexico, Inne Beczki in Poland, Moon Dog in Australia, and VandeStreek in the Netherlands. Most of these beers will debut on Thursday, with others arriving next month.
All of the breweries were given a base recipe to start—a 6.5 percent ABV hazy IPA—but from there, each one remixed their own unique spin, ideas as diverse yet interconnected as tracks on an album. For instance, London’s Deviant & Dandy is going for a sour blackberry take, while San Antonio’s Weathered Souls is making a coconut vanilla version with marshmallow fluff.
However, just as the art of music has a business side, so does craft beer. And No Save Point also marks Run the Jewels’ next leap forward. As co-founder of Def Jux, Amaechi Uzoigwe has worked alongside El-P for over two decades, and as Run the Jewels’ manager, he’s been instrumental in pushing the group’s brewing aspirations. But like any good manager, he also knows how to delegate authority, and he’s recently brought on Kate Brankin, creative director for Pipeworks Brewing, to helm RTJ’s beverage business going forward.
“Bringing Kate on board was a key move for us achieving the scale of the Cyberpunk release plus helping us set a course for the future,” Uzoigwe explains. And quite a course it is: Next year, Run the Jewels plans to bring its beers to even more markets both domestically and internationally, including launching online sales in the U.S. The group is also hoping to self-release beers for the first time in 2021 (instead of only working through brewing partners), though that doesn’t mean the collabs won’t keep coming. Uzoigwe says RTJ is in discussions on a larger project with Brooklyn Brewery, a hard seltzer with Chicago’s City Water, a bourbon, and potentially even a rum.
As Uzoigwe added somewhat casually, “Basically what we’ve realized is that we’re now evolving into a beverage company.”
Run the Jewels' beer career began in earnest in 2017. Four years after dipping their toe in the mash with Goose Island, the duo took advantage of a closer brewing connection: Jesse Ferguson had recently opened Interboro Spirits & Ales in Brooklyn, but El-P knew him from his previous gig—as the former manager of Def Jux. Together, they created Stay Gold, a hazy, juicy IPA released right around the time of peak hazy IPA madness. But not only was this beer on-trend—by all accounts, it was also good. Very good. For the next batch, Interboro brought in their friends at Asheville’s Burial Beer Co., and the legend was sealed. That year, Draft Magazine named Stay Gold as the best IPA in America, besting 386 other contenders. Already a critical darling of the music world, Run the Jewels had now won over beer critics, too.
“We had no idea people would react this way,” El-P said. But the momentum of those positive reactions has already resulted in 20 beers with ten breweries across three countries, even before No Save Point. “We weren’t nervous per se, but we definitely did not expect the open arms and the amazing reaction we are getting. I think more than anything it just shows that collaboration between artists of any genre, when it’s genuine, can yield great results.”
Keeping those great results coming will largely fall under Brankin’s domain. Tapping all the friends of El-P and Killer Mike who own a brewery runs dry pretty quick, and some of the other brewing partners came from circuitous, yet interesting, routes. City Built Brewing, for instance, got the gig because they had already released a line of beers in tribute to Run the Jewels. (That must have been an exciting day at the brewery when they got the call.)
However, Brankin sees a larger unifier among the brewers RTJ has worked with and wants to partner with moving forward. “In different ways, each of the breweries has been working to affect change within the industry. For example, Marcus Baskerville of Weathered Souls Brewery in Texas launched the ‘Black Is Beautiful’ project; Modist Brewery supported the protesters during the Black Lives Matter marches; and it's a goal of City Built to make their brewery a hub for the diverse communities growing in Grand Rapids,” she explains. “They all share a similar ethos of expanding and supporting inclusivity within the craft beer community and their larger communities.”
Killer Mike—who funnily enough admitted, “I’m not a huge beer drinker, but I love our beer; EL-P drinks beer”—also spoke to the importance of community to this project. “There is an amazing craft brewing scene in [my hometown of] Atlanta,” he told me via email. “We went to where our fans were, and many of our fans are beer drinkers. We also think craft brewing and hip-hop go hand-in-hand.”
And even RTJ’s very first collaboration with Interboro was community-based: A small Brooklyn brewer working together with his old Brooklyn-born buddy. “I’m a simple guy ultimately,” El-P muses. “My personal goal was just to have a great beer to accompany us smoking lots and lots of weed. That goal was met with flying colors, so the rest is just this amazing bonus round that I’m really blown away by. I feel grateful to have gotten to meet and work with all these really sweet and creative people. As an artist, you almost only expect to get to work in your original field. Being given the chance to be creative and collaborative in a different way is a thrill.”