It started as a joke rapper/producer El-P thought of while high in his kitchen. Make some preorder rewards for Run the Jewels 2. Call one the "Meow the Jewels Album Package," promising to remix the album "using nothing but cat sounds for music." He never thought he'd actually have to do it.
"I wish I had considered it when I made the joke," El-P, half of the mighty Run the Jewels, recently told Billboard. "If someone had told me, like, 'Dude, don't play with that shit. Cats are huge on the Internet.' It didn't occur to me."
A year later, after a long shot Kickstarter campaign organized by a fan, later sanctioned by El-P and supported by a host of hip-hop's most celebrated producers, the worst idea in hip-hop history became a reality. Meow the Jewels, a hip-hop album made entirely out of feline samples, is now free to download on the group's website. Vinyls are available to preorder.
The album is a victory for all things experimental and borderline idiotic. It's proof music today is essentially the wild west. If Run the Jewels were operating in a music industry governed by logic, order and market share principles, we likely would have never seen an album like Meow the Jewels reach the light of day. However, looking at this perfectly groomed catastrophe of an album, that world doesn't seem all bad. It seems liberating.
The strangest origin story in hip-hop: Run the Jewels have a history of eccentric album release strategies, but the process of conceiving and releasing Meow the Jewels has one of the odder mythologies for an album in recent history.
The Kickstarter campaign organized by a fan started the ball rolling, which the feline-minded Internet could not help but swat at. El-P initially wanted to shut it down, thinking it wouldn't amount to anything worthwhile, but before he did, he reached out to the fan in charge. What he saw inspired him.
"It's just a kid in St. Louis. And he's a huge fan, but he's also very passionate about fighting against, or feeling the injustice of, police brutality, and we're really on the same page," El-P told Entertainment Weekly. "When I really realized what a great dude this was, it was sort of one of the catalysts for me to say, 'Let's see what we can do here.'"
Bad ideas that can save the world: El-P decided to only work on the project if all the proceeds went toward victims of police brutality. Almost immediately after he pledged his support, hip-hop's elite began popping out of the woodwork to offer their support. Just Blaze, the sonic architect best known for his work on Jay Z's classics Blueprint, Blueprint 2 and The Black Album, contributed a beat, along with Boots, the relatively unknown producer behind 80% of Beyoncé's self-titled album.
Boots' "Meowrly" set the tone for the project. It proved all the fuckery might amount to a solid album. When he first heard it, El-P claimed the track was so good "it made me go back to the drawing board — like, 'I can't just make it a complete joke,'" El-P said. "[Boots] told me, 'Yo, I'm trying to make the Sgt. Pepper's of cat songs, like I'm gonna make it like my version of 'A Day in the Life.'"
Each of the songs manages to get a surprisingly wide array of sounds out of the cat sounds sampled. Purrs make for effective substitute bass on Geoff Barrow's "Close Your Eyes and Meow to Fluff." By running some meows through a number of filters, Blood Diamond's "Paw Due Respect" gets a disorientingly dreamy synth line.
This level of talent should never have had the time to put something so inane and impossible. However, when little music is actually selling, and alternative artists need to dedicate time and energy toward standing out from the noise, stunts like Meow the Jewels make a lot of sense.
Similar impulses to those that helped make Meow the Jewels a reality — strange fan interactions, an atypical label situation and a keen eye for headlines — likely lie behind all of the more intriguingly weird album releases we've seen this year. They likely encouraged Bleachers to pursue their all-female cover version of their album Strange Desire, featuring help from Charli XCX, Sia and Carly Rae Jepsen. They motivated Ryan Adams to release 1989 rather than keeping it as a personal project, per his original plan.
Furthermore, earlier this year, Chance the Rapper bucked all semblances of a traditional release strategy to promote a largely instrumental theatrical jazz album he made with his friends. In discussing his reasoning, Chance argued that creative freedom and organic communion with his fans, were far more important than fulfilling any sorts of industry expectations.
"I can release when I want, talk how I want, freely about any subject," he said. "I think a lot of people have the same idea of music and where it's going and the direction it's moving and a lot of people understand that music is going to surpass the industry."
Meow the Jewels is only the latest achievement to prove this mentality pays off in today's musical climate. As the music industry continues to fragment, we'll likely see musicians float a lot more brilliant bad ideas, releasing remix albums on unpredictable platforms, funding albums via Kickstarter and dedicating album profits to charity. It can only long as fans are there to support them, but they're the ones winning in the end.
"Above and beyond the stupidity of the whole thing, it really is a testament to our relationship with our fans," El-P said of Meow the Jewels' charitable efforts. "The thing happened because people care about humans, not because people really wanted to hear a cat record."