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Run the Jewels rappers El-P and Killer Mike perform at the 2016 Panorama NYC Festival on July 24, 2016, in New York. The duo produce music that simultaneously brims with humour and forms a powerful call to arms.Theo Wargo/Getty Images

How do you know your path has diverged? In 2015, Brooklyn rapper-producer El-P became the unintentional face of a conspiracy theory when he posted a series of tweets about the Berenstain Bears. He, like many others, had been convinced the teachable-moment mammals' surname was spelled Berenstein – with an e.

If it wasn't spelled that way, he posited, perhaps we'd all lived through the theory's natural conclusion: We'd slipped into an alternate universe. "i have decided i cant make music again until i determine the truth behind the 'berenstain rift,'" he wrote.

Rift or no rift, he did, in fact, keep making music. He hasn't stopped for years. Especially not since he met Atlanta's Killer Mike and formed the rap duo Run the Jewels in 2013. After years bubbling beneath the mainstream, their friendship handed both of them career reinventions. The duo is more fawned-upon by the day, and their latest release, Run the Jewels 3, just nabbed them their first Billboard No. 1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart – with both members at the tender age of 41.

Just like the great Berenstain letter-switch, they don't feel like they've changed lanes. But at some point, it happened. "We never took a moment to look up and even check up on how old we were," El-P says by phone from the West Coast. "We've been just grinding away."

Run the Jewels thrive on dialogue: between spastic synth-laced beats and rumbling bass; between Mike's silky spitfire and El-P's smoker's rasp; between fratty jokes and activism. Collaboration is baked into hip hop, but Run the Jewels's success – and its continued existence – relies on the sheer fun of interplay.

"We're really just a group made up of two dudes who are trying to make each other laugh and say the illest shit," says El-P, real name Jaime Meline. "This whole operation is just based on the fact that we like each other … Every moment has been about 1,000 times more pleasant than other moments I've had in my career."

"This is what I imagined as a nine-year-old kid," Mike says.

Michael Render grew up in Atlanta, where he crossed paths with Big Boi, launching his career with a feature on Outkast's acclaimed Stankonia. El-P, son of jazz pianist Harry Keyes, came up in the nineties as a member of the Brooklyn crew Company Flow.

The first decade of the 2000s saw each put out a string of releases, mostly independently, with varying fanfare. In 2011, when both were 35 – effectively rap geriatrics – a Cartoon Network executive introduced them. El-P soon produced Mike's next album, R.A.P. Music. There was a spark between them; they kept in touch. And in 2013, they released their first album as Run the Jewels.

The duo's arc is not unlike that of the Blue Jays' Jose Bautista, who in 2010 switched up his swing – transforming, at the age of 29, from journeyman to league-leading hitter. The power was there, but it needed a new context.

"Neither of us thought that any of this was gonna happen," El-P says now.

"I've found it to be much more fun," Mike says. "Life is good, and in order. And ego is dead … Something different has happened, and I acknowledge it. This is wild, man. You don't get to be 35 years old and have a growth spurt, and at 40 years old, you're playing to 8,000 people."

The duo thrives on humour – in 2015, they rereleased Run the Jewels 2 rapping over cat noises – but it's blended, occasionally but effortlessly, with calls to arms.

Sometimes this unfolds over the course of a narrative. Their 2014 song Lie, Cheat, Steal begins as a boasting anthem, transforming into a challenge of power as Mike rips into former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who lost the team amid serious racism allegations. And sometimes the blend comes in one-liners: "You think baby Jesus killed Hitler just so I'd whisper?" El-P rhymes on the RTJ3 single Talk to Me.

Sometimes, too, politics outright permeates their music. Later on Talk to Me, Mike, a vocal Bernie Sanders supporter, rallies against a "devil" with a "bad toupee and a spray tan."

Their focus, though, is on the fun of it all, with an aura of empathy for those suffering at the hands of the powerful. Rappers including Chuck D and Ice Cube have likened rap to journalism, "but that's not us," El-P says. "We're like rap's Mad Magazine. We're all the stupid shit, except when you fold the picture, you see something."

This is something they're careful of.

"We don't just wanna be a record of what happened in 2016," El-P says. "And I think that if you listen to our music, we've always spoken from the heart, and always addressed issues we felt were in line with our beliefs. I think there's a bigger fight out there that existed before 2016, and will exist afterward."

How that will spell out is yet to be seen.

Run the Jewels plays Toronto's Danforth Music Hall on Feb. 19 and Montreal's Metropolis Feb. 21.