Run The Jewels – aka El P and Killer Mike – are the wisecracking US hip hop duo who mix humour with hard-hitting politics. On the eve of Donald Trump's inauguration, they tell Kevin EG Perry about their new album 'RTJ3', America's future – and why they think we're living in a parallel universe.
This week, Donald Trump will place one of his tiny hands on the Bible and his puckered lips will accept the US presidency: the first Twitter troll with a nuclear arsenal. Holed up at a secret location in Nashville, preparing for a tour that’s due to come to the UK and Europe at the end of March, firebrand rap duo Run The Jewels are somehow managing to see the funny side.
“As a guy who grew up on dystopian science fiction you can’t help but be morbidly amused,” says El-P, looking for a chink of light in the darkness. “It’s scary but hilarious, in a f**ked-up way. It’s the folly of man. It’s also incredibly dangerous and deadly. The stakes themselves make the gallows humour that much more potent. But that’s me. If I had an executioner’s gun to the back of my head and he farted, I’d laugh.” Beside him, his sparring partner Killer Mike leans in. “I’ve watched every inauguration since Reagan,” he says, in that Deep South baritone. “But this is the first time the President is gonna be sitting there tweeting: ‘I told y’all, fools.’”
At times like these, we could do with more artists willing to talk s**t to power. Run The Jewels are the heroes we need. After their explosive first album together in 2013 proved their old-school hip-hop credentials, 2014’s follow-up ‘Run The Jewels 2’ amplified America’s anger at widespread police brutality. Their new album ‘RTJ3’, released as a free download on Christmas Eve, is their best yet. It’s at turns smart, laugh-out-loud funny, politically aware and ferociously angry. This magazine’s review awarded it a full five stars, much to its creators’ delight. “That was surprising and amazing. We’re blown away by that,” grins El-P, before Mike adds: “I sent that s**t to my children to let them know their dad is still cooler than them.”
It’s a record that’s been percolating since the end of 2015, when El-P started working on beats with producers Wilder Zoby and Little Shalimar. Mike and El-P began recording vocals in earnest in February 2016, around the time the presidential primaries were kicking off across America. Mike became well known across the country as a vocal supporter of left-wing Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who offered a radically more socialist vision of American politics but was narrowly beaten to his party’s nomination by the more centrist Hillary Clinton. Run The Jewels took their frustration at the political process into the studio, where it surfaces on tracks like ‘2100’ which opens with Mike rapping: “How long before the hate that we hold leads us to another Holocaust?”
Another new track, ‘Thieves! (Screamed The Ghost)’, returns to the band’s anger at the failure to hold police officers accountable, particularly for the killing of black men such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City, both of whom died in 2014. While the track is coruscating in its fury, the pair say they thought carefully about not making the song a call to arms. “I remember when we were doing ‘Thieves’, we went back and forth because it could have been an encouragement to incite violence,” says Mike. “There were points last year when everyone was angry enough to do that, every American, and especially me. It took me and El going back and forth to decide what the true message was that we wanted to leave. My anger would say, ‘I wanna see everyone who’s ever hurt somebody shot and killed.’ As a rap group, and as public figures, you have to realise that the gravity of your words can sometimes lead to that s**t for real, and that’s not what we wanted to do.”
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“That’s a reflection of our friendship too,” adds El-P. “We know when we have to sit down and talk. With ‘Thieves’, we had to make sure that we knew what we wanted it to be, which was an anatomy of a situation and not an encouragement.” The tight friendship and symbiotic working relationship that’s blossomed between El-P and Killer Mike is almost a surprise given they’ve only known each other for six years, but it’s a combination that works so well it’s now difficult to imagine them apart. “We the new PB&J,” as Mike puts it on ‘Legend Has It’. They first met in 2011, each aged 35 with storied careers already behind them. New Yorker El-P, born Jaime Meline, had made his name with underground hip-hop crew Company Flow before co-founding indie label Definitive Jux. Mike, full name Michael Render, had come out of OutKast’s scene in Atlanta, Georgia, making his debut on their ‘Stankonia’ track ‘Snappin’ & Trappin’’ back in 2000. The duo first worked together when El-P produced Killer Mike’s album ‘R.A.P. Music’, released in May 2012, but they quickly saw the potential in making their partnership permanent.
It’s a friendship based on a shared affinity for old-school hip-hop and stoked by bales and bales of high-grade marijuana. (“Shouts out to Humboldt County, northern California!” says Mike. “The best weed in the world comes out of the Bay. I’ve also got to give Atlanta props for a strain called Gas – it’s this OG kush that’s strong as f**k.”) Their shared sense of humour helps explain why it’s not just politics that fills their records. There are also d**k jokes. Lots and lots of d**k jokes. “I’m not doing my job unless I can look over at Mike and he literally shakes his head in his hands and says, ‘What the f**k did you just say?’” says El-P. Mike cuts in: “When you’re sitting at a table and you hear a guy say, ‘I’ve got a unicorn horn for a c**k’, to me that’s when you walk out of the room like, yo, I got to step it up! The imagination it takes to come up with something like that! I still think of the moment he said that and chuckle.”
That line appears on ‘Legend Has It’, but doesn’t quite survive intact. In self-deprecating style, the final word is now replaced with El-P’s girlfriend, musician and comedian Emily Panic, undermining his braggadocio by uttering a bored “Stop”. Meanwhile, Mike more than holds his own in the d**k-bragging stakes, with lines like “I refuse to play humble as though my d**k itty bitty” on ‘Panther Like A Panther’. All fun and games now, but El-P can’t resist pointing out how some of those lines would play if Mike ever decided to try to follow his mate Bernie Sanders into office. “I can’t wait until you try to get into politics and they start reading out lines…” he teases. Mike immediately takes on the role of a shocked Fox News anchor: “HE ADVOCATES KIDNAPPING MOTHERS FROM JAZZERCISE!”
If the idea of mixing pugnacious social commentary with irreverent silliness seems odd, it makes perfect sense to Run The Jewels. “I’ve seen people question, ‘How can you guys be funny, not-give-a-s**t, braggedy-brag rap, and then a few [songs] behind that have thoughts, concerns and social commentary?’” says Mike. “It amazes me, because I’m like, I thought that was the full human experience! If you hang out with your friends through the course of a day, you guys are going to laugh, talk s**t, get drunk, remember some s**t you didn’t like, fight, make up, talk about how f**ked up politics is, get high… To me, our records are about the full human experience.”
Sometimes their stoner jokes take on a life of their own. While drumming up Kickstarter support for ‘Run The Jewels 2’, El-P wrote that if anyone donated $40,000 he’d re-record the whole album using cat noises. The internet being what the internet is, that challenge was soon accepted. Rather than dismiss it as a joke, they decided to follow through when they realised they could donate the raised money to the families of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Thus, ‘Meow The Jewels’ was born.
“It was just a joke I wrote while high,” says El-P. “I almost shut it down, but then I realised we had an opportunity to do something for charity. We knew the record was f**king stupid, but it falls in line with the way we think, which is that we can do good by being idiots.” Having blown up to become two of rap’s most potent voices from what started as an experiment, both Mike and El-P say they sometimes consider what their lives would have been like had they never met. “That’s what keeps you grateful,” says Mike. “I’m thankful for the journey I’ve took. I’m thankful that El and I got hooked up, and thankful that we were smart enough to know that this was something that could be cool.”
El-P, typically, has a more surreal take on it. A fan of conspiracy theories, back in 2015 he caused an internet storm when he tweeted about a mind-blowing idea concerning children’s book characters the Berenstain Bears. Many people remember the name as ‘Berenstein’, leading to a hypothesis that two alternate parallel universes had merged. On ‘Hey Kids (Bumaye)’, El-P extends this idea, rapping that while in the original timeline he had “no wins”, it’s this new, darker reality that’s allowed Run The Jewels to take over.
“I think it’s very real,” says El-P, seriously. “Maybe if me and Mike hadn’t gotten together, everything would be a lot better for everyone else in this world. It makes no sense that we’re blowing up. Me and Mike being successful is clear evidence that we’re in a dark, alternate timeline that experienced some sort of schism along the way. Really, if everything was going cool, Hillary would probably be President and me and Mike would be out of work.” Mike, the ardent Bernie supporter, breaks into a cackle beside him. “I did not mention Hillary!” he laughs.
“Don’t get that twisted as a Hillary endorsement,” clarifies El-P. “I’m just saying that’s probably what would have happened in the original timeline. Donald Trump would just be a f**king TV star. I’d like to take this moment to formally apologise for upsetting the space-time continuum. Instead, what you got is a world on the brink of crisis and two 41-year-old rappers at the top of their game. There’s no f**king reason that this makes any sense.” Mike, more of a realist, thinks there’s at least one reason Run The Jewels make perfect sense: “We are dope as f**k. I will say that.”