Killer Mike is in Atlanta showing me his guns. In the next Zoom window over, his musical partner El-P is in New York holding forth about the hypocrisies of America’s founding fathers. To paraphrase Sam Elliott in The Big Lebowski: sometimes there’s a band and they’re the band for their time and place. Run The Jewels fit right in here.
The two men – real names Michael Render and Jaime Meline, both a lot closer to 50 than they look – have become an indispensable part of the soundtrack to this moment in history. Within hours of their new record ‘Run The Jewels 4’ dropping in June, it was already being played loud at Black Live Matter protests, echoing out over cities all around the globe. In particular, Mike’s lines on the track ‘walking in the snow’, written about the 2014 death of Eric Garner, took on a horrific resonance: “And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me / Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, ‘I can’t breathe’.”
The fact that those words were also repeated over and over again by a dying George Floyd, a Black man whose killing by a white police officer inspired the renewed BLM movement, is of course no coincidence. “You start to realise that it’s not happenstance,” says Mike. “These things didn’t just happen to be the same. That move that [Floyd’s killer Derek Chauvin] did is a move used by police all over the world. We’re setting up a system to repeatedly murder. I’m glad that it resonated with people, and I’m glad that in the moment it resonated with people they were in the streets burning down police stations.”
He’s referring to the torching of Minneapolis’ Third Precinct in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. “What I saw Americans do in Minneapolis for the first time in my life was the proletariat take it directly to the state and say ‘Enough is e-fucking-nough’,” he says, his voice rising. “We will not deal with a system that makes it permissible to suffocate, to kill, to murder a human being while you stare at a camera for eight minutes and 46 seconds.”
Mike’s natural speaking rhythm is that of the righteous preacher, as you’ll already know if you’ve seen his gonzo politics Netflix show Trigger Warning or caught any of his many heart-stopping speeches that have gone viral over the last few years. There was a pro-Democrat one he gave – it feels like two thousand years ago, but was actually just in February – that was so good that for the whole time he was talking I really thought Bernie Sanders might be elected President of the United States.
In short: Killer Mike has become so essential as a voice of progressive politics in America that it’s surprisingly easy to overlook how consistently excellent he and El-P are at their day job.
It might be a bit early to talk about Albums of the Year, but ‘Run The Jewels 4’ has to be a comfortable frontrunner at this stage. It’s received nothing but acclaim from critics across the board, with our reviewer giving it full marks – the same treatment its predecessor ‘Run The Jewels 3’ received back in 2016. The praise is well deserved. Hand on heart, this writer’s music moment of 2020 comes two minutes and three seconds into ‘pulling the pin’, when guest vocalist Mavis Staples does something otherworldly to the word “grenade”. Mavis Staples has what Mike correctly refers to as a “real God voice”.
Run The Jewels have been on a pretty much unimpeachable run since before they were even Run The Jewels. The pair first worked together in 2012 when El – formerly of Brooklyn hip-hop trio Company Flow – produced OutKast associate Mike’s fifth album ‘R.A.P. Music’. The first Run The Jewels mixtape followed the next year. They’ve still never released a bad album, although that does depend on your mileage for that 2015 remix record where they replaced all the instruments with cat meows, and that probably depends on how stoned you are.
“Can you think of a better show right now than Rage Against the Machine and Run The Jewels?” – El-P
In the case of Run The Jewels, the answer to that question is usually: very. They say their writing process, such as it is, is to get as stoned as possible and try to make each other laugh. They learned this technique from the greats, picking out Big Boi, Snoop, Devin The Dude and Curren$y as the rappers with the best personal stashes (there’s surely an all-time great reality show in this). “Those are the guys who look down on dispensary weed,” says El-P in a quietly reverential tone.
Having taken some time off after touring ‘Run The Jewels 3’, he explains, the pair went into the studio for album four not with any message in mind but just knowing there was a certain feeling they wanted the music to create. “It just had to be jammin’,” offers Mike by way of elaboration. “It had to be that bop, that hip-hop shit that feels celebratory and braggadocio[us] and audacious. It had to make you poke your chest out and want to nod your head. If you’re from the South, it makes you want to move your ass.”
The record’s standout is perhaps ‘JU$T’, featuring a dream-team combination of Run The Jewels, Rage Against The Machine’s Zack de la Rocha (a long-time collaborator who also appeared on the third album and to whom Mike refers as “unofficial third MC”) and Pharrell Williams. El-P says the three MCs all recorded verses ruminating on the nature of money before sending the track to new acquaintance Pharrell to see what he’d make of it. He came back with a hook built around the line: “Look at all these slave masters posin’ on yo’ dollar.” You don’t get that with Hamilton.
“He could have literally sent it back and just said the word: ‘Pharrell’ on the hook and we’d have been like: ‘Great! That’s awesome; thank you Pharrell!’,” says El. “But he honoured us by really thinking about this shit and going all in. There was a part of me thinking, ‘Is he gonna do some commercial hook?’ Of course, he came back with the most succinct, raw shit that we hadn’t even imagined. It really tied our verses together.”
Money is something both members of Run The Jewels have a lot more of than they used to. Mike, in particular, received criticism for telling protestors in Atlanta – in another moving speech that went viral back in May – to “go home” rather than “burn” the city. Some argued this may have had something to do with the fact that he’s a landlord and business owner with multiple barbershops, a restaurant and about $2million in property across the city. “I’ve had to ask myself: Am I being a hypocrite?” concedes Mike. “It’s a dilemma I constantly have to balance, because from an ideological standpoint I wish we could live in a world where money wasn’t needed, but I know that’s not the reality of our system. Either I participate in capitalism, or I become a victim of it.”
“I was an organiser before I was a rapper, and I’m a mobiliser now that I am a rapper” – Killer Mike
El adds some gore to that metaphor. “Being born into capitalism is like being kidnapped and having the blindfold ripped off you and you’re in a fucking room full of sawblades,” he argues. “No one woke up as a human being like: ‘You know what I should do? I should find a random delineation of worth and I should apply that to my entire life’. We’re trying to question all of that throughout the record.”
So this is the modern world: capitalism will kill us if the police state doesn’t get there first. Is there any conceivable cause for optimism on this dying planet? Run The Jewels manage to find it, somehow. What’s their secret? “I’m optimistic because I’m an organiser first,” says Mike. “I was an organiser before I was a rapper, and I’m a mobiliser now that I am a rapper, helping people get the resources, funds and attention they need to do what to me is the Lord’s work.” Here he repeats the mantra that ran through his speech in Atlanta in May: “This is the moment to plot, plan, strategise, organise and mobilise.”
As further reason for optimism, Mike points to how diverse the recent Black Lives Matter protests have been. “Instead of the audience just looking like me, because it’s a Black issue, it’s a combination of all people, races and ethnicities coming out,” he observes. “The fucking Amish came out! When the Amish come out you’ve got to be optimistic [Ed’s Note: The protestors many believed to be Amish were in fact members of the Church Of God]. So I’m optimistic about the opportunity to organise, even though I’m not optimistic about government or world leaders. I’m not optimistic about times led by oligarchs, but I am totally optimistic because of what I’ve seen from people in the American streets and globally over the last 60 days.”
El-P agrees with Mike’s assessment, pointing out the existential tension that has existed in America since the birth of the nation. How could Thomas Jefferson write a line as beautiful as “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” while owning other humans? Nice words, says El-P, are no longer enough: “Those words you sold me, I’m taking literally, without the caveats, the exceptions and the ‘wink-wink – hey, but not for everybody’ subtext. This is probably just the beginning, but I do believe that wave is unstoppable.”
Speaking of the founding fathers: every American’s Second Amendment right to arm themselves to the teeth is a cause close to Mike’s heart.
A few years ago, not long after the release of ‘Run The Jewels 3’ and the inauguration of Donald Trump, I found myself at a party in Los Angeles where the host was playing a lot of Run The Jewels. In a naïve, British fish-out-of-water way I mentioned I’d been surprised to learn that as well as being a generally progressive left-of-centre radical, Killer Mike is also a card-carrying, ‘pry-it-from-my-cold-dead-hands’ supporter of the National Rifle Association. The host immediately went, “So am I!”, opened a cupboard and took out an assault rifle. There were, he announced happily, two more guns hidden in that very room.
In that moment America and Britain felt very far apart and I was caught between curiosity, terror and bemusement.
Mike and El find this hilarious. El may not be quite as enthusiastic about guns, but he sees Mike’s point. “People think that I’m the opposite of Mike,” he says, “but I actually tend to agree with him on a lot of this stuff. The truth is we have a history here that is different from other people’s systems. You don’t go to a fucking gunfight with a stick.”
“Capitalism is like being kidnapped, having the blindfold ripped off you and you’re in a fucking room full of sawblades” – El-P
Mike, meanwhile, has wandered off to find something and soon his face is replaced by a gleaming pair of AR-15s. “They are not assault rifles,” he says. “They’re called AR because Armalite makes ’em.” It’s a distinction the NRA has been making a lot recently in an attempt to detoxify gun ownership. “This one is mine. It’s a 50-rounder and I shoot it Saturdays in Alabama. The other one I just got for my wife. Shouts out to the UK for being a hell of an Empire, but if it wasn’t for a bunch of farmers with muskets, we wouldn’t have been the free land that Jefferson talked of while he enslaved people. If Africans would have had guns, it would have been a lot harder to enslave us, so I’m a fan of guns.”
When not firing off rounds with his wife, Mike says he’s been spending the enforced break of lockdown being a “regular dad doing regular shit”. El-P, meanwhile, has taught himself to cut his own fade to an impressively professional level. “Someone asked me if I’d been to the barber the other day,” he boasts. “It was the proudest moment of my life.”
It seems particularly cruel for a band as of-this-moment as Run The Jewels to be stuck at home right now. In another, better world, they’d be on the road with their mate Zack. Their joint seven-month American and European tour with Rage Against The Machine, which was due to have started in March, is now postponed wholesale until next summer. “Can you think of a better show right now than Rage and Run The Jewels?” asks El-P. “I can’t. Whenever that shit happens, it’s gonna be fucking incredible. Everybody’s suffering the same thing. It would have been crazy this year, but…”
“… It’s gonna be crazy next year,” says Mike, finishing El-P’s thought. “The world’s gonna reset and then we’re gonna come burn that motherfucker down.”
‘Run The Jewels 4’ is out now.