Their second album articulated America’s anger at police brutality following summer 2014 injustices in Ferguson and Staten Island, but Run the Jewels’ work is just beginning. Al Horner spoke to the hip-hop duo before and after an emotional career-milestone performance at New York’s Madison Square Garden, reflecting on a whirlwind year and asking what’s next – both for them and for America…
The flames may have smouldered, but the coals beneath still burn hot. It’s been eight months now since black teenager Michael Brown was fatally shot in Ferguson, Missouri, and five since his killer – white police officer Darren Wilson – was cleared by a grand jury of any wrong-doing in the case. This, despite a maddening cloud of unanswered questions still hovering over the events of August 9, 2014. Questions like: what lawful reason does a policeman have to shoot an unarmed 18-year-old, who multiple witnesses insist had his hands up and pleaded ‘don’t shoot’, 12 times in the chest? Protests flared and for weeks news channels beamed images of outraged citizens silhouetted against burnt-out cars and shops in the St Louis suburb, wading ghost-like through clouds of tear gas. The unrest has settled and the camera crews have rolled out of Ferguson, but the anger is still rife. And no matter the skin tone of the man in the Oval Office, the sense that black America is without a voice remains palpable. Just ask Run The Jewels, whose recent rise into rap’s upper echelons feels grimly entwined with last summer’s violence.
“It’s not rare, what happened; what’s rare is that this one time, people were awake to it – tuned in and paying attention to what’s going on,” growls El-P, burrowing deeper into his winter coat. We’re at London’s Rough Trade East in December 2014, where he and sparring partner Killer Mike have just torn through a thunderous in-store set. CD racks rattled and the walls seemed to quake as their politically charged hip-hop rang out to the 100 or so squeezed inside. “People talk about our rhymes being ‘dystopian’, like when we rap about police brutality, and cameras on every corner, and drones over Brooklyn, and blood in the streets, we’re talking about some terrible future that hasn’t happened yet. Our songs aren’t some scorched-earth hellscape vision of shit to come. It’s happening right fucking now. It’s happening in Ferguson. It’s happening in New York. This shit is right here, right now.”
“The media has trained a little spotlight on it for once,” says Mike, his speaking voice the same southern-fried baritone boom that fills his verses. “Ain’t one more motherfucking difference.”
El and Mike – real names Jaime Meline and Michael Render – had been working all summer on ‘Run The Jewels 2’, the follow-up to their eponymous 2013 debut, when, as Mike describes it, “All hell went and broke loose.” Brown’s killing closely followed a case in New York in July 2014, when Staten Island man Eric Garner died after being put in a chokehold by police officer Daniel Pantaleo, who also went unpunished. When America ignited in protest at the two deaths, it found in ‘RTJ2’ – released as a free download on the duo’s website only weeks after Garner and Brown’s killers had been acquitted – a record spring-loaded with the same frustrations and fury at the nation’s powers-that-be.
“People were looking for a record that shared and articulated those concerns,” El says. “Sometimes in life and in culture, there’s a convergence – a record or film, or whatever, taps into current fears and fascinations and it becomes a moment, you know? We’re grateful to have been at the middle of that.”
Its songs – merciless, frill-free old-school rap thunderclaps full of seismic bass-bursts and screeching sirens, echoing Public Enemy at their most vital – were all written prior to the deaths of Garner and Brown and the riots that followed, but you wouldn’t know it from the prescient rage of cuts like ‘Jeopardy’ and ‘Blockbuster Night, Pt 1’. On ‘Early’, over queasy keyboards, El-P complains of “street lamps that stare when you walk”, adding, with eerie relevance to the Brown case, “They recording but didn’t record the cop when he shot with no warning”.
The album’s anti-authoritarian anger chimed with an audience outside the hip-hop circle that, for a decade, the pair had hustled in – securing respect, if not a commercial breakthrough. “It definitely wasn’t overnight [success], you can say that again!” says Atlanta-born Mike about the duo’s long histories in hip-hop – stretching back to the early ’90s, when El-P was a member of underground trio Company Flow. When they split in 2001, El crafted three Philip K Dick-inspired solo albums (2002’s ‘Fantastic Damage’, 2007’s ‘I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead’ – both released on the label he co-founded, Definitive Jux – and ‘Cancer 4 Cure’ from 2012) between beat-making stints for Aesop Rock, Del Tha Funky Homosapien and more. Meanwhile, Mike first came to prominence offering to “drill your heifer like a Black & Decker” on Outkast’s landmark 2000 fourth album, ‘Stankonia’. Since then, he’s released a string of critically lauded albums, most notably 2012’s ‘RAP Music’ – produced by El, their first collaboration – but mainstream recognition proved largely elusive. As Kendrick Lamar puts it on ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, his new album’s only shout-out to another MC: “Critics want to mention that they miss when hip-hop was rappin’/Motherfucker, if you did, then Killer Mike’d be platinum”.
In August 2014, though, as excitement mounted for ‘RTJ2’, 39-year-old Mike found himself invited onto CNN and other major TV networks, delivering passionate, persuasive pleas for justice, while essays posted on his website went viral. “This week I have seen tanks, rubber bullets and tear gas used by police against the citizens that pay them,” he wrote in one, insisting that police brutality is a problem not just for the American people of colour subjected to it on a chillingly routine basis (white officers kill black suspects twice a week in the United States, an average of 96 times a year, according to a report by national newspaper USA Today). “Whatever this country is willing to do to the least of us, it will one day do to us all,” he warned then. He’s no less emphatic today: “If people think this is a matter only pertinent to people on the lower rungs of society – that it doesn’t matter to them – they better watch out, because that hourglass flips pretty fucking quick.”
A few weeks later, we catch up on the phone. Mike’s out with his wife when our conference call is connected – they’re looking at a barbershop they plan to buy, in addition to the one they already own and operate in Atlanta.
“It’s my retirement plan,” Mike says.
“Shit, you’re thinking of retiring?” El jokes down the line from New York.
“I could do now – after Madison,” replies Mike.
He’s talking about the show they played on January 30 at New York’s enormous Madison Square Garden, supporting Jack White, who insisted Run The Jewels open the show. It was a milestone for the pair – “overwhelming”, according to Mike, and harking back to the golden era of hip-hop, when successful groups played huge venues. “As a kid I dreamed of rocking arenas,” he says. “Rap’s been mostly relegated to theatres and clubs since then. Nowadays it’s not like how it was when Run-DMC were rocking places like that.”
To New York native El, playing Madison was emotional. “I had no idea how much love we’d get from the crowd. I mean, the place was sold out before we were announced, so we were under no illusion – it was Jack’s crowd. I didn’t know how much natural crossover there would be. I was shocked. As a kid from Brooklyn, it was amazing.”
The pair had heard White was a fan, but they hadn’t expected an invite to play the show – or to receive an invite to White’s Third Man Records complex in Nashville, which El describes as “this crazy fucking Willy Wonka establishment”. He can’t say what they did there, but further visits are “100 per cent on the cards”, he says, adding: “The guy’s a real rap fan. He knows his shit. It’s gonna be…”
“…DEFCON FOUR!” Mike barks, shutting the conversation down before El gives away too many secrets. He’s similarly alert when I ask about recent photos of the two of them in the studio with Massive Attack (“DEFCON FIVE! Something’s happening, but we can’t say nothing!”) and rumours of a Zack De La Rocha solo album produced by El after the Rage Against The Machine frontman delivered a searing guest verse on ‘RTJ2’ standout ‘Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)’. “Listen, Zack is my dude,” says El, “and anything he’s doing I obviously want to be involved in. But I’m not supposed to talk about it.”
One thing they will discuss, however, is ‘RTJ3’ – their next album, already a work in progress. “We’re chipping away at it, bit by bit, where we can,” says El. It’s his day off, and he’s using it to build beats for the follow-up. “It’s hard to do on the road, but we’re already feeling the urge to get it down and make it the hardest shit you’ve ever heard. I don’t know yet how it will move things on from ‘RTJ2’, but I’m excited to knuckle down and find out.”
One guest they’re keen to get back for the record is Memphis MC Gangsta Boo, whose collaboration on ‘RTJ2’, ‘Love Again (Akinyele Back)’, is a special point of pride for the pair – a pointed moment of rebellion against gender norms in hip-hop that begins with filthy, lustful promises from El and Mike to unnamed sexual partners. “Face-fucked you in your kitchenette… you be takin’ all of this, pleasure comes from punishment” Mike raps, before a domineering chorus: “She wants my dick in her mouth all day”. Then Boo out-filths them both, snarling lines like “his tongue is the bomb, he say he love for me to ride his face” before flipping the chorus on its head: “He wants my clit in his mouth all day”.
“Just when you think it’s another bullshit macho sex track, Boo comes on and absolutely slays it with the most depraved shit,” El says, laughing. “A lot of hip-hop is excluding to women and we wanted to challenge that, because that doesn’t represent us.”
“That was the message we laid down to her – to fuck with people’s understanding and perception of what rap is,” Mike says. “It was our girlfriends’ idea, actually. We were in the studio, they suggested it, and we knew Gangsta Boo was perfect. Then she came in and made us blush like little boys. I’m glad we’ve got an intelligent audience that understands the need to make that joke, to push that norm.”
There’s an interruption on the line. Another press call awaits. Before they go, though, Mike wants to stress how grateful the pair are for the “jaw-dropping respect and reaction” from fans to ‘RTJ2’. “Run The Jewels is about an exchange of energy between myself, El and an audience,” Mike says. “We wanna keep that exchange going for as long as we can, ’cos right now, it feels good. It feels important.” There’s no stopping them yet.