No one expected Run the Jewels to be here — peaking in the Top 10 of the Billboard album charts with an explosively relevant new album, RTJ4, that they gave away via free download just as a global pandemic consumed the world and as millions of protestors took to the streets to demonstrate against racism and police brutality. Then again, Killer Mike and El-P are making a career out of being at the right place at the right time or, as El puts it, "just the place at that time."
Since joining forces for a self-titled 2013 debut, the duo have frequently found themselves riding the zeitgeist, whether purposefully or not. Run the Jewels 2 dropped just as the nation reeled from the cataclysmic Ferguson protests and the rise of Black Lives Matter. Run the Jewels 3 emerged as a coda to the surprise election of Donald J. Trump as president. Each eruption was followed by months-long tours, Killer Mike's public activism as an advocate for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, and the kind of boisterously loud and politically sharp musical theater that has inspired fans everywhere and of all inclinations — from hip-hop and indie to hard rock and metal — to adopt their iconic gun-and-jewels hand signs.
The two arrived at this inflection point from different directions. El-P's career dates to the mid-Nineties, when he emerged as a scene leader of New York's disruptive underground as one-third of the trio Company Flow. He piled up critical plaudits as that group's fountainhead, and then as a solo artist (working with the likes of Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, At the Drive-In's Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodríguez-López, and Godflesh's Justin Broadrick), producer, and founder of key early Aughts indie label Definitive Jux. But few expected that his intensely caustic work could translate to a mainstream audience.
By contrast, Killer Mike is a native son of Atlanta whose first major appearance, OutKast's 2001 single "The Whole World," earned him a Grammy Award. But his smart yet pugilistic flow proved a poor fit for popular consumption. After a major-label debut in 2003's Monster, he shifted to indie releases, earning respect among his rap peers as well as knowledgeable fans for the kind of street knowledge once advocated by Ice Cube and Scarface.
It's their unlikely combination together that makes them so great. Both Mike and El are comfortable in their own styles, and their synergy comes from natural fusion, not forced humor. They seem to bring out unexpected sides to one another, too: Mike is a much warmer and familial presence than his "killer" image would suggest, while El delivers the kind of edgy yet hilarious comedy that could only come from a lifelong sci-fi fan. That kind of broad palette extends to RTJ4, which has guest shots from Gangsta Boo and 2 Chainz as well as Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme and the duo's frequent collaborator Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine.
Still, the world is in an uncertain place, and Run the Jewels are well aware that they may be making music for the apocalypse. Over the course of a wide-ranging conversation, the two discussed what hope remains for a world that seems to be teetering on the brink and the role of art in keeping us from going over the edge.
KILLER MIKE, WHEN THE GEORGE FLOYD PROTESTS BEGAN, YOU GAVE A PRETTY REMARKABLE SPEECH AT ATLANTA MAYOR KEISHA BOTTOMS' PRESS CONFERENCE. IT SEEMED LIKE A STARK CONTRAST TO SOME OF YOUR LYRICS WHERE YOU AGGRESSIVELY CRITICIZE THE CORPORATE AND POLITICAL ELITE. WHEN IS THE RIGHT TIME TO BUILD RELATIONSHIPS WITH THE SYSTEM, AND WHEN IS THE RIGHT TIME TO PROTEST? CAN YOU DO BOTH? THIS QUESTION IS FOR YOU, TOO, EL-P. I REMEMBER THAT YOU WERE AN ADVOCATE FOR RALPH NADER DURING HIS 2000 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN.
KILLER MIKE In my opinion, you work alongside the system so long as it's working, and you're always prepared to protest, stop, interrupt or change the system. Dr. King and the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] worked within the system by putting pressure on the system from outside financially. Black Panthers and the BLA [Black Liberation Army] directly opposed the system. Both were effective.
I was there with Mayor Bottoms not at her invite or the police chief. I was there at the invite of my friend T.I. I had been out with Bankhead Seafood — [T.I. and I] own a restaurant together with that truck — all day. I was hosting [New York rapper] Noreaga, and Tip said, "I'm being called. I want you to come with me." And after about an hour of going back and forth, figuring out what made sense and what didn't, I went to support my friend. I was called to the podium by him.
No one is begrudging any of the rioters or looters. It is firmly the fault of the state for letting agents of the state murder innocent civilians. But with that said, I wanted to remind Atlanta that post-riots, post-protests, we have a long history of organizing in this city, and not only organizing on the behalf of social justice, but organizing economically and creating an ecosystem where you don't need to be dependent on government in the same way.
EL-P In 2000, when Ralph Nader asked me to do that rally for him at Madison Square Garden, all I really understood of it at the time was that there was another voice that was a progressive voice that, if you remember correctly, they were not allowing to be a part of the debates. It annoyed me that the dialogue was limited to a two-party system. Plus, I was twenty-something and I was like, I don't give a shit who it is — I'm playing Madison Square Garden. [Laughs] In all honesty, that was probably 50 percent of the reason why I did that shit.
For a long time, I imagined myself being a sort of conscientious objector in a personal space about politics. It dawned on me that me not voting — though I had some solid objections to the whole thing — the choice not to vote was easier for me because of my cultural entitlement, because of the fact that I wasn't necessarily going to be feeling the effects of the minutiae of the policies that hit the ground, that hit other communities really heavily. I just realized I need to participate.
Obviously, around the time of Run the Jewels 2 and Run the Jewels 3, the relationship of Run the Jewels and Bernie [Sanders] through Mike started to blossom. Now we find ourselves in the position where my personal interest is much more on a local level, or on a smaller level, but is action-oriented. I love that we get to use our platform for charitable causes, and to bring actual money into organizations that we believe in. When we did [2015 remix album] Meow the Jewels, we did that so we could raise money for the families of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, and also the National Lawyers Guild, which is an organization that we just gave — at this point, we've raised over $200,000 for them since we dropped [RTJ4].
This is stuff that I feel very engaged in, so my perspective on involvement in the system is you don't have to think or be deluded that the system is not corrupt to engage and contribute in some way.
WITH WIDESPREAD PROTESTS AGAINST POLICE BRUTALITY AND THE ONGOING CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC, THIS IS A CONFUSING ERA. YET IT'S ALSO A BEAUTIFUL AND AMAZING THING TO SEE PEOPLE GET INVOLVED IN SOCIAL ACTIVISM. ONE OF THE DEBATES I'VE SEEN AMONG ARTISTS IS WHETHER NOW IS EVEN A GOOD TIME FOR ART, OR IF THEY SHOULD FOCUS SOLELY ON ACTIVISM.
EL-P Art is needed more than ever. The eloquent translation of human expression and perspective — you never put that aside. You don't have to be overtly political to be affecting. I think that the debate should not be about whether or not art is necessary or appropriate right now.
I think that, if anything, every artist should know that when they put a piece of material out, it doesn't have to mean that you're political on the right side of things or whatever. It's not about that. You should just feel good about the fact that, if this is your last record, then this is the statement you want to make. You can't control the times around you, man. Just make the shit that's in your heart. Make something that's true.
KILLER MIKE Whether it's "Champaign & Reefer" by Muddy Waters or Snoop Dogg, I think we've [always] had something to say. A lot of the reasons that, as a journalist, you are free to say the things you say right now is because of [2 Live Crew rapper] Luther Campbell. And when we talk about Uncle Luke, we tend to talk about him as a bass artist. But he's also the guy that went against Broward County and took it all the way to the Supreme Court with a lawyer [Elena Kagan] who now sits as a Supreme Court Justice, and he ensured that every American maintains [rights to freedom of speech]. I consider it an honor and a privilege to be an artist who has the opportunity to not only say a bunch of cool and wildly arrogant rap shit but speak on my humanity and the things that matter in this lifetime and in the past.
THE RUN THE JEWELS SOUND IS SUCH A BIG SOUND IN TERMS OF ITS SONICS. DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU'RE AKIN TO A ROCK BAND IN THAT SENSE?
EL-P Sure. Yeah. I mean, listen, as a producer, I think that I grew up just as much on the Clash as I did Michael Jackson. I grew up just as much on Gang of Four and Devo as I did Run-DMC. There's definitely all of that in there. Apart from the fact that we're rappers, we also act like a rock band in the sense that we tour like a fucking rock band.
KILLER MIKE Punk bands and rap groups played at some of the same venues early on. Whether it was alternative sports like skateboarding and BMX, B-boying and rapping, it all lumped together. I think that energy of rebellion and self-determination is just something that remains from those times for me.
EL-P Plus, rock dudes had flames onstage. That's where we're headed.
KILLER MIKE Metallica having flames, definitely. That influenced the shit out of me.
YOU HAVE TO BE CAREFUL THOUGH, RIGHT? I MEAN, DIDN'T JAMES HETFIELD BURN HIMSELF WITH THOSE FLAMES?
EL-P Yeah, but we're just going to have one little flame in the corner ...
KILLER MIKE That shit's expensive. It's not cheap.
EL-P ... Or just sparklers.
A LOT OF PEOPLE TALK ABOUT HOW YOUR ALBUMS SEEM TO DROP AT JUST THE PERFECT CULTURAL MOMENT. BUT WHILE RUN THE JEWELS 3 DROPPED AFTER THE 2016 ELECTION AND WAS A "BLUE ALBUM," AS YOU'VE DESCRIBED IT — RTJ4 IS A BIG, JOYOUS RECORD. I THINK IT TAPS INTO A DIFFERENT KIND OF ENERGY IN THIS ERA THAT WE DON'T OFTEN APPRECIATE.
EL-P Absolutely, and that's what we want. Thank you for saying that. I think me and Mike both wanted it to be fiery and fun and big. We didn't want it to be super moody, and we wanted the moments where it is moody to really land, to really be earned.
I'm beginning to think we're the Forrest Gump of rap groups where we just end up in the middle of history somehow. Like, no matter what we do. Like, we're not trying, you know? We're just two friends smoking weed and trying to come up with dope shit. And that's just the truth. I think Mike and I have had moments where we just look at each other, like, Goddamn, we can't even help it ...
A perfect example is us being in St. Louis when the Mike Brown verdict was coming down, or us releasing [RTJ4] during this time when so many of the lyrics are connecting to the public in a real way. Another perfect example was when we were on tour for Run the Jewels 3 and we went to D.C. to do a show, and the watermain broke. We couldn't do the show because the whole block had been flooded out. We had to keep going and reschedule the show. Well, when was the show rescheduled for? Inauguration Day for President Trump.
We've looked at each other, like, What the fuck? What's going on here? But at the same time, I think that both Mike and I know that the shit we're saying that connects with people on that level is very real, and if you're writing music that is tapping into something that exists, it's going to resonate when those things happen.
DO YOU GUYS WORRY THAT PEOPLE SOMETIMES MISS THE NUANCES IN RUN THE JEWELS? YOU'RE KNOWN FOR BEING A FIERY GROUP, BUT YOUR MUSIC ISN'T JUST FIRE AND BRIMSTONE.
KILLER MIKE I really appreciate you using the word "joy." There really was a joy in making this album that's expressed in the energy of it. Even in terrible and turbulent times, even in the streets where there's real protests now, it feels at times celebratory that now everyone is finally together against oppression versus fighting with each other because of oppression.
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT WORKING WITH ZACK DE LA ROCHA? IT'S FASCINATING THAT THE ONLY MUSIC HE HAS PUBLICLY RELEASED IN THE PAST SEVERAL YEARS HAS BEEN WITH RUN THE JEWELS.
EL-P Zack is just amazing and definitely one of the unofficial members of Run the Jewels at this point. He and I have been friends since about 1998, and I consider him a dear friend. It's rare that someone can have been so successful and reach so many people and have such a huge impact on culture and yet still be humble and cool as fuck. Zack is that, purely. The other thing he is — and I don't think he gets enough credit for it — a fucking nasty rapper. I never worry about his verse. I always know it's gonna be flames. All I do is try to give him a vibe. For this record, getting him over an almost double-time bounce was something I was really excited about. It was outside of his comfort zone and I knew he would rise to the occasion. It feels like a Run the Jewels album isn't complete at this point without Zack on it in some way.
HOW DID YOU CONNECT WITH JOSH HOMME? WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO FEATURE HIM ALONGSIDE MAVIS STAPLES ON "PULLING THE PIN"?
EL-P I've admired Josh's music for a long time, and we have had a lot of close friends in common for many years. Over the last few years, we started to get to know each other. He's a brilliant dude and a fucking monster in the studio. I was out in Cali at Rick Rubin's spot and felt like I needed some guitars on "pulling the pin" so I reached out to him. I went to his studio in Burbank and we worked for a day and that turned into guitars and background vocals before we even had a hook. When I finally wrote the hook and got Mavis on it, I was amazed at how beautiful his vocals under Mavis' sounded. For me, it was a huge honor to have him on [the album] and for him to be so generous with his energy and time.
EL-P AND MIKE, BOTH OF YOU WERE PART OF THE UNDERGROUND SCENE FOR MANY YEARS. HOW IS IT TRANSITIONING FROM THAT TO BEING DISTRIBUTED BY BMG?
EL-P Me and Mike are not brand-new artists. We are not coming to the negotiating table where we don't have the power to say, "Look, these are the terms that we want to deal with and here's why this makes sense for you." Personally, I think the goal is control. The goal is control over what you are, what you say, what your music is and your relationship with the people that support you. If those things aren't conflicting with the business that you're doing, then I don't really see it being an issue.
KILLER MIKE We brought a lot to the table. We worked our ass off. We earned our way. And we walked in the room knowing fully who we were and what our values are and what we bring to a company. For any young artists, what you do or don't do, never undervalue yourself and the amount of work you put in. I have no complaints [being] on a major label, but we worked our ass off to be able to be in the position we are. We don't turn our lights down for anyone because we know what we had to do to get them.
EL-P Exactly. And if you're in a position where you can't get the things that mean something to you, find an alternate route. And until you're in a position where you can say, "This is the position I need to be in order to do business with you," then I would suggest not doing it. Straight up.
ONE LAST QUESTION: ARE YOU GUYS RIDIN' FOR BIDEN?
EL-P That's a personal question, Mosi.
KILLER MIKE I'm voting for whoever offers the most for my community.
EL-P I'm going to be honest with you: I'm probably voting for him because I'm at the point now where I'm so goddamn desperate to see Trump out of office that I'd vote for fucking Chucky at this point.
KILLER MIKE [Laughs] I'm out.