El-P and Killer Mike are in the middle of something big. They each could have ended their hip-hop careers in 2013 as already accomplished musicians. Instead, they worked together as Run The Jewels and released a critically-acclaimed album for free. In October, they released a second album, Run The Jewels 2, also for free. It’s widely being called one of the best albums of the year.
At the same time, the duo is one of the loudest artistic voices addressing the national crisis over police harassment and murder.
After police officer Darren Wilson killed Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Killer Mike (given name: Michael Render) wrote an op-ed and appeared on CNN to voice the despair and anger Mike Brown’s death exposed. And Run The Jewels 2, released not long after, included songs ripe for the moment.
“Early” deals with police harassment and violence from the perspective of Mike, as victim, and from El-P (given name: Jaime Meline) as bystander. “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)” calls for gangs to unite and take over a jail, “killing them for freedom/cause they tortured us for boredom”. Killer Mike and El-P have addressed policing, surveillance, racism, and other political topics throughout their careers, but Run The Jewels 2 comes at a time when people are looking to see their anger expressed in music.
The group happened to be booked to play St. Louis the night the grand jury in nearby Ferguson decided not to prosecute Darren Wilson. Killer Mike’s passionate, emotional tribute to Mike Brown was widely shared, and associated the group even more closely with the political moment.
I spoke to El-P and Killer Mike before their October show at D.C.’s 9:30 Club, in an office near the venue.
Why do you think that is?Jaime: I think me and Mike have put in a lot of really good work over the years, and I think that we’ve been putting the music into people’s hands and our relationship with the people who support us is just really good right now. I think Run The Jewels feels inclusive and people are excited for us, and with us, about it.
There’s just something really giddy and great about the vibe. The politics — we’re just adults who have a well-rounded sort of thought process. We have humanity to us that we include in the record. Everyone has humanity and every artist does but they don’t necessarily inject it and I think that feels necessary. I think people need that a little bit. They need to hear people stand up for things, stand for something. Even if it’s encapsulated in the most ridiculous shit-talking in the world.
I’m really proud of me and Mike. We found something special creatively with each other. We found a sweet spot, for us. This isn’t me being a critic and examining our music. All I know is for us we found a creative sweet spot where we’re getting everything out of rap right now that we wanted, which is: We’re getting to shit-talk, we’re getting the shit that makes you want to punch through a wall, but we’re also getting the opportunity to explore the ideas that are close to our heart. We’ve accomplished something where we’re like, this is satisfying to us creatively, like we’re able to do a song like “Crown” or “Early” in the midst of a song like “Oh My Darling Don’t You Cry” or “Blockbuster Night”. And those are sides of us as rap fans, as music listeners, that we love. We’ve found a way to infuse our love of the music into the music we’re making. And I think that’s infectious, that catches on.
Would you call this music for a revolution?Michael: Revolutions, as far as I’ve learned, the ones I’ve liked, have been about the people. Whether it was French or Haitian, or the American Revolution. Even my aunt, who was a Panther — it’s about the people and the will of the proletariat, and not the will of the hierarchy or the aristocracy.
So in that I firmly feel like it’s revolution music. Because the people are righteous and profane. And they’ve got sense and the world could drive them insane and all of that. So I think that when you’re talking about a revolution, a full revolution is a full turnaround. I think that this music encompasses every aspect of your daily life in some way or capacity. In that sense yes. Are we Public Enemy part 2? No. Can we out-rage Rage Against The Machine? Absolutely not. But what we can be is just a voice for the common man and a vessel for them to get out all the shit that the world dumps on them. So in that sense, absolutely. It’s definitely a personal revolution.
Jaime: Sometimes what you’re saying, there’s a feeling. When he says proletariat, we look at ourselves as a populist group, as a group of the people. We come from the people. We are the people. I think that people are defining what Run The Jewels is for us too. We really love the fact that people feel like they can be a part of what we’re doing. Cause they can and they are.
Obviously the whole record isn’t about revolution. But there’s an attitude. I got my attitude, grew up, due to the musicians in my life. The records helped form me as a person. They helped form my attitude, some rebellion in me, or gave voice to rebellion in me that already existed.
Growing up listening to Run DMC, I mean, talk about empowered. These guys were badasses. And they dressed like regular people in New York, which was one of the first times that people had done that on that level. You’d never seen a rapper dress like a normal person really, you know? They weren’t making political music overtly, but they were making political music in the sense of saying that this world was theirs, and the attitude and the sound.
Michael: Yeah, rap was looked at as secondary to rock and roll at that point. Their grand statement was that this art form is here. When that King of Rock video —
Jaime: There was no arguing —
Michael: it was revolutionary when I saw that kind of video. I was like, OH, this is to be respected like my dad’s music.
Jaime: They weren’t asking, they were taking and I think there’s something that exists in Run The Jewels that feels like that too. I think people are tired of asking and not receiving. And people are hungry for something that’s theirs. They can say it doesn’t fucking matter if you don’t get it. We’re here. That’s something I’m really proud to be a part of.
Michael: Yeah, I was honored to do David Letterman last night. Jaime’s done it 3 times, I’ve done it twice. I’ll be honest, first time it was about me. I’m doing David Letterman. I used to watch this with my grandpa, it was all about my memories. I wished my grandma, my sisters were watching. But I can say this time it wasn’t about me at all. It was about the song and the crowd. We were repping for a constituency of people.
Michael: Fuck all of them man. You weren’t born to be under any man. You’ve got fuckin’ 2 arms, 2 legs, 2 eyes, and a mouth, 2 ears, just like me. All that bloodline shit, fuck you. You came out your momma’s womb just like I did.
Jaime: Legitimately me and Mike are saying shit that can get you fucking killed. But the whole point is we’re saying it like ‘fuck you’. You might be able to fucking kill me but until then you’re a man like me. If a king beheads you, you spit in his fuckin’ face before that happens. We’re not saying we’re an army. We’re not an army, we’re not militant, we’re not political. We’re just men and it’s like —
Michael: We’re free —
Jaime: We’re free, and until that’s fucking gone we have that. And there’s nothing you can tell me. There’s not one motherfucker on the planet above you and me. And frankly we’re not above anyone else except those people who think they’re above us. In fact the truth is the reverse. Anybody who thinks they deserve or are entitled to control over another man, be it spiritual, political, philosophical, or economic, is below you. beneath you.
Michael: Kill your masters.
Jaime: And that’s something that I think people know intrinsically and they need someone to voice it. And we’ll voice it cause why the fuck not. We’re not scared to be human. And we’re not gonna bow to an idea. There’s no education or entitlement or bloodline or circumstance that intrinsically makes anybody better. You come from the dirt and you can be a human.
Michael: That’s one thing I love about this country in theory. According to the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the preamble, that’s what this country’s about. And you fucked up cause I bought into it.
Jaime: Yeah, we bought it.
Michael: Yeah I bought that shit, that shit you sold to me in 9th-grade civics? I bought it.
Jaime: Oh, it was a scam? Well you shoulda come up with a different scam.
Michael: You shoulda motherfucker, ’cause that freedom shit, I want it. There’s no taking it back. I don’t care what your particular agenda is. Just aspire for freedom and you know, make sure other people are free. We only get 60–80 years. If you’re lucky or unlucky you get 90 or 100. That ain’t a lot of time. And you shouldn’t waste that time following suit or following orders or hesitating on living.
Jaime: You take the power away from someone when you say “I don’t want what you want. I don’t want what you have.”
That reminds me of the song Early: What happens when there is this authority that makes you act a certain way?Michael: Early was, um… it amazed me. A lot of people still haven’t got that the mother got killed. I could get on my soapbox for hours. My father was a police officer. My cousins, two cousins who are currently police officers. If I know anything, I know the fright of you don’t want your cousins or your family members dead out there. That said, the more frightening thing is to walk around out there and be afraid of the people you paid to protect you and your property, to live in perpetual fear. It’s wrong. It’s something people shouldn’t be subjected to.
Jaime: Why are the most horrible betrayals coming from the people who have put themselves in a position symbolically to protect us? Why are those always the most horrible betrayals? Because you put yourself in that position. Why is it more horrible that a priest would fuck a child? Well, I think that’s obvious.
How much does being given that power make it more likely you’ll take those liberties and use that power to do bad things to people?Michael: I think that’s very likely. We’ve seen that a higher punishment is merited. You’re found guilty of murder; you should face death. And I’m not pro-death penalty. But in the case of that, you’ve taken a sacred oath not to maliciously take life.
Jaime: It’s a bigger offense. Which is what’s so strange. We’ve got it completely twisted in this country. Somehow it’s less of an offense if a cop kills a kid. It’s less of an offense because he’s a cop. No. It’s MORE of an offense because you’re a cop. You betrayed us.
With “Early” I think we approached it in a really cool way, cause Mike’s got such a personal perspective, talking as a black man who’s experienced this type of harassment, who’s seen it and connected to it on a visceral level. And me talking as a white guy who doesn’t have to experience that but is sensitive to it and feels something. I’m an empathetic human, and this is what we have to be. When we come together we come together. We’re not gonna trample on each other’s experiences or ideas. It’s important to me as a friend: My friend saying something that’s poignant, and really heavy, and serious and coming from experiences in his life; it’s important for me to be delicate and honest about how I contribute to that conversation, so I’m happy that we naturally do that.
Michael: I’m happy people get it.
Do you feel like people are getting it?Michael: More people are getting it. You see in the audiences, the growth of the audience, the media and press. Think about it. The woman who books for Letterman, she picked Early for us to do. We sent her 4 records. She picked that one. She hears music, she listens to music, she saw the importance of that. That’s to be congratulated. I don’t think I publicly thanked her.
Jaime: Can you believe we did that song on national television? We just got away with something huge. The shit that we’re saying up there, they didn’t censor that. I think years later they’re going to look at that particular performance and be like, this was a hallmark moment, in whatever the Run The Jewels story ends up being.
Another friend is serving life in Smith Prison in Georgia. There are things that are going on in prisons that we never hear about, I’m not sure if we knew about them, if we’d even vote to keep prisons in this country. If we understood how they’re denied human contact, how they’re used as chattel, to pad the census in towns. They’ve essentially become cotton in the south, a form of agriculture.
I made it my concern, my job to speak more about the prison industrial complex because I have friends who are in prison, telling me about it. Tell kids these rappers talking about dope dealing, it’s bullshit they start telling me what’s going on, I’m like yo why the fuck are you being treated like this? You go to jail as punishment, you don’t go to be punished. Neing in jail is the punishment. You don’t go to be beaten, you don’t go to be denied food, to be denied human contact. You don’t go for that. That shit just drives me crazy, so it’s something I choose to speak about.
And we get to see so little of what’s going on in there too.Jaime: We know enough. It’s a big building with a bunch of bars on it and a lot of people, a lot of addicts and non-violent offenders being fed through that system. That’s a start. And you can trace that back to the Rockefeller laws, putting people in jail for having small amounts of drugs on them for a decade, literally putting them in jail for a decade. It’s a business. Once you figure that out you have to be worried. We’ve noticed how people run businesses in this fuckin’ world.
Michael: Profit first.
A lot of your music sets things up as ‘us against them’ — who are ‘they’?Michael: We don’t know! That’s what we’re asking —
Michael: I’m not saying we don’t know in the sense of you don’t know. What I’m saying is: I’m not a conspiracy theorist that’s gonna get up here and point out 12 people. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is you know which corporations are harming your community. You know that it’s weird that a company owns the right to a seed. You know that’s fuckin’ not normal. You know that. You’re just not saying to yourself fuck this, this isn’t right. When we got to Europe, Monsanto can’t even be in some of the countries we eat food in. They can’t be there. So the question becomes why the fuck can they be here? Get what I’m saying? Hell yeah, you know I’m not trying to point you in the direction of some fictional enemy I’m trying to convince you exists. No, I’m trying to say: ask the questions, and the ones you can’t get the goddamn answers to then you’re on to something. Period.
Jaime: There’s always a ‘they’. I say in “Early” there’s a ‘they’: “Any time there’s a man say there’s not, then you know that he lost the plot. “ You know how I know there’s a ‘they’? I walked down the street and there’s a guy with a gun and a uniform.
If there’s a ‘they’, there’s an ‘us’. And that’s what we’re about, not about pointing out that there’s a ‘they’. That’s self-evident. I think Run The Jewels is about pointing out that there’s an ‘us’ too, and that we’re deep. We have crew. We’re not to be fucked with. At the end of the day, ‘us’ is way more powerful than ‘they’. We’re just not taking it. So it starts in your heart, the way you look at things. Me and Mike are going to try and feed that.
We’re not the revolutionaries. 2pac said, ‘I’m not gonna be the one to start the revolution, but I guarantee you someone who starts the revolution will be a 2pac fan.’ That might be the case with Run The Jewels 2. But I’ll be happy if people simply listen to the music and treat each other good, think about shit, have an empowering moment of emotion, or just have fun. All of that is acceptable. We need that. And that’s one of the things that Run The Jewels is about. We need the fun. The world is a shitstorm. It’s crazy depressing and hard. And we’re constantly having to suppress our terror at the way the world is unfolding around us just to get through the day. When motherfuckers come to a Run The Jewels show, that suppression ends up being an explosion.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.