Run The Jewels on people, politics and powerful moments

With their third album soundtracking the highs and lows of 2017, we talk to hip-hop’s greatest tag team, Killer Mike and El-P – Run The Jewels

Feature by Peter Simpson | 31 Oct 2017
  • Run The Jewels

The ascent of Michael Render, aka Killer Mike, and Jaime Meline, aka El-P has been spectacular and apparently unstoppable, but it has to be said that it’s been somewhat unexpected. A north-south fusion between two of hip-hop’s most independent voices, fusing grimy and hard-hitting beats with a foul-mouthed mixture of braggadocio, one-liners and furious polemic doesn’t necessarily sound like the kind of thing that soundtracks multi-million dollar franchises, tops festival bills, or draws enormous vocal support from all over the cultural map. Then again, if the last few years have taught us one thing, it’s not to second-guess.

For the duo, who’d forged their path to a pair of impressive careers in two of hip-hop’s heartlands without ever fully bursting into the spotlight, this chapter of the story begins around six years ago. Jason DeMarco of US television station Adult Swim met up with Killer Mike at the network’s offices, with the Atlanta rapper looking to put together a new record for Adult Swim’s Williams Street label. He wanted to go back to his early influences – classic albums by the likes of N.W.A. – and needed a new producer, so DeMarco recommended New York underground mainstay and Definitive Jux co-founder El-P.

When Render and Meline met, as DeMarco tells it, it was the musical equivalent of love at first sight. They recorded four songs in three days. Then Render and DeMarco ‘browbeat’ El-P into coming back and working on the rest of the LP which would become the outstanding R.A.P Music. Render and Meline then went on tour together with their respective solo albums (R.A.P Music and Cancer 4 Cure, released just a week apart in 2012), and had so much fun that they went on to team up as Run The Jewels. Three brilliant albums later and a truly prodigious touring schedule later and they’re the hottest duo in rap. It’s an exciting reminder that ‘unexpected’ and ‘bad’ don’t have to be synonyms.

RTJ on playing live and winning over crowds

When we catch up with Run The Jewels in Barcelona, it’s just hours before their primetime slot on one of Primavera Sound’s enormous main stages to a crowd of thousands. They’re bringing a new album and a back catalogue that’s equal parts fiery bravado and angry, challenging social commentary to a huge audience, but it’s an opportunity that the duo relish. “People respond to powerful moments,” says Meline, “whether they be fun or hilarious or emotional.

“I’m really excited about those moments on stage that are more calm and powerful. Seeing stuff that I’ve seen my friend cry writing, and he’s on stage and he’s having this moment and there are 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 people in front of him and he’s successfully conveying that power and I’m able to do the same, that’s important. We would be cheating ourselves if we... just stuck to the bangers when we played the shows, 'cause we’re bigger than that in the scope of what we do.” Render agrees, offering one of the duo’s customary nods to the other, saying that “it helps when you’ve got the greatest producer-rapper in the world in your group.

“It feels good to win people over,” Render continues, “it feels good to walk away and know you’ve made an impact and made those fans stay. That’s how I discovered A Tribe Called Quest; I wasn’t looking for Tribe Called Quest, I was fucking cutting school going to a Kris Kross concert.”

That’s how Killer Mike discovered A Tribe Called Quest? Everyone around the table, El-P included, has a look around. “No no no no no”, explains Render, correcting himself and saving the street cred of hip-hop’s hottest duo, “that’s how I discovered them live. They were a cool group that I would watch, but then I saw their live show! They put on the show of all shows and I went to every Tribe show after that because I saw it live, versus just liking it out of my tape player.”

That 'show of all shows' bombast is something that the duo carry into their own live offering, with Render and Meline, each of whom celebrated their 42nd birthdays this spring, breaking down stages like the dad-bod leviathans that they are. While the bodies may not be the most youthful, the duo’s wits are razor-sharp after more than a decade of honing their craft. Their lyrics too are couched in experience rather than youth (although their childish sides still pop out from time to time, but more on that later), yet their apocalyptic sound chimes with the ‘oh God what next’ mid-2010s pretty perfectly. Basically, the lightning that struck on Run The Jewels’ first meeting hit an enormous pile of kindling, and now the whole place is on fire.

Killer Mike and El-P on politics and advocacy

The events of this decade may have sparked a new wave of political engagement, but Render has been involved in political activism since his career began back in the 2000s. He threw his support behind Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid, appearing all over the media and at campaign rallies to support Sanders' candidacy, and Render also endorsed Jeremy Corbyn on-stage at Field Day in London earlier this year (JC would go on to repay the favour, introducing the group on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage later in the summer). The Atlanta native has been outspoken in both his music and personal life on topics like police brutality, while also offering vocal support for African-American businesses and entrepreneurs.

Given the iconic nature of the Run The Jewels project – the duo will appear on-stage shortly after our chat flanked by two enormous hands in their trademark fist and gun symbol – Render expresses a somewhat understandable desire not to “become bigger than the issue.

“As someone who raps about shit that concerns me,” he says, “I want to get people turned on to the issue. You don’t want to become the leader of a cult of personality. I just want us to keep doing dope records first of all and to be important because we make dope music."

Killer Mike and El-P with Jeremy Corbyn backstage at Glastonbury. Picture: Dan Medhurst

Render continues: “As far as our political importance whatever that means, that’s not as heavy on me in terms of ‘Is Run The Jewels [important]?’, because in my personal life, I’m never going to stop aggravating the shit out of politicians locally. I’m never going to stop advocating for things I believe in. I’m never going to stop being an ally to people.”

Meline is keen to define the duo’s approach as more socially conscious than the overt politicism of the likes of Public Enemy, or RTJ collaborator Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against The Machine. “When we come together as Run The Jewels,” he says, “we find common ground in terms of empathy and heart and anger, but it’s never going to become the primary or singular focus of what we do because it didn’t start that way. It never can be that way, we’re too complicated for that. We’re too different, we’ve got too many perspectives that are rooted in humour and love and fun for us to ever become that archetypal ‘political rap group’. It’s just not what we do.

“When it comes out for us, it comes out because we’re artists and we have hearts and we have to say something and we’re safe to say it around each other. But it is not our primary function – it’s just something that we can and will do if the time is right.”

"We can get away with making a really crude joke and saying something pretty serious..."

At this juncture it’s important to point out that Run The Jewels are most definitely not a preachy or overly serious outfit. This, after all, is the band who successfully crowdfunded a remix LP on which every sample and instrument was replaced with the sound of cats meowing. Their vocals are packed to the brim with some fantastically inventive swearing and comically over-the-top boasts, and the aforementioned beats on the duo’s records could start a moshpit in an empty phonebox.

Meline puts it thusly: “I feel it’s just as important to talk about my dick as it is to talk about police brutality, just in the form of a song. Certainly it is not as important in the world, but as an artist we encourage both.” While the duo are clearly serious craftsmen with ambition and drive, they also aren’t above the occasional fit of the giggles.

Render describes the content of the duo’s regular WRTJ radio show on Apple Music as “the mundane shit we’re always fucking talking about”, with Meline noting the show acts as a way of “remembering that really we’re just two friends smoking weed and cracking jokes, and that’s how Run The Jewels started.”

It’s a fine line the duo tread between the puerile and the powerful, and they know it. Not only do they know it, but, Meline says, they appreciate their spot on the tightrope: “I think what makes us special is that we are not any one thing; we can get away with making a really crude joke and saying something pretty serious, and no-one is going to disqualify us for one or the other, and that’s a rarefied air to be breathing.

“That’s not something that everyone gets; you either get pigeonholed into one thing or another. Either you’re just the party guy that no-one wants to hear from because you took too long to say anything in the first place, or you’re the guy that no-one wants to hear that you like sex or you like drugs because you’ve never smiled, and every moment out of your mouth has been a fucking Marxist pamphlet.” At this point, Render breaks into howls of laughter; no need to worry about that combined rap show/manifesto launch any time soon.

Run the Jewels at Glastonbury 2017. Picture: Dan Medhurst

Still, in a time when it seems that both natural and man-made tragedies are becoming weekly occurrences, and things appear to be going thoroughly to shit, it’s no surprise that there’s an appetite for visceral and captivating work that tackles tough issues head-on. While the duo’s third album may take on topics like police brutality, aggressive gentrification and political disaffection, Meline is keen to point out that the pair “are not mining the news for material”.

When it comes to the impossible-to-ignore subject of the current American President, Meline states: “Trump did not need to exist for our records to exist. As we’ve said to other people, Trump did not invent tyranny or injustice, or the imbalance of power, or the manipulation of people – he’s certainly gunning for the number one spot, but he did not invent it and after him it won’t be the end of it either.”

We share the front page of the previous day’s Berliner Kurier with the pair – tackling the story of the US pulling out of the Paris climate accords, the newspaper’s lead translates to ‘Earth to Trump: Fuck You’. After the ensuing laughter dies down – Render praising the Berlin media for their “brutal” assessment of the situation – Meline strikes a cautious note: “Germany is reacting the way they’re reacting because at one point they didn’t react to someone that was rising. I hope we don’t get to a point in America where we have to be reminded again that tyranny is real, and not only does it not just affect the underclass, it affects you.”

"We have to understand that we're all human beings": Killer Mike on nationalism and compassion

Yes, the duo’s sound is apocalyptic, but there is a hopeful defiance that underpins Run The Jewels, and in particular Run The Jewels 3. It’s a record that presents a potential path through the gloom, a blend of education and provocation designed to spark debate and stir up otherwise latent energy. For a lifetime activist like Render, it comes back to using his platform to re-energise fans and listeners: “I think that people – not politicians or policy-makers – people need to do shit as simple as pen-palling [and] Facebooking. Get to know other people that don’t look like you, that are not culturally like you, that are not of your religion or cultural sphere. It’s time.”

In discussing the spread of nationalism across the globe – from right-wing movements in India and across Europe to that whole Brexit thing we’ve blithely wandered into – Render sparks up a direct call for compassion. “You’re Scottish,” he tells The Skinny, “because when you were born, someone said you were Scottish. They taught you the traditions of Scotland and what made it great, you were taught who your enemies were, you were told to go out into the world and make Scotland proud.

“You were given an accent…”, Meline chips in.

“There was a time where there was no such fucking country as Scotland,” continues Render. “There was no United Kingdom, there was no United States, and we were all just humans struggling to get out of a hut or a cave or wherever the fuck we were and not be eaten by something.

“On a very primal level we have to understand again that we are [all] human beings... because if aliens came down to this motherfucker today they would kill us all,” he says, swinging his arms as if to clear the board of humanity. “Because to them we’re all just human beings.”

Run the Jewels at the Albert Hall in Manchester. Picture: George Heaton

At one point during their Primavera set, a crowning achievement for two human beings who’ve worked their way up from the underground to festival headline status, the power cuts out. Killer Mike and El-P’s solution is not the aforementioned pamphlet read-out – it’s an impromptu dance-off. There’s body-popping, some mild mime and light jigging, and what can only be described as an ‘attempt’ at classic B-Boy move The Worm. The sound returns, the duo bust into the thunderous Oh My Darling (Don’t Cry), and the party is back on. The dance contest winner is never officially announced, but we think Mike edged it.

Run The Jewels are continuing to bask in the limelight, and their star continues to ascend. They’re off on an American arena tour with Lorde next year, and their spot at the head of the soundtrack for the latest FIFA game – arguably one of the biggest media franchises in the world – means that football fans everywhere are tinkering with their line-ups to the sound of hard-nosed rhymes and bombastic hip-hop beats.

Killer Mike sums up their group dynamic nicely on that Primavera re-starter: ‘He’s hangin' out the window, I hold the wheel / One black, one white, we shoot to kill’. Render ends our chat with a prescription that might surprise fans of the group’s more bombastic rhetoric, in that it essentially boils down to ‘please be nice to each other’. Render says: “We have to develop a mentality that the imaginary lines that we have of culture, religion and race… at some point the goal has to be to do away with those lines and get back to the simplicity of ‘you’re a human being’. I should care about you living to the full extent of your humanity. If that’s not our goal, then we are just as tribal as when we first got out of a hut or goddamn cave.”

And if the aliens do come, humanity could do a lot worse than send a pair of foul-mouthed, socially conscious hip-hop heavyweights to handle negotiations.

Run The Jewels play Glasgow O2 Academy, 16 Nov
Run The Jewels 3 is out now