Run The Jewels are musicians of a rare kind: two rappers in their mid-40s both riding high on a career peak. It’s almost unheard of in the game. For a project that started life as a one-off experiment that now holds a quartet of critically-lauded LPs in its canon, it’s left any expectations El-P and Killer Mike might have held at RTJ’s conception in the dust.
“I’m gonna be honest,” El-P says, taking a drag from a joint in the comfort of his home studio where he’s clearly appreciating the perks of being a successful musician with his tools to hand. “Just like a lot of people who are discovering they can do their jobs from home, you’re gonna have a tough time post-Corona telling me that I need to do an interview in person.”
When stacked in the grid of a Zoom call, the disparate personalities of the duo become clear. El-P remains still and seated for the entirety of our chat, whereas the more excitable Killer Mike is endlessly unsettled, shuffling about in his kitchen and front yard. “I’ve been doing real regular guy shit,” Mike says of his lockdown time so far. “I ain’t rapped a hundred bars in a minute. I’ve been gardening! I also have two businesses that in the middle of all of this needed some attention.” As well as his day-job as a hugely acclaimed musician, he also owns Bankhead Seafood - a local legendary foodspot on Atlanta’s Westside that he resurrected from closure with rapper T.I. - and The Swag Shop, a barbershop he owns and runs with his wife.
When quarantine hit, the pair had the eagerly-awaited ‘RTJ4’ in the can - or so they thought. On the cusp of the original release date, they found themselves in the throes of a sampling clearance battle which they lost out to. “We were terrified, like shit - what the fuck are we gonna do?” El-P reveals. “We just completely revamped the jam and made it better. I’m never gonna tell anybody which song it was… mainly because we’re gonna beat up the artist,” he says, erupting into a cackle. “I’m just talking shit!”
The album was pushed back slightly from April to June. Later, a fortnight after we speak to the pair and in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests surrounding the death of George Floyd, they decide to release the album two days before its intended drop, with a statement: “Fuck it, why wait? The world is infested with bullshit so here’s something raw to listen to while you deal with it all.”
"I listen to this record and it feels like it's a fucking Porsche, like it's a streamlined little fighter jet."
The release of both ‘RTJ3’ and ‘RTJ4’ align with election years. With ‘RTJ3’ being released in the limbo between 2016’s election result and the inauguration, this is the first Run The Jewels project forged in the fires of the Trump era - and it shows. ‘RTJ4’ is undoubtedly the group’s most fiery, urgent collection. It’s an 11-track thrillride that blitzes through politics, race, truth-searching as humour, darkness and hope, all held in perfect balance at the hands of the duo’s razor sharp rhymes. “I listen to this record and it feels like it’s a fucking Porsche, like it’s a streamlined little fighter jet,” El-P says excitedly. “It’s darker but less moody; it’s meaner than the third one.”
On the frantic opening track, which frames the duo in a fictional cartoon called ‘Yankee & The Brave’, Killer Mike is on the run from the powers that be as El-P raps “I’d rather have and not need you than watch your rotten demise / And you still owe me for them Nikes, you do not get to just die”. Later, on the fierce ‘Walking In The Snow’, Mike spits “I said something on behalf of my people and I popped up on WikiLeaks” before taking the passive ‘activists’ of Twitter to task: “You sit there in house on couch watching on TV / The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy”.
“It hurts tremendously that people have ideas or ideologies but aren’t really active,” Mike told us back in May. “People who just senselessly and randomly voice opinions when other people are out there doing the real work. I hope as a country we start doing things that are less ‘I wanna yell and scream at you because you don’t agree with me’ and more ‘I’m getting out in the community and actually doing shit in whatever big or small way that is’”. Much like the lyrics of their song, it’s a prescient comment that time will only serve to prove or deny.
The group have become synonymous with politics in recent years, particularly Killer Mike who has been a vocal advocate for Bernie Sanders. He’s carried out several chummy interviews with the Senator and delivered rousing, powerful speeches at his campaign rallies. Experience seems to have given the pair additional leverage to deal with political topics in the cuttingly-considered fashion that’s become their trademark. “Just know when we ushered in chaos, we did it smiling”, Mike spits on lead single ‘Ooh La La’.
“I think being older gives you the wisdom that you don’t mistake yourself for a leader who can solve the world’s problems in a three-minute song or video,” Mike says. “As a kid I really felt like Tupac, Scarface and Chuck D could form a world council and totally transform all of what reality is, but that’s not the truth. The truth is that they’re a few of the many voices in the artistic community who voiced the discontent that I felt as a young person.
“While these people don’t have all the answers, they do provide the soundtrack to get you through,” he nods. “It’s the reassurance. It’s my aunt listening to Nina Simone, it’s my good friend DJ Swift listening to Donny Hathaway or my Mum listening to Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’. I’ve been in the community as an organiser, and been blessed to know people who have been leaders such as [noted civil rights activist] James Orange, and I know that it’s not an easy cross to bear.”
Penultimate track ‘Pulling The Pin’ both emphasises and questions this point, bringing to the table the album’s darkest, most affecting moment as Mavis Staples’ powerful vocal reduces to an emotional quiver: “At best I’ve just been getting it wrong, or worse I’ve been right from the start”. “That lyric was really about the gambit of our current reality, like what are the options here? They’re both kind of fucked up,” El-P shrugs.
"I wanna be the AC/DC of this rap shit; I wanna be doing this when I'm grey."
— Killer Mike
Mavis Staples is one of many far-reaching guests that pop up throughout ‘RTJ4’, with 2 Chainz, Pharrell Williams, Rage Against the Machine’s Zack De La Rocha and Josh Homme of Queens Of The Stone Age also making an appearance.
“I’m friends with Josh and I’ve been such a fan of his band for damn near two decades,” El-P grins. “He’d never worked with any rap music, so getting to know him was an amazing thing.” “It all comes together organically,” Mike continues. “I mean, Zack De La Rocha and Pharrell Williams on the same song? That’s some amazing shit!” “Look at all these slave masters posing on your dollar!” goes the refrain of ‘JU$T’, the track in question.
‘RTJ4’ doesn’t just sparkle with high-profile collaborations either - it’s also a jewel in the crown of El-P’s production chops. The jostling percussion that starts ‘Holy Calamafuck’ falls victim to a mammoth beat switch-up at the halfway mark, with a swarm of rib-rattling bass and shimmering chords; on ‘Goonies Vs E.T’, meanwhile, the accelerating drums guide the duo’s flows into overdrive - “The fuck y’all got, another planet on stash? / Far from the flames of our trash,” El-P asks as the track reaches boiling point.
Still, at the heart of Run The Jewels’ fourth, it’s the spirited exchanges of El-P and Killer Mike that remain the nucleus of the project: a friendship and collaboration that’s just reached a 10-year milestone. “I met my wife and my ‘wife’ 10 years ago,” El-P laughs. “The two people who were completely just gonna fucking change everything!”
After such a long time honing their creative chemistry, is there a key to the pair’s partnership? Killer Mike immediately cuts in. “Do you hear the shit we make together?!” he laughs. “I get to be in a group with my partner making incredible fucking music, you can’t beat it. I wanna be the AC/DC of this rap shit; I wanna be doing this when I’m grey, wearing black denim on stage rocking the fuck out.”
“What age do we have to wear the catholic schoolboy outfits?” El-P asks. “I’ll pull that out at 60,” Mike promises.
Their camaraderie is evident - the joy the pair take in their union audible both in conversation and on record - yet there’s always been the sense that Run The Jewels represent something bigger. On ‘Walking In The Snow’, Killer Mike raps “And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me / And ‘til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, ‘I can’t breathe’” - originally written in 2019 as an echo of Eric Garner’s last words. The very fact that this line feels eerily foreboding is telling of the cyclical nature of racism and police brutality that will continue if it remains unchallenged. Works like ‘RTJ4’ are bringing these urgent conversations to the surface.
As Mike says in our chat - “It’s too important to people not to put it out right now”.
'RTJ4' is out now via Jewel Runners.
As featured in the June 2020 issue of DIY, out now.