Tim Saccenti/Courtesy of the artist
Run The Jewels
Tim Saccenti/Courtesy of the artist
Run The Jewels
Tim Saccenti/Courtesy of the artist
- "walking in the snow"
- "a few words for the firing squad (radiation)"
- "yankee and the brave (Ep. 4)"
- "pulling the pin"
- "Butane (Champion's Anthem) [feat. El-P]" (Killer Mike)
- "Ooh La La"
Run The Jewels' new album RTJ4 seemed to come out at exactly the right time. It was released at the beginning of June, and the songs — which are aggressive, catchy, and openly critical of systems of oppression, have become a soundtrack for many protesters at this time of civil unrest. But these themes aren't new for Run The Jewels. The rap duo of Michael Render, who goes by Killer Mike, and Jaime Meline, known as El-P, have spent years exploring issues of police brutality and racial tension. They're topics that they've been able to examine in a unique way given that Killer Mike is a Black man from Atlanta, and El-P is white and grew up in New York. And it's not all heavy and hard: Their genuine friendship allows playfulness, honestly, empathy and a very good sense of humor, as you'll hear in our interview. We'll talk about the way RTJ4 has resonated in this moment, the dynamic between Mike and El-P that allows them to create such compelling stories and the televised speech that Killer Mike gave to the people of Atlanta last month. Listen in the audio player above and read on for excerpts of their conversation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Raina Douris: We're recording this on June 30 and it's been almost a month since you put out your new record. It's also been just over a month since George Floyd was killed by police. It ignited protests around the country and around the world; they're still going on. I think we're going to be looking back on 2020 for a long time. It's a pretty defined moment in history, and you guys are part of the soundtrack to that. What does it feel like for you guys to be part of this moment, to have your music out, people playing it in the streets?
El-P: Surreal. You want your music to connect — you hope that it connects — but the truth is that me and Mike made this record in 2019. This wasn't written last week or last month. I think that it probably would've connected on some level either way. I think it's a good album, but there is something in the air that everyone was sort of tuned into a frequency and we happened to actually be on that frequency. So it connected with people on a really visceral and emotional level. For me, it's a little bit of a bittersweet reality. I'm very honored that the people are connecting to our music in this way, and I'm saddened that the music that we make is as relevant as it is. I wish that me and Mike could just make just songs about dancing. I can't wait till we get to the point in our career where Run The Jewels can just live these fantasy lives on record and we try to engage our humor and we try and engage all the things that make up who we are, but those parts of us that make it to the record that are concerned with humanity are really connecting right now. Again, I feel honored that that matters to people.
Killer Mike: And you could dance to humanity records. Let me tell you something: You ain't seen nothing till you seen somebody Memphis gangsta-walking to "walking in the snow." Or you seen a bop to "JU$T." I saw a bop to "JU$T" last night. To me, "beyond surreal" is appropriate because, for a long time you make this kind of music and you're like, I see the world for what it really is and I'm happy that we get to be in this moment what Ice Cube was for me, what Chuck D served to be for me, what Brand Nubian was for me, what Tribe [Called Quest] was for me, and that is a voice [among] being able to dance and just have that visceral joy of being a human being and vibrations moving you. They're also voices that acknowledge the craziness you see around you and let you know that you ain't [alone] and I appreciate being in that moment with the people out on the streets and being the soundtrack to their moment. I am very humbled and appreciative for this moment and people allowing us that.
The next song we're going to hear is "walking in the snow." In one of the lines, you say: "And every day on the evening news, they feed you fear for free / And you so numb, you watch the cops choke out a man like me / Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, 'I can't breathe.' " Killer Mike, that's your line and when you dropped this album at the beginning of June, that is one of the songs that people said sounds like you'd written it just in the couple of weeks beforehand, but of course that's not the case. The phrase "I can't breathe" wasn't unique to George Floyd. On June 29, the New York Times published an article citing 70 cases of people who have died in law enforcement custody who've been documented saying "I can't breathe."
Killer Mike: It wasn't new to Mr. Floyd, it wasn't new to Garner; rest in peace to Eric Garner and his daughter, Erica, who was a starch advocate against police brutality on the behalf of her father and grew to be a friend and ally of ours, so God bless her soul and all the people who still organize. But "I can't breathe" is what human beings say when they can't breathe, and the tactics that law enforcement are being allowed to use, whether its choke holds that aren't even allowed to be used in some MMA fights, whether it is "knee on neck," which is something that is used by some of the most brutal policing regimes across the globe — if you were in horror of how protesters were being treated in Hong Kong, the same methods were being used as what killed Mr. Floyd right in front of us. That line is haunting, not only because of those two incidents, but because there are thousands of incidents around the country that this has happened. Beyond that, we have to start to say, "What is policing looking like going forward into this country?" when you have former Department of Justice leader Jeff Sessions, who comes out of the deep and rural South and Alabama, gets an opportunity to say in front of white law enforcement that he believes law enforcement is a part of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant history, then he has to acknowledge also that law enforcement to the slant that it's practiced now, started out slave-catching. So essentially he's saying that the act of going into communities where people look like me and brutalizing them is a part of the proud history of this country, and unless that mentality starts to change and unless we turn off the hunter and prey mentality that's in cities now with police — the brutality I see [as] New York City police handle one neighborhood where people look like me versus a park where people look like the two people on this line, should show you the stark contrast of what classism and racism do to policing in this country. So for me, that line was not prophetic; it was an affirmation that this has always been, but to me the nail in the coffin of that verse is the "Never forget in the story of Jesus, the hero was killed by the state." You have to remember that, that policeman are the arm and hammer of the state. What I thought was beautiful about the protests in Minneapolis was they took it directly to the police precincts and they burned three down. There's no better way, whether it's the French Revolution or the American Revolution or the Haitian Revolution, for the people to let the governing body know that we resist where the state is going than letting the state know we're willing to burn it to the ground and start new. I just want people to know that I appreciate them for liking that verse and that line, but ultimately the message I want you to get out of that verse is in the end. Your heroes are being murdered by the state and the state, unchecked, is your ultimate enemy.
That's the second time we hear Jesus come up in that song. The first time, El-P, it's in your verse, and it almost does sound like you guys have a conversation with each other in a lot of your songs. So how does a conversation like that happen? Can you walk us through how you write a song together? Where does it start?
El-P: It sort of depends on who gets inspired first, then we just sort of try and tune in and honor where our partner's heads are at and see if we can contribute. For me, [on] that song I got a chance to say a couple of things that I really needed to say and I really needed to get off my chest, one of which was to point out that the unchecked and ridiculous hypocrisy of the Christian and religious establishment in America that have decided that they've found a loophole in the tenets of Christianity in which they could support an administration that was putting [people] in cages, and pointing out that people who allow this to happen because it aligns with their political perspective are complicit in the erection of a machine that does not stop chugging along the second that the group of people that you do not care about or belong to are eliminated. I wanted to point that logic out as well like, look, OK, let's say that you don't have empathy for anyone else but people who look like you. Let's just go there. If I can't appeal to your empathy, allow me to appeal to your cold, hard logic and look at it and say "Hey, if I'm allowing the state to create concentration camps in which people are disappearing in, what happens when those people are gone? Is it a celebration and then we just dynamite the concentration camp?" No, that concentration camp continues to exist and it continues to have a payroll and therefore it continues to be filled. And your group, if it's the next one in line because you're the next poorest, you're going in there next. It's something I think me and Mike both seized on and touched on in our verses. The Christianity thing, the way that Mike brought it back, was an example of us being partners and Mike tuning into something I was saying and him helping me complete the thought. My thought was: If you're a Christian and you're indifferent to this phenomenon, then I'm not sure that you're a Christian. I'm not sure that you're actually that, and I think that you should just lay your cards on the table and just be honest about that. I just thought it was just low-hanging fruit, like it's just gotta be said. And Mike, of course, is a student of history and politics and he has a really amazing way of relating it. I often tend to go in a philosophical route and he often relates it back to something really tangible and something that I really appreciate about him being my partner is I know Mike will bring it home in a different way. So we kind of triangulate and get at a point. And Mike says "hey, the state killed Jesus." So if you're pro-state, then that also is something that is actually at odds with the tenets of your religion as you proclaim them to me.
Killer Mike: Jesus was not a nationalist.
You've both, together, been writing about police misconduct and brutality and racism for years now. Killer Mike, you've spoken lots publicly about it; at the beginning of June, you were asked to speak in your home city of Atlanta, right when the protests were really ramping up. You talked about watching the George Floyd video, about wanting to see the officers sentenced, about not wanting to watch buildings burn but to see systemic racism burnt to the ground. It's been a few weeks, since you gave that speech.
Killer Mike: Well, I was talking specifically to Atlanta, too. I just need to make that [clear] because I didn't care that the three police precincts burned in Minneapolis, and actually I would have brought out a fan to help the oxygen hit the fire more, so. I just need people to understand the context of what I was talking about was Atlanta, and the reason I didn't want to see buildings burn in Atlanta is 'cause many of those buildings and businesses are owned by the people that look like the man that was murdered and that employed people that looked like the man that was murdered. .... What we essentially would have been doing was destroying the opportunity for philanthropic things to happen to help our own. So Atlanta, I view, as a sociopolitical and economic fortress in Black society in this nation and on a Pan-African scale worldwide. So my speech was to and for Atlanta, and I say that because I don't want the broader spectrum of organizers to feel as though I'm speaking against whatever way they chose to organize around the death.