Despite all the positive developments in the Run The Jewels camp, this has been a tumultuous two months in America. August 9, the day after our interview in San Francisco, a jarring affirmation of El-P’s statement that we’re living in “strange times” played out in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. It began when a white police officer named Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown in broad daylight. After being shot, Brown turned around and threw his hands up to surrender, but Wilson continued to empty bullets into him until his dead body was sprawled on the sidewalk, where it remained for hours. Brown’s death was the latest in a disconcerting string of white-on-black killings, and for many Americans, it was the last straw. The incident set off a national crisis, with media converging on the suburbs of St. Louis to document rioting, looting, and a tense weeks-long showdown between Ferguson’s militarized police force and grave-faced protestors with their hands in the air.
A number of rappers showed up to join the protests, Talib Kweli and J. Cole among them. Others released songs about the incident, most notably “Don’t Shoot,” an all-star posse cut featuring the Game, Diddy, Rick Ross, 2 Chainz and many more. But the loudest, clearest, most insightful voice out of the hip-hop world belonged to Killer Mike. First he shared a heartfelt Instagram post sympathizing with Brown’s parents and emphasizing our shared humanity. Then he penned a thoughtful op-ed for Billboard, highlighted by this sobering statement: “Whatever this country is willing to do to the least of us, it will one day do to us all.” Then CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin invited him on the air to offer his reasoned yet passionate take on the Ferguson crisis. With a poised, professional tone and a volume level several notches below his intimidating microphone presence, he told her that his father was a police officer, that most policemen are the salt of the earth, that he respects the difficult job police are faced with. Then he levied some powerful criticisms: “The culture of policing is changing. It’s becoming more militarized,” he said. “We have essentially gone from being communities that are policed by people from the communities to communities that are being policed by strangers. And that’s no longer a community. That’s an area that’s under siege.”
Run The Jewels 2 was already finished by the time the drama in Ferguson unfolded, but because El-P and Killer Mike have always rapped about social ills, there are lyrics on the album that resonate eerily with the national discourse after Ferguson. “It was really tough to not drop a few of those records,” El-P says on the boat, “because we felt like we were touching on some of the things that people were zeroing in on.” One song in particular, “Early,” finds Mike describing in detail the experience of being accosted, frisked, and arrested in front of his wife and children. There’s a line that echoes his CNN appearance: “And I apologize if it seem like I get out of line, sir, because I respect the badge and the gun.” It’s a surprising sentiment that cuts against gangster rap stereotypes even as it stems from the same urban strife that yielded those stereotypes. This is not anarchic “Fuck The Police” nihilism, it’s a level-headed rejection of law enforcement that seems designed to oppress, not protect. And if it reads as an explicit commentary on Ferguson, that’s only because what happened in Ferguson represents everyday life for Killer Mike and black people in general.
“This is news stories and media, and it’s a new thing for people,” Mike says, looking me straight in the eye. “But I’ve been black for thirty-some years in America, and this was true when Richard Pryor joked about it. It was true when it was a joke on Good Times. It was true when it wasn’t something that was talked about on the goddamn Cosby show, and it’s true now. It’s just time for it to stop being true.”
As the drama in Missouri played out, there was widespread outrage and confusion. A divided America collectively wondered, “How can this still be our country?” El-P and Killer Mike can’t change what happened in Ferguson, but they’re trying to be a force for positive change in the aftermath. One big way they’re doing so is by donating the proceeds from Meow The Jewels to the families of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, a middle-aged black New Yorker who died from a heart attack after police put him in a chokehold last July. “It would be a nice thing to be able to give that money to people who are hurting,” El says. “It’s unexpected, but there’s something really great about being able to combine some levity with a little bit of help. It’s just a cool way to do something good — fighting injustice with stupidity.”
Donating money is practical and extremely valuable, but even without a zany charity Kickstarter, Run The Jewels 2 gives voice to simmering national discontent simply by existing. Mike’s position is that even if you can’t do something you can say something, and RTJ2 is nothing if not a statement. Hearing him rap about murderous prison revolt on “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)” certainly complicates his position on law enforcement, but it’s electrifying — terrifying too, but no more so than police gunning down unarmed citizens. On “Blockbuster Night Part 1,” El-P’s insistence that we not just “mellow out” and table discussions about corruption is both convicting and inspiring. The album is a marvel of craftsmanship, and if you’re feeling rowdy, it’s a fire-breathing, bloodthirsty party-starter. It’s mind-blowing several times over, whether you’re cowering at its strength, gasping at its agility, or dumbstruck by its creative flair. Even if these guys had delivered another round of colorful shit-talk rather than directly commenting on the state of the world, the record’s violent physical thrust would approximate the fury of an exasperated nation. But its words spell out that fury too, and that makes RTJ2 more than just an artistic triumph. It’s a historically significant document of its time and place.
That it’s the product of a black man and a white man working together makes it all the more potent. Imagine Public Enemy’s politically charged late-’80s frenzy with the black nationalist elements swapped out in favor of an inclusive interracial onslaught. A close-knit black/white partnership fighting the power together seems especially resonant at this juncture of American history, and never more than on “Early.” Whereas Mike raps from firsthand experience, El’s verse is from an observer’s viewpoint, espousing what he calls “that world-beaten awareness that comes from just being a person who pays attention.” Together, they can offer a well-rounded perspective on the world’s messy realities. Their interracial bond shouldn’t be that remarkable in this day and age, and having friends of many races is nothing new for either rapper. But in light of the turmoil that still prevails in America, the connection between Michael Render and Jaime Meline feels incredibly special. That’s not lost on them. “Because we are put together and we are just naturally friends,” Mike says, “I think it shows people that there’s an alternative to what you’re taught.”
The sheer kinetic power of their brotherhood goes on display again when, halfway through the three-hour boat ride, Trackstar steps to the turntables and starts blasting “We Are The Champions.” The costumed geeks gather around, and as in San Francisco, Mike and El emerge to comically bask in adulation. But whereas that festival gig was in the great wide open, this one is at a private party at the bottom of a staircase inside a yacht, so all the crackling energy that’s been bottling up during the introduction has nowhere to disperse. Thus, when the beat drops, the room explodes.
To witness Run The Jewels up close and personal is to be possessed by a relentless joyous aggression that only happens when hip-hop is hitting on all cylinders. On this night, the bars are raining down like body blows, and every person on board is voluntarily gyrating in a way most rappers have to awkwardly demand. Mike and El are in sync. The bass is rumbling the boat at least as violently as the waves. The tiniest smattering of material from RTJ2 has finally crept into the setlist, and it’s meshing beautifully with the older stuff, though I’m not sure “beautiful” is an appropriate word for such monstrous, cantankerous music. DeMarco watches from the side of the stage, rapt with wide-eyed wonder like the rest of us. Eventually El-P welcomes him on stage and shouts him out. “There wouldn’t be a Run The Jewels without this guy,” El says, knowing how much he owes to DeMarco’s bright idea.
In a sense, this is the Adult Swim executive’s night: It’s his party, and the friends he paired up three years ago are putting on a stunning show. But when Killer Mike and El-P swing back into action, it sure feels like this evening, this year, and this life belong to them. During “Get It,” El playfully holds Mike back from cutting loose with a wildly funky physical outburst until the exact right moment, and when he finally gives the go-ahead, maximum jubilation is achieved. Soon after, during the set-closing “A Christmas Fucking Miracle,” someone tosses a $5 bill from the upper deck, and the duo jokes that for another $5, they’ll play an encore. Dozens of bills start raining down, so without hesitation Trackstar drops “Blockbuster Night Part 1.” The rappers barrel into the beat, human exclamation points showing no signs of fatigue beyond the sweat drenching their T-shirts. Stomping and strutting, they trade off verses with power and panache, their expressions as enlivened as the hundreds staring back at them. As ever, Killer Mike and El-P are crushing.
Run The Jewels 2 is out now. Download it here.