Killer Mike and El-P are crushing, as Killer Mike and El-P are wont to do.
On a brisk, sunny Friday afternoon in San Francisco, the hip-hop duo known as Run The Jewels is on a giant stage in front of several thousand festival-goers at Golden Gate Park. Having entered to the triumphant strains of “We Are The Champions,” the veteran rappers are now setting about proving it. While trading rock-solid rhymes over concrete-shattering beats, they brush each other’s shoulders off. They deliver their bars with precision over DJ Trackstar’s drops and scratches — live vocals, none of the rapping along to a track that renders so many hip-hop shows messy facsimiles of fun.
This one feels like a fireworks display, and not just because El’s beats hearken back to the Bomb Squad. Mike, a gargantuan, rotund, 39-year-old black man from Atlanta, bobs his head authoritatively and at one point loses himself in a kicking dance that appears to be a Dirty South alternative to skanking. “I been smoking like a motherfucker,” he proclaims, which is true. El-P, a short, stout, 39-year-old redhead from Brooklyn, opts for enthusiastic leaping, intense outpourings at the mic stand, and a general look of confident elation. Eventually they welcome Bay Area turntablism legend QBert on stage to scratch. It’s an impressive display of skill, yet Mike and El’s own verbal acrobatics are every bit as awe-inspiring. Both on the brink of 40, they’re giddy unencumbered kids when you put them side by side with microphones in their hands. They appear to be having the time of their lives — but then, they usually look that way these days.
These guys would be the first to tell you that this world is a fucked up place. They were rapping about corruption and injustice long before they met each other, and they’re still rapping about it now. They’ve seen it. They’ve lived through it. Yet for Run The Jewels, life has been good lately. They are making the best music of their careers for a larger audience than ever. They are putting on concerts dynamic enough to exhilarate rugged rap traditionalists and the genre’s lunatic fringe alike, shows so good they even make believers out of curmudgeonly hip-hop skeptics. None other than Nas elected to release their feverishly anticipated second album, Run The Jewels 2, through his Mass Appeal imprint. And beyond the creative triumphs and booming business, they’re enjoying a late-blooming friendship that feels more like a blood relation. Here at the Outside Lands Festival, their bond is palpable long before they exit the stage together, Mike’s arm wrapped around El-P’s shoulder.
Offstage it’s all smiles too, mostly in the context of the most magnificent marijuana-fueled bullshit session you can imagine, which begins around a wooden coffee table in an outdoor VIP space flanked by food vendors and continues hours later in the dark, smoky confines of RTJ’s trailer. While sipping Grey Goose from a Solo cup, Mike mocks the festival-issued flasks for looking like birth control containers and comments that hotels in San Francisco “cost you a small elf-child.” Regarding the album title Run The Jewels 2, El remarks, “We stretched our imagination. We took mushrooms and meditated.” Mike says he’d like to bring El to Atlanta for three months and get everyone from Jeezy to Waka to Young Thug to jump on one of his beats. El replies that after such an experience he’d probably end up installing a stripper pole in his bedroom. There is also this exchange after I mention OutKast’s inaugural reunion show at Coachella, when the performance was cut short due to curfew just as Mike was taking the stage for a guest spot:
So, Mike, I was there at Coachella when you got cut off.
Mike: “Yeah, that was hurtful. That was fucked up, bro. For you to even bring that up is kinda like…”
El: “How dare you, man.”
Mike: “Maybe he doesn’t need to follow me the rest of the day.”
El: “Have you no heart, sir, at long last?”
Mike: “Can you imagine how that felt, bro?”
El: “Have you no decency?”
It must’ve felt really bad.
Mike: “So why did we bring that up? For real, what’s your real reason for hurting me right now, man?”
El: “Yeah, and you remember when you were a kid? And that kid stole your fuckin’ Big Wheel?”
El: “He stole your Big Wheel and he said, ‘Fuck you!’ And you knew you couldn’t do anything about it!”
The playful ribbing goes on for a while. Because they have just learned I am from Ohio, they ask me how it felt when LeBron James left for Miami. They inspire me to laugh nervously, then they mock me for laughing at Mike’s pain. And then, once they’re finished riffing, Mike gives a straight answer to my non-question about Coachella: “That moment — that moment fucked me up. ‘Cause I wasn’t sure I was coming back the next week at that time.” His reflections on flying across the country only to miss out on career pinnacle ring true. Moments later El-P is telling a dead-serious story about coming downstairs on Christmas morning as a kid and just knowing he was getting a computer, only to unwrap a shoeshine box and receive orders from his parents to hit the street and get to work. Run The Jewels being Run The Jewels, the punchlines have landed like punches and shit has gotten real.
Mike (real name: Michael Render) and El (real name: Jaime Meline) built respectable careers for themselves long before their paths crossed three years ago.
After coming of age selling crack in Atlanta’s Adamsville neighborhood — a time period he wrestles with dramatically on RTJ2 deep cut “Crown” — Mike did a short stint as a philosophy major at Morehouse College, where he met Big Boi and ended up rapping on some of OutKast’s biggest projects. Stankonia, “The Whole World,” Speakerboxxx/The Love Below: All of them won Grammys, and all of them featured Killer Mike. He released his debut album Monster in 2003 and spent the next eight years accumulating a strong, under-recognized discography on labels including Columbia, his own SMC-affiliated indie Grind Time, and T.I.’s Grand Hustle (then part of Atlantic). In a city increasingly ruled by freaky, spaced-out visionaries, he was fierce and authoritative — a hard-knock Southern stomper spouting political outrage with the fury of young Ice Cube and the swagger of UGK. Mike was an underground favorite in certain circles, and he was connected to just about everyone in Atlanta hip-hop, yet he largely went overlooked in the conversation about ATL’s greatest rappers. For a long time, it seemed like he would carry on as a perpetual underdog, always punching up.
El-P knows a few things about punching up. Long before Killer Mike’s rap career got off the ground, Jaime Meline was making a name for himself in New York, establishing an underground legacy that veered from jazzy boom-bap to skewed, volatile hip-hop futurism. After moving to Brooklyn as a kid, at age 18 he dubbed himself El Producto and teamed with Mr. Len to form Company Flow; they later added Bigg Jus to complete the trio. The group signed with Rawkus, the most popular and influential underground hip-hop label of the late ’90s, and released the acclaimed Funcrusher Plus. By ’99, El started his own label, Definitive Jux, which took over for Rawkus as the leading underground darling of the early 2000s largely on the strength of his bruising experimental production style and a keen ear for outside-the-box talent. During the same era he was part of the Weathermen, a rap collective featuring many of his Def Jux associates (Aesop Rock, Vast Aire, Cage, etc.) plus eccentric visionary Camu Tao and other members of Columbus, Ohio’s MHz crew. On top of all that, El-P is perhaps best known for his solo albums, which tend to be tense, paranoid, hard-hitting cultural treatises — not unlike what’d you hear on a Killer Mike record. Although El-P’s solo releases only come around every five years, they’ve always been event records among those in the know. Even in 2007, with Def Jux’s cultural clout on the wane, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead was received with hosannas, if only by the small cadre of listeners who knew who the hell El-P was. As he raps on “Jeopardy,” the first track on Run The Jewels 2, “I’ve never been much of shit, by most measurements don’t exist/ A radar little blip in the shadow of motherships.”
Despite a vast number of similar ideas, influences, and aesthetic preferences, for years there was virtually no overlap between Killer Mike’s world and El-P’s world. Mike was a gangster rapper from a background not unlike the TV show The Wire; El was a backpack rapper who was covered by the British experimental music magazine The Wire. But as mainstream rap declined from dominance, separate spheres began to merge and morph. Kanye West and his many disciples dissolved the perceived distinctions between conscious and commercial rap. The internet flattened the playing field. What would have seemed unthinkable around the time Killer Mike and El-P released their debut albums had become realistic and even reasonable by 2011, when Mike sat down with Adult Swim’s Jason DeMarco to discuss making an album together.
As Adult Swim’s creative director for on-air — essentially he’s in charge of everything but the shows themselves — DeMarco cultivated a hip musical tradition within Cartoon Network’s grown-up programming block, complementing the schizoid surrealist visuals with sonic equivalents like Flying Lotus. That tradition extended beyond TV with the advent of Williams Street Records, the Adult Swim-affiliated record label DeMarco co-founded in 2006. Williams Street teamed with Def Jux in 2007 for the Definitive Swim compilation, and that same year Adult Swim’s team made the animated video for El-P’s Trent Reznor collaboration “Flyentology.” DeMarco continued to work closely with El over the years, so when Killer Mike said he wanted to collaborate with Williams Street on an album he couldn’t do anywhere else, DeMarco had an epiphany.
“I immediately thought, ‘You should do something like the music that inspired you when you were a kid because you’re one of the only rappers who can do political rap in a real way. It’s part of who you are. And nobody’s doing that right now,'” DeMarco later tells me. “And he said yeah, ’cause one of his favorite records is AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. And my favorite hip-hop record is Death Certificate, period. I said, ‘Look, if we want to do that, I know the perfect guy.’ …And then when they met, it just became the love story.”
The original plan was for El-P to do one beat for Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music, but by the end of their first studio session together, they had three songs. Mike quickly decided he didn’t want to work with any other producers on the album. El was planning to scale back his projects with other artists and focus on his own album, Cancer 4 Cure, but Mike was adamant that they keep working together on R.A.P. Music. Given how fast they hit it off, it didn’t take a ton of prying to convince El to devote himself to Mike’s project too. “When Mike came along, it kinda blew me away, just in terms of how quickly we liked each other, how quickly we were working together on music that we both liked,” he says backstage in San Francisco.
A lot of other people liked it too. R.A.P. Music was Killer Mike’s best-reviewed album ever — and probably his most-reviewed album ever — and a new wave of fans started flocking to his tours. Between the acclaim for Mike’s record and his own LP, El-P was riding high too. Both artists’ careers felt reinvigorated, in part because of the influx of new energy and ideas that came from cross-pollinating their musical universes. (“Big Beast,” R.A.P. Music‘s lead track, was revelatory not just for its visceral impact but for the world-colliding novelty of mainstream superstar T.I. rapping on a dystopian El-P beat.) “It’s not hurting, you know?” El-P says of their ongoing partnership. “It’s like, people now know Killer Mike and people now know El-P in another way.”
There was heavy demand for more collaboration between Mike and El, and they were happy to oblige, cranking out an entire album together in under a year and giving it away for free. Run The Jewels was the gleeful battle-rap free-for-all the duo’s burgeoning fan base hoped it would be — a compendium of cataclysmic shit-talk set to some of the most contagious cacophony El-P has ever produced. As Stereogum’s review declared, “There’s no fat, no indulgence, barely any outside contribution, precious little in the way of contemplation or introversion. Mike and El aren’t worried about their legacies or the current state of rap or the encroaching surveillance state or their own tortured pasts — all subjects these guys have made great music about before. They just want to make your neck jerk, one way or another.”
It was arguably the best record of both artists’ careers and almost certainly the most popular. But the decision to pursue the partnership wasn’t entirely based on good business or even good music. When I ask Mike what drew him to El-P, he launches into a passionate tribute. “I like his beats, period. He’s just a dope-ass fucking rapper, to second it. And then tertiary, man, he’s just one of the best fucking human beings I’ve ever met in my life in terms of his kindness and generosity to people around him,” Mike says between drags from his joint. “And his exterior is kinda gruff. Like, you’re not gonna guess that about El if you just happened upon him in an elevator for 15 seconds, but he’s just one of the best human beings I’ve ever met. And in terms of people who have a type of focus and talent he does, usually they’re just fucking assholes. And they’re full of themselves, because they know they’re good. He knows he’s that good, and he also recognizes greatness and goodness in other people and he helps them.”
Mike goes on and on and on about his appreciation for El’s efforts to empower those around him, even going so far as to say he wants his son to grow up to be like El-P. El stares at the ground in stunned silence for a moment, but he gathers his thoughts in time to reciprocate: “It’s been the most productive time of my life, and the reason is because it’s been fulfilling on a personal level as well as on a musical level,” El says. “You don’t meet your brother 35 years into your life, usually. I didn’t have a brother when I grew up. And I feel like I got one now. And that’s a fact.”
Neither Killer Mike nor El-P is a hermit. Both boast an enormous number of connections and are active, vocal presences in their respective communities. Yet for two strangers to forge such a deep connection in their late thirties is remarkable, and it’s had a remarkable impact. “I wasn’t in the market for a new brother, you know?” El continues. “But it happened, and I feel like I just let it happen. And since then, there’s been a lot of old bullshit and darkness and shit that I carried around with me for a long time in my life lifted. ‘Cause I think that when you’re doing something that you’re really happy doing, and when you’re really doing it for the right reasons, it just kinda washes over all the other bullshit that you may be carrying around that doesn’t really mean as much anymore, you know? So Mike helped me get to the next stage of who I’m gonna be as a man, and as a grownup.”
That’s a lot of mushy talk from such a hardscrabble duo, particularly one that took its name from an LL Cool J lyric about robbing wealthy people at gunpoint. Lest you think they’ve gone soft from all their success, Mike describes RTJ2 as “darker, harder, funnier, and meaner.” It also touches on social issues in a way that didn’t creep into Run The Jewels’ last album. “I mean, these are strange times, right?” El says. “For the most part, what’s on our mind [in Run The Jewels] is coming up with the funniest way to say, ‘Fuck you.’ But in our solo work we go a little bit further than that, and I think that when we realized that we were doing another record, it was like, ‘Alright, well I better get what I need out of that. I better get that too from this record.’ So we flexed those muscles. And that’s a big part of what we each always do on our records is just sort of explore a lot of different shit that is real to us.”
The return to addressing societal ills did not mean stepping off the gas where braggadocio is concerned. This is the album of “Bunches and bunches, punches is thrown until you’re frontless,” of “I’m the foulest, no need for any evaluation/ I’m a phallus, a Johnson, a Jimmy sprayin’ faces.” For all the attention and accolades that rained down on Run The Jewels, it’s not like Mike and El are superstars. They joke that they’re about $5 million away from their goal of making $5 million in a year off Run The Jewels. But they’ve tapped into something explosive, and they can smell blood. “We’re still on the hunt,” Mike says, eyes widening. “We still got our eyes open for the fucking champs. I’m not happy. Like I said on here, man, there was a line where I essentially said this is the best tag-team ever… I don’t give a fuck if you agree with me or not, I want you to feel like, ‘I gotta compete with that.’ ‘Cause we’re competing with you. Straight up, nothing else. The end of all of that. How the fuck we gonna get soft? We got heads to take.”
They’re also up against each other; what’s the flip side of brotherly love if not sibling rivalry? RTJ2 begins with a ferocious locker-room pep-talk Mike spouted in the studio to get his verbal sparring partner revved up. He says it was inspired by watching a lot of Rocky movies this year. “Apollo and Rocky’s relationship was an interesting relationship,” he says. “They were dear friends. And they were friends based on the fact that like, ‘Hey man, I’m better, I’m better, I’m better.’ You need that dynamic, I think, to make you the best.”
So you guys try to one-up each other?
Mike: “Abso-fucking-lutely. He’s one of the best rappers I heard in my life. I ain’t gonna come behind him with no track chillin’.”
El: “But it’s more like just competing…”
Mike: “…in a good way!”
El: “We’ve already decided the outcome, and it’s that we won.”
The next time I see Killer Mike and El-P, we’re inside a yacht on the Hudson River. It’s a chilly October Saturday night, and Run The Jewels are the surprise musical guest at Adult Swim’s Comic-Con afterparty, a three-hour boat cruise around New York City. As I sit down with them in a curtained-off makeshift backstage area, El is ostentatiously thanking Mike for getting him high. Mike is closely examining the physical copies of RTJ2, which they’re both seeing tonight for the first time. As he pulls the lyric sheet out of the digipak, he seems pleased. Outside the curtain, a DJ is spinning reggae for the audience, many of whom are in costume due to the convention. There’s a Venom, a light-up TRON soldier, and a female Shredder among the hordes. Later, on the outside deck, one of the many bespectacled young men in attendance tells me he’s bummed he missed today’s cosplay session.
In the two months between my encounter with Run The Jewels in San Francisco and our sitdown here on the boat, a lot has happened. As it pertains to Run The Jewels, all of it was good. On August 21, they released “Blockbuster Night Part 1,” a rapturously received single that approximated a lumbering monster snarling and stomping as it waved its middle fingers. (Yes, there is a part 2.) That was accompanied by a tweet from Nas himself announcing that Mass Appeal would be releasing Run The Jewels 2. “Amit [Nerurkar], who’s one of the people that works at Mass Appeal, who’s actually one of the main guys at the label now, worked for Def Jux for years,” El-P explains. “They stepped to us. They had already gotten the seal of approval from Nas. They brought the first one to Nas, and he gave it the thumbs up.”
Nasty Nas is not the only musician whose involvement with Run The Jewels 2 was revealed that day. The tracklist also went public, and with it a surprising list of collaborations. Like the Nas connection, all of them arose naturally through pre-existing friendships. They knew they wanted to recruit Mike’s friend Gangsta Boo to balance out the raunchy aggro sex jam “Love Again (Akinyele Back).” El-P is dating the bassist for Brooklyn psych-pop act Diane Coffee, so when he needed psychedelic elements for “Crown,” he called up that band’s frontman Shaun Fleming. Boots, the producer whose work on Beyoncé’s surprise album made him an instant star last winter, had been talking about working with El for a long time before he contributed ominous magnificent sonic swirl to “Early.” “Boots and I had been friends for a couple years,” El recalls. “Before he did the Beyoncé thing, him and me were talking about doing some music together. I went on tour, and when I came back he was Beyoncé’s producer. So it was pretty incredible. But yeah, we had never really stayed out of touch.”
“Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck),” the Zack De La Rocha collaboration that sets the internet on fire two days after this boat cruise, was more serendipitous but no less organic. More than a decade ago, right after Rage Against The Machine broke up, El produced some tracks for a De La Rocha solo album that never came out. They stayed in touch and ended up bumping into each other on the streets of Los Angeles while Run The Jewels were stopping for juice on their way to a recording session at the Alchemist’s studio. Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, an old friend of Mike’s, was scheduled to be there that day to lay down a percussive blitzkrieg on “All Due Respect,” and they invited De La Rocha to stop by the studio too. Mike recalls a brief flash of concern: “When a rapper comes, you gotta make sure, ‘He ain’t got no beef with what’s-his-name, do he?’ But we had never thought of it then, and all of the sudden El and I were like, ‘Oh, shit! We don’t know if they know and like each other!’ But they were totally cool.”
At least one other old friend had a hand in the making of RTJ2: DeMarco, the Adult Swim music guru who brought Run The Jewels together in the first place. This being an Adult Swim party, he’s here on the boat tonight mixing it up with his buddies. “They both came to my wedding. We’re all three really great friends, and it’s been amazing to see how tight they’ve gotten. It’s just beyond anything I’d imagined,” DeMarco says, beaming. “I’m just jealous because they see each other more than I see either one of them. I live in Atlanta and I don’t see Mike as much as El sees him.” Adult Swim helped fund the making of RTJ2, and in turn Run The Jewels kicked them “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” for this year’s Adult Swim Singles Program.
That song dropped on September 15, the same day Run The Jewels revealed a number of ridiculous deluxe purchase options, including a $25,000 fee for Killer Mike and El-P to attend a show-and-tell session at your child’s school “where we will answer any questions the children have about marijuana, rap music and global politics” and a $10 million offer to “retire from music, making only one song a year for you personally.” One industrious fan immediately launched a Kickstarter to fund the $40,000 “Meow The Jewels” package, for which Run The Jewels promise to remix Run The Jewels 2 entirely with cat noises. By the time we convene on the boat a month later, the project is more than 2/3 of the way to its $45,000 funding goal and an all-star lineup of producers from Just Blaze to Zola Jesus has been recruited to help bring the meow-sic to life. The fact that such blistering hardcore rappers proposed such a gleefully silly endeavor says a lot about their headspace — and the fact that the campaign eventually exceeded its fundraising goal by far shows that a lot of people want to be in that headspace. For all its absurdity, Meow The Jewels is yet another example of Killer Mike and El-P’s burgeoning grassroots appeal. What they’re choosing to do with the money speaks volumes, too: They’re donating it to the families of two black men killed by white police officers last summer.
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.