Even before Run the Jewels released the first single off their sophomore album, "Blockbuster Night Part 1," fans knew they were due for another dose of El-P's staggering supernova beats. They knew that El-P (Jaime Meline) and Killer Mike's (Michael Render) fire and brimstone lyrics would send all of its targets sputtering at the knees. What they didn't expect to find in the midst of all the carnage were tears, remorse and love. Tears for the victims of the malignant orders of which the duo seeks to disrobe and undo. Remorse for the choices that were forced and came at the expense of the compassionate castaways. Love for those who need it the most.
Bearing an insignia nearly identical to its predecessor, the once unassailable zombified hands have been been wrapped in bandages on the cover of "RTJ2," blood spilling from the dressing's weakest crevices. When attacking establishments, wounds are often an inadvertent result. But by making themselves vulnerable, they have allowed themselves to bleed. And there's nothing more powerful than that.
"Run the Jewels 2" is the album that El-P and Killer Mike have waited their whole careers to create. It's the type of release every artist dreams of one day recording. But as I watched every person in the serried crowd at Run the Jewels' Halloween performance in Philadelphia raise their gun and chain at the end of every song, I realized that something much more critical had been put into motion. It's why when El-P asks the question, "What's poppin'?" at the end of the album's opening track, "Jeopardy," we know the answer is Run the Jewels.
When I compare "Run the Jewels 2" to the first album, I think this album has beats that keep more of a consistent groove (and the album really does just flow so nicely from one song into the next), making it more accessible without the sacrifice of originality in production. I think you both play off each other better and you both take on just about any flow there's ever been. You’re more pissed off, but also access a more sensitive tone. What goals of progress did you have in mind when it came to writing the album?
El-P: In terms of us playing off of each other, we knew that was going to happen no matter what. We knew that we just wanted to push it further. We knew that we wanted to seal the deal. This record was created 100 percent with Run the Jewels in mind. The first record, a lot of the music had been done by me beforehand, music I had been sitting on that I had wanted to write songs to. There isn’t one beat on here that was for something else, so I think that lent itself to the cohesion of the production.
When we sat down to the table to say what are we going to do, we had real conversations about it, You know, if we’re going to do this again, we need to push this a little bit further. Our homage to rap groups is Run the Jewels. Our homage to rap legacies is Run the Jewels. It’s our De La Soul’s “Dead,” it’s our “Low End Theory,” it’s our ...
Killer Mike: “ATLiens.”
El-P: Our “Infamous.” There’s a tradition that groups have that, if they’re going for greatness, if they’re really there together, by the time the second one rolls around, you’re kind of like, “Oh, they’re going in.” And I think we consciously really wanted to do that. We wanted to seek a little bit more of our hearts and our minds and weave that into the fabric of what was really just a playful, shit-talk record, for the most part, on the first one.
Killer Mike: And the first one was much needed. It’s the antithesis of what I have makes me versus of I am me fuck what I have. We had a bar set.
El-P: Now we know where we’ve been and we can go somewhere and do something that fits into the idea of a legacy. Now we’re a rap group.
Now you’re the duo. The first one really is “Where do we start?” And you just do something so you can see where to go next.
El-P: Mike and I do this for a reason. It’s not a joke. We have humor, but our involvement and our art is not a joke. In order for this to be something that we committed ourselves, it had to be that. We both as men need that from music. We need to involve ourselves in music that can be cathartic, for us as well as potentially for someone else, we need to be involved in music that touches on our hearts and souls and the things that drive us to be writers.
I think the messages on this record definitely have more intention. You still have lines like “Top of the morning, my fist to your face is fuckin' Folgers,” and “You can all run naked backwards through a field of dicks.” There’s still that humor and it has to be there.
El-P: We’re Run the Jewels. We’re an R-rated action comedy that has heart.
But now you have songs like “Early” with Boots. That song is a powerful examination of police abuse of power, racism, a system of governance that doesn’t play by its own rules and the indifference of the unaffected. While I know you guys didn’t write the song in reaction, there’s the relevance of the tragedy of Mike Brown’s shooting. On one side, you have the corrupt powers that be, and on the other side, as summed by El-P at the end of the track, “go to home, go to sleep, up again early." People were constantly engaging in the discussion surrounding the Mike Brown case, but as soon as it isn’t on the TV 24/7, its like the conversation no longer exists or matters.
El-P: For us, the conversation didn’t begin with it, and it doesn’t end with it. You listen to any Killer Mike record, and he’s talking about it. You listen to any El-P record and he’s talking about it.
Killer Mike: And the conversation doesn’t stop. The conversation is still happening in black barbershops. It’s still happening every time a black parent sends their child out to a football game on a Friday. I think the real and honest stance is that the media doesn’t care past whatever dress the next celebrity wears, and we all focus and salivate on that weird celebrity envy. Which has become the news, including spots of violence.
I think there could be better organizing in the community to help people understand what’s going on right now. You have a federal investigation and I would be very afraid that the current attorney general is retiring. That makes me fucking afraid that in the middle of Ferguson he says, “Fuck it, I’m out,” that he doesn’t think the best is going to happen. I would encourage people to continue the conversation in their community. You don’t have to look like the people that is directly affected by it, and should the worst occur, people should be prepared to speak out and put back in the national spotlight.
El-P: The media has subscribed to its own illusion. We never bought into the illusion, we saw through the illusion, and its been in our music the whole time. The media says its not happening anymore or people aren’t paying attention anymore its because they are trying to control the consciousness and the discussion.
People are approaching us as our music is particularly relevant right now, but Mike and I have never really changed what we’ve done. I think that it’s just that people are selectively having moments of tuning in. There’s this sort of viral self-righteousness and global concern that can sweep in depending on how headlines are pinging. But for people who live their lives under the threat of death and violence and have been fighting for a place in the world simply just to be a human, there’s not one headline that matters to them. I’m not trying to be pedantic, but what I’m trying to say is Mike and I are not reacting to moments. We are reacting to lives and a lifetime of moments. It’s simultaneously really sad that the music that we’re making is as relevant as it is right now because that means that it’s ...
It’s still happening and it’s not getting any better.
Killer Mike: In fact, it’s getting worse.
El-P: You know why it’s getting worse? It’s getting worse because we’re farther down the timeline of human history and we are supposed to have moved past this already. Every second further that we go forward is an embarrassment. At the same time, the upside is that this record does speak something.
Killer Mike: I said in the months that it was happening and I will say it now, nothing is going to change until the same people that were out there for Wall Street are right there with kids down in Ferguson, right there with the holier-than-thou NRA members who say militarization of police is wrong. Until all those groups get together and find the common angle that if you allow the state to oppress any of these groups we’re going to stay at this weird juxtaposition that we have. Only when we see that everyone’s constitutional rights are deserved, everyone’s basic human rights are deserved. It is up to us to control the system -- which is for us, but is currently controlling us.
Chatting with people about the Ferguson situation when it first broke out, I would point out that it was a racial issue, a police militarization issue and so on, and some people would tell me that it is more about police militarization, not really race. Which, first off, is just a dumb thing to say, but they were only injuring their argument by singling out one issue.
El-P: People want to pick and choose. People will say that they don’t want to be controlled, but they want to be racist.
Killer Mike: I said in an interview before, I will get out there and fight as hard for the Ku Klux Klan to be able to protest as any black kid because at the end of the day, because at the end of the day, I’m black and I have not experienced the full constitutional rights as a U.S. citizen, and I want that. And I care about that more than I give a fuck about your dog-fuck political agenda. So if you want to march in front of the Georgia state capitol, I don’t give a fuck. In fact, I support it. I will vote for you to be able to because that’s your constitutional right. But with that said, motherfucker, if you’re really about upholding the U.S. Constitution as a Klansman, your ass should be right out there in Ferguson because that child was denied, no matter what you think about his skin color, due process.
My thing is that everybody has to get off their particular shtick and get down to the core fact that just blessed by geography and your parents fucking, you’re lucky enough to be born in this country, and if you are born in this country you are born with inalienable rights and you deserve those no matter race, creed or color. And I get sick of people who are supposedly upholding the Constitution automatically forgetting that those rights are held by all of us. Cop Watch has to be as active in the black community as they are in white suburban counties, and the Black Panthers are stupid as hell if they’re going to protest white men walking armed through a fifth ward neighborhood. You should just arm yourselves and walk with them. If the police are doing a shitty job in your community, you should be able to stand on your front lawn with your AK-47, too, unabated, unasked and un-talked to.
I don’t give a damn that you don’t understand that systematic racism affects me because that argument hasn’t worked for 51 years. And if you don’t want to recognize my humanity, fine. But you’re going to recognize that I have a constitutional right or we’re going to burn this motherfucker down.
El-P: If you haven’t recognized it, when you’re going to recognize it is when they come for your rights.
Killer Mike: And that’s what’s going to happen.
El-P: The only thing that America really ever needs to fight for that will cover all the bases, the greatest thing that could ever happen, would simply be the upholding of laws and ideas that we already have in fucking place, but to the letter. Anyway, we’ve gotten a little off on that. You set us off on it.
I apologize, but I love it. But another song that touches on a similar vein is “Crown.” Mike, you talk about dealing cocaine to pregnant women and the guilt that went with that, but that was the reality of you surviving in your situation. It reminded me a lot about my discussion with Raz Simone about how he dealt smack to his aunt and how he questioned whether he should give it to her or let her go out in the streets to find her fix and possibly get killed or raped. A lot of people like to make everything black and white when it isn’t a situation they actually have to face, so how do we handle the grey, especially when dealt a lesser hand?
Killer Mike: For me, I made a lot of the wrong choices, and I have tried to do things to make amends for that. But if there’s a hell, I’m going to spend some time there. I have accepted what I have done, I have apologized to the people I could apologize to, I have asked forgiveness of myself in the universe ad the best thing I try to do is be a different human being now.
Times of desperation have led black boys to horrible decisions the last 30 years in this country. It’s no excuse for any of the things I have done. But with that said, there have been times where I have felt so guilt-ridden and gut-wrenchingly paralyzed with shame I didn’t know what to do. I think the drug dealer deserves a different narrative than what the successful rappers are giving you, and I think the drug dealer deserves a different narrative than what you saw on “The Corner” or “The Wire.” And that narrative is that you carry around a load because, in my case, it was my mother. My mother got very addicted after a very successful career of being a dealer. And if these stories aren’t told, and if this stuff isn’t normalized, it’s almost like you will have this post dramatic dealer syndrome with people still not right for the things they’ve done.
That’s why a lot of dealers turn to addicts. A lot of guys in the trap, they spend the money they’re making buying another sedative, whether it be alcohol or marijuana because they realize, you know, they're selling to their neighbors and they look like you. When you see the slow deterioration of a person over weeks, months or years, that’s not an easy thing to deal with because most of the kids selling out there are compassionate people at heart. The only ones that become really successful are damn near sociopaths.
I remember a kid, he was a sweet kid, and he was a dealer and he would buy from me, and then I noticed that his weight started dropping. This kid would go from ounces to all of a sudden buying halves and quarters, and I was like, “What the fuck is going on?” His aunt came around and told me that he had started smoking. It got to the point where I wasn’t going to see him because I was friends with his brother. I thought to myself, I helped corrupt him. I was serving him weight because I thought he was a dealer and I never saw a problem with that, but I never saw the signs early enough. It’s not my fault ultimately, but it’s something that I carried because I cared for the kid.
The last minute of "Early" is one of the coolest moments on the record for me and definitely one of the more unique ones. The beat builds and builds, and Boots keeps layering his voice and climbing up the scale. It’s really emotional and cinematic.
El-P: I knew that once we got Boots on it and we came up with a hook, and the way that Mike and I crafted our stories together, it could be a big moment on the record, and it just wasn’t there yet. We knew we wanted people to walk away from that moment on the record and cry or just ...
Killer Mike: Just feel something. People don’t feel anything anymore. People have opinions and witness things, but they don’t feel. I think you need to have moments where people feel the humanity. Why are people so not affected by love as they are by anger and envy? I think, ultimately, what you hear on records like “Early” and “Crown” is that love pushing through.
“Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)” might be the angriest song on the record. You guys hold back zero punches on anyone. And so you guys just happened to run into to Zach de la Rocha and got him to jump on the track?
El-P: We were recording out in LA and were on our way to the studio, and I was like, “Hold on, I’m jumping out of the car and grabbing a juice.” I bumped into Zach and invited him to the studio. he was blown away by the music and so I was like, “Do you want to rap on this shit?” Literally, within one or two days he had it done. Everything on this record is like that, which I love about it. There was really no going out of our way. Everything that popped up that and everyone that made it what it is, they were all around. They are all friends, they were all people that were inspiring to us.
I find “Lie Cheat Steal” to be the most maddening song on the record. When you get to that chorus, I don’t know exactly what’s going on there, but it sounds cartoony and manic, and it bombards you with all these noises.
El-P: It’s supposed to have this sort of twisted, carnival-esque feel. Now, Boots is listed as a co-producer on there because the children in it, Boots recorded those children in an Indian temple. It was them chanting this rhythmic, beautiful chant. I have no idea what they’re saying -- probably a prayer -- but when I heard that I was like, “Please let me use this,” and he was kind enough to let me use the sample. It’s a very sarcastic hook, obviously.
Lie, cheat, steal, kill, win …
El-P: Everybody’s doing it. But at the same time it’s kind of realistic. It’s like, “Hey, you motherfuckers don’t care? Hey, why not? Why don’t we all do it?” Apparently, that’s how it has to go. Apparently, that’s how it works. The irony, of course, is that while everybody lies, cheats and steals on a global scaled, they’re the first motherfuckers to put you in jail if you lie, cheat or steal in order to get some bread.
Killer Mike: Mothers can be locked up for lying and sending their children to a better school in a different district. Mothers can be locked up for applying for free lunch for their children. But it is damn near impossible to lock up a politician for misuse of public funds, for sexual indiscretion ...
El-P: You can barely get them in jail for killing a hooker.
Killer Mike: I wear a lie, cheat, steal, kill t-shirt sometimes, and we were at a sneaker store in Portland once and a young lady was ready to chastise me. She asked, “What does that shirt mean?” I told her it basically means that Lance Armstrong had a point. I thought it was funny, but she just walked away disgusted. I asked her why she was walking away and she told me that my shirt offends her. I was like, “And the fact that you’re selling $100 sneakers for shit that they pay kids 80 cents doesn’t?” You could tell that was the first time in her life that she had thought and realized that she was part of a global conspiracy that uses child labor in Taiwan and China to create a $3 shoe that she turns and sells to American parents and kids for much more. I’m not saying this is the perfect shirt, but you ain’t going to shame me! We’re all in on this shit.
El-P: The difference is we know it and we’re willing to say it.
Killer Mike: And that doesn’t make it any less fucked up, but I’m not going to pretend to be holier than thou.
El-P: And quite frankly, Mike and I, we aren’t falling for it. I’m a New Yorker, man. We have a reputation for -- people misinterpret it -- being rude or whatever the reputation was before Taylor Swift made New York okay, but we really just don’t fuck with the lie. I’m not susceptible to the criticisms of someone who hasn’t put any time into the abstract thought of their position in life. That’s it. Lie, cheat, steal, kill, win. And if you don’t like it coming from my mouth or Mike’s mouth, then maybe you should examine where it’s coming from because we’re the children and we were raised by mommy and daddy.
You guys have mentioned how this album feels like a movie to you. If people are watching the movie “Run the Jewels 2,” what do you want them to see in it?
El-P: Well, it certainly has an arc. The first one had maybe a little less of an arc, maybe it was a little more of songs put together, but it had a vibe overall. But one of the most amazing things about this project is people are telling us what they see in it, and there’s this surprising, and really touching kind of consistency with these reactions. In sound and spirit, it feels it is affecting people in an empowering way. It’s cool that we have an opportunity to present a potential attitude that you might be able to adopt because there are a lot of attitudes out there that are presented to people. I think Mike and I are a little more complex and a little more down to Earth than some of the personalities that have been shopped around to the masses. Listening to our music, I would hope we are helping people think about themselves differently. I’m not that lofty; I just want to make dope records. But what seems to be happening, and this blows me away, but people seem to feel the way that we had hoped about it. You’re in on it. This is you, too.
Killer Mike: The record’s about friendship. At some point, rap has become so posturing and political that it’s friendship broken. People are so focused on self that no longer is it about crew. And that’s just not rap music. People are seeing a friendship exercised and I think people are attracted to that. Jaime and I have a real friendship, and beyond that, the other musicians that have been involved came out of real, organic friendships. That’s soul music. It doesn’t sound like Marvin Gaye, but the soul is there, and that is the antithesis of the age we’re in musically.
El-P: When we did the first record, Mike said he had this idea for a hook. He told it was something about feeling you got this 36-inch chain on, and I didn’t get it. All I heard was a chain. Its not that I didn’t like it, I just needed to think about it. He walked away and I sat there until I got it. He was talking the idea of feeling like you have something that makes you feel like you’re the shit. And even if it’s not there, you feel it around your neck. We want everyone to feel like they’re the shit. We want everyone to feel like they are in Run the Jewels. We don’t want everyone to witness us become successful, we want you to become us.