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Run The Jewels: ‘Our Music Translates Because Indians Understand Class and Caste’

The American hip-hop duo on political activism in culture, self-empowerment and why their latest record is “cinematic”

Uday Kapur Aug 10, 2017

El-P and Killer Mike photographed at Northside Festival 2017. Photo: Roycin D'Souza

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Jaime Meline a.k.a El-P stands in a corner, lighting a cigarette as he takes in the relatively clean Danish air. He flinches and summons his manager–“Is that Primus? Is that Les Claypool?” he asks. His tour manager confirms his suspicion. “Fuck,” he says. “That’s sick! I must go introduce myself.”

It’s early June–a frigid, wet summer day in Aarhus, Denmark–and Meline’s enthusiasm is unnerving. Alongside Michael Render a.k.a Killer Mike, Meline is part of Run The Jewels, one of the most captivating hip-hop acts in the world today. In four years, the duo have gone from a tongue-in-cheek, fiercely independent, underground act to revolutionary poets leading the charge against a society on the verge of collapse–filling the void left in the cultural landscape by Rage Against The Machine. Run The Jewels’ combative, hilarious and intellectually astute sound re-introduced the rabid energy that had, over the past few years, all but disappeared from the American hip-hop scene.

With Run The Jewels, the industry veterans have also found a new lease on life. Before linking up with Render, Meline was reeling from the untimely loss of a close friend to cancer and the termination of his Def Jux label–experiences that had emotionally and financially drained him. Render, who had made his name in Atlanta’s underground hip-hop scene, was also struggling to breakthrough to the mainstream as a solo artist. In an interview with The Guardian last January, Render commented on the nature of his relationship with Meline:  “I prayed for a brother as a kid and God has brought me one.”

Run The Jewels’ music provides us with hope–hope that there’s someone out there who empathizes with and understands our socio-economic circumstances, and stands by our side and pushes us to fight the good fight. They’ve brought people together in times of increasing political and racial polarization. They’re driven by the human experiences that have shaped them, and their ability to convey them in a ubiquitous manner is one of the primary reasons that they’re considered one of the most exciting artists in the world today. We caught up with the duo before their frenetic set at Aarhus’ NorthSide Festival to talk about these experiences, political activism in music and more.

The cover art for ‘RTJ3,’ the duo’s latest album.

RS: Both of you have spoken about your respective struggles before meeting each other. El-P, you’d just lost a close friend to cancer and had to shut shop at Def Jux, events that emotionally drained you. How important was it, on a personal and professional level, for you to meet Killer Mike at the time that you did?

El-P: The timing was incredibly important. I think it was important for me to go through what I was going through on my own. Sometimes, when an animal is wounded, it’s important for him to go in a corner and curl up and not associate himself with other living creatures. By the time I linked up with Mike, I was feeling good. I was excited about making music again and I was open to new opportunities and possibilities. If I’d met Mike earlier, I don’t think I’d have been in the right headspace to even make a new friend, let alone music.

RS: From the very first Run The Jewels record, you guys have seemed very comfortable around each other, and that’s developed and come to the fore with each subsequent record that you’ve released. What’s it like to be this open and vulnerable in the studio together, especially when you’re writing a verse like Mike’s on “Crown”?

Killer Mike: I always experience these moments during the recording process where it’s extremely quiet–it’s the middle of the night and there’s a beat that El is playing or there’s a track in the air that I know is going to draw the emotion out of me, even if I can’t identify it. Like the “Crown” verse, it just poured out of me. The woman that I’m talking about in that verse is actually two women (that Mike sold crack to when he was dealing in Atlanta), and the kid is good. I looked him up. I was just carrying that shit around for a really long time. It just poured out of me. I feel safe around El and I can be that open with him in a conversation as well, so it was never a case of me feeling ‘safe’ around him to be able to write that verse. Sometimes, we bury shit so deep that it just doesn’t want to come out.

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El-P: And when it does come out, we treat it with respect. We recognize the jams that are just us playing off of each other and we’re bouncing around. We also recognize the jams that are personal, that mean something to either Mike or me, pretty easily. We have this idea of getting hit with the ‘Holy Ghost’–it’s a nickname that we’ve given to those moments (like the “Crown” verse) where something potent or personal comes out of us. It’s up to us to make those moments a jam. Like on the “Crown” verse, Mike wrote that verse first and it took me months to write to that shit because I wanted to wait for something to strike me–something with which I could honor not only the emotion that Mike put into his verse but also made sense for the song. His verse was personal to him, and I had to figure out a way to write something that meant as much to me and made sense for the song to kind of come together. Those are the moments when we take it seriously and work towards making sure that we’re honoring the song.

RS: One of the things that strikes me most about your music is the universal appeal that your narrative has, despite it being built around American socio-political structures. People find it easy to pick up the issues that you raise in your music and make it relatable to themselves.

El-P: That’s because we’re a group that’s socially aware rather than one that’s politically active. Individually, we’re different. Mike’s more active politically, he supports specific causes. I’ve always been socially conscious but not an active participant. We have great empathy for people and a lot of the issues that we talk about are universal. We don’t want to make music that can’t be played in 10 years. We want to make music that can apply to the people’s struggle, if we’re talking about struggle, for the next 20, 50 or 100 years. The struggle between the haves and the have-nots will never end. The struggle between those in power and those that are subjugated to that power will never end. That’s why it translates, and unless you’ve found a utopian society somewhere in the world, it will continue to translate.

Killer Mike and El-P on stage at Les Eurockéennes in 2015. Photo: Thomas Bresson/C.C. BY 3.0

Killer Mike: With respect to India, I think it translates because the Indian people understand class (and caste). A lot of people do not, but I think the Indian people are very aware.

RS: That’s translating into our hip-hop scene as well, where kids belonging to minority and lower-income communities are taking to hip-hop and telling their and their parents’ stories.

Killer Mike: As it should be.

El-P: That’s because hip-hop is about self-empowerment. The whole point of Run The Jewels, and the one thing that we want people to take away from it, is that you can (through hip-hop) experience power without having some. It’s the power of the natural truth that you are given as you are born. That makes you just as powerful as anyone on this planet. The rest is just manipulated circumstances. That’s what we all connect with right? That’s what makes hip-hop this beautiful little medium that everyone can get down with. Even if you just want to stand up and say “I’m the shit!”–hip-hop allows you to do that. A lot of my attitude and personal perspective is acquired from the rappers that I admire. They weren’t ill because of what they owned but they were ill because of what and how they thought about what was going on around them. They were ill because of the pride that they took in what they did have. That’s what makes hip-hop so powerful as a medium, especially for young kids. We learn to accept this system of manipulation and injustice, it’s not something that comes naturally to us as humans. Hip-hop is something that can make a person fight back.

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RS: What do you think about the attitude that’s being put across by hip-hop artists, which have been divided into two groups–ratchet rap (Migos, Future, etc) and conscious artists (such as yourself, Kendrick Lamar, etc)–today?

Killer Mike: We like it! Why wouldn’t we like it? They’re saying dope shit and they have a dope sound. Being from Atlanta, where a lot of that music is from, it’s extremely creative. Why wouldn’t you like it? Why should you have to pick one type of music that totally defines you?

RS: And you’ve experimented with those sounds in your work as well.

El-P: Yeah. Like the new record has a cinematic scope to it. “Down” is the opening credits–it’s the slow pan overlooking the city. I think that the whole argument, which has been around since hip-hop started, is needless. Everybody is concerned about authenticity. If you time-travelled back to 1994 and looked at the commercial rap artists back then, it was very different. You have spitters on top now–dudes that are just nasty! And if you don’t think Migos is nasty then you aren’t really listening to the complexity in their sound–like some of the patterns are insane. We’re rappers’ rappers, so we recognize a dope rapper no matter who it is and what they’re saying.  Just because we’re not approaching music the same way as them doesn’t mean we don’t like it. We keep ourselves open and try to appreciate dope shit.

RS: However, if you’re an outsider looking in and trying to understand hip-hop music, the media is using artists like them to present a narrative that denounces the art-form. For example, Kendrick Lamar was criticized by Geraldo Rivera (Fox News) for promoting violence against the police because he performed his hit single on top of a burning police vehicle, and for a lot of people that would be the narrative with which they’re introduced to hip-hop music..

Killer Mike: You’re being fed a narrative. You’re being given that narrative by people who are at the top of the social or class structures in society. Don’t accept it! Atlanta is one of the newer cities to become a hip-hop city, so we’ve had time to take in a lot of music from all over the country (Miami, Los Angeles). Kendrick Lamar is on record saluting Shawty Lo, a rapper who grew up in the housing projects. I went to high-school with him, and he had a wicked, if unevolved, style of rapping. To hear Kendrick Lamar who is hailed as the greatest rapper of this generation show his appreciation for a dope boy from Atlanta is amazing, because that shows you the beauty of rap music. It diminishes class, it removes all these barriers that we place in society. Chance The Rapper, his father was a politician, so he didn’t grow up poor. Yet, he represents the Chicago community. So, only in hip-hop will you find such an egalitarian structure. Dope shit is just dope shit! I don’t think it’s an argument worth having. There’s some music that’s meant for the clubs, and there’s some music that’s meant for the barbershop. You appreciate it for what it is. What you don’t do is think that the kind of music you listen to is better intellectually, spiritually or morally. All music that people put their heart and soul into to create is worth appreciating.

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