Killer Mike wants a word with America.
But first, he passes me a joint. Graciously. “Smoke it like a cigarette,” the Atlanta MC, currently touring the world as one half of Run the Jewels, counsels. He’s sitting in a small booth to my left in the back of the group’s tour bus, which is parked behind the Ritz, a 2,000-capacity room that looks like a flashy, oversize storage facility amid Raleigh, North Carolina’s industrial tundra. To my right, Mike’s brother in rhyme and RTJ production visionary El-P awaits, affable but fidgeting. I puff gingerly and pass to El. Then Mike, turning to face me for the first time, begins his pitch for our survival in the Trump era — part political, part recreational.
“OK, my thing is this: If we’re going to handle this like a republic — where the people have the power, as was intended — then I am sick of feeling that I work for the people who really should be working for me,” he says, forcefully yet evenly. “All of us should take a little more time to think about that.” Mike takes a pass back from El, who is listening intently. “Get high and have a real conversation that’s not based in fear!” Mike inhales deeply. “Have a real conversation that’s not based in what the media tells you to be afraid of. Read your Bill of Rights. Read your Constitution. Sure, these Trump people are powerful, but they’re dumb. They aren’t your masters. You were born free, and you should organize vigorously and be a thorn in their fuckin’ side.”
Watch the MTV News short documentary on Run the Jewels:
In the rarefied hot air of American pitchmen — say, Diddy with Cîroc vodka, or the Scrub Daddy dude on Shark Tank – Killer Mike, born Michael Render, is a persuasive firebrand of the first rank. His weed-enhanced rabble-rousing has become more refined over a 17-year career, to the point that he was a staunch surrogate for Senator Bernie Sanders during the 2016 Democratic presidential primary and was honored this year by the Georgia State Senate for his work on Atlanta’s water infrastructure. But nobody has doubted those electrifying testimonial skills since a profanely virtuoso debut on “Snappin’ and Trappin’,” from OutKast’s 2000 album Stankonia, a conflagration of styles that was crucial to Atlanta rap's transformation into global pop. His subsequent solo albums have only ratified that rep.
But until Run the Jewels, Mike lacked a proper platform.
— Killer Mike
The same could be said for El-P (born Jaime Meline). Over 20-plus years as a restless MC, producer, collaborator, and label owner, he’s been steadily innovative, both artistically and business-wise — starting in the mid- to late-’90s, he helped popularize 50/50 net profit deals for artists. But wider acknowledgment beyond underground dap and respect from fellow artists had been elusive, though there was a brief period early on when his futuristically grimy Brooklyn trio Company Flow was viewed as a promising Wu-Tangy contender. Yes, y’all, there was a pre-internet time before “Mo Money Mo Problems” was an embroidered wall hanging at your mom’s, when a dankly woozy, “independent as fuck” incantation that sampled ELO and started, “Rugged like Rwanda / Don’t wander far and get chopped up / Quick to rush the spot / Like baby urine get mopped up” (shout to Bigg Jus!) could air on both BET’s Rap City and New York City’s radio heartbeat Hot 97 (during off-hours, granted). And, to complete the trinity, hip-hop’s field guide of record at the time, The Source, could hype them up.
Then there were all the times afterward when that didn’t happen.
As fortysomething geezers, Mike (41) and El (42) have not only built a sizable independent platform of their own, but it’s growing loftier by the day. Over the course of three progressively more unflinching, critically beloved albums as free downloads — 2013’s Run the Jewels, 2014’s Run the Jewels 2, and the current Run the Jewels 3 (which reached No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop chart) — they’ve developed an intimate and amped fan base (not to mention a massive email database) that obsessively uploads photos and original artwork involving the group’s indelible fist-and-gun logo. Parents frequently attend RTJ shows with their kids, not as chaperones but as reborn rap geeks. In addition to selling out venues the size of Raleigh’s Ritz across the country this year — not to mention four nights in a row at New York City’s Terminal 5 this past February — they’re touring Europe, hitting countless spring and summer festivals (headlining a night at Lollapalooza), and even excelling at sincerely snappy talk-show banter. The merch is moving. They’re all up in Marvel Comics and the gaming world. They get frequent shout-outs on ESPN. There’s the Run the Jewels app. They’ve got their own frickin’ beer.
While this obligatory laundry list of credits is rather impressive, it’s not why these guys are still grinding at what counts as a fairly antiquated age in Rap Years. That’s a more personal, musical matter, and it’s a code you’ll only crack by immersing yourself in their voices — Mike’s unholy roar, El-P’s wise-guy snarl — as they incite, buoy, and embrace each other, goaded and yanked sideways by the beats’ undertow. It's this roiling dramatic tension that makes Run the Jewels relevant, even though they could be Migos’ dads. Or because they could be Migos’ dads — just not in a dickish "back in my day" way. In fact, Killer Mike admits to listening to 21 Savage with his daughter, who’s a fan, and discussing the Atlanta trap-rapper’s deadpan tales of violence with her. (“It gives us a chance to talk," he tells me. "I can be like, ‘Yeah, your dad did some things. This is why; this is what it means in the bigger picture of my life.’ It peels back some layers and gets us to a place that’s more comfortable.”)
“The one thing everybody associated with Run the Jewels shares is a resistance to authority,” says Amaechi Uzoigwe, the group’s comanager and El-P’s close friend and ally for more than 20 years. “We all believe in not paying fealty to things for no reason, in respecting people and earning respect and having your own pursuit and path and dialectic and understanding of who you are. But if you do that, it’s not always going to happen overnight. Jaime and I and Mike, we all know how hard it is — we all slept on floors, we slept in train stations, we’ve done it for free. But when I see those guys together now, it’s magic. It’s like, this is why we started doing this as kids. This was the dream. This is exactly what we wanted.”
Killer Mike is a large, quietly effusive African-American who has called himself a “pan-Africanist gangsta rapper” and “typical middle-class dad” — sons Malik, 22, and Pony Boy, 14, daughters Aniyah, 19, and Mikey, 10 — while El-P is a stocky, cagey Irish-, Jewish-, Lithuanian-, etc.-American skeptic and schemer who can turn a conversation into a comedy bit or a spiky battle-rap cipher. When they enter a studio, as Uzoigwe says, it’s alchemical fireworks. “We try to make each other laugh, we try to make each other gasp, we try to make each other cry,” says El-P. “We are two people who have never fallen out of love with writing or MCing, and we’ve chosen the other person as the one we want to impress the most with this thing that we’ve been loving all our lives.”
El-P has made some version of this statement in previous interviews, but he’s lost none of his zeal to testify. “That’s why the records will always be more internal for us than political or anything else,” he continues. “Writing and making music is the only real goal. I’m not doing this as a mechanism to make a fucking statement. I’m just speaking my heart, and so is Mike, and because of that, Run the Jewels can perform for thousands of kids who are excited to hear what we have to say. And at this point, we know what to do if certain situations happen to come along. If we find ourselves, say, in St. Louis [where they performed the night a grand jury failed to bring charges in the fatal police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in 2014] or in D.C. [on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration], then the same guys who were just talking about smoking weed and shooting bunnies can seize that moment and hopefully make the music mean something more than it might otherwise. We’re able to do both. That’s a special thing.”
And sure, maybe Run the Jewels’ tight personal and artistic connection makes an implicit statement about white supremacy’s flimsy construction of racial barriers, and how it’s possible to cross those barriers if you treat your fellow citizens as human beings and peers instead of as representatives of a perceived color group or demographic. Maybe. More specifically, RTJ represent an answer to a question that has plagued hip-hop (among other genres) for years: How do you grow up? Or at least mature into a functional, engaged, empathetic adult, and still rap your ass off without deteriorating into an unsalvageable lame? They’ve discovered that uncanny zone where fun and cool and experience and meaning blur into one revelatory jolt.
“It’s like, let’s roll together, let’s party and grow together,” Mike says excitedly. “I literally grew up with OutKast, with their music and their lyrics telling me about life. You could hear [André 3000] rapping about pimpin’ and playin’, then two albums later he’s the consummate gentleman who your mom wants your sister to marry. It was amazing to grow up along with them as, like, big brothers, and to see that it was OK to change and grow and become an adult with different opinions.”
To invoke the spirit of Tupac, they both don’t, and do, give a fuck.
“We’d never want to be just a protest group,” says Killer Mike. “I don’t want to need something to oppose to make dope music with my friends.”
“But we will stand the fuck up, because that’s just who we are, period,” adds El-P.
“That’s right,” replies Mike. “But this is my friend. I like rapping with him. So if the political shit comes into us enjoying rapping together and being dope, that’s cool. But what y’all are really seeing is a group that likes rapping together.”
“I mean, whatever,” says El with a genial smirk. “We’re a protest group in the sense that we protest the world’s stupid fucking opinion and simplified perspective on everything.”
At that, Killer Mike leans back and fills the room with an immensely brotherly sound — a majestic, hard-won, grateful, sunburst-on-the-horizon belly laugh.
It’s been well documented that El-P and Killer Mike’s first meeting, in 2011 at an Atlanta studio, was like a reunion of long-lost, unlikely relatives. El was in town to produce three tracks for Mike’s solo album R.A.P. Music, and they quickly realized that they revered the exact same sonic references — Ice Cube’s 1990 manifesto AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (produced by Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad), OutKast, Run-D.M.C., and all four EPMD albums. In fact, they connected via Adult Swim music exec Jason DeMarco, who told Mike that El-P’s production was the closest modern corollary to the Bomb Squad. “J. knows what the fuck he’s talking about,” affirms Mike.
Still, to be more blunt, the only reason the duo were in a position to meet and bond in the first place was that their rap dreams had mostly crapped out.
For Killer Mike, his ferocious mic skills and OutKast apprenticeship meant heady early success. In 2003 alone, he won a Grammy for appearing on OutKast’s “The Whole World”; released his debut album, Monster, which reached the Top 10 and went gold with assists from Big Boi and André 3000; guested on Bonecrusher’s Top 40 single “Never Scared”; and was featured on two tracks from Big Boi’s side of OutKast’s double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. But when ’Kast fractured, momentum stalled. Big Boi’s Purple Ribbon label sank into a Sony tar pit, taking Mike down with it. While in contractual limbo, he dropped two scalding, scattered, mixtape-like albums — I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind and I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II — but that didn’t do much to support his family. By 2008, he was flailing. He had to release his shelved Purple Ribbon/Sony album Ghetto Extraordinary for free online, and, perhaps most bleakly, changed his name to Mike Bigga in an attempt to be more commercially viable. In 2011, billed again as Killer Mike, he released PL3DGE on T.I.’s label, Grand Hustle — a lively, uncommercial affair (Flying Lotus produced a track!) that left nary a ripple.
Meantime, El-P was buried in debt from his influential, eclectic indie label Definitive Jux, and bereft after the death of rapper/producer Camu Tao, a close friend and collaborator, from lung cancer. After Company Flow split in 2000, he’d released two fiery, dyspeptic solo albums — 2002’s Fantastic Damage and 2007’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, the latter featuring Trent Reznor (on the single “Flyentology”), Cat Power, Chavez guitarist Matt Sweeney, members of The Mars Volta, et al. Despite starry reviews, both were more respected than heard. By the late 2000s, aside from the time he spent struggling to settle up fairly with artists before shutting down Def Jux, he was adrift, casting around for next steps, trying not to lose faith.
“Yup, that was a rough time,” says Uzoigwe, a bit curtly, and pauses. “But in some way, it felt like history playing out — like you’re standing on this one piece of earth and the world around you is falling away. All that was left was me and him. That’s where it started, and that’s where it was gonna end.”
The partners had first met in 1995, when a 19-year-old El-P was running his first label, Real Records, and Uzoigwe was an aspiring filmmaker, managing punk and hip-hop acts on the side. The Brooklyn kid’s business savvy stunned Uzoigwe, who had a degree in philosophy and English from the University of Michigan. He was more fascinated when he learned about the kid’s backstory: The product of a broken marriage, he’d been kicked out of two high schools (one being the prestigious Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights), earned an equivalency degree at 16, studied audio engineering at the Center for Media Arts in Manhattan, and interned with lawyer M. William Krasilovsky, the man who literally cowrote the book on the music business (This Business of Music, now in its 10th edition).
El-P and Uzoigwe's relationship grew through Company Flow’s signing in 1996 to the indie label Rawkus Records — funded by Rupert Murdoch’s son James, now CEO of 21st Century Fox — which would soon be an underground powerhouse, home to Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Pharoahe Monch, and others. When CoFlow left Rawkus, El-P’s goals were idealistic — to start a label by artists for artists — and Def Jux largely succeeded at being just that. But its financial demise was ugly.
“I think Jaime discovered a lot about himself during that period,” says Uzoigwe. “He let go of a lot. He worked through the loss of the label, which he’d worked so hard to create with his friends. It really sucked for me, so I can only imagine what he went through. But he took that time to reflect and dig deep and explore new things.”
When Mike and El-P linked up, they became artistic kindred spirits helping to drag each other out of their respective ditches. Both had a nagging hunger to succeed in music and business. Mike was just getting into the barbershop hustle, which he hoped was less volatile than the rap hustle (he now co-owns two Swag Shops in Atlanta with his wife, Shana “Shay Bigga” Render); El-P wanted to prove that he’d learned from his Def Jux glitch. Their 2012 solo albums — R.A.P. Music and El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure (dedicated to Camu Tao) — were among the year’s orneriest best. But when Run the Jewels’ debut followed the next year, it was the delirious snort of a new era.
Their timing was right, and not just on a personal level. The more textured, darkly emotional yet still confrontational sound that RTJ developed has filled such a void in ambitious, rock-tinged music that this year’s Grammy committee — according to Killer Mike, who heard it from producer and committee member 9th Wonder — debated whether to place Run the Jewels 2 in the Alternative rather than Hip-Hop category.
That sound is the result of El-P working consistently with a familiar team of multi-instrumentalists and producers, including brothers Torbitt “Little Shalimar” Schwartz and Wilder Zoby Schwartz, plus Beyoncé secret weapon Jordan “Boots” Asher. For Run the Jewels 3, guests included jazz dynamo Kamasi Washington, TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha (who also appeared on RTJ 2), singularly freaky rappers Danny Brown and Trina, plus soulful Atlanta sorceress Joi Gilliam (who was tussling with the “alt-R&B” tag while Solange was still in grade school). It’s a tumultuous collage.
“When it comes to the album craft, Jaime is the captain of the spaceship,” emails Boots, who has writing and production credits on both RTJ 2 and 3 and has performed live with the group. “[He] keeps a tight ship and the only other people who work closely with him on albums are considered family. I'm honored to be part of that family … [He and Mike] have worked very hard to get here, and they've earned every bit of it. I've never once doubted the enormity of this project."
RTJ’s musical sweep also has caused some crabs to carp that they’re just Rap Music For People Who Don’t Like Rap Music, which is mostly a way of saying that they have too many dilettante-ish white fans. But it’s hard to take that criticism seriously when artists from Chance the Rapper to Kendrick Lamar have gotten similar gripes after expanding their sounds, emphasizing spiritual uplift and incorporating jazz and gospel. Also, all hip-hop acts of a certain level attract both devotees and fly-by-night randos — and RTJ is at that level.
“The most obvious read on it is that the black guy and the white guy got together, both had some influence and pretty good catalogues, so they merged fan bases,” says El-P. “But more importantly, we merged art and music and ideas and brought something that’s a hybrid that appeals to a lot of people. I love how you can’t pigeonhole it as one thing or another. I think that’s welcoming.”
— Killer Mike
“I love our fans no matter who they are,” adds Mike. “Whoever the fuck wants to hear our music, I’m gonna get up there and leave everything onstage.” But he’s not denying that a certain demographic is heavily represented in their fan base. “You know what Dr. King said about the white liberal, right? Telling everybody to be patient and wait and not demand too much. Well, now someone just shat on your porch, you get what I’m sayin’? Now there’s a sense of urgency from white liberals that I’ve never seen in my lifetime. The president aside, on a local level, I hope the people who come out and see us rap are going to be the same people who end up organizing on the ground for their school boards and mayors and [representatives in] Congress. I’m hopeful and optimistic.”
That’s as far as he’ll go, though, with talk of converting RTJ’s fans to his activism. He respects the music’s ability to create a powerful oppositional energy and trust with the audience because it’s balanced by a healthy dose of filthy, ridonkulous punch lines. Compared with similar elders, they’ll never be as serious as Public Enemy or Rage Against the Machine, yet they’re not as goofy as Cypress Hill or The Beastie Boys (whose most popular early music was an ill fit with their later feminist, Buddhist consciousness). RTJ constantly flip between those poles.
For one semi-controversial example, they can’t get enough of outlandish, absurdist dick jokes. In fact, they are connoisseurs of the form. On the new album, El-P goes for a hat trick: “Every new song’s like my dick in a box,” “My dick’s got a Michelin star,” and “I’ve got a unicorn horn for a …” before a hushing voice intercedes, “Stop.” On RTJ 3’s “Panther Like a Panther (Miracle Mix),” Killer Mike spits: “I refuse to play humble as though my dick itty-bitty / I got banana dick, your bitch go apeshit if she hit it.” On the same song, El-P opens with a vulgar verse about performing oral sex for a woman, which receives snaps-up from a female chorus, then Trina appears with her no-nonsense libertine sneer to rap along: “I'm the shit / Looking at the money like it’s mine to get / I’m the shit, bitch.” The group’s most eventful tête-à-tête, though, was on RTJ 2’s “Love Again (Akinyele Back),” on which Killer Mike unleashed a fusillade of sexist invective, only to be brutally rebutted by longtime friend and RTJ tour partner Gangsta Boo: “I be on that queen shit / You better bless my realness / Stick your tongue up in my ass / You better show me who you fuckin’ with.” And on RTJ 3’s “Stay Gold,” they pay enthusiastic tribute to their significant others (“I got a good thing with a bad bitch / That's rare, bitch,” as Mike puts it).
Perhaps these sorts of antics, or simply the tag “Killer,” made Mike an unlikely surrogate for Bernie Sanders in his presidential run. I’ve heard more than one pundit question his prominent role on the campaign trail. But another Sanders surrogate, former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, strongly disagrees.
“Some people hear the name ‘Killer Mike’ and they’re like, ‘What kind of activist is this guy?’” says Turner. “But that’s what’s wrong with America now: We prejudge people based on names or appearances. If they knew Mike’s background, they’d know that he came from a Southern tradition of activism. He can sit and talk to you about his grandmother and the civil rights circles he got to run in as a younger man." (His grandma, longtime activist Bettie Clonts, marched with Martin Luther King Jr. before raising Mike, whose parents had split; he also spent quality time around former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, who worked with Dr. King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as well as becoming close with Young’s aide-de-camp, Alice Johnson.) "That gave him such a huge reservoir of understanding about social justice and grassroots movements. He’s such a deep well. He possesses a passion and commitment that’s bigger than most people know.”
When Killer Mike spoke out in St. Louis about the lack of police accountability in the Michael Brown killing, or when he campaigned for Sanders, his rhetoric was on boil — he’s got no use for the Democratic Party per se, especially after his name showed up in the WikiLeaks email hack of Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta (Mike turned a shot of the email in question into a hilarious t-shirt). But ultimately, Killer Mike spoke of bridging differences. Still, many only remember him for a rally last February at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, the school he briefly attended, at which he inelegantly quoted activist Jane Elliott in a speech introducing Sanders:
“When people tell us, ‘Hold on, wait a while’ — and that’s what the other Democrat is telling you — ‘Hold on, Black Lives Matter, just wait a while. Hold on, young people in this country, just wait a while.’ And then … have your own mama come to you, your mama sit down and say, ‘Well, you’re a woman.’ But I talked to Jane Elliott a few weeks ago, and Jane said, ‘Michael, a uterus doesn't qualify you to be president of the United States. You have to have policies that's reflective of social justice.’”
To contextualize, Mike’s statement was a response to interviews given by Clinton surrogates earlier that month. Feminist eminence Gloria Steinem had suggested that young women were backing Sanders because that’s where the “boys” were; and Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as secretary of state, chimed in, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” Of course, Jane Elliott’s words have a substantially different impact coming out of a man’s mouth, and Mike probably should’ve considered that. If he has a blind spot politically, it’s that he can slip into gender essentialism. But he’s trying.
“Mike embraces his contradictions,” says Turner, addressing, in particular, his militant advocacy for the right to bear whatever big-ass firearms you want. “He is unapologetically who he is, and he brought his entire persona to the campaign, which to me was nothing but a positive. He added cool and spice and dynamics and authenticity. The younger people loved him.”
Also, if you think the dude takes himself too seriously — well, no.
“I see myself going out rich and conservative and betraying all my youthful vigor," he quipped back in January when I was watching the group mix RTJ 3. "Living in some African conservative Christian compound."
"Like Jim Jones?" El-P replied, meaning the ’70s cult leader who preached integration and, ultimately, mass suicide.
El: “Yo, that’s fucked up, man.”
Music therapy has two basic categories — active and receptive. In the former, the therapist and patient create music together as a way of addressing the patient’s physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs; in the latter, the therapist plays music while the patient listens or responds or meditates. To hear Killer Mike and El-P intensely discuss their songwriting process on Run the Jewels 3, it sounds very much like a particularly active therapeutic experience.
For starters, they insist on conceiving and recording each song with each other in the room. And they both rap about their personal lives in a very raw, exposed, confessional method. Especially with Mike, you learn a lot of specifics. He speaks of a time when he hustled drugs — which cuts even sharper when you learn that his mother did the same (his father, to complicate the plot, was a police officer). But he’s uninterested in assertions of his outlaw résumé.
“I bear a lot of guilt from street dealing.” he says. “I knew better. I had too much empathy for other human beings to be doing that, and it causes you to leave a part of your humanity behind. I have seen that lifestyle take so many people in their primes. I’ve had friends murdered. I’ve had friends who were murderers. I’ve had people related to me murdered. Chances are, I really do know or knew the people I’m rapping about — that’s how that shit works. And at some point, I have to understand that I have done things that were just as brutal as murder. I have killed someone’s body and soul by feeding their addiction. So I am working that shit out in Run the Jewels and hopefully putting that honesty out in the world.”
On RTJ 3's “Thursday in the Danger Room,” a song that references real-life loss, the process was grueling, but the result is an intricately articulated torrent of remorse, given further resonance by Kamasi Washington’s sax surging through the chorus.
“We refer to songwriting as ‘catching the ghost,’” says El-P. “In that situation, his verse came out first, and I have to be struck by the same amount of genuine emotion and gravity to touch it — that’s my rule. With ‘Thursday in the Danger Room,’ it wasn’t about me matching his pain or loss by mining my past, but about finding a place where our emotions intersected. Details aside, the song is about losing somebody and forgiveness. That’s what I latched on to. I’m hearing Mike talking about forgiving somebody who really hurt him and a lot of people, and I was thinking about something I could add or something I hadn’t exposed that was worth looking into with the same bravery that he did. And Mike made me realize that I had something to say.”
El-P’s verse, which is about a friend he watched die a “slow, complicated, painful death,” was difficult to reconcile, even after recording.
“I had tapped into something I wasn’t planning on tapping into. As long as I’ve been doing this music, and as much as I’ve shared, it’s still the same thing every time. I’m a writer — do I have to share this with the rest of the world? Is it necessary because I wrote it? I don’t know. Is it not complete until people know about it, or should you just do it for yourself and hide it away? But it’s because Mike is next to me that I get the extra bravery of another person. I’m plenty brave, but there are times when I’ve needed more, and Mike and I are there for each other, in the music and in life.”
“His beats and music move me,” says Mike. “They pull things out of me that I had long closed up. I’ve clumsily tried to address certain shit on other tracks, but he’ll play me some new stuff and in the middle of the night I’ll wake up and just have to say something. That’s why I am so thankful to be in this group, because I just wouldn’t be touching on those feelings otherwise.”
It's often mentioned how Mike and El are so much better equipped to handle success and its demands now that it’s come relatively late in their lives. What's less often discussed is the baggage that comes along with being a fortysomething rapper (or a fortysomething anything, for that matter). The regret, the paths not taken. The feeling that you’re always neglecting loved ones. Mike and El-P face that baggage head-on.
“I think our friendship started with us trying to wow each other with how ill we could be as MCs, but it went deeper than that very soon,” says El-P. “Sure, we are artistically connected, but honestly, we are trying to figure out how to heal each other. It went from sparring in a friendly-fire kind of way, some style shit, some dope rap shit, to being how much can we create something that’s ours, that’s between us, that still works as rap music. Doing this shit has made me think about my life differently, but it’s also taken me outside myself as a writer.
“I’m writing for two of us now. The creative process for us is always the creative process of our friendship, literally. Learning how to write a song together is us learning how to be friends.”
When I saw Run the Jewels live in February, I remembered those words whenever Mike or El-P encouraged the crowd to reach out to each other — whether in the mosh pit or after the show. At different points, both MCs gave shout-outs to Black History Month and the Women’s March on Washington, while telling the crowd that this Trump era, though grim and disorienting, would one day pass, as did Ronald Reagan’s own “Make America Great Again” campaign of misdirection, which they lived through in the 1980s. But they also said that we may not make it through this moment unless we take the time to talk to people who don’t seem, at least on the surface, to be like us: “We are brothers and sisters,” the pair shouted.
They speak from experience.