WHY THIS YEAR BELONGS TO RUN THE JEWELS
The duo of Killer Mike and El-P make socially conscious, spaced-out punch-you-in-the-face, punk-rock rap music that’s perfect for our country’s current political and social climate
The beat fades in slowly, almost like a freight train you see coming in the distance. It’s coming. You know it’s coming. And your best bet for survival is to get out of the way.
Here comes Killer Mike, one half of hip-hop duo Run the Jewels, a man who needs no help announcing he’s arrived. You can feel him. Killer Mike is big — not just in stature, which he is, but also in presence. He engulfs tracks. He sounds like he’s hitting punching bags in your eardrums. When he starts rapping, he commands your attention.
On “Talk to Me,” the first offering from Run the Jewels 3, Mike slides onto the track with a verse that is able to mix the politics of today with the street smarts he grew up with. One bar says:
“Went to war with the Devil and Shaytan / He wore a bad toupee and a spray tan”
We don’t really need to tell you who that’s about, do we? He raps later in his verse:
“Militant Michael might go psycho / On any ally or rival / Born Black, that’s dead on arrival / My job is to fight for survival / In spite of these #AllLivesMatter-ass white folk”
If that’s the first time you’ve heard Killer Mike, it should be pretty clear where he stands in today’s socio-political landscape. If you familiar with Killer Mike and Run the Jewels — the superduo he formed with rapper/producer El-P in 2013 — then you also know this: Killer Mike might be the most important voice in hip-hop in 2017.
And, consequently, that’s why 2017 belongs to Run The Jewels and their brand of socially-conscious, in-your-face, space-out, punk-rock rap music. Fact is, we probably haven’t seen anyone in the mainstream making music that’s this angry, timely and vibrant since Rage Against the Machine was at its heights.
The new “Run The Jewels” album was given a surprise release at Christmas. But its original release date was Jan. 13, exactly a week before Donald Trump is sworn in as our president. That’s a good reminder of what makes Run the Jewels even more important in 2017. This is the type of music that wants to shake the establishment to the ground, that wants to challenge what you think, that wants to mosh pit on the White House lawn and that will give you a proverbial punch to the face when you need it.
THE UNLIKELY DUO
The first time most people heard Killer Mike rap was on the Outkast hit “The Whole World,” which came out in 2001 and won a Grammy. As fantastic a debut as that was, it took another 10 years before Killer Mike really found his niche.
Mike — real name, Michael Render — cozied up next to OutKast for a while. He also fell in with other popular Atlanta rappers like T.I. He put albums on labels, guest starred on a Jay-Z song, was independent for a while. He was a good rapper — a great rapper, even — but hadn’t found where his voice truly fit in.
On his 2012 album, “R.A.P. Music” Killer Mike turned to veteran underground producer El-P to produce the album in its entirety. The two of them had been introduced to each other by a Cartoon Network executive, who must have seen something in these two very talented hip-hop dudes from two very different scenes.
Anybody who came up listening to underground hip-hop in late the ’90s knows El-P. His hands have touched some classics, but he’s hardly the type who would be working with Down South rappers from Atlanta.
El-P’s best — and perhaps best-known work — was as part of the group Company Flow, where he produced and rapped on the underground classic “Funcrusher Plus.” El-P’s style was always a mixture of old-school boom-bap mixed with new-age space beats. But it was better built for graffiti writers in backpacks than it was clubs in the ATL.
When Company Flow dissolved, he took the sizable credibility he had built up in the NYC indie scene and started Def Jux Records, where he worked with similarly spaced-out alt rappers like Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock and Mr. Lif.
So when Killer Mike and El-P hooked up, it one of those relationships where two very different styles could either mix perfectly or turn into a trainwreck. Of course, it was the former. They were great together on “R.A.P. Music” (which stood for Rebellious African People and was an early pillar of the more socially conscious Killer Mike), but things took a turn when they formed Run the Jewels.
The main difference? El-P wasn’t just producing. He was rapping. Their two styles were quite different there too — Killer Mike boomed onto tracks, with a bravado and style that directly contrasted El-P’s fast-paced, not-always-enunciated bars.
The first Run the Jewels installment came in June 2013 as a free download, probably because they weren’t sure what sort of response it would get. People loved it. Critics and hip-hop fans alike. They praised their grittiness and the RTJ ying-yang that matched up perfectly.
Things went to the next level on “Run the Jewels 2” in October 2014. This album expanded their repertoire in interesting ways — with a guest spot from Rage Against the Machine’s Zack De La Rocha, Blink 182 drummer Travis Barker and Atlanta rapper Gangsta Boo. It topped many end-of-the-year lists, got them on the top festival circuit and elevated Run the Jewels to a level of music royalty neither artist had achieved on their own.
THE POWER OF KILLER MIKE
All praise due to El-P’s beat and rhymes, but the reason Run the Jewels works so well is that Killer Mike really seems to have found his lane, at long last. He’s a rapper-turned-activist, an outspoken wordsmith who is equally on-point whether he’s rapping on a Run the Jewels track or penning a Rolling Stone editorial.
He landed in the hip-hop sweet spot: He found his voice at the exact time he was also able to shout it from the top of the mountain and people would listen.
On “Jeopardy,” the first track on “Run the Jewels 2,” Killer Mike spit this, which seems to sum up his place in hip-hop well:
“You know your favorite rapper ain’t shit and me, I might be / The closest representation of God you might see / Pay honors like your momma young son and take a right knee / The passion of Pac, the depth of Nas, circa nine three / Mix the mind of Brad Jordan and Chuck D and find me / I spit with the diction of Malcolm or say a Bun B / Prevail through Hell, so Satan get ye behind me”
Public Enemy mixed with 2Pac mixed with Scarface and Malcolm X? Yep, sounds about right.
The end-result of this? It’s seen in many ways. Killer Mike is the type of pop up on CNN and talk about cases of police brutality. He can be seen on shows like “Real Time with Bill Maher.” His Twitter feed is a mixture of hip-hop and marijuana talk, politics, social justice and fan interaction.
In perhaps the most unexpected Run the Jewels-related headline of last year, Killer Mike found himself mentioned in the Hillary Clinton e-mails exposed by Wikileaks. Mike wholeheartedly supported Bernie Sanders for president — even speaking at Sanders campaign rallies — and Hillary’s campaign chief John Podesta received an e-mail saying, “I guess Killer Mike didn’t get the message.” How’s that for political relevance?
Mike isn’t so much about partisan bickering, though. He’s one to dig into issues. He was a big voice against police brutality during the Ferguson uprising. Lately, he’s been writing about how the marijuana industry needs more diversity.
He penned an editorial in Rolling Stone that said, in part:
“The current movement to legalize marijuana offers a small but important opportunity to dismantle these inequalities. And yet the people most likely to be victims of marijuana prohibition are the least likely to profit in its aftermath.
“This is often due to state regulations that prohibit convicted felons, including those convicted of nonviolent drug crimes, from operating, or even working in, a dispensary. In Washington state, for example, where recreational use of marijuana is legal, anyone convicted of a felony in the past decade is generally ineligible for a license to operate a dispensary (although there is a process by which people convicted of a marijuana offense can petition for licensure). Colorado, which also legalized recreational marijuana use, has similar rules, and people who have only marijuana-related convictions may be eligible for a license, if what they were convicted of wouldn’t be illegal today.”
You can expect Killer Mike’s platform to expand considering what’s ahead in 2017: The Trump White House, the new Run the Jewels album, more states with legalized marijuana and more states fighting for those rights.
Further proof: Killer Mike will be the most important voice in music this year.