Run the Jewels Talks About Gun Rights, Government Surveillance, and the Political Power of Big Beats
Reason has a conversation with "top tag team for two summers."
Killer Mike's twitter bio reads: "I like My Woman, My Kids, Weed, Polo and Politics. I am a Pan Africanist Gangster Rapper, Civic Leader & Activist."
That description cannot be improved upon. The rap world was originally introduced to Mike's oozy southern baritone back in 2000 via an impressive guest verse on the Outkast masterwork Stankonia. He's dropped half a dozen smart, increasingly political albums since then, culminating in 2012's booming dystopian treatise R.A.P. Music.
All the beats on R.A.P. Music were cooked up by El-P—a Brooklyn-born industry vet who scored his first record deal before his 21st birthday. He's one of the more important figures in the history of independent hip hop. They eventually formed like Voltron and the result is Run the Jewels.
Last month, Run the Jewels dropped their terrific sophomore album—as a free download. The particulars of their politics can be tough to parse. But RTJ2's lyrics convey a deep skepticism of authority of any flavor. Reason recently sat down with the correctly self-described "top tag team for two summers" to exchange words about government surveillance, gun rights, and the political power of big beats.
You've both been in the music industry for a long time. You've watched the traditional distribution model for albums get wrecked. The particular release strategy of this new LP seems to embody the paradigm that's emerged from that bloodshed: a free download supported by aggressive touring, while also offering some pricey boutique products for super fans.
Mike: You know if the old way doesn't work for you, try and figure out a new way. You want to escape all the label politics and you want to escape the chasing of the secondary and tertiary levels of a major.
El was like: Just give it to the kids. And they repaid us by supporting the fuck out of our shows and by buying our merch. And that created the model that, "Yo, we could do this again and we could just do it ourselves. We don't need anyone."
El-P: It's our contribution to what we desire to be an ongoing relationship directly with the people that have been allowing us to do what we want to do. I mean, when I was a kid I'm the one who coined the phrase "independent as fuck," you know?
I don't want any cynicism involved in what I'm doing. I just want to be as transparent and clear and direct and I think that the music industry is built on cynicism to some degree. There's a lot of larks, and there's a lot of contriving, and the game of trying to sell something and set it up, and prep it in your mind, and really the only game there possibly is, is to make beautiful music, or to make something that can connect with people.
Part of the inspiration for reaching out to you guys is that Mike went on The Independents, which is hosted by Kennedy, and said some really smart things about Ferugson and the militarization of the police.
Mike: I like her show.
El-P: I had a giant crush on Kennedy for so many years.
The families at the center of national controversies like that typically get dehumanized and simply become convenient vessels for outsiders to advance their particular politics. Mike, you made the point that our first duty is to empathize with their suffering, to see them as people.
Mike: We all have to kind of take off our prejudice and bigotries. You have to do that to even enter the part of the conversation I'm talking about. You have to have the human capacity to look past whatever class, color, creed, whatever prejudices that we all harbor. You have to say, "This is a human child that is on the ground, bleeding."
And I do worry about my gun being taken. I do worry about these roadblocks that are popping up for DUIs illegally, these checkpoints in my community. I worry about that.
We're promised not to be treated like that domestically. We're promised that our police cannot act like the military does. But we have allowed not only military machines but military tactics. We're funding local municipalities with drug raids.
Why aren't the people who belong to the organization I belong to, the NRA, why aren't they there when the first tank is rolled out to say: You know what, some of our members might not agree with how that community votes on gun policy. But we shouldn't allow their child to be shot down and then tanks to be marched down in their community, if we really are the guys who preach vehemently against that.
I saw in the 5th Ward of Houston, Texas, a group of white gun owners were going to march down the street holding their guns out through a black neighborhood. Now some people would've just said, "Hey, they want to strike terror in the neighborhood." Later the Black Panthers came into the fold and they said they would also be out there with their guns, almost in an adversarial way.
And I'm thinking: That's the wrong way to handle this. What you should've done is called and said, "We're going to march with you too, because we strongly agree with gun rights."
It's rarely noted that gun rights played an essential role in the black liberation movement. It's about being able to defend yourself against government incursions.
Mike: Absolutely. There's no other minority population in the world that if given the ability would not arm themselves. And the fact that I'm asked by leaders in my community not to is absurd. And it keeps me vehemently angry with them and unable to trust them.
You have a safeguard against tyranny, and you wish to give that up. How foolish are you, you know, how foolish are you?
El, you've been rapping about ubiquitous government surveillance for a long time. I'm wondering how you felt about the Snowden revelations—they must have provided some sense of vindication….but maybe also thrown you into a permanent panic attack.
El-P: That layer of the illusion of the way that we are living is pulled back a little bit, and some of the truth and the ugliness of reality is starting to rear its head in such an obvious way that people who are not normally disposed to think about it or to really question it are being forced to.
I'm not particularly educated. I just have my mind. And I have my heart. And I have, you know, I think I have a decent sense of things. And I think you hear it in my records, I mean honestly it's reflected in my music.
But, I'm grateful that there is a real new awakening in people, and I think that we can't go back now.
That being said, I also fucking smoke weed and drink like a motherfucking insane man because I'm being driven mad like we all are to some degree, you know what I mean? Like, we're just regular dudes, we're musicians, we're rappers, we're just making music, we're not politicians, we're don't have your education, we probably don't even have your real knowledge of perspective. We just have our perception and we tune in to that.
Well, I think you're selling yourself short. I think that music can serve a really vital function in counteracting pernicious political interia—that great music can reshape people's perceptions and stoke a healthy contrarianism. Your music has certainly done that for me.
El-P: Thank you, and that means a lot to hear! And that's very important and I do think that music can play a function and I think the beauty of it is that it's malleable. And so you put an idea out there with art or with music and it radiates way beyond whatever the original idea was, and it becomes and it grows, because it's energy.
I mean I hate to sound like this is abstract—
Mike: It's my wife after yoga class!
El: It's energy, and good nutrition. It's all about good nutrition, and it may also all be about aliens.