It’s mid-May and El-P and his musical partner, Michael “Killer Mike” Render, are talking about their new album, “RTJ4,” and even they probably couldn’t have prepared for how prescient El-P’s statement would become.
“We’re expressing ourselves about what we see right now and that’s it. Period. And until that changes it’s always going to be relevant,” El-P continues. “And I love that about it. Because that means there’s truth and urgency to expressing yourself.”
A few weeks after our interview, “RTJ4” arrives at a moment where the nation’s unity hangs in the balance. Widespread protests unlike anything the country has seen in half a century have erupted, stemming from the death of George Floyd, a black man killed while being pinned to the ground under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer who was charged with second-degree murder. Almost every major city has been the site of protests demanding racial justice and an end to police brutality, with clashes between citizens and police officers filling television screens and Twitter feeds every night as the president fans the flames.
In dropping the album two days earlier than its planned release on Wednesday, the duo said: “The world is infested with bulls--- so here’s something raw to listen to while you deal with it all. We hope it brings you some joy. Stay safe and hopeful out there.”
It’s no surprise that Render, as much a tried-and-true community and political activist as emcee, has become one of the most visible faces of the protest movement. His history of bringing light to injustice and inequality via his rhymes is not so much a matter of education but of documentation. Last week he was flanked by Atlanta’s mayor and delivered a now-viral speech urging calm in the wake of the protests and riots in the city. Render has been in such demand as a speaker and by journalists that he held a news conference on Tuesday to speak with representatives from organizations he supports, such as the New Georgia Project and Racial Justice Now.
Render has long seen rap music as a way in which he can make sure he’s accurately represented in the world. “Because there’s very few places where I am,” he says in the May interview, proceeding to reel off a list of mainstream news outlets such as CNN and Fox News, none of which, he contends, speak directly for an African American male like him. Rap is different, however. “Because that’s the one thing that rap has always done for me,” Mike continues. “It’s served as an accurate historical marker for the world from my perspective.”
But brash rhymes only get you so far in today’s celebrity-and-personality driven music culture. To that end, what’s made RTJ one of the most enduring rap duos of the past decade is that despite the self-seriousness that pervades their rhymes, the two men never take themselves the least bit seriously. They’re the first to acknowledge they shouldn’t be as successful as they are — two goofy 45-year-old rap lifers who struggled in relative obscurity for years before teaming up on each other’s solo projects, circa 2012, and then saw their careers explode with RTJ. And it’s their welcoming spirit that endears them to others, and why they’re consistently able to rope in massive names for their projects: “RTJ4” includes guest appearances by everyone from 2 Chainz to Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, who appears on the poignant album highlight “Pulling The Pin” alongside legendary soul singer Mavis Staples. (“I’ve never hugged a stranger more in one day than I hugged Mavis,” El-P says.)
Equally as important in these times, RTJ’s enduring spirit has allowed Mike and El to be nothing if not appreciative of their situation. Of course they would rather be doing what they thought they’d be doing for a massive chunk of 2020 — opening for Rage Against the Machine on the seminal rock group’s reunion tour, bringing live energy to their new and old songs. After all, El admits that’s one of the few things he actually enjoys about being a professional musician. But like the rest of us, El and Mike are each quarantined in their respective home states of New York and Georgia. When we speak in mid-May, they’ve been physically apart from each other for going on two months — easily one of the longest stretches in the seven years since the two best friends in this ferocious, politically minded hip-hop duo appeared on the scene. But each are residing with their families — healthy, happy and forever thankful.
“I’m in a much better position than a lot of other people are and so I’m very grateful,” El-P says by phone from his home in Upstate New York. There with his wife and recently adopted dog, he adds, “I’m just basically just trying to stay sane and trying not to let this situation throw me down a flight of depression stairs, as the kids call it.” Similarly, Mike is at home, spending the sort of time with his wife and children that a multi-decade life as a traveling hip-hop performer so often doesn’t allow for. As always, he remains committed to getting out into his local Atlanta community, and has been handing out meals alongside his “rapper friends” including T.I. and 2 Chainz, along with helping however else he can. “So I’m grateful to be able to help others right now while I’m home growing plants,” the ever-garrulous Mike says in reflection. “It’s been an amazing self-learning process.”
Both men though share a palpable peace of mind, and one that’s eased by their having recently completed yet another triumphant RTJ album. Still, as they both agree, the mere existence of a new Run the Jewels album is in itself an indicator that all is not right in the world: their music — loud, brash, in-your-face, aggressive, attacking racial inequity and a direct challenge to the social and political establishment — has always been a direct reaction to the perilous forces of the outside world.
This interview took place in the aftermath of the arrest in Georgia of the two suspects charged in the killing of an unarmed African American man, Ahmaud Arbery. The names of Arbery, along with Breonna Taylor, who was killed by Louisville police in March, have been invoked by protesters who have taken to the streets since the killing of George Floyd. In his plea last week to his fellow Atlantans in the wake of riots there, despite noting he was “mad as hell” and “woke up wanting to see the world burn down yesterday because I am tired of seeing black men die,” Mike showed nonviolent restraint. “It is your duty not to burn your own house down for anger with an enemy,” he declared. “It is your duty to fortify your own house so that you may be a house of refuge in times of organization.”
On one of the new album’s standout tracks, “Walking in the Snow,” Mike references the 2014 killing of Eric Garner at the hands of the New York Police Department; earlier, he raps about being surrounded by police and expecting the news to distort the situation: “I could shoot at them or put one between my eyes/ Chose the latter, it don’t matter, it ain’t suicide/ And if the news say it was that’s a goddamn lie/ I can’t let the pigs kill me/ I got too much pride.”
“No one wants to be right about this stuff,” Mike says. “But as I’ve watched this Georgia situation unfold I’ve gotten a chance to just sit with myself in my own mind and realize that El and I share a motivation that can’t be taught or bought.” It’s their shared love for rap and truth-telling, he adds, that lies at the heart of their partnership and friendship — what he describes as a cross between a marriage and a teenage sibling relationship — and fuels their continual creation and innovation. “My wife always says, ‘You’re in two marriages,’ ” Mike notes with a laugh. “It really is a relationship,” he says of his partnership with El. “There are compromises and shifts and adjustments. But I’ve never stopped having fun making records with El.”
If there’s a staple to RTJ’s music, it’s lightning-fast bars El-P and Killer Mike bark at each other, a constant challenge to up the ante. To set the proper mood for “RTJ4,” they recorded in studios from New York to Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La oasis in Malibu. And where El says he’s more “the dude who you see in the corner for six hours not saying a word because I’m in front of my laptop writing,” Mike, by contrast, he notes, “lets the Holy Spirit move him.” When asked to dissect his lyrical approach, Mike says he may spit off-the-cuff rhymes in the studio, but he’s a meticulous editor at heart — not least because he’s of the belief he’s forever pulling double duty with his words: Make the message sound as banging and lively as possible but only so listeners have no choice but to pay attention.
“It’s my duty to make my music as jamming as possible,” he says, but also to never let listeners lose sight of the institutions working against people like him. “There’s a system of evil out there,” he continues. “There’s a system of inequality for the last 500 years that’s put a target on my back.”
But when you’re RTJ there’s always more to accomplish. “I feel like a mountain climber who said he’s gonna get halfway up that mountain but we still haven’t gotten to the top yet,” Mike explains, noting how in his estimation RTJ has made four classic albums, continuing in the lineage of some of his favorite rap groups including Outkast and EPMD. “The goal was always just to be equated to my idols,” Mike continues. “But now it’s not enough. I want to be considered the best. And that means we gotta make more music.”
RTJ isn’t stopping there. Mike adds with a smile, “My goal is to march it right into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as one of the greatest rap groups to ever do it.