Run the Jewels' Verbal Broadsides Mix the Personal and Political

Randall Roberts
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The dilemma across 2016 lay in how much politics to include in a creative project that began as a way for a pair of middle-aged solo artists to blow off steam and have fun making rap music together.

LOS ANGELES — In late December, while Killer Mike waited in a Hollywood rehearsal space for El-P, his musical partner in the acclaimed rap duo Run the Jewels, the subject of politics and movies came up.

Killer Mike (born Mike Render), who in 2016 channeled his thoughtfully blistering verses on race and class into action by endorsing and campaigning with Sen. Bernie Sanders during the Democratic presidential primaries, had just seen a trailer for the forthcoming “War for the Planet of the Apes.”

He was worried, he said, that the franchise had become “sanitized.”

“It’s like they depoliticized them,” said Killer Mike, contrasting the reboot series with the allegorical first “Apes” films of the late 1960s and ‘70s.

“What made movies at that point great — and TV probably until about the early ‘80s — was that it was so provocative,” Killer Mike said. “‘All in the Family’ was good because it was provocative. I remember ‘The Jeffersons’ episode with the Klansman — George saves his life and he was like, ‘You should have just let me die.’”

Seeing that episode as a kid required that Killer Mike, now 41, “think it through and grow out of your own little bigotry — and still have a good time.”

A similar duality marks “Run the Jewels 3,” Killer Mike and El-P’s decidedly nonsanitized third album, which was surprise-released on Dec. 24. “RTJ3,” a notably dark record with the occasional ray of light, was written and recorded with the divisive presidential campaign as the backdrop, and as both lost close friends.

Tapping at his phone while camped out on a couch, Killer Mike pulled up the “Apes” trailer. As grim theme music played, a menacingly deep-voiced character said, “I did not start this war. I offered you peace. I showed you mercy. But now you’re here to finish us off.”

His eyes lighted up with excitement. “I’m going to one of those fancy movies to see this … where you can buy dinner.”

El-P, his hair still wet from a shower, rolled into the room, casually dropped a joint on the coffee table as he sat down and started talking about writing and recording “Run the Jewels 3” during what Killer Mike called “tumultuous times.”

The dilemma across 2016 lay in how much politics to include in a creative project that began as a way for a pair of middle-aged solo artists to blow off steam and have fun making rap music together.

El-P (Jaime Meline), who didn’t campaign for anyone but supported his partner’s Sanders stumping, acknowledged their competing reflexes: “You see people wanting (artists) to say something when no one is — and then you see people being exhausted by people saying something.”

Mixed into the mess, he added with a cuss, was “having our own ideas of the type of records we would love to make if none of that … was there.” The results, said El-P, were tracks on the album “written almost in despite of the world crumbling around us.”

“To borrow a phrase from a television show, ‘Winter’s coming,’” said Killer Mike. “I felt like that making this entire record. I felt a darkness.”

As with the first two albums, “RTJ3” mixes Killer Mike’s searing insights, from the perspective of a black Atlantan with a cadence to match his acuity, with El-P’s beat production and razor-witted, eloquent couplets as a white Brooklynite whose work as a rapper and producer has earned him underground respect and acclaim.

Across its discography, the team hasn’t avoided hard questions about race, law enforcement and politics — nor have the two shied away from exploring the deeply personal and their love of the kind of hip-hop revelry that defines their favorite albums.

As they started writing in December 2015, El-P said the two didn’t discuss overarching themes or decide to devote themselves to making a political record. Most important, he said, was documenting “the temperament of the last couple of years for us and being friends. Being in it and being affected by the world around us.”

It may be hard to see the playfulness and fun amid the darkness, he added, but that’s a huge part of what they want out of their work. So is “how we are with each other, no matter what’s going on,” El-P said. “We’re still smoking weed and cracking jokes and hanging out with each other and enjoying each other’s company. And that is the foundation of the record.”

But that apparently was easier said than done, because “Run the Jewels 3” opens with a Killer Mike-rapped indictment.

Torn between competing instincts from verse one, Mike sets “Down” in a room with two things before him. “Ballot or bullet, you better use one,” Mike raps as he name-checks three different amendments to the Constitution: “One time for the freedom of speeches / Two time for the right to hold heaters / Just skip to the fifth with the cops in the house / Close your mouth and pray to your Jesus.”

Stumping for Sanders, Killer Mike said, made him increasingly disillusioned as the year wore on.

“This country is going … mad. Let’s just be honest. I was campaigning with what I felt like was a good man for good reasons — and in the middle of that I saw good people doing atrocious things to sabotage that. And that really … with me,” he said.

“I said a line in there, ‘I’ve seen the devil working behind the curtain and came back with some evidence,’” Killer Mike said, quoting a line from the song “2100.” “I saw what the DNC (Democratic National Committee) did, and it affected me in a way that I couldn’t make this record and not be darker on parts — because I felt more cynical.”

In “Talk to Me,” Killer Mike recounts his experience on the campaign trail by name-checking the Arabic word for Satan while seeming to critique Donald Trump: “Went to war with the devil and Shaytan / He wore a bad toupee and a spray tan.”

For his part, El-P has “Jaws” on his brain, but he seems to be talking not just about the shark but also America when he raps, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat, boys — you’re in trouble.”

On the album-closing “A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters,” he spits judgment on politicians: “Can’t contain the disdain for y’all demons / You talk clean and bomb hospitals / So I speak with the foulest mouth possible / And I drink like a Vulcan losing all faith in the logical.”

Across the hundreds of couplets, “RTJ3” references online surveillance, the police state, Chicago gangland and a power structure that earns profits despite the poverty surrounding them. “Good day from the house of the haunted — get a job, get a house, get a coffin,” El-P raps on “Don’t Get Captured.” “Don’t stray from the path, remain where you at — that maximizes our profit.”

That track begins a three-song suite that pocks the album with grimness, as though a new reality were sinking in. A sample from “The Twilight Zone” opens “Thieves”: “This is not a new world, it is simply an extension of what began in the old one.”

Asked about the darkness, El-P seemed torn. “Certainly, there are points,” he said, but “it doesn’t stay and it’ll never be the foundation of who we are.” Rather, he stressed that the primary goal remained “to just make raw … dope records and see where we can push each other and where our styles intertwine.”

Playfulness, in fact, abounds. In “Call Ticketron,” El-P revels in wordplay as he reassures Run the Jewels listeners that the “last two pirates alive are still yargin’” — but are living in a future where “the hovercraft’s cool but the air’s so putrid.”

“Everybody Stay Calm” features the rapper referencing “Willie Wonka”: “Oompa-Loompas, I’ll shoot a tune at ya medullas/ I’m cool as a rule but I’ll scalp a ruler.” El-P even wades into the 2016 meme centered on the spelling of the children’s series “Berenstain Bears.”

The result is a work that reconciles competing reflexes with an approach El-P described as “a swagger, or way to perceive yourself, in the face of authority and in the face of the majority of the people. A way to have personal power based on an ethos and not based on your position in society.”

Eyeing the joint on the table, Killer Mike suggested taking a smoke break, and the two stood to make their way outside.

But first, El-P had one more thing to say: “If I see a king walking through the streets in all his regalia, I know that if I spit on him, all of the clothes and all the power doesn’t mean a … thing, because in that moment, me and him are the same. Am I right for doing it? I don’t … know. But I’ll talk about the instinct.”

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