Known for their ideals, activism, bleak humor and bruising sound, Run the Jewels — a.k.a. hip-hop veterans Killer Mike (Michael Render) and El-P (Jaime Meline) — were preparing for the June 5 release of “RTJ4,” when a white police officer killed an unarmed black man in Minneapolis, and America was set ablaze. The murder of George Floyd, along with the recent slayings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and the protests across the country and the world, have actually had an effect: Cities across the U.S. are at least rethinking the structure of their police forces. Render jumped into the fray, appearing with fellow Atlanta natives Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and T.I. at a press conference that called not only for calm, but for Black Atlanta to “plot, plan, organize, mobilize.”
Due to the protests, the duo hit pause on promoting their album leading up to its release, but they caught up with Variety this week to talk about it — “RTJ4” has been hailed by many critics as the duo’s best yet and entered Rolling Stone’s Albums chart at No. 9 — the protests around the country, and the reasons for them.
Obviously the country is still in an uproar, but now that police officers in Minneapolis and elsewhere are being held accountable and people seem to be rethinking police departments, how do you think things are at the moment?
Killer Mike: From black people’s side, we’re still pretty f—ed-up, angry, mad, sad, disheartened, in a state of non-belief. On some level, change is starting to happen. Hope might build. We’re seeing more people who don’t look like us out there, marching in solidarity with us. One of the most beautiful things I saw last week was police stations burning, and I say that because you see stores burn all the time — hell, I broke windows in stores during the ’92 riots in Atlanta. People saw the ’92 L.A. riots but didn’t see [the ones in Atlanta] — but at this moment, people see the riots.
Sometimes people [in law enforcement] get punished, like they did in Detroit in the late ‘60s. This time though, we’re seeing people say, “Until you change this sh–, we’re going to burn the f—ing government buildings to the ground.” That’s when we get taken seriously.
Now, I think that change is coming, but only if we keep the pressure applied. We just voted in the primaries yesterday in Georgia. Whoever is coming to power in November has to be held accountable for the next two-to-four years of fixes.
El-P: Isn’t it funny that nothing really changes until the so-called “thugs” and “animals” hit the street? That the first reaction to the collective desire for change is to classify those who want real change — those who are not willing to accept the current status between power and the people — with such bullsh– terms. I promise you, those in a position of power don’t wish to see protests. Even if you don’t care about human life — let’s say you only care about property or power — when does it occur to them that disciplining and firing a criminal cop is better than all this? That’s why the pearl-clutching over this whole thing is disingenuous. If you don’t want to see your spring catalog burn, maybe you don’t wait a week to arrest people who publicly kill somebody. Change only starts to happen because it is being demanded.
Okay, let’s talk about the album. The sound of “RTJ4” is hotter than the previous Run the Jewels albums — Jaime, as producer, what were you aiming for?
El-P: Bingo. We look at these records in colors. The last one we dubbed our “blue record,” because there was a lot of emotional, forlorn music on there, dictated by how we felt at that time. I knew going into this that the palette I wanted to give to Mike and me to rap over — the thing I wanted to feel — was fire: red, orange, gold. We wanted something that felt alive joyful, rapturous and angry. We wanted moments when our emotions were at their peak – we wanted you to feel them. I knew I wanted this to also be a tight and concise piece, a distillation of everything that we love that we do together. You’re always going to get Jamie and Mike, two friends who love hip-hop music and were born a month apart, who live in different cities but have many of the same influences.
Certainly there’s something of a hive mind between you when it comes to the issues — what happens when you don’t agree, aesthetically or politically?
Killer Mike Thematically, we’re pretty much together. We really like to smoke weed and make incredibly dope music. With that said, we feel obligated to say what our hearts are telling us when we care about something. We look at other perspectives and think as a whole, at least for me as a writer. Being in this group with Jaime — I can’t think all white people are wrong, even if it feels like that sometimes — I’m literally next to a man who is my brother who would give his life for me, and me for him. That is a bigger thing than us not agreeing on everything. We agree on more things than we disagree, anyway.
El-P We honor our partner. While you are yourself on this record, you’re doing this with a larger picture in mind.
Being a black and white-hip hop act offers you a unique perspective to the concept of white privilege. Where do you stand on that — Mike?
Killer Mike: Why you asking the black guy first? (laughter all around)
El-P: Go ahead, Mike. Say it: “I like white privilege.” (more laughter)
Killer Mike: I try not to pick up on the newest buzzwords! In reality though, white privilege is the systemic, built-in advantage of being white. We know this exists because systems tend to treat people who look like me worse: be it health care, prison, trying to get a loan. There are some white people who don’t think it exists — it’s obviously there. It’s gratuitously there. Being white and Anglo-Saxon, you’re not going to know you’re privileged because in some parts of the country, you’re only seeing people who are like you. Maybe you see someone with a bigger house or newer truck, and maybe you don’t have advantages, which may be true on a class level. But on an everyday level, being white gives you opportunity and privilege over other black people. This system was built to incentivize being white, and that’s what I’m trying to break.
El-P: The most important thing people like me need to confront is the existence of white privilege. If you are not at that level, that’s a big hurdle to jump. If you are not personally offended and traumatized by the abuse of your fellow man, then you have to have an even bigger conversation to have with yourself — who are you? What do you stand for? One of the symptoms of privilege is the inability to see reality. Now, if you consider yourself empathetic and an ally, it doesn’t stop there. Patting yourself on the back is not the conclusion of that revelation; is the beginning. Nothing changes until white America peers through the bubble of inherited privilege and reprograms itself.
Even though this album is fiery, on some songs you channel the anger into something gentler.
El-P: Gentle is a great word. I know we are boisterous characters, mischievous brothers who fight for each other. But there is also Jaime and Mike, without any pretense — there, we are safe to be vulnerable before each other. Those are special records — us taking off our capes and masks, saying we’re struggling, that we don’t know what the end result of anything is, and that we’re scared. But together, we are fighting for the spirit of ourselves and humankind.Killer Mike: We have been on an eight-year tear, and I don’t have a lot of regrets — maybe I should. I was thinking about my mom [who died in 2017], a survivor, a superhero, an artist — which is where I get that from. Unfortunately, she was also an addict. The world breaks an artist’s heart, it broke her body down. When she was sick, I was able to communicate with her — some of it was through FaceTime — but I wasn’t really around. I carried a heavy heart that I wasn’t there.
Now, my wife is my friend, business partner and closest confidante. She constantly reminds me that, through all this, I do not belong to the world, that the most honorable thing I can be is a husband and a father. I’m glad she’s done that. I’m not saying that I’m not willing to be what I’m put here to be, but she reminds me, “I need a husband before the world needs a martyr.” I’m so involved with the movement that I allow myself to be used by the movement until I’m used up. What you have to examine is the peril, the potential, for having nobody there to take care of [my family]. You can help the world — all I can do is my little part — but I don’t have to deny my family a father and a husband. I did that to my mother. I don’t ever want to do that again.