Killer Mike compares the tone of Run The Jewels’ third album with the work of the great Spanish artist Pablo Picasso for reasons of more than hyperbole.
In mourning the state of modern America, it has, he suggests, common ground with Picasso’s paintings from the turn of the 20th century.
“Picasso in his ‘blue period’ was going through a mourning for his friends that were killed. He created some of his most dramatic and beautiful work. Although it was solemn it was not sad and I think we did that,” explains the 42-year-old rapper, whose real name is Michael Render.
“Now do the times dictate that? There’s no way as artists we could ignore the times, whether it was police shootings or upheaval, there was what felt like the breaking of social fabric.
“Jaime [Meline, his musical partner, otherwise known as El-P] and I have always been aware of the things that are happening, we’ve always talked about it.”
The pair chortle darkly when it’s suggested the past ten months of Donald Trump’s presidency might have reinforced their view that they are living in the kind of dystopia they rap about in their songs. “It ain’t helping, buddy,” says El-P.
Yet in spite of that, they both agree they see signs out hope out there. “We see it every night we get on stage,” El-P says. “We’ve been lucky, we got to travel the world right at the time when we didn’t know what was the f*** waiting for us. We’ve been all over our country and all over the world, all the regions that you would expect to see a lot of tension, and granted we’re getting one perspective but for us as people being able to get on that stage in all these different places and see a bunch of people in the same place that don’t all look like each other who are all having a good time certainly helped us keep sane.
“Yes, there is always hope. No war has been won. I think that old corrupt men are having their normal chance to shine and it’s getting a little bit louder but young people with heart and soul who have no intention of going down with the ship and being corrupted are out there.
“I think that darkness is weaker than light and love. I just think that darkness has its moments to shine very brightly or very darkly or loudly, whatever you want to call it, but such is the ebb and flow of our reality. It’s not supposed to necessarily be easy, is it? And I think that every generation has its tests and its stress, but we do feel very grateful about being able to be in front of such good energy each night.
“For me personally it means a lot because there’s been a lot of despair intellectually and emotionally, feeling like you’re sort of barrelling towards something dreadful and it’s a saving grace to be able to get really good energy back every night. I don’t think me and Mike would able to look you in the eyes and say there isn’t hope because we’ve just been feeling it every night.”
I don’t think me and Mike would able to look you in the eyes and say there isn’t hope because we’ve just been feeling it every night.El-P
Bernie Sanders’ campaign to become the Democratic Party’s challenger to Donald Trump may have ultimately been thwarted in 2016, but, as a prominent Sanders supporter, Killer Mike believes the ideas the 76-year-old Vermont senator put forward has galvanised political debate in the US. “I think there’s a push towards workers’ rights in terms of a living wage being raised, states are opening up to decriminalisation – my city of Atlanta just decriminalised marijuana up to an ounce – so progress is being made. I don’t think it was even talked about before he did the campaign.
“Also in our lifetime I think we’ll see national healthcare, we’ll see Medicaid for all because of Sanders.
“I would like to have seen – and I think what he started – was [the process of highlighting] that the DNC [Democratic National Committee] had become a corrupt committee within a party that was driving that party away from the wishes of working class people who make up the primary voters and I think that now that’s been seen as voters we should do a diligent job of making sure that the party is representative of what we want. If it’s not then we should consider forming smaller parties, third parties, on a local level and contesting with Democrats and Republicans, but I think his campaign has been a marvellous success. I look forward to him standing at the crest of revolution.”
Amid the serious subject matter, Run The Jewels’ message is frequently leavened with humour. “A laugh is one of the most powerful weapons that you have against all the bull**** that comes at you,” says Killer Mike.
“There’s a study that says even if you make yourself laugh four or five times a day your body doesn’t have the ability to know if you’re really laughing; it just releases good endorphins so amongst the stuff that we rap about, sometimes it gets intense, of course, and heavy, but I think that just like any friendship, you could be talking to your friend about the worries of the world and five minutes later break out with a ridiculous joke that has both of you barrelling over. I think that’s the magic of Jaime and my friendship, I think that’s the magic that translates into music, and it ends up in punchlines.”
El-P, who is also aged 42, agrees: “I would say [humour] is the foundation, it’s where we start, for the most part. The idea that Run The Jewels is a political group is always trying to be said on Run The Jewels 3, really. But you can’t talk about the stupid s*** we talk about, and the amount of drug intake we talk about, and the amount of stupid jokes we make, we really can’t claim ourselves to be a fully political rap group. It would be a slap in the face of people who really are that and frankly we’re not interested.
“I’d say the foundation is that we basically want to be EPMD and make dope rap music but at the same time we’ve dedicated ourselves to this project. We were solo artists and we had a huge power to think and we would discuss it in our solo music. When Run The Jewels started we wanted to focus on the fun of it. By the time it got to [album] 2 we purposefully started bringing in a little more of our hearts and our minds in the things we talk about because we realised that this was our creative outlet now, we wanted to expand it and we wanted to let it grow up a little bit, and Run The Jewels 3 follows on that same course. But you can’t be too serious when you have a record of producing music made out of cat sounds. You can’t really look anyone in the eye and say you’re saving the world. But at the same time I’ll point out that all the money that was generated from that project of cat sounds went the families of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, who were victims of police brutality, and continue to go to a fund for people who are protesters and people who are non-violent agitators, we make sure we donate to a fund that makes sure they have lawyers to represent them so that they can remain free. We like to do good, we just like to do it often in the stupidest way possible.
“I think that the crux of our humour, and the way I’ve always looked at it, is I could be on the edge of a mass grave with a gun pointed at my head and if I fart I’ll laugh.”
The fact that both Killer Mike and El-P had experienced knockbacks as well as some success in their solo careers gave them a shared determination to make the most of Run The Jewels.
“You’re not going to meet two guys who are more grateful for the chance to do this,” says El-P.
“I tell people every day I love my job,” says Killer Mike. “I always thought jobs just sucked. Being a musician, travelling, putting on shows you can get to a place where you can take it for granted and you become ungrateful for that, I’ve seen it happen to people in other acts, but with the success of Run The Jewels I constantly remind myself that I love my job, I’m an artist, I get to express myself because of that I get to tour and I can touch people and their energy gets to touch me and inspires me to make more music, that’s the best situation I can ever ask for. Every day I wake up thankful for it and I go to sleep knowing that if I don’t make up again I’ve had the best day of my life.”
El-P adds: “When we met we were both determined, we had both been through some s*** and I think we were refreshed in our determination to be happy and do what we love, so the fact that this unplanned thing happened, and all this magic poured out of it and all this opportunity to do what you wanted to do, I don’t look at my success personally as like a dollar amount, I look at how many years have I fought to be able to do what I love doing.
“Quite frankly I didn’t leave myself with any Plan B, I’ve been doing this since I was 17 and there was a point after years and years and years I started to question in my head not will I stop doing what I love but will what I love stop f***ing with me, will it reject me, will it stop allowing me to be a participant?
“All of our work with Run The Jewels has felt like this magical gift, this extension, like ‘here you go, if you want it, if you put the energy into it, if you love it then here’s some more years doing what you love doing’ and that’s a really amazing feeling.”
Run The Jewels play at O2 Academy Leeds, with Danny Brown, on November 15. runthejewels.com