Run the Jewels Sets an Example for Self-Affirmation in the Trump Era

El-P and Killer Mike
El-P and Killer Mike
Timothy Saccenti
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Music fans and progressives alike spent most of the past year denouncing 2016 as a dumpster fire. But many of the American anxieties that came to a head last year surfaced in 2013. Over the course of those 12 months, we were confronted with the prospect of an overreaching and all-knowing government, courtesy of Edward Snowden's leaks. The Boston Marathon bombing, a devastating and senseless attack of terror, struck one of our main metropolitan hubs. And to Florida's great shame, the trial of George Zimmerman and his culpability in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin not only deepened the wounds of partisanship and racial division that have long afflicted our country, but also served as the catalyst for Black Lives Matter, one of the defining movements of our time.

From a post-2016 perspective, it's tempting to dismiss 2013 as quaint, an aperitif for the insanity and dysfunction that many claim engulfed our country in the last calendar year. Try telling that to Run the Jewels.

Long before the release of the hip-hop duo's breakthrough eponymous 2013 mixtape-cum-album, neither Brooklyn-born El-P nor ATLien Killer Mike had any qualms about airing their grievances with the state of the nation in their respective solo careers. In 2007, the same year Kanye West was celebrating the good life and basking in flashing lights, El-P was holding President George W. Bush's feet to the fire for engineering the Iraq War and installing our modern surveillance state. In "Dear Sirs," he defiantly proclaims, "Me fighting in your war is still, by a large margin/The least likely thing that will ever fucking happen, ever." And don't even get Mike started on Ronald Reagan.

When it was released in the long-ago summer of 2013, Run the Jewels felt like a Folgers-filled fist to the face. It was funny and ridiculous without ever becoming corny ("I'll pull this pistol, put it on your poodle or your fuckin' baby"). It was effortlessly affecting ("Don't fret, little man, don't cry, they can never take the energy inside you were born with/Knowing that, understand you could never be poor/You already won the war, you were born rich"). And it had enough braggadocio to leave listeners with a potent contact high of absurd boldness ("Be it NYC or the ATL/From the ceilings of Heaven to the gates of Hell/We murder death killed every stage we step/Homicide times two better warn yourself, El").

Since the initial Run the Jewels record, Killer Mike and El-P have transcended their statuses as cult figures to become internet folk heroes. Lifted by the rising tides of their iconoclastic and irreverent rhymes, El and Mike have pulled off the unique trick of remaining artists serious enough to act as surrogates for presidential candidates while releasing remix albums consisting primarily of cat hisses, screeches, and meows. The same two who accused their detractors of being "pussy proverbial pansy panty-holders" have wound up as the unlikely figureheads of an increasingly vocal and ever-expanding progressive segment of hip-hop fandom. Hey, it's 2017; stranger things have happened.

So it's surprising that in interviews and on their newly released record, December's Run the Jewels 3, both men sound oddly at peace with the prospects (or lack thereof) offered by Donald Trump's forthcoming presidency. In an interview with the Guardian following the release of RTJ 3, El-P remarked, "Everyone knows ad nauseam what the perspectives on that are right now. I'm personally fucking tired of the conversation. Y'all got what you want, well, all right — let's try and make this shit fucking work. It's going to be horrible."

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly , Mike asserted that the results of the presidential election did not substantially alter the duo's mission statement or purpose as recording artists.

"Our job is to make dope-ass rap music. We're going to continue doing that, touring the world, and reminding people [they're] already free," Mike said. "Freedom is not something you're even trying to fight for; you are free. Go. Make sure you live free every day."

On the surface, the duo's acceptance of our grim immediate future might appear like capitulation, a betrayal of the values they have espoused since the beginning of their careers. After all, how could the men who not only growled "do dope, fuck hope" but also crafted "Early," the most upsetting musical account of police brutality in recent memory, be anything but livid and outraged at what has transpired and what has yet to come? But look deeper, and Run the Jewels' advice on living your life in our current mess of affairs represents a natural and fitting progression of their day-one philosophies.

In a statement preceding the release of RTJ 3, the group elaborated on the inspiration behind the blue and gold record cover, itself the latest take on the hand, fist, and chain combination that has dominated and defined RTJ's imagery:

"For us, the RTJ1 hands were about 'taking what's yours' — your world, your life, your attitude. The RTJ2 hands were wrapped in bandages, signifying injury and healing, which for us represented the growth in ideas and tone of that album. For RTJ3 the bandages are off, the chain is gone, and the hands have been transformed into gold. For us this represents the idea that there is nothing to take that exists outside of yourself. You are the jewel."

Like rap-slanted Nietzschean supermen, El-P and Killer Mike rise to the occasion in RTJ 3. "You talk clean and bomb hospitals/So I speak with the foulest mouth possible," El raps on the album closer, "A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters." "And I drink like a Vulcan losing all faith in the logical/I will not be confused for docile/I'm free, motherfuckers, I'm hostile." All of this before Killer Mike implores listeners to do just what the title asks and "kill your masters."

Much of the joy for fans of Run the Jewels has been bearing witness to El-P and Killer Mike's ongoing self-actualization. On Wednesday, Miamians will have the opportunity to do so right alongside them.

Run the Jewels
With the Gaslamp Killer, Nick Hook, Gangsta Boo, and Cuz. 8 p.m. Wednesday, January 25, at the Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-673-7300; fillmoremb.com. Tickets cost $31 to $45 plus fees via livenation.com.

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