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Killer Mike, one half of Hip-Hop powerhouse Run The Jewels, talks fragility, strength, kids, opportunity, politics and Bernie Sanders

The Victoria Line. North bound. Clutching a thinly rolled poster and fizzing with energy, it was patently clear where the two hyped young men were coming from. Hurricane Run The Jewels had just blown through Club 100, Oxford St.

When, fifteen years previous, El-P and his Company Flow cohorts first tore the roof off Ladbroke Grove’s then Subterrania, these twenty-somethings were of nursery school age. They are now the Jewel Runners: the super-fans, who with no more than 4-hours notice of the secret gig’s location, can assemble like Voltron after helping their brother move house in Norwich. RTJ have got it like that.

Carrying no less than four of the distinctly illustrated Run The Jewels posters myself, a little game of Snap ensued. In this poster war, my victory was a numbers game. That and greed.

With the mean career length in Hip-Hop closely resembling a moth’s mating season, Michael Render and Jaime Meline – aka Killer Mike and El-P – represent a collective commitment to the culture spanning two generations, making Run The Jewels a testament as much to innovation as to steadfast dedication.

Serendipity. noun ser·en·dip·i·ty \ˌser-ən-ˈdi-pə-tē\
1. “fortunate happenstance” or “pleasant surprise”

2. running into Run The Jewels outside the Ace Hotel lobby, on a cold Friday morning in Shoreditch

In refraining from mentioning El-P’s place in the lexicon of great MC’s seemed like a wise omission from our first conversation, the situation is kept partially professional. A genuine “thank you” on behalf of myself and all lovers of Hip-Hop was perhaps the most controlled, appropriate sentiment to declare at that time. The sentiment is both appreciated and understood. We part ways, aiming to converse again.

Urgency /ˈəːdʒ(ə)nsi/ noun
1. importance requiring swift action

2. “the discovery of the ozone hole gave urgency to the issue of CFCs”

3. getting to Ace Hotel for 6 o’clock, 10-mins away with 3-mins to go

Mountainous yet unassuming, Killer Mike’s presence is one of calm, measured reserve. Mike is in pre-fight mode; the calm before the storm that all athletes–warriors–performers observe as a right of preparatory passage, before events of great magnitude.

Mike is bang on time. But being in the right place at the right time has had a strong bearing on the trajectory of RTJ. Presented with a field laden with obstacles, El and Mike have grabbed the ball and are running — as we were to get there. Given that time waits for no man or woman, and with sweaty brows, we address the timely matter of ‘urgency’ with Mike — the pressing matters of the day:

My daughter graduates this year. As a Dad, that’s what’s urgent: getting kids out successfully to the world

“My daughter graduates this year. As a Dad, that’s what’s urgent: getting kids out successfully to the world. She’s 18, so she gives 18-year-old troubles; so I’ve got to pay particular attention to her. My kids are the most urgent thing in my life. I also have a 13-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl, but I’ve been on the road for 14-15-months, I’m ready to wind down from the road, and then build up that urgency to rap again. But right now, it’s just my kids.”

Getting kids out into the world remains a perennial challenge. Year-on-year, for parents, wider community and cultural spaces alike, that task becomes markedly more complex. And with that complexity comes a certain fragility: not the schmaltzy love song, achy-breaky-heart type fragility, but the effects that these common struggles have on the human psyche. As we grow. As we develop. As we go through real shit.

There’s a commonality, or common experience that binds Mike and El like a blood brothers pact. Both hit rock bottom, at one time in their lives. Both suffered from depression. The transition from point a-to-z is nuanced. The journey can be long. On this delicate subject of fragility, Mike is both open and candid, if at first a little confused…

Killer Mike: “Virginity?”

Steph: “Fragility.”

Killer Mike: “Oh, fra-gility. Okay! I was gonna say: ‘No I haven’t been for a very long time!’”

“I was blessed to have a great wife. I was blessed to be inspired to be a good human being and better man and Father, so I had a lot of reasons not to stay in that place. I think everybody kind of lands in that place – a lot of the time we don’t have any control of how we land in that place, but we do have control over whether we stay in that place. I think I just refuse to just die, and lose like that. I just couldn’t do it.

We all are fragile. I think that recognising that on a daily basis makes you appreciate things more. I appreciate where this trajectory is bringing me, because every year it just gets better and better and better. I mean, I lost the woman that raised me. My Grandmother raised me, but essentially I lost my mother, and ever since, I haven’t felt whole in the way that I did when she was here. But every year since she’s been gone, I become a better human being, a better husband, a better musician: it’s almost like African faith – the spirit of your ancestors, constantly being around you. It helps me to understand that being fragile is almost a necessity; you don’t get to keep your humanity if you don’t let that be.”

I recognise that I’m fragile, and that’s why I do things to make me strong, to protect that.

“I recognise that I’m fragile, and that’s why I do things to make me strong, to protect that. When you hear a record like ‘Crown’, you’re hearing a deep, thudding powerful, fragile moment. It takes strength to be able to do that.

As a black man, it’s not easy. You’ve got groups of people that just admire your genetics, like: “Ah man! If I had your genetics, I would just play ball!” So you’re given these things that people have these good and bad expectations of [and] a lot of the time you’re identified with the group first, without the individual freedom to discover what masculinity is for yourself – to validate yourself. I mean ‘hell yeah!’, I’ve got the bravado and the machismo, but I also have the sympathy, the empathy and the humanity.

There’s an old saying in the martial arts: “You’ve got to have a poet to balance your warrior.” You can’t simply be a warrior. You can’t simply be a bad-ass rapper, without willing to be an honest Griot and teller of the human experience. So if we give you a ‘Close Your Eyes and Count to Fuck,” it’s from a place of fragility that that hardness comes from.

But from the same token, if we give you an ‘Early’ or a Crown, I’m totally open on those records. And the other records we have that are just kind of badass, [with all due respect] are what balances that – they are the varnish that protects.”

[Steph] So does maturity enable you to do that, in terms of bringing that to RTJ’s music? “My music has never not been that, since my first record Monster. [It’s not so much] maturity in terms of age, as much as it’s maturity in terms of spirit.”

“Bun-B told me one time: ‘The only problem with your first album was that you are already a veteran in spirit,’ and people didn’t recognise that. They thought when I was sitting on Outkast’s album with one mother-fucking verse that’s already a classic, folks were like: ‘Who the hell is this asshole?’ They didn’t understand that this is what I’ve wanted to do since I was 9-years-old. I’ve studied this shit like a Shaolin Monk. Like they’ve dedicated their lives to training, I’ve dedicated my life to the craft of rapping. This is my martial science. This is everything that’s me; I love this shit like Kobe Bryant loves basketball.”

Masters of their own destiny, RTJ are cutting through the clutter, with an uncompromising feel and sense of authenticity. But as Mike said, he has always done that. El-P has always done that. It’s just that now, as Run The Jewels, they are doing it together.

“I don’t think in terms of age as I see some wise 20-year-olds out there. I have the gift of being raised by people from the ‘20s and ‘30s – my Grandparents – so I was given a certain a sense of maturity. I still did all the dumb shit, but I don’t think it was age that necessarily accelerated me. What age did was absence my ego. I think honestly, I stopped letting my ego dictate my decisions. My ego would have told me: ‘OK, Run The Jewels 1 was good, [now] go back and do a solo record like you’re supposed to,’ but the right thing to do was Run The Jewels 2. Run The Jewels empowered so many people — it ignited a certain passion — and when you find that much energy in the world you feed that, no matter what you wanna do.

I think that the maturity that I have, is a spiritual maturity. I don’t know it’s because I’m older, because there’s a lot of 40-year-old assholes in Rap. I’m just thankful that whatever lessons the universe has kind of revealed to me, I’ve paid attention to some of ‘em. I still haven’t learned them all – I still do my fair share of fucking up. It happens.”

‘Fucking up’ does happen. Opportunities are missed. But thankfully, the lessons doled out previous have been heeded, meaning when the opportunity came, both El-P and Mike were very much awake to the opportunities that this collaboration represented.

“Yep. I knew it from the first day that we recorded. I didn’t know we’d be rapping together like this, but I knew we’d be making music together. I say this, and I don’t say this irresponsibly, but I don’t think anybody raps better over El-P’s beats than me — even El-P.”

Mike laughs a raucous laugh. Not a Rawkus laugh, ecause that wouldn’t be funny at all: “I am that in love with him as a producer and as a rapper. He’s my brother; it’s like being around constant inspiration. Whether he’s playing a beat for me, or rapping one of the sickest fucking multi-syllable verses I’ve ever heard, he’s constantly inspires me, from the first day I met him.

So yeah, I saw ‘this’. I didn’t know what it was, but I saw us making music together. I thought: “oh I’m just making another record,” and my ego was like: ‘Oh, you gon’ get him to produce all your solo records,’ but once we got on some records together, for his album, I said “Yeah…” I can remember when he called and was like: ‘We gotta make this mixtape…I don’t know, it’s taking a long time to write.’ I was like: ‘El, I don’t care about the money: I’ll come and make the whole tape with you!’”

Establishing this special relationship required levels of persistence. From El picking up the phone – not picking up the phone – to neither letting time get in the way: “When you know it’s right, you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to see the play and get your ego out of the way. I’ve got other producers who I make great music with, but when I got quiet and let it happen, that’s when it happened, so I don’t have any problems telling anybody else ‘this is how it’s supposed to be.’ You’ve got to be the person brave enough to say that shit, the time you see it, because other people will catch up. They’ll catch on and they’ll go harder for it than even you thought, because once they catch the passion, the fire gets bigger.”

It is that fire, that urgency, which distinguishes this organic process from those that have been unable to light that touch-paper when conditions were right. We’ve seen it all before: bands whose lights flicker and die in an instant. Alternative in method Jaime and Mike have found a way to seize the moment, to revel in spontaneity, and to get the job done.

Once El got it, he just broke out the whip! He became like a taskmaster; like “let’s get it done!

“El-P usually takes a little time before to work on tracks, with my guy Taco who we worked on the Rumble Kings soundtrack. They usually go in early and start playing around, building foundational beats. Then I come up, we get in the room together; smoke weed; take shrooms; drink whisky; walk around and talk about stuff: El-P’s usually there with the iPad, because he writes, and I just kind of mumble until something hits me. The beats play, something happens and we just start rapping. A day later you’ve got a record. A week later you’ve got a third of a record. Three weeks later you’ve got an album usually – or at least a framework for what we know will be an album.”

Whether it be Killer Mike’s debut album Monster, or El-P’s seminal days with Company Flow, both have continually innovated throughout their respective careers. Yet innovation in of itself is no guarantee of success.

The democratisation of music in the digital age has been one of the industries biggest myths. No longer beholden to record labels for the distribution of physical product, the gatekeepers have simply moved offices. From Artist & Repertoire to Press, Marketing and Promotional platforms that not only perform the role of gatekeeper, but that of a funnel – siphoning off talent like the head of a French beer.

And in an age where over-familiarity often breeds contempt, RTJ have together found a formula that ensures that even the fickle have had to pay attention. For the last couple of years, people have not been able to take their eyes off of Run The Jewels.

“It’s about styles; Rap is based on styles. It used to be the case when we were kids in the ‘80s, we would talk about rap and martial arts — almost synonymously. You see like the Wu-Tang’s nuances that used form from the martial arts world, all the way back to the Fu-Schnickens: rap has always been about style. I think that El and I have a dedication to that. If you listen to a Run The Jewels track, we’re rapping in different styles in damn near every record. We don’t let you get comfortable [to be able to say] “Oh yeah: that’s Run The Jewels’ sound,” because if we get comfortable in that, you get comfortable [in that], and once you get comfortable, you don’t appreciate. And I’m not trying to be unappreciated.”

This is not by accident, but by design. In this ultimate Hip Hop cookbook, essential ingredients include a combination of skill, comfort, confidence and swagger.

Swagger /ˈswaɡə/ verb
1. walk or behave in a very confident and arrogant or self-important way

2. “he swaggered along the corridor”

There is no arrogance of self-importance on show as El-P saunters into the Ace Hotel lobby. But there is a confidence. And an abundance of humour.

“Oh you just took it over huh? Is this how it is; you guys just wanted to talk to Mike? When we saw each other outside and you’re like: “We want interview Run The Jewels, he was like “I’m Run The Jewels!!” Mike encourages El to pull up a chair, but Jaime is thirsty. The ‘all-time favourite MCs’ convo will have to wait.

We’ve seen Mike in many different contexts as a public speaker: rare in an age where, for the sake of broader commercial viability, the ‘personal politic’ often separates like oil and water, or like Andy Murray recanting his ‘public’ opinion in a Scottish Referendum debate. But from The Last Poets, to Big Daddy Kane to Chuck D to Kendrick, coalescence of the personal politic runs true to the very essence of Hip-Hop.

“I believe [that] the stronger individual I am, the better I am for my collective. My first collective is being a black man, and I feel that carries a responsibility. Not everybody has to feel that responsibility, but I feel I owe it to my people first and foremost, to be a representative they can be respectful of. You ain’t gotta believe in everything – you don’t have to be proud of everything I do – but you’re gonna say “he presents us in a respectable way.”

In addressing the constitutional right of the American, Mike continues to speak extensively and expansively on a broader issue of inalienable rights of all Americans.

I’m an American, but I’m a citizen of the world. I like people to know that there are other people in my country aside from the assholes that you see. I don’t want everybody to think that every American is Donald Trump…

“…God bless him. Being rich is cool, but some of the stuff he says just… I’m just a human, and I would like for us as human beings to know that we’re interconnected; that race is just who got out of Africa first, when tribes left thousands of years ago; who went further north; how much ultra-violet light got on your skin: there’s no difference in the way we should be treating each other, yet we do [treat each other differently].

So my thing is when we get the opportunity speak, if I can say something that challenges human beings – especially whites in my country – to get outside of their comfort zone and to befriend or work with a colleague that doesn’t look like them; that culturally isn’t from their background, then I’ve succeeded a little bit in stopping the systemic racism, classism, sexisms that we all have to face.

I wish for all human beings to live their 80-90-100-years in relative peace and enjoyment. There’s an alternative to the world that we currently live in. There’s an alternative to the systems that we currently follow. We just have to have the courage. The underlying message when I speak is how to interconnect humans, so that together, we start to say ‘we don’t need that other shit: we don’t need war; we don’t need the systems where money is seen as more important than human beings; we don’t need to keep trying to take territory, and that my only goal in life is to live a good life, and to leave something good for the rest of humanity and get outta here.”

These existential issues bleed into the music, and they bubble over on stage. As was the case in Ferguson, Missouri, where Run The Jewels performed at the city’s Ready Room, just hours after a grand jury announced they would not be pursuing charges against police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. Who knows how old Officer Wilson thought Michael Brown was will perhaps never come to light. Mike delivered an emotional seven-minute speech regarding the situation to the crowd. The age of his sons were central to this candid expression of fear, hope and resilience.

As an orator, as a Master of Ceremony, his skills as a performer have enabled Mike to approach a number of bi-partisan issues from both an unorthodox, yet forthright manner, in order to get to the crux of the matter.

“For whatever reason, I’ve been lucky to have a voice and speaking cadence that people listen to.”

I grew up watching great speeches by great men, and reading great words by great men. Somewhere I guess it seeped in.

“I think that ultimately, my ability to relate to people who don’t look like me; who may not share the same political / spiritual views as me – I have an ability to come to people almost as a blank slate.

I know enough, about enough, to be open to learn more. I’m not married to Christianity. I’m not married to any particular religion. I’m not married to Islam. I’m not married to Judaism. I’m not married to this political class. I’m not married to this political party. I am only here simply as a human being trying to exist for 80-90-100-years, and get the fuck outta here. That’s it.

I think because I approach the world that way, it’s easier for me to communicate with people. I’m listening to learn, I’m not listening to argue. I’m not trying to defeat you in the argument, as I’m saying there’s another perspective or viewpoint. When I engage in conversation, I am really trying to learn as much as I’m trying to teach. Often times I end up learning more. I don’t know why people connect with me, but they just seem to. I just know that that comes with responsibility. And I try to honour it.”

There’s a punk energy in RTJ’s music — a palpable connection with a body politic that ventures beyond the sexual rendezvous. There’s been room for that in music full stop. Someone with something to say. Rather something important to say. It comes back to that urgency thing.

“Yeah, I love that. In the ‘80s it was rap, punk, skateboarding, comic books — all of that at the same time. We were lucky to be kids when all this was happening. I remember when I was young, there was place called the Metroplex in Atlanta. I was too young to go, but my cousins would go there, and you would have to watch the punk show first, then the hip-hop acts came after – or vice versa. But my cousins would come back and tell me these stories of how these kids were just mashing out!”

You know your audience when you find your audience. This is also how innovation works.

“I can remember when we went out on tour, El and I would go out [rapturous applause], and then he would go out [rapturous applause]. There was my crowd, his crowd, then there were these other kids that would be there – younger kids. I knew they were young too, because they would have the ‘X’ on their hands – the Straight Edge shit – and the time the Run The Jewels shit came on they would lose their fucking minds, and I was like: ‘This is what my cousins were talking about; like, this is that shit!'”

“That’s what I live for. Whether it’s 29,000 people doing it, but more importantly, that we’ve got the same energy as when we were performing 3-years ago in front of 300 people [and were] happy to be sold out. Now we’re doing 2,500 people rooms and are 80-90% on the way to being sold out, and we appreciate it.”

Everything we have, we give you. Everything we have is left on that stage. It really is a sense of urgency when we rock – we want you to feel this shit

“We’ve played 29,000 strong audiences, and I love that. But when we leave in a few minutes, we’re gonna play a 300-person room, and we’re gonna smash that motherfucker to the ground.”

The journey from Ace Hotel to Club 100 is picture of calm. A power-nap sets, and sets Mike straight, and true to his word Mike and Jaime do as promised — they tear the motherfucker down. There are no mobile phones in hand during the high-octane performance at 100 Club that night — only the gun and the fist. Shoes are stepped on, drinks are spilt. Not a soul in the room remains passive to the energy — aside from the security, but with them it’s hard to tell. This isn’t so much a sweaty night in the Subterranea reinvented, but it’s a palpable movement brought up to date. For an hour the Jewel Runners put in work. And the two kids on the train were all the better for it.

“Run The Jewels, if it’s dope as fuck, it’ll be out this Fall. If we want to tweak it out maybe it’ll be a little later, but I would like for it to come out this Fall. So that means we’ve got to stop doing shows and interviews.”

Looks like we got here just in the nick of time after all.


Run The Jewels were performing as part of Converse Rubber Tracks at Club 100 // RTJ illustrations c/o Nick Gazin // Big thank you to RTJ Manager and master time-keeper Amaechi Uzoigwe.

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