Entertainment Music

Run the Jewels looks to fill stadiums with progressive social hip-hop

By Alison Knight, Postmedia Network

Rappers El-P and Killer Mike of Run The Jewels. (Handout)

Rappers El-P and Killer Mike of Run The Jewels. (Handout)

Run the Jewels may have a lot to say, but don’t call them political rappers.

The outspoken duo of El-P and Killer Mike released their third album, Run the Jewels 3, last December, delivering the same kind of social commentary and call to arms messages they’re known for with a complimentary dose of comedy.

While the album’s release came out just after the U.S. presidential election, the duo steers clear of being outright political in their music, and instead focus on social issues and broader themes of confronting power (“the masters”) and fighting for change.

RTJ is now bringing their new music and upgraded stage presence (including giant inflatable hands) on their Run the World tour, which hits Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall on Sunday, Feb. 19.

We caught up with the pair somewhere between Vancouver and Salt Lake City to talk about RTJ 3, giving their tunes away for free and more.

Why did you choose 'Talk to Me' as the first single from the new album?

El-P: We thought it was bad---. It just sounded like "we're back."

When you're coming back out, you just want to release the most menacing banger that you've got, something that's just got energy to it. So that's why we chose it.

You released the song '2100' right after the election with a note saying "for our friends. for our family. for everyone who is hurting or scared right now." What were you hoping to achieve with that message?

El-P: I think that we just felt like we had music that spoke to a feeling of fear, but also a feeling of hope. We knew that we had this music and we knew that it could connect to some people. A lot of our fans were hitting us up, asking us to say something to them. It just felt right. It felt like people could use something to touch their soul a little bit and to let them know that they’re not completely alone.

And is that part of the reason you decide to release your music for free?

El-P: We’ve been releasing our records for free since day one, so that’s just how we do it at this point.

You’ve always preached a message of hope and encourage people not to focus on despair and negativity as a lot of people are right now. Do you envision having any kind of role in pushing America forward in the current political climate through your music and your place as outspoken public figures?

Killer Mike: I think our music does that by proxy. When you look at a Run the Jewels audience you’re looking at a Wu-Tang audience, you’re looking at an Outkast audience. They’re not the same from a socio-economic standpoint. They’re not the same from a gender or race standpoint. They’re united around the community of dope music and that music inspires a unification. When you name artists like that, you think of them in terms of their audience. It’s diverse, yet it is organic as planting a seed in the ground and letting the rain do its job

In terms of being a public speaker, within the context of the group, I think our music is more social than political. I think the things that we speak to were true 1400 years ago when people were in kingdoms and are true now under government. In terms of having personal freedoms and existing tyranny, from a very practical, day-to-day standpoint, I am an activist and I am active vocally in the political climate in my city, in my county, in where I live because that’s how I was raised to be. Absolutely, I’ll do that whether I’m rapping or not ‘til the day I die because I cannot sit and be inactive when I see inequity all around.

You're often labelled as political rappers. Would you dispute that at all or do you embrace it?

El-P: We could never call ourselves political rappers because there are too many people out there who really do that, that that’s the main focus of their art form. I mean, we smoke too much weed and say too many stupid jokes on our records to be political rappers.

But we will stand up for something that we think is right. The reason why I think Run the Jewels is different and why I think that we don’t get fully categorized as just one thing is because we don’t do just one thing. We save a lot of room in the foundation of what we have as our relationship and our friendship and joking around and trying to make dope music that’s based on style and what we love about rap music. And again, like Mike said, we do say things that are social, but you’re not going to hear too many specific political things from us because we’re battling in our minds, not just about the legacy of rap music in general and trying to honour that but we’re also battling against archetypes, bigger things. The true struggle between man and power - things come up in a broader way.

Run the Jewels definitely did not come into the game saying “we’re political rappers” because we weren’t and we aren’t. What we will do is we’ll stand up and we’ll say what’s right, because these records are really who we are fully. It’s our humour, it’s our sadness, it’s our anger. We’re trying to make Run the Jewels a really human musical project, and so we put it all in there, because that’s really reflective of who we are as people.

Where did the ideas for the album and tour artwork come from, for example the idea to reference Godzilla in your tour posters?

Killer Mike: It was an Atlanta artist [Nicholas Turbo Benson] who did a poster for us for a show we played in East Atlanta Village, which is a famous artsy place and it was just amazing. I think of Run the Jewels kind of like a movie, different movies. It could be King Kong versus Godzilla, it could be the Blues Brothers, but I always think about the theatrics and I always wanted to do something that felt cool and movie poster-esque.

El-P: We’re getting a chance to do art on a lot of levels and collaborate with people, so we have all these amazing artists who come to us and bring us art and we often will work with them. Really just fans and people who are down just because they like the music. A lot of times we’ll specifically hire people from our pool of people, but sometimes people just hit us with sh** that we just think is amazing. They’ve done two full art galleries of Run the Jewels-inspired fine arts. It’s almost like Run the Jewels is this open-sourced, collaborative thing that everyone can be a part of. It’s not crazy to think that if you do something amazing, it might cause us to reach out and be like “hey, let’s work together.”

Killer Mike: This is my first time even thinking about it, but it’s kind of like as kids, we were taught hip-hop is a culture, it involves these things. Some people have always looked at our culture and said it involves graffiti writing, it involves b-boying or breakdancing, it involves DJing. It’s amazing because as a group, even though we didn’t purposely set out like that, it seems that culturally we seem to be unifying the things that brought us to hip-hop. El wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be a b-boy. It really is cool to be a catalyst for artistic culture.

What was the idea behind the augmented reality extras associated with the album?

El-P: That’s just something we realized we could do, technologically, and we just thought it was an amazing opportunity. Basically anyone who has a Run the Jewels album in any form can look at that and we can add animated sh** and we can all sorts of new sh**. We’re trying to grow that. We want it to be like you have a little Run the Jewels-centred TV screen in your home and we can send you updated content. Just for buying the vinyl you can look at the vinyl and we can send you updates and videos. It just kind of adds to the whole thing. I love the future in terms of the way that we are able to collaborate and augment the stuff that we’re doing. People say the physical stuff is dead, but the vinyl stuff is blowing the f*** up again, and now you can turn your vinyl into, like, a little computer screen, which is crazy.

You have a sold-out show coming up in Toronto. What kind of visual elements will you bring on tour to your stage performance?

El-P: We’re taking a Led Zeppelin, early Beastie boys approach to our stage and we came up with a really dope, iconic stage and lights show that I just think is amazing to be a part of. I think people will enjoy it. Visually, it’s been a big step up. This tour we’ve leveled up in terms of what we’re presenting to people. It used to be just us on the stage, and now it’s just us on the stage but much prettier, much cooler looking. We also got giant inflatable hands. I want to be on some Spinal Tap s*** and get like a miniature Stonehenge, maybe a dragon.

Do you see yourselves, with all of these visual elements and becoming more popular, becoming a stadium band?

El-P: Oh yeah, no question.

Killer Mike: I hope and pray. I never cared about athletics, but boy had I, I would want to win the Super Bowl. The promoter turned to me yesterday when we played for 3,800 in a small coliseum in Vancouver, he said three years ago, we had ya’ll out here for 500 people, most. He said “this is amazing.” And it’s going to keep going. There are only certain rappers and rap groups that get to do that. I get to watch Whiz Khalifa and Snoop play the amphitheatre in my home town and I’m blown away that rap is here. When I first saw rap, I saw rap in the basements of clubs in the 90’s and it didn’t have that huge effect that I wanted. I wanted to be a rapper because I saw RUN DMC rapping in arenas. For me, getting into arenas is not outside the rap world. Rap is supposed to be in arenas, and if rap is supposed to be in arenas, I’m supposed to be on that damn stage next to El-P.

El-P: We want to be this generation’s RUN DMC. We have no f****ing qualms about being plopped in the middle of a stadium. We will take it.

I know it's still early days, but has the new administration inspired any new material so far? Is it steering you in a new direction at all, or are you more waiting to see what happens?

El-P: We’re all just waiting. It’s not like we’re running into the streets and burning the f***ing White House to the ground. Everyone’s just waiting. Me and Mike are just going to do what the f*** we do and say what the f*** we want to say. Right now, I’m like anybody else.

Has it inspired? Maybe a little bit in the sense that we see there are kids out there that really need to have a good f***ing time, and we get to stand out in front of them and have that moment together where we can lose all of that s*** and everyone can feel like a bad*** and have fun for an hour or two. And that’s something that I’m proud of. Mike and I are travelling the country right now and just trying to bring the best possible vibes to everyone we can. That feels to me like what I can do right now, and I’m proud to be a part of that.

 

This interview has been condensed for clarity.