Run the Jewels on why rap is modern mythology

Hundreds of years later, you have all these poor white people in south Georgia, taken by factories and brought to Atlanta. “Artists are now afraid to show who they really are. The prices would be set up 300 per cent, they were basically enslaved; so the underclass in Atlanta was white-Cabbagetown. Three acclaimed albums later, and a myriad of collaborative projects harnessing their distinctive, exciting, organic approach have reinvigorated hip-hop, at a time when the world is in need of superheroes. I think I could go to an island in the middle of the Indian ocean and still write about Brooklyn: it’s everywhere I have known.”

The writer John McGahern always maintained that the local is the universal. We have a process where Mike is free to go and zone out and go in the booth, when he is high and walking around, thinking of shit, and I am free to just sit there and go: ‘Shut up, don’t fuckin’ talk to me.’ ”

Not black and white
Humour also plays a major part. I will be silent for eight hours, and then I will come into the booth and have it. His flow is still evident, it’s the predecessor to Jay-Z’s, and even Drake’s talk-flow, being conversed with, rather than being rapped at. I could figure out funny ways to make people feel like assholes when I rapped.”

I might say some shit that pisses a woman off; she goes to the booth tomorrow and makes a blazing diss record and wipes my ass out

On Don’t Get Captured, from RTJ3, Mike references an evocative sounding place, Cabbagetown, providing a less-obvious narrative about his muse, Atlanta. I grew up in the south in the middle of the crack era, and it was fucked up, so being smart was secondary to being hard or rich

“Robert Crumb used to come to parties at my house when I was growing up,” says El-P. The two laugh together easily, sometimes finishing each other’s sentences. Powerful moments are only discovered when you dredge through the shit that you think makes you this unique little self

“Rakim did. This sense of empowerment, and a kind of swagger, is key to their worldview, and hip-hop is particularly good at communicating that. The idea was, thematically, that you are the chain, you are the prize, the jewels are within you.”

This message was something they recently spread through Rookie magazine’s popular advice video series “Ask a Grown Man”, where they gave solid, comforting advice to teenage girls: essentially, to love yourself. “It taught me that those powerful moments are only discovered when you dredge through the shit that you think makes you this unique little self.”

Being raised by my grandparents has helped me understand that you don’t have to be granted freedom. It’s a kid’s way of saying, ‘I’m a badass’, because his parents run him, the school controls him, and as a child you need a hero that’s an anti-authoritarian figure. Fifty years later, Run the Jewels are using that statement to explore oppressive power structures and the idea of freedom. “The people that were enslaved in Georgia were poor Irishmen, and Africans. I saw characters like Spiderman, who was also a New Yorker, and people like Run-DMC, which changed the game for me, as they were the first guys who were dressed like regular people on the street. My love of comic books went into rap, but they blended into each other really easily.”

Modern mythology
“They serve as modern mythology,” says Killer Mike, adding that he often gets into arguments with older black people, about why they hate rap. “I had to let go of the idea that sharing something personal, was personal, you know? Whether it is Trick Daddy, or Queen Latifah with Who You Callin’ a Bitch?, that is the beauty of this music. Rakim changed the way that everyone else rapped. It’s a tradition. Even kids don’t take it as seriously as you take it. “My dad was a jazz musician, and they threw a lot of parties. It’s a cool juxtaposition. The funny, arrogant, ‘fuck you’ side of Run the Jewels plays a really important role, because anyone can hit you with something that is thoughtful, that might make you cry, but you should be able to walk away from a song by Killer Mike talking some crazy shit, and feel like a badass.”

“I tend to think we do give an answer: you’re free,” adds Mike. They were only paid in mill money, which could only be used at the mill store. And I am very happy to be in this group, not just to say that you are free, but to be a badass muthafucker talking shit.” All those parts of our personalities are on the records, and that’s why we enjoy it. “It’s just mythology. The superhero thing was always there. This music, like comic books, serves as a way for the secular mind to do or see something that is big or holy or grand even, but in the context of regular people.”

We talk about seminal figures in hip-hop, with Rakim emerging as the one they both revere. El-P helped produce Mike’s RAP Music, and Mike guested on Tougher Colder Killer from El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure. “Being raised by my grandparents has helped me understand that you don’t have to be granted freedom. “When I was a kid, that gave me the edge,” says El-P. And me and Mike, meeting when we did, we knew who we were: we didn’t have anything to lose. When Atlanta’s Killer Mike, and New York’s El-P met in 2011, El-P was working on his third record and Mike was working on his fifth. “It’s where I found my voice. “A riot is the language of the unheard,” was part of Martin Luther King’s rhetoric in the mid to late 1960s. Sometimes he did the more aggressive thing, when he did the up-tempo joints, but it was also so well-written: it was elite poetry, elite.”

El-P’s approach to writing is just as serious. For the third record, there is no chain accompanying the iconic fist and gun. This is free music, it’s folk music. There is a real correlation between hip-hop, comic books, and superheroes, from the early days of Eric Orr’s Rappin’ Max Robot, to MF Doom’s take on Doctor Doom and his metal mask. I thought I was self-indulgent by writing a song about my mother getting beaten up. El-P explains: “First, they are these monster hands; then they are bandaged, like they have been injured, or in a cocoon; by the third, they unravel, to solid gold hands, and no chain. They were undeniably powerful. We will give you the game that we got from our favourite rappers, about feeling like you are powerful, even if you don’t have anything. That’s the most beautiful thing about this artform: I might say some shit that pisses a woman off; she goes to the booth tomorrow and makes a blazing diss record and wipes my ass out. We can’t necessarily give you answers, but we might be able to give you a way of holding yourself that makes you feel a little better in the face of a shit tornado. He gave me a hero when there were none.”

“We are a vestige of that era,” says El-P. Run-DMC, it was like, ‘holy shit, that’s an idea’, I could conquer my city, I could be a powerful person. I don’t think that everyone knows how to show themselves, as not just ‘woke’, but funny, and dangerous, and someone who cares. It was true in 1900; it’s true now. “That is what Run the Jewels is about, swagger. Ahead of a recent incendiary performance at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre, the idea of superheroes is in the ether. Both were weary of the industry, yet recognised something within each other. I ask them how their deepening friendship has affected the visual side of their music. So I really got to wipe away the race thing pretty quickly, and began to see class a lot earlier.”

New York is El-P’s touchstone: “The city had an incredible amount of influence on forming me as a man, as an intellect, as a person. It’s probably one of the reasons why I went into rap. “I have 50-year-old cousins who don’t listen to rap any more, who still look you firmly in the eye and say ‘Rakim: the greatest rapper ever’. It was safe to be smart in rap, because of Rakim. “That’s a big trick they don’t tell you,” he agrees. “I sit down and craft it on the page. Fujiya & Miyagi still know how to find new Krautrock kinks

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“I grew up in the south in the middle of the crack era, and it was fucked up, so being smart was secondary to being hard or rich. Mike is the opposite: it’s spontaneous, he is thinking on his feet, tying the lines together, sometimes doing six in a row. Both records came out within a month of each other in 2012, and Run the Jewels was born. But those were the songs that people started coming up to me about with tears in their eyes, shockingly to me.