The timing was right for Run the Jewels’ new album, RTJ4. Arriving just days after the initial protests against police violence and racism broke out across the country, the politically-charged album from hip-hop duo Killer Mike and El-P captures the outrage and occasional joy of the people on the frontlines of the movement.
On “Walking in the Snow,” Killer Mike raps, “You so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me/Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, ‘I can't breathe’/And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV/The most you give is a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy.” It’s just one of many moments on the album that are extremely timely and relevant to the current moment, even though all these songs were written in 2019.
So far, RTJ4 has been resonating deeply with listeners, both new and old. Killer Mike suggests the positive feedback has a lot to do with the collective readiness for change. “When everyone is ready to see and accept it—when you can’t unsee it and you can’t turn away from it—the action of revolt and progress starts,” he explains. “So we happen to be in the midst of everyone seeing at the same time what we’ve been seeing all along.”
Creating a body of work that sounds like it was ripped from the headlines at that same time that it foreshadows what’s coming next doesn’t always sit well with them. The duo agrees that it is unsettling and disappointing to write lyrics about police brutality or corruption that still apply today. “I don’t think that me and Mike feel like we are seeing things before they happen. I think that me and Mike feel like we are simply just talking about what does happen, over and over again,” El-P points out.
RTJ4 is a powerful record full of raw emotions, but it’s balanced with moments of joy. Killer Mike says this is by design. “You sometimes go in the dark places, but your homie’s there with you to say some wild, absurd shit and make you laugh in that moment. I think we figured out that formula on this album.”
Complex caught up with Run The Jewels to discuss the making of RTJ4. The interview, lightly edited for clarity, is below.
How are you feeling now that the album is out? Has the feedback met your expectations?
El-P: It’s been pretty overwhelming. We’ve been pretty blown away by how much it seems to be connecting with people. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We just loved the music, and we were excited to put it out. Whenever you put something out, there’s this huge sort of excitement and relief, and then almost like a little bit of postpartum depression. Like, “Oh shit, this thing that I’ve been working on for two years and put all of our time and energy into, it’s out there now.” But I haven’t felt frustrated or anything like that. It’s been overwhelmingly positive, and beyond that, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that it’s never going to be that for everybody. But I’ll be honest, this has been a pretty mind-blowing reception to the album, so I feel really happy that people seem to be tuning into it and seem to be affected by it.
Lots of people are talking about the timing of the album’s release. Why do you think this particular record is resonating with people right now?
Killer Mike: There’s a saying in martial arts that I understood, but I really get it now: “When the student is ready, the teacher will teach.” That’s kind of like the conditions are always here. The conditions of the oligarchy controlling the proletariat of a master class of forces will lead to division and collusion with evil and corruption. But when everyone is ready to see and accept it—when you can’t unsee it and you can’t turn away from it—the action of revolt and progress starts. So we happen to be in the midst of everyone seeing at the same time what we've been seeing all along.
And your wish is that you’re just a crazy, old conspiracy theorist motherfucker who was raised in the ’80’s on 1984 and Red Dawn. But the truth of it is, these forces are always at play, and people are ready to see it, and they’re ready for change. That makes me proud that everyone is moving in collusion together, regardless of race, class, and things of that nature. We’re finally, in my lifetime, seeing a push and a concerted effort. And I stick my chest out proudly because we’ve got a jamming ass rap record. That’s all our goal ever is, to make the dopest rap records possible. So, to do those two things at once is significant to me because that’s what I loved about hip-hop when I was 12 years old. And that’s what I love about what we’re doing now.
El-P: Look, music is frequency, and the human heart is frequency. This record was made in 2019. We were mixing it in 2020, but all the writing was done in 2019. It was always this record, but it feels like people are open to the frequency right now because of a collective feeling. That’s a powerful thing. That’s part of the reason why this record is resonating with people, because we are talking about all of the shit that is on people’s minds right now. But obviously, everyone tuning into it right now, it’s nothing that anyone could have planned or controlled. And I like to think that when it came time for the music to hit, that it was eloquent and dope enough for people to be receptive to it.
It’s like love songs. You listen to 1,000 fucking R&B songs a day on the radio. Everybody’s in love, everybody’s broken their hearts, and all this shit. And honestly, most of those just go in one ear and out the other. “Hey, nice song. Whatever, it’s not tugging my heartstrings, but it’s a good song.” And then, you break up with someone that you love. And all of the sudden, that same song you might have liked, might have been dope, might have made you nod your head or smile, you’re crying. All of a sudden, you’re on the way to the grocery store listening on your headphones, and they’re saying the same thing they were saying before, but it’s hitting you differently. I think that’s the magic of the way music can place itself in people’s hearts.
The tone of this project is noticeably joyful. There’s a certain aggression of course, but it also makes you want to get out of your seat and move. How do you see anger and joy working together on this project?
Killer Mike: You poured knowledge in that. Thank you. It really is joyful and joy-filled. And it really does make you want to move your shoulders and shake your ass. If you’re in the trenches with somebody, and you’re going through all the absurdity… When I worked with organizers, we were working against some dire conditions. The first organizing I did was around getting MARTA cops to stop attacking gang members and preventing a gang-cop war in Atlanta. But there were some times that we’d be in conversations before we conversed with cops. Man, one kid would say the most hilarious shit. We all laughed at the tragedy and the triumph of it, because the peace treaty got resolved. Making music is that way. You sometimes go in the dark places, but your homie’s there with you to say some wild, absurd shit and make you laugh in that moment. I think we figured out that formula on this album.
Disagreements come with all good and long partnerships. What was the biggest instance where you two bumped heads or clashed over an idea or track?
El-P: I think it happens in every project. Mostly, it’s around intention. It’s around trying to get a song right. We are serious about not allowing each other to settle for second best, in terms of what we’re expressing. I think both me and Mike are our biggest fans of each other, and we know when we’re hitting our sweet spot, and when we}re not. So, it’s not really about clashing. It’s more about I trust Mike and Mike trusts me to be the voice that cares as much about how he’s coming off as he does, and vice versa.
I look at them as conversations that have to happen if you’re really being involved with your partner. We could easily just be like, “All right. You say what you say, I’ll say what I say.” And to some degree, there is that. We always give each other that freedom. But at the end of the day, when we come back and we really look at the record, I think we both really look at if it’s exactly what we could have done. If it’s the best that we could have done with this song, with this concept, with this rhyme, with the words. That’s just a relationship that groups have. When you’re on your own, nobody tells you shit, and you get a different result. For me, the beauty of Run the Jewels is that the results that happen between me and Mike are results that can’t happen without me and Mike. That’s what keeps it interesting. It can feel intense in that way, but it's not the clashes that mean much to me. It’s those moments where you realize, “We are working towards the same thing here.” And it feels like debate, or it feels like a little bit of a war between us, because that’s what it takes. We got to honor each other’s presences, and it’s hard sometimes, even when you’re best friends.
El-P, you revealed on Twitter that the hook for “Goonies vs. E.T.” was intended for Elton John. What happened there?
El-P: He’s Elton John, and we didn’t get him. It’s pretty simple. Imagine the life that Elton John is leading right now. Elton John is on a fucking plane with a chandelier right now. That’s how I imagine it. Elton John made it known that he was a fan of ours. He was actually on tour. And we were talking with Zane Lowe, who knew we wanted to do a song with Elton. He knows Elton, and he was trying to hook us up with him. Elton was into it, but he was like, “Maybe when I get off tour, or I might be in Atlanta, or I might be in New York.” It was just one of those things that for about a month we were trying to see if we could connect with him. And then, it ended up not happening. But we ended up completely changing the music anyway. So it’s just one of those interesting things. Sometimes you start a song and you think it’s going to be one thing. And then, it ends up being something else.
What song sums up where you are at in your life and music right now?
El-P: I would say “A Few Words For the Firing Squad.” That was exactly what that song was about. We love all of them, of course. But “A Few Words For the Firing Squad” is the one where we took off our superhero costumes. You really got Jamie and Mike on that one. We are talking from a very personal place. And at the same time, we’re managing to connect our personal experiences, that are different from each other, into a perspective, into a philosophy that I think really defines at its core what me and Mike agree on, about humanity and about our lives. So that one felt very powerful for me. Also, I said a few things that I needed to say to people in my life that maybe some people won’t pick up on, but that were personal and needed to be said.
Killer Mike: [You got] Mike and Jamie on that one. That was therapeutic. It was therapy for me to be able to say some of the things I said in that verse, in particular about my wife, how death affects me, my purposes. I didn’t ask to be a leader. I wanted to be a rapper. Somewhere along the way, I ended up in a leadership position amongst my community. Granted to say, I don’t take that lightly. But it’s heavy. So, given an opportunity to just be an artist and express that without judgment and without critique and criticism is one of the last safe spaces. Being on that record with Jamie in that moment probably means more to me than a lot of people realize. Because an artist, that shit can get really lonely. You can get in your own head, and you can stay there. For me, that’s how it started. It really brings us together.
There’s been a lot of discussion about what a world free of corrupt institutions and systems looks like. The “Oh La La” video provides a great image of what that reality could look like, but that party seems a little too good to be true.
El-P: Because it’s not true. It’s a fantasy. One day, maybe it could be true. We try to imagine. You see a lot of videos, how they use imagery of chaos and anarchy and protests and discord. And a lot of times, I take issues with a lot of them. Not all of them, but some of them. It almost seems like an aesthetic. There’s no actual statement involved in that. Or there’s no actual thought being put behind it. It’s like a director saying, “Okay. It’d be cool if everything was just going crazy around you." Sometimes it’s well done. But one thing that we notice is, how come every time you see imagery of people on the streets, it’s a negative or an aggressive association? I think there’s something beautiful about people gathering because of a shared emotion. We imagined, what would it be like if one day you woke up and the classist caste system that we have created for ourselves, that tells one person that they're better than the other person for no other reason than what they happen to have monetarily? We imagine what was a good metaphor for that feeling of pure freedom? And that was it. It would look like a fucking joyous absolute party. Not because people had been overthrown, and not because there was one group of people who won over another group of people. But because we’ve managed to toss out the absolute fundamental poisonous mistake that we have inserted into our human experience, which is division. And that was our little utopian day of victory fantasy. And no, it wasn’t real, but maybe it could be. I don’t know.
Killer Mike: I can tell you this, though. From being on the ground, post-riotous protests. Our protests have not stopped in Atlanta. Protests have not stopped in St. Pete, L.A. And I know this because I know other organizers on the ground and people from the industry. The scenes that they’re showing you from the ground from their phones, dance squads are coming out doing dance protests. Rappers are doing cyphers. Kids are pushing. The skateboarders seem to be security for everyone. I can’t say that it’s as [much of a fantasy] as I thought when we made it, because I’m seeing live through my friends’ phones that they have not won the ultimate war, but there’s joy in the small victory from battles that are coming. And I’m very encouraged by that. That art isn’t simply just imitating life, and life isn’t imitating art. There’s room for joy in the revolution. I’ve always asked my friends, more to the revolutionary slant, what happens the day after you win? When you don’t have to be simply fueled by anger, but yet, the passion that you have for people can then be turned into joy. So I’ve enjoyed seeing that on the streets.
Making music that sounds like it’s ripped from the headlines but also ahead of the times seems like an eerie superpower to have. How do you process that sort of power ?
El-P: Well, there's two things about that question. First of all, I don't think that me and Mike feel like we are seeing things before they happen. I think that me and Mike feel like we are simply just talking about what does happen, over and over again. So when Mike is talking about someone saying, “I can’t breathe,” and it’s written about someone who was killed by police in 2014. And then it's released the week that someone who was killed in 2020 said, “I can't breathe,” and they made headlines. We of course know that we’re not predicting the future here. And in fact, we of course feel how tragic it is that song is that specifically relevant still. There’s no reason why there should have ever been another man to ever say those words again before he died. There’s no fucking good reason. And we’ve both said this before multiple times, the day that we are just randomly babbling about some bullshit is going to be a great day for this world. Run the Jewels should not be accurate. We should be fantasists. We should be pessimists. But the truth is that we just are. We don’t look at ourselves as being prophetic or being pressing.
That being said, I also would like to just thank you because there is something uneasy—there is something scary about it. I spent the majority of my career being very comfortable being successful but under the radar. Being able to say whatever I wanted, and having a group of people who tuned in and really appreciated it. But also, not being so exposed that every little thing that I was saying was really out there. And I have been personally shaken up on occasion when I realize how much this stuff seems to be connecting. And there’s something a little bit terrifying about it, I guess on multiple levels.
But also, what I was saying is, “Shit, man. If everybody's connecting to this, then my worst suspicions are correct.” And that’s not a good thing. That's literally what I wrote about for “Pulling the Pin”: “At best, I'm just getting it wrong. And at worst, I've been right from the start.”
And that’s how I think me and Mike feel sometimes. I certainly feel that way. It’s kind of lose-lose scenario, but I just want everyone to know that my personal preference is that I’m getting it wrong. That would be the best thing.
El-P, you said in a recent interview, “The second you can’t think our music is talking about something that just happened today, it’s going to be a better world.” If and when that day comes, what will you have to talk about next?
El-P: I don’t know. Maybe we’ll make up a new dance or some shit. Maybe we’ll make a fucking funny story about Mike trying to get a sandwich. I don’t know. Look, we’re writers. We’re artists. We’re two kids. We’re friends. We love making rap music. It’s not all serious. Obviously, a huge portion of [Run the Jewels] is us just fucking around and being funny and trying to say crazy shit. We’re not Public Enemy, which is not to say we wouldn’t be honored to be Public Enemy. But that’s never been us. We’ve never been that. It’s always been a little bit of a different thing. So, I don’t know. Mike, what do you want to rap about, man? It’s utopia. Everything’s better.
Killer Mike: Oh man, there's these things called mushrooms. And they have not gotten nearly the amount of attention they deserve. We could do a whole record on them.
El-P: I feel like we did this. I feel like it was on Run The Jewels one. I think basically we’re going to go back to two dudes on mushrooms talking about how much better we are.
Your tour with Rage Against the Machine was delayed a full year. Why did you make the decision to push it back so long, as opposed to returning this fall or a couple of months from now?
El-P: It wasn’t our decision. We're not the headliners here. We just say, “Tell us where to show up so we can rock this shit.” But I will just say that Coachella and Lollapalooza postponed their festivals for six months. And then, they just announced the other day that they’re canceled. So I think it’s probably a better bet that the Run The Jewels x Rage Against the Machine Tour is happening in June 2021 than any festival or tour that said they’re postponing for six months. So, I think that was probably what they were thinking. I think they were probably being smart and looking ahead and saying, “Let’s not put ourselves in a position where we probably have to fucking delay this shit again.” It sucks for us because we want to rock. We want to get out there and rock.
Have you started to prepare for what the show will look like next year? That’s a long time to be sitting on an album.
El-P: I don’t know. All I know is by the time you get me back on the stage, I’m going ape shit, fucking ham explosion. I’m going to have so much fucking pent up energy, it’s not even going to be funny. When me and Mike get back on that fucking stage, I think we might burst into flames at the first show.
Would you rank the RTJ albums? If so, what would the order be, starting with the best?
Killer Mike: My best album is always the album I’m dropping currently. And my greatest album is always the one I’m doing. They each represent a time. I definitely think that we are in tune. My whole thing was that we have four classic records before we are even considered a group. The rankings that I’ve seen going around, it’s been interesting for me to look at and see. I’m glad so many people like RTJ4, but that’s like trying to say which one of my children I love the best. I got four of them, and I love them all for different reasons.
El-P: I’ll list mine. Run The Jewels’ top four albums: Dy-lan, Dy-lan, Dy-lan, and Dy-lan.
Killer Mike: Exactly.
For a second it seemed like you might actually rank them.
El-P: We’re not good at it. That’s not what we do. That’s what y’all do. You’re better at it than us. Honestly, half the time, we don’t even know what the fuck we’re talking about until we start getting interviewed. And then we’re like, “Oh yeah, I guess that was about this.”
Mike, you took over Selena Gomez’s Instagram for a day. That’s a great example of allyship on a larger platform, but how do we expand on that for people who don’t have 180 million followers?
Killer Mike: I think the most important thing is to understand that some allies are just people who see injustice and are willing to work with you. Some allies have a common interest and goal. So, I appreciate Selena for being a hell of an ally and allowing me to spread some love through her account.
And then you go into comrades and co-conspirators. Those are people that are willing to get down in the dirt with you. They put their blood, sweat, and tears on the line. A lot of the skateboard community, I’ve been seeing literally protecting protestors from cops, using their skateboards as guards and weapons in order to help people. So, I want to acknowledge the comrades and co-conspirators who usually have something in common. Those kids are treated pretty bad, so they identify with the unjust suffering, and on the extreme of putting themselves in between cops and people.
And then you have what really I would consider the highest level of a brotherhood based on humanity. That’s John Brown and Eugene Debs and people who are willing, in the name of all that is just and right, to give or spill blood. So for me, whether that’s Selena or my brother in the struggle with El, I think that it really is about encouraging the people who look like them, encouraging others to do it. The relationship that El and I have shows the possibility is there. Two representatives of these people who are two races, two tribes, in two different parts of the country, have forged a friendship based around love, mutual respect, the love of the culture of rap music. I think we have the opportunity in this country to unite under all.