A few years ago, the runaway success of Run the Jewels might have seemed unlikely, especially to its own members. Conventional wisdom defines hip-hop as a young person’s domain, making the odds unlikely that two 41 year-olds would finally hit their stride after a decade toiling in that hallowed obscurity of underground rap. Anyone with a pulse, though, will have noticed that these are not ordinary times, either for the music industry or for the world at large. Call it the effects of mass media, the Internet or suppressed bigotry, but the era of “fake news” and mainstreamed conspiracy theories is upon us. Fittingly, a recent spike in sales has returned George Orwell’s 1984 to Amazon’s bestseller list, nearly 70 years after its initial release. Amidst it all, Run the Jewels’ music suddenly feels like a necessary and urgent political manifesto.
As solo artists, it’s obvious now that Killer Mike and El-P were always destined for niche appeal. Hailing from Atlanta, Mike first drew attention in the early 2000s with a feature on OutKast’s Stankonia, before quickly establishing himself as something of a rapper’s rapper. A lifelong political activist and former small-time drug dealer, Mike’s fiery lyricism and gruff Southern delivery didn’t consistently add up to more than the sum of their parts until his 2012 solo album, R.A.P Music. El-P produced the entire project, lending his typically dystopic beats to the pair’s first collaboration. The cold, paranoid aesthetic worked well behind Mike’s rapping, and “Reagan” – a condemnation of War on Drugs policies and mass incarceration – remains among the duo’s best work.
For his part, Brooklyn-born El-P earned his underground cred as the head of Def Jux, the type of indie record label designed to struggle with its finances. Science-fiction bears a heavy influence over the rapper-producer’s solo output, resulting in instrumentals that one might expect if the Bomb Squad sampled John Carpenter. As the man himself once tweeted: “I swear to God, I could make a beat with a banjo and a church organ and someone will call it ‘dystopian sci-fi’.” His lyrics tend to match that theme, depicting governments and institutions as systems of control. It’s a compelling approach (granted new significance by Orwell’s resurgence), but one that now seems insulated without Mike’s presence. The Molotov cocktail of RTJ’s politics depends as much on El-P’s grand condemnation of institutions as it does Mike’s gritty, professorial storytelling.
Most importantly, the two of them put together are a comedy goldmine. “Their collaboration is like an interracial buddy cop movie from the eighties,” Hua Hsu wrote in a recent New Yorker profile, “In which they both get to be the one who deals with his authority issues by goofing around.” One does, indeed, get the sense that these outspoken marijuana advocates have spent plenty of time together watching Lethal Weapon and the natural chemistry on each of their three albums has provided some of the best back-and-forth rapping in recent memory. Above all, their friendship allows the vital elements of hope and humor to enter music that otherwise depicts the world as hopelessly rigged. For all their clever boasts and shit-talking (which should never be undervalued), RTJ’s political revolution depends wholeheartedly on empathy and on the communal nature of their music.
For music fans, there’s a tension that arises out of the correlation between quality albums and the artist’s state of mind. The “tortured artist” cliché dictates that all great literature, film and music must arise out of personal issues or political disorder. Of course, that’s not always the case, and it’s important not to find yourself hoping that others suffer for the sake of relatable tunes. Still, it’s possible to recognize protest music as timely. RTJ have shown their willingness, time and again, to pop up in desperate hours, not out of greed for the spotlight but as simple acts of solidarity. And every time, they’ve brought along a damn good soundtrack.
They were there after the death of Mike Brown, and after officer Darren Wilson’s subsequent non-indictment. Killer Mike gave a teary-eyed speech onstage about fearing for his children, before sitting down on CNN to discuss his opinions on policing issues in America (his father had been a cop). He then spent months campaigning for Bernie Sanders. They were there again after November’s surprise election results, prematurely releasing “2100,” an anthem for “defeating the devil when you hold onto hope.” And they were there in D.C. on the eve of inauguration, raging against the Trump machine alongside Zack de la Rocha.
Ultimately, RTJ’s politics are about inclusion, valuing differences and expanding your worldview. Their popularity amongst young people, then, should be cause for optimism. As President Obama said in his farewell address, “Let me tell you, this generation coming up – unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic – I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, and just, and inclusive America… You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands.”
Chris Stanton is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Really Terrible, and Such Small Portions! runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.