It’s an early December evening and Michael Render is onstage at a downtown L.A. theater, warning America of how completely fucked it is. “My job is to fight for survival / In spite of these #AllLivesMatter-ass white folk,” growls the rapper who performs as Killer Mike. Three-hundred-plus pounds, all rumbling baritone and tent-size T-shirt, the Atlanta native is nose-to-nose with Jaime Meline, better known as El-P, his best friend and partner in the rap duo Run the Jewels. Together, they’re unloading a typical dose of brash rhymes atop tense, pummeling production. It’s only a few weeks post–presidential election, and the entire performance feels like a gigantic middle finger to the power-mad politicians, the racists, the intolerants—basically everyone they deem self-interested and full of shit. “We got the president we deserve,” Mike will say later with thick sarcasm. “America once again doesn’t let me down.”
The crowd gathered here at the Game Awards—the rappers were booked because they appear as playable characters in Gears of War 4—isn’t sure what to make of it all. The stiff white gamers in attendance likely came to see the trailer for that new third-person shooter. They got this instead. And now they look frightened.
Clearly, Run the Jewels are deadly serious in their intentions. “We’ve always been determined to contribute not only in the sense of style and music but in thought and philosophy,” El-P (mustached, garrulous and often drily sarcastic) says the following afternoon, splayed on a couch in a West Hollywood hotel suite. For Mike in particular, hip-hop has always represented one of the most powerful forms of communication, particularly to the nation’s youth. “It’s not safe to be aggressive as a black man in this country,” he says. “You play football. You play basketball. Tiger can play golf. But rap has always been a bastion for me to just get my anger out. That’s the beauty of rap for me.”
Run the Jewels understand the strange intersection at which they find themselves: Here they are, in 2017, a highly political and engaged rap duo consisting of a white man and a black man who languished in relative obscurity for decades before hitting it big. Drawing influence from the politically charged and often menacing hip-hop of artists such as Public Enemy, Ice Cube and EPMD, Run the Jewels were in many ways an antidote to the sensitive-boy rap pioneered by Drake and adopted by everyone from Future to A$AP Rocky. In the first week following its release as a free download in 2014, Run the Jewels 2, one of the most vicious and fully realized albums of the past few decades, was downloaded some 400,000 times; it subsequently cracked the top 10 on the Billboard rap album chart largely thanks to its massive streaming numbers. The two have headlined major festivals including Coachella and Pitchfork. The gun-and-fist symbol that adorns each of their album covers has become a symbol of rebellion in its own right.
RTJ3, released in December, contains some of their most provocative material to date. “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost),” a riot song that includes a snippet of a Martin Luther King Jr. speech, finds El-P rapping, “Some get to count sheep / Some gotta count kids that they burying.” On “Down,” Mike is blunt in his assessment of life’s options for the oppressed: “Ballot or bullet / You better use one.” (He’s vehemently in favor of gun rights: “I don’t understand how any black person can tell me that they’re not pro-gun,” he said in 2015.) The album is also undoubtedly their most sonically adventurous effort yet. “Don’t Get Captured” sounds like a horror movie soundtrack interspersed with classic DJ scratches; “Oh Mama” rides a funky minor-key rock groove. And their outside-the-box mentality is further emphasized by the guests they recruited this go-round: everyone from TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe to jazz experimentalist Kamasi Washington.
There’s one more element at play: Offstage, Mike and El-P’s dynamic is like a 1980s buddy-cop comedy come to life. Mike calls it the “back-of-the-class effect. It’s just knowing that I can say some stupid shit and my homey is gonna laugh.” And their fans love them for it. These are, after all, the same guys who a couple of years ago remixed RTJ2 using only cat noises.
Unlike the more meticulous El-P, Killer Mike writes his raps stream-of-consciousness style. This ability to wax poetic extends outside the studio. As passionate an activist as he is a ferocious rapper, Mike is a walking orator of the Southern black social and political experience. He campaigned passionately for Vermont senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential bid, introducing him at a 2015 rally in Atlanta following an intense sit-down at a local soul food restaurant where the pair discussed poverty, racial injustice and “the grand fight against the ruling class.” He has also spoken at prestigious universities such as MIT about how to improve race relations and foster diverse interpersonal ties. Somewhere along the line, he became a friendly hip-hop celebrity spokesperson—the rapper a suburban liberal Honda Pilot–driving uncle feels safe referencing in casual conversation. “I’ve been an organizer since I was a kid,” says Mike, who was raised by his politically active grandparents in the poverty-stricken Adamsville neighborhood on Atlanta’s west side. “I wasn’t gonna be a celebrity that sat around and felt guilty for being famous,” he says. “So for me it was figuring out how to be the human being that my grandparents raised and this ‘famous Mike’ that I always wanted to be.”
When he’s in L.A., Mike always stays at this nondescript hotel on a residential side street. He’s been coming here since the early 2000s, back when he was a member of Outkast’s inner circle and making his name as a player in the Southern rap game. Also, the hotel lets you smoke weed.
Offstage, Mike and El-P’s dynamic is like a 1980s buddy-cop comedy come to life.
The partnership moved fast and furious after Mike and El-P met in 2011. At the time, both men were at the lowest points in their careers. El-P’s record label was struggling to turn a profit. He had trouble paying rent each month. In Atlanta, Mike had suffered a falling-out with Outkast’s Big Boi and had middling success as a solo artist. He longed to have a partner to vibe with creatively. Jason DeMarco, an Adult Swim executive and friend of both rappers, introduced the two after suggesting that El-P produce Mike’s 2012 album, R.A.P. Music. The connection was instantaneous. “We discovered that if we lock ourselves in a room and we get high and we make jokes and we make music, it’s fun,” says El-P, who quickly recruited Mike to appear on his own solo album that year, Cancer 4 Cure.
Still, RTJ wasn’t even a thing; the two were merely enjoying crafting music together. “We’re hanging out, smoking weed, doing shrooms,” Mike recalls of sessions in New York later that year. Soon they had a full-length record on their hands. Enter Run the Jewels, their debut album, released for free in June 2013. They toured together, albeit as two solo acts, and felt the collective energy level skyrocket whenever they performed the more frenzied RTJ material. They realized they’d landed on something special. “Motherfuckers went maniac,” Mike says of the early gigs. Adds El, “We started to realize, Shit, we might be opening for ourselves.”
Since then, navigating fame has been challenging for the introverted El-P. “I think to some degree I sheltered myself a little bit,” he says. “I had grown a little comfortable with the nominal amount of recognition and recognizability that I had in my solo career. I’m glad Mike is my partner.” Mike, of course, was born for the spotlight. “I am the classic ‘look-at-me’ guy,” he says with a smile. “As a black kid you always want to be famous. You can change shit if you get famous.” He fingers a recently purchased accessory—a three-pound solid-gold pendant hanging from a thick chain.
For the next hour, Run the Jewels set to work recording an episode of their Beats 1 radio show, WRTJ. Easy to lose in the playful banter is something Mike said earlier: Take away the increasingly large checks and the growing recognition and Run the Jewels would still be his complete and total emotional salve. They’ll say they’re just getting started, two men standing tall at this national precipice, two essential voices lending a beating heart to the pop charts and a dose of grit to hip-hop. Mike is just happy to be right here in this moment.
“It makes me a more whole human being,” the rapper says of RTJ.
He looks at El-P.
“I don’t know if you get this big black shining ray of sunshine without my friend.”
For a moment both men go silent. El-P can’t take it anymore.
“That’s why we’re announcing the Run the Jewels ‘Find Another Friend’ initiative,” he says with a laugh. “Are you a white guy who doesn’t have a black friend? We’re here to help!”