Killer Mike says lots of things that are important and stop you dead in your tracks, a worldview spit eloquently that you might not have heard before. When you listen to his group—Run the Jewels, which he’s been part of since 2013, with his partner El-P—it changes how you feel, in that it makes you more conscious, more alert, more sincere. He has deeply considered insights into race relations and politics and strong feelings about everything from mass incarceration to policing in America, to drugs, unions, George Floyd, monogamy and Donald Trump. Michael Render, 45, a married father of four, speaks in long, uninterrupted sentences with a great Southern accent and he’s never condescending or smug or sounds hurried or pissed off as he tells you exactly how he feels. “Just because you put a new suit on a person, doesn’t mean the stink’s not there,” Render says on the phone from Atlanta, Georgia, when asked about America in a post-Trump world. “There is no post-Trump America and none of us think a new president solves the problems that are at this country’s core. We all know the country’s unfair as fuck.”
Run the Jewels are an anthemic cannabis-fueled rap band that have grown with the release of each of their four records from an in-demand club outfit to a legitimate stadium headline act, topping the bill at summer festivals from Osheaga to Coachella, where they were introduced by the band’s friend, Bernie Sanders. Indeed, the group crosses over from MuchMusic to CNN and while they’re always forceful and deliberate on their newest record, Run the Jewels 4, they’re also full of heart, are earnest, and sound like two best friends appreciative of the kingdom they rule.
“When we started making our jams, the idea of rocking stadiums, let alone sold-out stadiums, wasn’t on the table, we just wanted to make big, dope rap music, but then we realized: this shit really does translate,” says El-P, 46, who’s two-years married and is from and still based in Brooklyn, New York. Born Jaime Meline, he says Run the Jewels are modelled after RUN-DMC. “The realization was, as Run the Jewels got bigger, that we didn’t have to change to adapt to the stadiums,” he says, “We were giving it our all anyways.”
Killer Mike and El-P were well into their careers when they started their group—already grown men—and were content to be working musicians. In other words, they didn’t create Run the Jewels to chase money or fame.
“We felt like, if this is what we get, if this is the career we have, to go out and play to 500-person venues and do what we love with our friends and not have to put on a shitty JCPenney shirt and go punch a clock, we’ll be happy,” Meline says. “Run the Jewels was recorded purely for the love and enjoyment of being around each other and making shit that we thought was dope.”
The audience response, however, was massive, right away. People were stage diving and slam-dancing at concerts and the venues kept getting bigger as word of their live show and word play spread. The group was always kinetic and vital—El-P, who produces their music, has been in-demand since starting Company Flow at 17 and Killer Mike came up with Outkast, maybe the greatest hip-hop group of all-time—but, as the guys grew closer, the music got deeper. It became more personal—riskier—funnier, harder: more real.
“I pace the floor until words come into my head or sentences or bars so when I write, it’s like catching the holy ghost and then I stand back like I imagine Jackson Pollock stood back, like: is this really something or am I just splashing shit?” Killer Mike says, with a laugh that feels like a hug. “The stuff on the record was what’s on my heart and mind.”
I pace the floor until words come into my head or sentences or bars so when I write, it’s like catching the holy ghost and then I stand back like I imagine Jackson Pollock stood back, like: is this really something or am I just splashing shit?
Making conscious music in America means addressing brutality and hate and Run the Jewels 4, released last September, plays like a soundtrack to the new Civil War. Speaking to Killer Mike one night back in January, armed President Trump supporters had just stormed the Capitol and people were still processing what an insurrection really meant. Where would it end? What’s next?
“Working class White people finally understand the need and the urgency that Black people and Native Americans have felt and this one time people looked around and saw themselves as the people they usually pointed at, saying, ‘What the fuck is wrong with them?’” Render said, sounding incredulous, yet calm. “People who look like me know we’ve been treated unfairly, these working class White people just thought they’d been treated unfairly and they stormed the Capitol.”
Render has been spending his lockdown reading and being a father and husband, which means working in his community with his family and donating clothes and food to women in his area who’ve been trafficked in the sex trade. He doesn’t believe—punitively—in an eye for an eye. “Look, I watched the Capitol shit with the same shock and disappointment as everyone else, but what I’d rather talk about is making the system fair versus making those White people be punished harder,” he said. “I want protesters locked up in Kentucky, their records expunged. I want for the Muslim brothers in place like Georgia locked up to have a halal diet so they don’t have to eat food that’s unholy for them. I don’t want to celebrate other people in pain. I want to celebrate grace and mercy for people who look like me.”
I don’t want to celebrate other people in pain. I want to celebrate grace and mercy for people who look like me.
“Mike pisses me off all the time,” El-P said, and talked about the difference between him and his partner. “Mike’s like: lockdown’s been great. I’m eating healthily. I started a garden and I love being in my community and I’m like, that’s awesome. I’m losing my fucking mind, my body’s going to shit, I started smoking cigarettes again, I’m having regular arguments with people I love, but I’m so happy for you, Mike, that’s wonderful. What a special thing that must be.”
Special—and this is the part, finally, when we get into weed—is that consistent with the band, like their beats and their lyrics, their live show and wit, is their love of cannabis, cemented last summer with the launch of their own Run the Jewels weed strain, Ooh La La. The cannabis, from the licensed producer Cookies, based in San Francisco and run by underground legends Berner and Jai, is essential to the band’s winning formula. Growing up, Killer Mike’s mom enjoyed weed.
“My sisters and I lived with our grandparents, but in ‘84, ’85, she’d drop us off at school and smoke a joint in the car with the windows down, then put us outside the car and spray us with some perfume and she said, ‘If that teacher has something to say, tell that bitch to call me,’” says Killer Mike, again with that laugh, adding that he didn’t really jive with pot in his own maturation, though he listened to Redman and Snoop Dogg, until an experience with a heavy indica helped him find his groove. “Big Boi and Dre were recording ATLiens and I hung out with Big and he had some bright orange beautiful hydro and we smoked it at his aunt’s party and we were so stoned, we couldn’t even get up to sing Happy Birthday,” Killer Mike said, reminiscing of both the 1996 Outkast record that sat on the top of the Billboard chart for 36 weeks, and his buzz. “I sold weed at the time and would cop from my aunt’s boyfriend, but I had to bring my man with me to smoke it because I didn’t like weed—but when I smoked ’dro with Big? It was over. I said, I’m running with this for life.”
Like all of us, Run the Jewels think cannabis should be legalized everywhere and that people unfairly imprisoned on cannabis charges should not be in jail. Records for pot arrests should be expunged, both men said, and people who sold weed before the system became legal and corporate should have a seat in the industry as business women and men. This 420, it’s one of the principle beliefs that Run the Jewels stand for.
“Every fucking stoner knows you have to have your own weed if you can, like an obsessive sneakerhead would never say no having their own shoe,” El-P said with a laugh, which he then silences and got serious as a wake: “There’s wild and pervasive injustice in cannabis that absolutely needs atoning for and if people give the greenlight for investing and legalizing this shit without basically making reparations than the soul of our country will not be right and we absolutely can not leave people behind that were unjustly incarcerated—period.”
Run the Jewels 4 is out now at RuntheJewels.com. COVID restriction notwithstanding, the band plans to tour stadiums this summer with Rage Against the Machine and headline Riot Fest 2021.