If their trio of albums have taught us anything, it’s that Killer Mike and El-P are fired up. Actually, “fired up” might not even be a strong enough term – these guys are downright angry. Not since Zach de la Roche’s charged-up vocals on those ire-filled Rage Against the Machine albums in the early 90s have we heard such wonderful, head-nodding vitriol in hip-hop/rock music. Like most of us, the duo has a lot to be upset about in the world today. Unlike all of us, however, the veteran emcees have found an inventive way to channel their fury, with their raucous rap group called Run the Jewels.
Atlanta-born Michael “Killer Mike” Render is a seasoned veteran of the southern rap scene, thanks to high-profile collaborations with Outkast back in the early 2000s (Remember “The Whole World”? Jam city!). He flirted with mainstream success on his own, with debut album Monster in 2003. The record climbed to #10 on the Hip-Hop charts back when, you know, people actually bought those little silver circle things… El-P (born Jaime Meline) had a slightly different path to RTJ fame. The Brooklyn-based rapper was more steeped in the underground music community, employing an industrious DIY work-ethic more often found in punk rock than hip-hop. He co-founded the indie-label “Definitive Jux” in 1999 and gained notoriety mostly as a producer in New York City.
So what brought these two unlikely partners together? If you guessed Cartoon Network executive Jason DeMarco, you are correct! The Adult Swim Creative Director arranged a meeting between the two when both were at professional (and personal) turning points in their respective lives. El-P then went on to produce Killer Mike’s last solo album, the politically-charged R.A.P. Music, which laid the professional and musical groundwork for their future collaboration. Like two long lost brothers, a partnership easily formed and the pair quickly got to work on their new project.
RTJ certainly isn’t going to work for everyone. People who prefer easygoing, upbeat music probably aren’t turning on “Legend Has It” during the morning commute, or “Stay Gold” as they wind down for the day. But it certainly works for me. The lyrics are rich with substance, the duo have flaming-hot takes on a world of issues such as police brutality, drugs, war and the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman (no joke). Using hip-hop as a tool for activism isn’t anything particularly new, Public Enemy and N.W.A quickly come to mind. Hell, even Kendrick Lamar takes a conscious stand on most of his stuff. But these guys still sound different. Their eye-for-an-eye, call-and-response style, layered over El-P’s menacing beats is wholly unique. One half southern fried, the other Big Apple grime – the result being one big ball of verbose rage. They make a stand and find a way to not totally drain listeners with their messages, thanks in part to the lively electronic production. Their chemistry is undeniable, both on record and live in person. I caught their Lollapalooza set last summer, and their striking lyrics didn’t stop it from being a massive, hour-long party. In a genre currently dominated by 20-year old “trap” rappers, these 42-year old socially conscious lyricists have managed to carve out a creative niche for themselves. Give them a try, you can blame me for when you have the sudden urge to run through you and your neighbor’s brick wall.
Suggested Tracks: “Legend Has It” “Call Ticketron” “Nobody Speak (DJ Shadow)” “Blockbuster Night, Pt. 1”
Photo Credits – Stereogum, Pigeons & Planes