It starts with a fake TV-show intro, a shootout, a getaway, and a couple of outlaws hitting the road like they were the Thelma and Louise of hardcore agit-pop rap. It goes out not with a bang, but with grown men laying their souls bare while flipping the bird to a firing squad. During the 37 minutes that separates those moments on Run the Jewels’ RTJ4, you get a lot of what you’d expect from the dynamic duo of El-P and Killer Mike: sci-fi dystopias bumping up against socially conscious fuck you–itude, dense lyrics, verbal dexterity, and moody beats fueling a mad-as-hell vibe. It’s recognizably the product of two friends who know how to finish each others’ sentences and compliment each others’ styles, still dedicated to flying their fist-and-pistol freak flag. An RTJ album, in other words.
But the difference between the duo’s previous collaborations and their latest collection of songs is immediate. The dick jokes and battle-rap insults have receded into the background; there’s more of an apocalyptic edge to the humor this time around, and even the pulp-fiction fantasies in tracks like “Yankee and the Brave” and “Holy Calamafuck” hit with a four-alarm urgency. “The past got a wrath/It’s a lover gone mad,” El-P warns in “Goonies vs. E.T.,” while Mike calls out folks who’ve “been hypnotized and Twitter-ized by silly guys” in the next verse. Standouts like “Walking in the Snow,” “A Few Words for the Firing Squad,” and “Pulling the Pin,” which features a killer hook courtesy of Mavis Staples, turn the the big-picture political into the personal, and vice versa. Even the production — by El-P, Little Shalimar, Wilder Zoby, and select guests — embedded with samples of everyone from Gang Starr to Gang of Four, feels kicked up a notch.
“The last one we did felt like a little bit of fire, a lot of water, and a whole lot of dark skies,” El says, referring to their 2016 “blue” album, RTJ3. “For this one, it was going to be all fire.”
Ten years into a collaboration that metastasized from mixtape side project to full-time festival headliner, Run the Jewels have made what could be their masterpiece — a sound-and-fury epic that somehow managed to sync up with an extraordinary moment in history. (For more on that, see Killer Mike’s recent in-depth conversation with Rolling Stone’s Jamil Smith.) The original plan had been to release the album online (for free, per usual, on their website) in April, followed by a high-profile tour opening for Rage Against the Machine. Once the pandemic put society on hold and future concert plans in the TBD column, the duo opted to push the date to June 5th. As protests over the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor began to sweep across the country, they decided to drop RTJ4 a few days early (“The world is infested with bullshit,” they said in a statement, “so here’s something raw to listen to while you deal with it all.”). And overnight, everything from a reference to Eric Garner’s death in “Walking in the Snow” to a reminder that “no revolution is televised and digitized” felt completely tailor-made for what was happening on the streets. It became, in their words, “a soundtrack to progress.” “I’ve had activists tell me as recently as yesterday, ‘Man, your guys’ album dropping at the moment it did spoke to exactly how I was feeling,'” Mike says.
During an hourlong interview via Zoom — El-P called in from upstate New York while Mike held court on the porch of his house in Atlanta, respective blunts may have been smoked throughout — Run the Jewels talked about making RTJ4, whether or not the album is more personal than their previous ones, why these days of rage were a long time coming, and a lot more.
So was there a line, a song, or a beat that sort of set the pace and sparked the energy for RTJ4 when you started recording?
El-P: I started on this at the end of 2018 — we’d gotten off tour, we’d gone back to our lives, we were exhausted. I’d scored a film [Capone] and got married; Mike was doing his thing. I’d worked for five or six months on music before Mike came up to Brooklyn, where I’d set up a studio. And the first two songs on the album, “Yankee and the Brave” and “Ooh LA LA,” they were the first two songs we recorded. I remember thinking, “Yo, I really hope he understands where I’m trying to go with this shit.” And the minute I played “Yankee” for him, he was just like …
Killer Mike: “Oh, hell yes!” [Laughs]
El-P: Those two songs just came out of us on Day One. We just sat there listening to them and going, “Oh, shit!” We really felt like we had the bedrock, the cornerstone, for the energy that we wanted right there. This is what me and Mike talked about: The last one we did felt like a little bit of fire, a lot of water, and a whole lot of dark skies. For this one, it was going to be all fire.
Where can I stream episodes of Yankee and the Brave, the fictional show that bookends the album? Is the Blu-ray box set out?
El-P: [Laughs] We’re working on it. Mike and I grew up in the Eighties, so we watched a lot of those shows …
Killer Mike: Knight Rider, The A-Team, The Dukes of Hazzard …
El-P: This was our fantasy Eighties show. That’s why you have the skit at the end — it loops back around. You realized you’ve just listened to an episode of Yankee and the Brave. But it was kind of the pitch pipe for the album, that song. It was also like, “How can we capture the feel of those series intros we grew up on?”
You can picture you and Mike running, Mike slides across the hood of the car …
Killer Mike: Then me flippin’ into the seat of the Grand National …
El-P: Then I’m trying to outdo him by sliding across the hood and accidentally breaking off the side mirror and fall right on my face. Yeah, that’s about right.
To put it mildly, a lot has happened since you guys dropped Run the Jewels 3 in December 2016. And given the state of the union since then, there’s been a lot to be pissed off and vocal about. How did you both focus your anger when you were making this, given that it’s been almost four years of free-form, flood-the-zone rage?
Killer Mike: What you said is true — but in terms of the conditions in my community, we’ve been feeling that rage over a lot of presidents. I remember my grandparents talking about Nixon. I remember my parents talking about the disappointment of life under Reagan. Bill Clinton, although he professed himself an ally, supported more prison programs than a lot of previous presidents, and used black prisoners and poor white prisoners as props when he gave a speech in front of a Confederate monument at Stone Mountain. I’m not saying Trump isn’t horrible. I’m just saying that the black community is used to politicians failing them.
Of course. Anger didn’t start with Trump.
Killer Mike: Exactly. At the same time, I’m encouraged that Americans are seeing that we have a common enemy right now. I’m encouraged that the march for the rights of black citizens is being connected to the fight for women’s rights, for the rights of legal and illegal immigrants, for a lot of other fights for basic human rights. Everyone has hit an “enough is enough” point. But yeah, being angry is a lifelong affliction for the black community. Channeling it is tougher.
El-P: I’ve always thought of Trump as the tumor that finally makes it evident that you have a cancer that you need to deal with. He is the most obvious sign that there has been a sickness that has been developing and festering for a long time. The fact of the matter is, when me and Mike made these songs, we’re battling in our minds and our hearts something that is way larger than just one man.
That said, there are a few references in the new album that are specific to politics and issues that are part of his presidency — particularly my verse in “Walking in the Snow,” when I’m talking about what are basically concentration camps on the border. He didn’t invent those, but he certainly did reinvigorate the concept of caging people up. There’s specific rage being channeled there. But you don’t want to make an album that only speaks to 2020.
Killer Mike: 2020 doesn’t even just speak to 2020! [Laughs]
El-P: I tell you one thing, we’d be really happy if our record didn’t make any fucking sense right now. I’d be perfectly content if it was just, “Listen to these two paranoid assholes going off” and it didn’t reflect on what’s happening outside our doors. Because that means the world is a better place. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. I told Mike that the next album is going to be about how we’re both in perfect physical condition, we’re rich as fuck, and we’re living in this perfect utopian society. It’ll be like The Jetsons, but with black people. [Laughs]
I don’t wanna be too egocentric here, but I’m starting to get suspicious that maybe we’re writing what happens before it happens, and look where we are now? So next album, I’m going to roll the dice and write that I’m two inches taller and we have multiple Grammys.
Do you feel that now that you’ve been doing Run the Jewels for a decade and are in your forties, you’re willing to be a little more personal in your writing? It’s not like you each haven’t been personal before — and El, you did “Last Good Sleep,” off Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus, what, 25 years ago?
El-P: 1997, I think. So yeah, almost.
But with RTJ4, you’re talking more about your family, and Mike, you have a verse about his mother’s passing …
Killer Mike: I mean, I consider “Scared Straight” [off of 2003’s Monster] to be personal. When I say, “Mama, I don’t want to sell crack no more” — I mean, I was a fucking drug dealer! I knew that if I died out there or went to prison, I’d be wasting a mind and a heart that was meant for a bigger purpose. And even the mixtapes I put out, that was me motivating myself through my depression to keep making music … so the personal is coming through in a lot of different flavors.
El-P: You’re not the first person to ask this, and it’s been interesting to hear people say that, “Oh, with this one you seem to be getting more personal.” But we’ve always been personal, I think. Even on the first RTJ record, you can hear us touching on that kind of stuff … although it’s more of a palate-cleansing thing. It’s a bit more lighthearted.
But if you look at our respective back catalogs, we’ve always gone there. When we went into the second album and really started to realize that Run the Jewels was going to be our voice, that the project had gone from “this is a fun mixtape” to “this is what people are going to hear from us,” we knew we’d better put our hearts into it. We’d better get personal a bit so we feel satisfied as artists. We didn’t want it to feel like, “Oh, they’re saving all the hard stuff, or the personal stuff, for some other future project.”
“I’ve always thought of Trump as the tumor that finally makes it evident that you have a cancer that you need to deal with.” —El-P
Something like “Early,” off Run the Jewels 2, feels like a good example of that.
El-P: “Early” is very personal — that’s part of it. By the time we got to RTJ3, there was a lot of emotion in that record. So much so that by the time we got to this one, there was a sort of unspoken rule between us that when it did happen, when we did want to reveal a bit more, we wanted it to count. “OK, so we’ve been punching you in the face for 27 minutes — now you’re ready for something else.” When it came time for Jaime and Mike to take off their superhero capes and do “Firing Squad,” and it’s just two guys laying it bare, it felt like it really mattered.
Killer Mike: The audience that I brought with me to this, the audience El brought with him to this, the fans we’ve made since the first album — they’ve given us a safe space to be vulnerable. I think this time around, to build off of what El just said, these personal moments were kill shots. We weren’t just spraying it all over the place. With RTJ3 … I mean, I’m not going to front: I was triggered constantly throughout the year we made that album. They were killing black people left and right, and I remember telling El, “Man, I’m just broken.” With this album, we knew how to harness that feeling more. Even in taking off that armor …
I mean, look at “Firing Squad”: “But my queen says she need a king/Not another junkie, flunky rapper fiend.” That’s from a real conversation my wife and I had where she told me, “You need to figure out how to not get so depressed by this. You need to figure out how to do all of this without sippin’ or taking pills or doing other things to just slow yourself the fuck down. You can’t always be in pain; you have to find things to be happy about as well.” I appreciate her telling me, “Look, you’re going to take care of me and these children. You can’t be wearing the cape all day, every day! I don’t mind you wearing the cape on weekends, but … you’re going to make time to be the husband and father you’re supposed to be.” [Laughs]
It’s the heaviness — not even the heaviness, but the humanity — I think that’s what thrown people in terms of it being personal. That’s a lot more streamlined this time. You assume we’re just gonna go hard, but instead we’re talking about stuff that weighs on our hearts. And then, wait around a couple of minutes, and you get joy. That’s the “Yankee” bit coming around again. It ends with somebody talking to a firing squad, but you never hear the gunshots. Your heroes aren’t dead. They’re back at it!
El-P: “A Few Words for the Firing Squad” is a really important song, because I got to say a few things on it to people who mean a lot to me. It’s partially a letter to my wife, trying to explain to her who the man is that’s waking up next to her every morning. You mentioned “Last Good Sleep,” and in this song, I get to address a few things that happened to my family that sort of builds off of that. But it’s stuff that only they are likely to get, you know? There are messages in here that are more for the people in our lives than for the audience. My mother is going to be the only person who gets a few of these lines. My sister is going to be the only person who gets a few of these lines. Mike’s wife is going to be the only person who gets a few of these lines. Only they are going to know what those things really mean.
Was the idea that this would always end with the one-two punch of “Pulling the Pin” and “A Few Words for the Firing Squad”?
El-P: It was never much of a question as to where those songs were going to land. I moved the first six songs around a bit, trying to find the right bop. But it was pretty clear that back to back, “Pin” and “Firing Squad” — that was it. They were the catharsis.
Killer Mike: We are obsessive over sequencing. It’s the Ice Cube and Chuck D thing.
What do you mean?
Killer Mike: I was just reading Ice Cube saying that Chuck D taught him the value of sequencing when he made AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. Cube, man — he makes amazing cinematography on records, and the sequencing is part of it. And El is a genius at that.
El-P: Mike is being really generous now, and having been a producer for a while now, one of things in my skill set is knowing how to put a record together so it flows correctly. But this one really just sort of wrote itself.
Let’s talk about the structure of “Pulling the Pin” for a second. It starts off as this macrocosmic look at how a social system is designed to fuck people over, and then immediately drills down to this intimate take on how that system is affecting a single person. It’s like going from a history lesson to an internal monologue.
El-P: And that, my friend, is the key to our relationship in terms of how we come together creatively. It’s exactly what you just described. It’s how “Early” works, too. It’s a space where we can get at the same thing from different angles, and one of the things I love about being in a partnership with Mike. Because we’re aware of what the other’s tendencies are. My go-to is often hitting that macro look at how things work, and [with] “Pulling the Pin,” I really tried to write a very clear and succinct take on evil — how the thing we’re dealing with today is really the same thing that we’ve been contending with since the creation of iron. It’s almost like a movie where you’re starting above Earth and slowly zooming in, slowly zooming in, and by the time you get to Mike’s verse, you’re on the street and in the house. I feel like he can take these conceptual things I’m talking about and make them real. Mike completes the thought for me. And hopefully I provide something similar for him as well.
Killer Mike: Absolutely, El. Absolutely. A lot of time there’s a willful ignorance with the people for whom America is working for. What El does is, he not only points out the mechanisms, he’s helping the greater community understand that these mechanisms actually affect people besides those who look like me. It’s tempting to think that certain things don’t apply to you. We’re here to tell you they apply to us all.
One of the things Run the Jewels has allowed me to do is be blacker than black than black, y’all! [Laughs] Because while El is speaking to the greater community, he allows me to focus on the stories to tell to mine. You know, I have sat on the end of a bed, listening to Scarface and thinking, “What the fuck?” I think those lines resonate with a lot of people. I try to strive for the personal because there are so many people who don’t know how systems operate and why everything feels fucked up. We’re told that in America, work hard and everything is going to work out. Then you start to see that some of these things are lies. There are some people actively trying to hold you down. I’ve been trying to tell my community about it for 30 years. I’ve found it works a lot better if you go, “I know a guy…” Suddenly, people don’t feel like you’re talking about a system. They feel like you’re talking about them.
El-P: There are moments on this record where I’m explicitly trying to connect the suffering of people to the people who think they are not being directly affected by it, because, “Hey, it’s not happening to us.” They simply don’t see it the same way. So you try to get it into people’s heads that you need to feel offended by suffering, period. You need to be angry and aware of the fact that it is an affront to you, too. You need to know that this is not isolated and you are not safe. You are not outside the bubble.
I mean, that’s really what “Walking in the Snow” is about. If I can’t appeal to your empathy, let me go to the next lowest level of logic with you and go, “Hey, so, even if you don’t give a shit about anyone else, what do you think a system built on prisons and cages are going to do once those same people you don’t care about are gone? Do you think we’re going to have a party and all those cages are going to be disassembled? ‘Check it out, everybody, mission accomplished'”?
“One of the things Run the Jewels has allowed me to do is be blacker than black than black, y’all! Because while El is speaking to the greater community, he allows me to focus on the stories to tell to mine.” —Killer Mike
Mike, you’ve talked about El-P being a really structured writer and you having a tendency to simply let stuff flow off the top of your head. After 10 years of working together, how has that difference affected the way both of you guys write now?
Killer Mike: I was raised in the Southern Pentecostal church, and there’s a phenomenon called “catching the Holy Spirit,” in which a person just feels something being channeled right through them. That’s the closest thing I can think of in terms of describing how it happens for me. I can be sitting there for two hours, just smoking and talking shit, nothing going on … then something just speaks to me. Like, literally speaks to me — I can hear it in my head. Then it’s like, I gotta get in the booth now. We’ve got to the point now where we always have a mic ready. Because unless you get it on tape when it comes, it’s gone.
I remember El caught me writing on the last album, however, and for this one, he was like, “Stop it. Just stop it.” [Laughs] For me, writing is different … even if I never use a single thing I write down, it’s just how I get my conscious mind out of the way. But El would see me scribbling stuff down and be like, “What are you doing?”
El-P: Because I’ve been working with Mike for a decade years now, and [in mock-stern voice] as his producer …
Killer Mike: [Laughs] That’s how it all started.
El-P: Mike came to me and said, “I want to be produced. I want to work with someone who’s going to care about what we’re doing.” And as his partner, one of the things about the magic that happens with him is that spontaneity and how it all gets pieced together. So, yeah, if I catch Mike sitting here, writing stuff down on a piece of paper … I’m not going to tell him to not write, but knowing how he works, it’s like, “Nah, man.”
Mike, you can correct me if I’m wrong here, but sometimes, I get the feeling that he gets frustrated waiting for the inspiration to strike. Like, he just wants to be working, getting shit down on tape. And Mike knows that it’s the lightning that fuels what he does. So he might be tempted to be like, “This isn’t happening, let me try and sit here and write.”
Killer Mike: That’s accurate. That’s 100-percent accurate.
El-P: We embrace our different techniques, and we’ve taken stuff from each other in terms of those techniques. Mike has definitely taught me to loosen up a lot. I really am a pretty regimented writer. I do sit there, typing stuff out and endlessly looking it over, seeing how it sounds in my head, moving things here and there. He’s taught me to be a little less strict about all of that. Conversely, in our 10 years of working together, I’ve seen him start to self-edit more. He still lets it just flow once the feeling strikes, but he has it down, he goes back and corrects stuff, tweaks stuff more than he used to. Both of those techniques really work to strengthen each other, I think.
Killer Mike: The other thing is that the way I write, it allows me to flow into a variety of different styles seamlessly. Because I’m not married to measure, or even four, six, eight, or 12 bars. I’ll give you an example: If you listen to “JU$T,” very few rappers can break down a purely Southern style and keep the lyrical integrity. And for that song, it was really two lines — “You believe corporations runnin’ marijuana?/And your country gettin’ ran by a casino owner” — those two lines, cadence-wise and sound-wise, could have come from Southern club music. You know, I’ve done stutter patterns for years; I’m part of that legacy the same way that Migos and Lord Infamous is. It’s a beautiful pattern, but if it’s not right for what you’re doing, it just seems lazy. You’re just leaning on the beat for effect.
But I thought, I feel like this is what the lines call for, and if I can make it feel like I’m not just stuntin’ and flossin’ — if I can keep the lyrical integrity that is worthy of Run the Jewels — then I’m on to something. What is being said in that pattern, how the rhythm of it hits you first and then you get the contradictions of what I’m saying — when I finally got that done, it was like, OK, this works now. It’s both a tribute to that Southern flow and it’s using that flow to say something. But it took a while to lock into that rhythm, and then to sort of build it up from there. I’m lucky I’m in a group that’s patient.
“It’s like the music just became the soundtrack for progress. The universe was the ultimate A&R this time around.” —Killer Mike
This was supposed to come out in April; you ended up releasing it in the middle of what Mike called a massive “enough-is-enough” point. What does it feel like to put these songs out at this particular moment?
El-P: When everything was shutting down and we knew the record would get delayed a bit, we were asked point blank: “Do you want to wait until this is all over and you can tour?” This is uncharted territory. How do you release a record when you can’t go out and promote it?
Killer Mike: “You might have a better chance of being able to do your job if you wait.”
El-P: And the truth off the matter is, we didn’t even consider holding off for a second. It was, “Actually, we’d love to release this a few days early if we can.” We don’t have a lot of power in terms of what we can say and do right now, so this was a chance to just say “Fuck it” and offer something to the world. We don’t know what the results of that decision are going to be, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. The truth is, it needed to come out just as much for us as it did for anybody else.
I’m sure this is obvious, but Run the Jewels have never really been a calculating group. Every album that we’ve done, there was never really a plan. It was always just a question between the two of us: Do you wanna go again? We just knew that we could bring something to people, and we just hoped it connected.
Killer Mike: I’ve been stopped so many times in the street since this record dropped, because we really did listen to our audience. With the George Floyd case and Breonna Taylor case — with these two black people being killed back to back — the activist community in Atlanta went into full activation mode. And I’ve had activists tell me as recently as yesterday, “Man, your guys’ album dropping at the moment it did spoke to exactly how I was feeling.” It’s like the music just became the soundtrack for progress. The universe was the ultimate A&R this time around. I’m happy that we were able to put out music that was damn near tangible to people; they needed that energy so badly. And honestly, I’m happy to part of a rap group that is just dope as shit.