So far, Killer Mike has tried seven times to spit this knotty verse as nimbly and quickly as he can. He tries reciting it with his eyes closed; while staring straight ahead; while reading from his lyrics sheet. He, born Michael Render, faces his rap partner El-P, born Jaime Meline, who gives him cues to help him remember every word. The longer he tries, though the more herculean the task seems.
On the eighth try, Killer Mike fumbles. “FUCK! Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he says. “I’m taking five. Fuck this fucking song.” He walks out the room, a rehearsal space in Stankonia Studios in northwest Atlanta.
The following week, Killer Mike and El-P launched a nationwide tour to promote their second album as hip-hop dynamic duo Run the Jewels. Their partnership once seemed unlikely, perhaps due to that still-persistent lie that the North and South are worlds apart in terms of hip hop and politics. Killer Mike, himself an ATLien, won a Grammy for his guest verse in OutKast’s “The Whole World,” while El-P spearheaded New York’s underground hip-hop movement with his first group Company Flow. Mike is a sensitive bullshit detector, crying foul at politicians for not looking out for him, a black man in America. Jaime often raps as if hiding out in his apartment, wondering if he’s either insane or the last sane man alive. But these 39-year-olds bicker like siblings.
“I’m sorry, I’m just a little off,” Killer Mike says.
“Yeah, well you’re just a little high,” El-P says.
“Alright, Marlboro Man.”
El-P met Killer Mike in 2012 through Adult Swim’s label, Williams Street Records, to work on a couple of songs. After some convincing, he ended up producing the entirety of Killer Mike’s most recent album, R.A.P. Music. It was the Adamsville native’s most high-profile release yet, likely in part because of their new partnership. As Run the Jewels, though, they exist in a league of their own.
Take “All Due Respect,” the track from Run the Jewels 2 that Killer Mike was rehearsing. Backed by drummer Travis Barker’s splintering snare, they sprint through verses that would trip any lesser rapper up. Here’s one that actually doesn’t affect Killer Mike: “We the bad boys bully with the fully that the teachers say ain’t shit and in the need of discipline/We the goddamn reason for Ritalin, in the back of the class, twitching and fidgeting.” The more time he spent on that song, the more that Stankonia’s high ceilings and walls looked ready to implode.
A week earlier, Run the Jewels sit on a patio at Corner Tavern in Atlanta, near the historic Auburn Avenue that birthed Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. Killer Mike has the hood of his forest green sweatshirt pulled over his head, while El-P sips from a glass shaped like a tikiman. Journey’s “More Than a Feeling” blares from the speakers, to Killer Mike’s disgust.
During lunch, Run the Jewels name-checks 2 Live Crew, 8 Ball and MJG, Boogie Down Productions, George Carlin, George Orwell, Gordon Ramsey, INXS, OutKast, Rocky, Too $hort, The Karate Kid and WorldStarHipHop. Before the duo formed, Killer Mike and El-P bonded over a record that arrived when they were teens: Ice Cube’s 1990 solo debut Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, produced by the Bomb Squad.
As part of N.W.A., Ice Cube was a brute sizing up anyone who dared enter his native Compton, Calif., a city riddled with gang activity. Before he left, Long Island’s the Bomb Squad produced Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, a chaotic album declaring a state of emergency in black America. This match-up blew El-P’s mind—remember, this was during the East Coast-West Coast rivalry. When he met Killer Mike, he realized that they could have the same effect.
“No one will say it, but come on, say it. Just ask—how is it possible that a white guy and a black guy, from two different places, are actually friends and find common ground within music?” El-P says, as Killer Mike giggles.“The answer is, we don’t know. We’re just friends. It’s not a big deal. Maybe those divisions just exist in your head. Maybe those divisions are thrust upon us.”
Amerikkka’s Most Wanted’s cover art pictures Ice Cube, eyebrows arched, before a crowd flooding a city intersection. Killer Mike wanted to be him—mean, tough and with the same Levis and Nike Cortez sneakers. (Never mind that his mother threatened not to buy him school clothes until his grades improved.) He drew a portrait of Ice Cube in art class. What’s important to realize is that with this album, Ice Cube wasn’t taking aim at anyone, but America itself: “It’s a shame, that n—-as die young/But to the light side it don’t matter none.”
“I remember looking at that album cover and just seeing Cube’s army of people, dressed in black,” Killer Mike says. “I never understood what that felt like until Run the Jewels started growing.”
With their first album, Run the Jewels sold a black t-shirt emblazoned with “Do Dope Fuck Hope,” from the eponymous track “DDFH.” It’s a slogan that isn’t safe for work, even though it speaks to the hopelessness in an era plagued by a recession and police brutality. It’s also a satisfying retort during a time without easy answers. This summer, Killer Mike appeared on TV to talk the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. “If they will violate the rights of an 18-year-old African-American child, what is going to happen to anyone?” he said on CNN.
Killer Mike’s 16-year-old daughter wears a “Do Dope Fuck Hope” t-shirt. So does his 14-year-old nephew. “He’s just at that age where he wants to rebel, and I think it’s pretty cool that he sees his uncle as that guy,” Killer Mike says.
After lunch, Run the Jewels heads to an office building for tour rehearsal. When I arrive, Killer Mike mumbles through his verses as El-P hands me his phone—with two weeks left until Run the Jewels 2’s release, it was the only way to avoid leaks. I listen down the hall, seated on the floor by the emergency exit, keeping in mind how El-P described the duo’s favorite rappers.
They were badasses—check. In high-speed outlaw anthem “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry,” El-P exhales a motto (“Been a better bad guy than I been better than bad”) as if blowing smoke in someone’s face. Killer Mike’s retorts to preachers and teachers dance like sugarplums—or, in his words, a ballerina.
They were smart—check. Take “Lie, Cheat, Steal.” Everyone is doing it, Run the Jewels says, though unlike most bullies they actually provide references—Donald Sterling, the government forces behind Guantanamo Bay. This is RTJ2’s unofficial t-shirt slogan.
They were also fucked up—check. Penultimate song “Crown” tells two stories. One is of Killer Mike during his brief dalliance as a drug dealer, selling cocaine to a pregnant woman. (She is a composite of two women he knew.) The other is by El-P, suggesting to his friend that he isn’t the only one acting this way—just look at the armed forces. They feel shame, feel sympathy and repeat, “Can’t pick up no crown, holding what’s holding you down.”
When RTJ2 finishes, I find Run the Jewels by the building’s loading dock, trying to figure out where to get tea with honey. El-P looks at me.
“You look like you have been mugged,” he says.
I couldn’t have predicted how brutal (and brutally honest) RTJ2 would be, not when it was announced with an email parodying Kickstarter. For $40,000, it joked, the duo would re-record RTJ2 using only cat sounds for music. When Sly Jones saw that, he thought it would be funny to actually launch a Kickstarter campaign for Meow the Jewels. Two days later, he raised $10,000.
El-P called Jones, who lives in Phoenix: “You know this is a joke, right?” An hour later, though, the two of them hatched a plan. If successfully funded, El-P would not only make Meow the Jewels, but Run the Jewels will donate the money to the families of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the man who died of a heart attack during a police chokehold. (The campaign asked for $45,100 total, to accommodate for Kickstarter and Amazon fees, plus shipping.)
“Meow the Jewels proves that race doesn’t matter,” Jones says by phone. “You got a black dude from Atlanta, a white dude from New York and a mixed kid from South Carolina. We came together to show people that this is what’s wrong right now and this is what we can do to change that.”
Jones grew up in Sumter, South Carolina, listening to hip hop and avoiding trouble before he moved to Arizona in 2003. (“Growing up, they told us that we were going to be dead, in jail or in the military by the time we were 25,” he says. He just turned 30.) Two years ago at Phoenix venue Marquee, Jones was kicked out for smoking weed before Killer Mike’s opening set for GZA, but then told Killer Mike about the incident on Twitter. The rapper marched Jones up to security, said he was his cousin and threatened not to perform if he didn’t get back inside.
Since then, Jones launched a medical marijuana business, landed in county jail for weed possession—it is a felony in Arizona—and then arrived home to find that his business partner cleaned out the place and had stolen $30,000. He moved back to South Carolina, hitched a ride to Denver via Craigslist and slept at the airport for two days before his flight to Arizona. All of this flooded back to memory on Oct. 15, when he left work, checked Twitter on his phone and saw that a thousand people congratulated him—Meow the Jewels raised $52,000. He went back inside, bought a soda and sat down.
“I always have these doubts in the back of my mind, because I never accomplished anything fully,” Jones says. “I’m embarrassed to even admit that, but I never finished anything. College? Nope. Business? Nope. So for something to finally pan out, it meant the world to me.”
Jones is a Nike call center employee by day and music blogger at ItsBizkit.com at night. He has a pitbull named Steven, a chihuahua named Kevin and a poodle named Stephanie. He’s allergic to cats.
The week after Meow the Jewels was funded, on Oct. 23, Run the Jewels burst into Birmingham, Ala., music venue Zydeco to Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” The place was half full, but the crowd—college students and grown folk wearing hoodies, t-shirts and fake gold chains handed out at the door—roared as if it was twice as large.
Just outside the city on Interstate 20 is a billboard trumpeting white nationalist rhetoric: “ANTI-RACIST IS CODE FOR ANTI-WHITE.” We often talk about how the North differs from the South, race relations in America are fraught and hip hop hasn’t spoken up like it used to, but there was Run the Jewels, proving that none of that should matter.
The duo kicked off its set after 11 p.m. and wrapped just 45 minutes later. People were restless as they exited the venue, wishing the show was longer but feeling grateful that it was also free. (Since the night was sponsored by Red Bull, people only had to RSVP online to enter.) This was the first time that Run the Jewels performed there, and Jaime and Mike traded verses as if completing each other’s sentences.
Minutes later, though, Run the Jewels posted RTJ2 for free. It was downloaded over 150,000 times. It was supposed to be released three days later.
Before they exited the stage, Killer Mike had the crowd yelling to torment El-P: “Leak that shit!”
“I love you, motherfucker,” Killer Mike says. “I really do.”
The whole bit felt like a gag. Apparently it wasn’t.