Killer Mike and El-P on rap and rebellion: ‘Police shouldn’t have an aircraft carrier’
No one knew what to expect when rapper Killer Mike, activist and one half of Run the Jewels, appeared at a news conference with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on May 29 — least of all Killer Mike. But his humane, emotionally wrenching speech about why protests against police brutality had boiled over — and his mixed emotions as the son of an Atlanta police officer — became a defining moment in the protests.
“I watched a white police officer assassinate a Black man, and I know that tore your heart out,” he said, later adding in his speech, “I’m mad as hell. I woke up wanting to see the world burn down yesterday, because I’m tired of seeing Black men die.”
But then he also said, “I am duty-bound to be here to simply say that it is your duty not to burn your own house down for anger with an enemy. It is your duty to fortify your own house, so that you may be a house of refuge in times of organization.”
Less than a week later, he and Run the Jewels partner El-P put out “RTJ4,” the duo’s fourth studio album, which predated the uprisings but felt tailor-made for this moment. It’s a flash-bang grenade thrown back at the systemic failures that got us here. Tracks like “Walking in the Show” and “The Yankee and the Brave” foresaw the fury over cops killing unarmed Black men and women and the measures people might take to stop them.
But before any of those measures could take place, the June 12 killing of Rayshard Brooks by Atlanta police — caught on camera shooting the 27-year-old in the back — once again threw the city into turmoil. Was any place actually a refuge? Could all this momentum for change actually stick?
Between the release of “RTJ4” and Brooks’ killing, Run the Jewels spoke with The Times. Killer Mike (Mike Render) and El-P (Jaime Meline) talked about why cities were burning, what’s worth building on and how to make sense of this overwhelming moment in American history.
Did the uprising change how you saw this record in the world, that you needed to get this out there and that people needed to hear from you?
El-P: We wrote the record in 2019, and we wanted to put it out in April, but then the industry fell apart. For me, and I’m sure for Mike, the context in which this drops and what everyone’s tuned into now has been overwhelming. It’s not a victory that people have been feeling this pain, but it’s powerful because people are moved by what we’re doing. I have to be honest, the record was this record in 2019; it was already what we were going to say. But we know the second our records aren’t relevant is when we inch toward a utopian society. I for one am willing to make that sacrifice if I can be a doddering old paranoid dude.
Is it tough to be sitting with this incendiary record that speaks so directly to what’s happening and be unable to be out there touring it due to the pandemic?
Killer Mike: I needed to do some stuff like lose weight and decompress after eight straight years of being on the road. I’m embracing the universe but anxiously awaiting to get back out and tear things up. The universe wanted everyone to go to their rooms and grow some veggies.
El-P: There are two things I love about this business: One, I make rap records with my friend, and the other is connecting with an audience. On release day, I was like, “Woohoo! We did it!” Then I was like, “Ahh, I’ll probably go to the grocery store.”
RTJ has always been a roller coaster ride for us. Any plan we had, it was stupid to have a plan, and you’ve gotta have a sense of humor about it. But we finally got to share it, and it’s hitting people.
How do you feel about how the music industry is or isn’t meeting the demands of this moment? What should Black artists be demanding from the business now?
Killer Mike: We deserve ownership as artists. People who made you tons of money 20 years ago, they deserve to be in. Be hiring from the people you’re pulling talent from — they shouldn’t have a white boss to answer to. Getting rid of your “urban music” department serves what purpose? Black music is already marginal compared to other art. You make it for cheaper and sell it for more. I haven’t often seen the industry do the right thing. I’d like to see the people who made the music have jobs and make sure the actual culture is there, not just empty well wishes.
Amid the nationwide protests over police brutality, Killer Mike and El-P released Run the Jewels’ prescient new “RTJ4” album two days early.
El-P: There’s no longer a vise grip on the output of music. But at the same time, there’s no political perfect solution for every artist. The Blackout Tuesday thing, it’s well-meaning, but the pitfall of that, like Mike said, is “How about just give us jobs?”
There are really simple solutions, but people are tired of symbolic ones. How come every time there’s s— going down, someone brings up “Gone With the Wind,” like every redneck is watching that on weekends? I’m convinced people use that simply to distract from the fundamental conversation. On Twitter, you let the world know you’re a good person, but that’s not where it ends. Like, “I wanna thank everyone for tweeting, that really turned the tide.”
“Walking in the Snow” is sadly prescient for the current uprising about police brutality. Do you think a critical mass of people are ready to reckon with this?
Killer Mike: This moment literally brought people into the streets to rage against systems. It’s just ripe to call bull—. What was radical was not that they burned Targets, but they burned down police stations. That’s how we let government know we’re fed up with this. Even now, people are strategizing, mobilizing, and you’ve already seen laws change on the ground. Nothing would have happened in a legislature. People aren’t talking about getting rid of police departments, it’s about getting rid of militarizing.
Do police need a tank full of riot gear? When people hear “defund police,” we’re talking about radically changing the way people see police.
El-P: In N.Y.C., there are $6 billion annually for the NYPD, so it’s very logical to say, “Hey, excuse me, wouldn’t that money reduce crime and reduce poverty? Isn’t it a rejection of a functioning society, trying to roll a tank through it?”
Everyone’s going to latch onto semantics, but no, I just don’t think police should have an aircraft carrier. Y’all can barely get your own rules right. Chokeholds have been banned forever. When Eric Garner was killed, that was a lethal force that was already banned, yet we have a mayor who was so much of a coward that he can’t even bring himself to admit his job is to enforce current laws.
“Yankee and the Brave” sounds like it was inspired by Christopher Dorner, the ex-LAPD officer who went on a killing spree to take revenge on the department that fired him. Was it?
Killer Mike: It wasn’t. It’s just a fantasy for every Black dude who has been harassed by cops. It’s what you wish could happen to the bad guys. I remember Tupac’s “Souljas Story.” I used to bump the hell out of that record. I loved it because it represented the possibility of what could have been. I don’t want to sacrifice myself to be a martyr, but I want to say this, and there’s something freeing about saying it.
El-P: That song is an action movie about crooked cops. Why is everyone in the streets right now? Because when a police officer hurts and kills, it’s the biggest betrayal. You’re the biggest villain you can be, because you have a sacrosanct honor to protect people. If you don’t want to be the villain in a RTJ song, there’s a pretty easy way not to be one.
Mike, your speech in Atlanta was nuanced and heartfelt. You’ve been speaking on these ideas for years, but did you struggle with how you wanted to frame all this, especially for people in Atlanta?
Killer Mike: I wasn’t supposed to talk. My concern that day was on promoting Bankhead Seafood. I got a call from the mayor’s office asking to help. I didn’t realize cops had been ready to push in, and the mayor was holding them off. People were rioting, and rightfully so. I refused for an hour. I wanted to stand in solidarity with my friends. But I’ve got cousins who are police officers, officers I know to be of integrity. I was speaking on the dilemma they were in. I had no idea what I was going to say, I just told the truth.
There’s a framework in Atlanta, an American experiment that has often worked for people who looked like me. The police department that my father represented — not that it’s worked to perfection, but for 45 years of life, I’ve seen nothing but Black leadership, and been patrolled by Black officers. All my heroes and villains looked like me. I got to judge people on the content of their character and not their skin.
I was speaking directly to people in Atlanta because economically, socially, Atlanta is a fortress in the war against white supremacy, and we shouldn’t burn our fortress down. If we can’t plan, if we can’t strategize and organize in a city like Atlanta, we’re lost. I’d like to see more Black enclaves, I don’t want to burn them down.
I didn’t get into [music] to be a social leader. I come from the community T.I. comes from, that [Mayor] Keisha Bottoms comes from — the west side of Atlanta. We were raised by salt-of-the-earth Black people, and what I’m doing is no different than what [civil rights leader] Hosea Williams did, or my grandparents did.
When you come from our side of town, you’re expected to do what’s right. I’m glad it resonated, and for those who have critiques, that’s fine too.
Jaime, what’s been your thinking about the best ways for white people to actually help right now?
El-P: The foundation of why I can be on these records without blinking is because I know I’m real and genuine about this. Particularly for white, liberal empathetic people who think they’re good guys, there’s gonna be no victory until you put your heart in. It’s gotta become part of your fiber, that offense to another human — Black, Native, trans, whoever it may be — you have to feel that. You have to be as offended and outraged as you would for someone in your own family.
You can imagine you’re a good person, but now imagine giving up that life to be a good person. It’s scary. People like being a good person, but also are like, “Ehhh, I’m not ready to give this up that I didn’t earn.” And that’s how they get you.
To be on the right side of decency, you have to be brave and willing to accept responsibility, and you don’t get the cool [stuff] they give you.
Killer Mike: My grandmother would tell me, “The world will show you.” It seemed we didn’t care about police brutality, but now it’s in all our faces, its non-negotiable.
I appreciate people taking to the streets, and I hope we take that into November and into next year.
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