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Kill Your Masters: How Run the Jewels Took on the World, And Won

Run the Jewels
Matthew Eisman/Getty Images

Killer Mike and El-P of Run The Jewels visit at SiriusXM Studios on March 1, 2017 in New York City. 

Run the Jewels just concluded their tour circuit across North America in support of global sensation Lorde as well as their critically acclaimed third studio album, Run the Jewels 3. Despite the momentary turbulence of Killer Mike’s interview with NRA TV (and later, his misinformed critique of MSNBC’s Joy Reid), Run the Jewels still played to adoring audiences nationwide and managed to drop an onslaught of new releases along the way. This included a technicolor collaboration with Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty and El-P’s latest remix of Lorde’s “Supercut.”

On “Supercut,” El-P’s additions drive the ethereal pop anthem through cascades of ominous bass, giving listeners the best of both worlds by combining Lorde’s angelic croon with the boom of Run the Jewels’ hallmark rap verses. Even while darting from city to city, El-P finds time to tell me about the track’s creation: “It’s all about the music,” he explains. “If we tap into something musically that we love, it propels the whole thing. Originally, we weren’t supposed to rap on the remix. We were going to just do another song with us and Lorde, but we loved the way the music came out so much that we jumped on at the last minute.”

The result is a smoldering track, which showcases the rap duo on top of their game, just shy of the five-year anniversary of their landmark self-titled debut.

El-P elaborates that while his earlier work, like seminal solo release Fantastic Damage, relied more heavily on sampling, his production is now more often crafted from scratch. “I used to deal in mostly sample collage work but as time went on and my gear changed, so did my approach. Now, for the most part, samples have taken a back seat and are used really sparsely if at all. That’s what I love about making music. What you can learn and do is endless. It’s never over, it’s never confined to one thing.”

While the illustrious rapper-producer creates music alongside the genre’s elite, Run the Jewels wouldn’t be nestled amid the apex of the rap industry if it weren’t for Killer Mike and his unwavering (if sometimes controversial) devotion to ferocious political messaging. While he did find himself in hot water for issuing an interview with NRA TV expressing his support of gun rights, which aired on the same day that the March for Our Lives student-led demonstrations were held, he was quick to offer a two-part apology (Part 1 & Part 2) to further contextualize his comments. The type of occasional discord we’ve seen in the last few weeks might come with the territory when you’re prone to such passionate beliefs.

Killer Mike’s vehement support of Bernie Sanders also made national headlines during the 2016 presidential campaign trail, as he cited Bernie’s track record of civil disobedience and decades of advocacy for marginalized communities as a clear distinction over other candidates. As such, Run the Jewels may be the only modern rap group to sway blissful crowds with torrents of sharp electronic compositions accompanied by lyrics that openly call for revolution against systematic injustice, poverty, police brutality and autocratic regime.

Run the Jewels carry the torch of rebellion in hip-hop in the same vein as Public Enemy or N.W.A. Rebellion is as fundamental to the genre as 16 bars in a verse and RTJ uphold this tradition by speaking their truth with immaculate bravado. Their reoccurring, unapologetic call to action, “Kill Your Masters” isn’t some haphazard slogan either. In Killer Mike’s recent appearance on MSNBC’s AM Joy, he’s seen wearing the very same words on his sweatshirt, which serves as something of a perpetual mantra.

Killer Mike tells me that the origins of the phrase are even further reaching than they may initially seem: “The term ‘Kill Your Master’ is derived from something Sifu Terrance Walker told me. There was an Eastern saying that, ‘If you should be walking a road and meet your master, you should kill them.’ Most people hear that and take it in the literal sense. If someone literally tries to enslave you, yes, you should kill them. But the saying means that you have to kill the things that try to master or control you and your life. You can’t thrive off the injustice around you and expect justice. You have to kill your want, your need for approval, and your ego. We could kill war if we killed these things.”

Blending ageless Eastern philosophy with Billboard topping rap music is nothing short of sheer brilliance. While the glitz and glamour of radio rap is a reliable display of triumph and ecstasy in the moment, rarely does it carry a message intended to topple dictators and take a sledgehammer to worldwide oppression.

Lyrics from the final track of RTJ’s latest effort, “A Report to the Shareholders / Kill Your Masters,” prove to be both strangely prophetic and widely encapsulating of RTJ’s defining ethos: “Coming soon on a new world tour / Probably play the score for the World War / At the apocalypse, play the encore / Turn around, see El, and I smile / Hell coming, and we got about a mile / Until it’s over I remain hostile.”

While underserved populations around the planet hunker down to survive the unfading tumult of late-stage capitalism, Run the Jewels are making music not just to weather the storm, but to carry them to the other side.

Their status as the martyrs of modern-day rap have earned them plenty of accolades since their formation. From their role as ambassadors for Record Store Day 2018, to exceptional collaborations with storied revolutionary frontman Zack de La Rocha, celebrities and civilians alike have become infatuated with all things Run the Jewels. In a fever pitch political environment where blatant dishonesty has become tragically normalized, the penetrating candor of Killer Mike and El-P is a breath of fresh air amidst the horribly polluted.

Netflix’s new show Dirty Money uses “Lie, Cheat, Steal,” as its title track, allowing the song to serve as an anthemic soundtrack to introduce the world’s most villainous white-collar thieves. When I ask about this placement, Killer Mike tells me, “LCSKW (Lie, Cheat, Steal, Kill, Win) is the American way. It is the way of the supposed winners. I think that it’s more than appropriate for the show. When you hear that, you should think of your bank, wall street, your loan company. It’s as American as apple pie.”

It’s rewarding in its own right to see Killer Mike and El-P’s success snowball as their message continues to reach larger audiences, whether by touring nationally or having their tracks burned into collective consciousness through major media placement. Phrases like “Kill Your Masters” are about as subtle as a Molotov cocktail crashing against a brick wall. And that’s the point: achieve revolution, by force when necessary, and free yourself by any means.

In today’s world, I’m not sure there’s any message more urgent or timely than that.

 

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