get out the vote

Run the Jewels Wants You to Vote

Published October 16, 2020

Photos by Tim Saccenti.

On June 3rd, the rap duo Run The Jewels released the album of the year. The record, RTJ4, may or may not win the awards it’s due, but that’s really besides the point. The 11-track album, which features guests like Mavis Staples and Zach de la Rocha, touches on police brutality, friendship, and the American experiment. It became an anthem in the tragic wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, much in the same way that Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly became the nation’s rallying cry in 2015. On October 17, the duo, comprised of Killer Mike (born Michael Santiago Render) and El-P (Jaime Meline), will perform the songs from RTJ4 in a previously recorded show airing on Adult Swim titled Holy Calamavote: Make Yourself Heard. Hosted by Eric Andre and sponsored by Ben & Jerry’s, the show aims to encourage voter turnout in the upcoming November election. We caught up with Killer Mike and El-P to talk about getting out the vote, their love of music, and the future of joy. 

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JACOB UITTI: When did music first come into your life in a significant way?

EL-P: Oh, wow! It’s one of those types of interviews! My father was a musician. My father was a piano player and a singer. He was a huge jazz head and he had a crazy record collection when I was a kid. So, we had a piano and we had a drum set. From an early age, I just had a really good record collection at my disposal. I was around drunken adults partying and playing and singing on the piano in the ’70s in the West Village. I feel like music, for a lot of people when they don’t grow up around it, is this daunting thing. Like, Oh my god how could I possibly do that? But I was lucky because from an early age, that fear of music was removed for me. It was just natural. You got a piano around, you got a drum set, you bang on it. Growing up in New York in the ’80s that magical, mythical time when boomboxes were on the street. People were breakdancing. Graffiti on the train. The whole shit, I was there.

KILLER MIKE: My mother was 16-years-old when she had me. And, you know, 16-year-olds play a lot of music. My mom had a great taste in soul music. Her parents raised me and my grandmother loved gospel. She was 44 when I was born, so she was getting out of her blues phase and into her gospel. My grandfather would strum a guitar and sing blues records to her and make her blush because she wasn’t an easy woman. My grandfather would just sing these silly songs to make her laugh. Music was just always joyous. I was really lucky in that the people around me, there was just always music around. Even now—the first thing my wife and I listen to when we wake up, is gospel music. Like damn near every day. And then we get high. [Laughs

UITTI: Your relationship, your collaboration can be seen as revolutionary. What do you appreciate about your chemistry, about collaborating as a duo?

KILLER MIKE: I mean, I love rapping. I’ll rap solo, duo, Wu-Tang-o. I wanted to be a rapper. But I will say out of me and Jaime’s era, two of the biggest influences on me were The Fat Boys and Run-DMC. There’s something about camaraderie in rap in the generation I’m from. It was an outside thing. Imagine if Jaime is hearing in New York, “Oh, rap is just a fad! It’s not going to last.” And I’m hearing in the South, “What, that fad? You ain’t from New York anyway!” There was this hopelessness to even think that it could happen, so you always found other kids that were into it. Being in a group feels as natural as rapping itself. I saw Run-DMC perform in an arena because my mother is only 16 years older than me. So, in her mind, letting a fucking 11-year-old go to a concert, why not? [Laughs] It felt as natural as hearing Ice Cube rap over The Bomb Squad. When I rapped over his beat, I knew this is what I’m supposed to be doing. It was comparable to me marrying my wife. I had dated a lot of beautiful women with a lot of the same or similar personality traits or physical traits. But there was something that was so uniquely special about her that I’m just, like, I’m not going to not do this. I’m not going to fuck this up. I’m in! With me and Jaime making music, it feels that right. The revolutionary aspects of our friendship—because we’re Black and white and Northern and Southern and have nuanced differences—all those things, you can find some example of. But you can never find it in two people in the way that we connect, and then still have just this intangible magic. So I just lean into it. Ride it until we die and do it on the other side in heaven somewhere.  

UITTI: What are you most looking forward to about the performance airing this weekend?

EL-P: First of all, it’s the first time that we have gotten together and rapped the shit since we made it. It’s the fist time that we got to have that energy outpour, the first time that we got to be on stage together or do a performance together. Someone had come up to us and tried to ask us if we would do a special event, a concert or something. And, you know, for obvious reasons, we haven’t been doing that. We’ve been turning down those types of offers. But it just led me to be like, why can’t we come up with something that is a hybrid? Why can’t we come up with something that is a performance but that isn’t a show? And why can’t we film it? Then it became we can’t get so-and-so to fly here because of COVID blah-blah-blah, so we said, okay, why can’t we send a camera to their studio and record them doing it? And then why can’t we beam them onto a screen and film it? It turned into, how can we at some point show people us performing this music without it being some horrid headline like, “Run The Jewels Throws Show Despite Incredible Danger!” Every time we see someone performing, it’s never like, “Look at this awesome show!” It’s always, “Look at these BASTARDS performing! What the fuck are they thinking?” When they accepted us and said they wanted to do something that was about inspiring people to go out and vote, that felt like a very cool thing to be down with. We didn’t have to preach much. We just could contribute our energy and our performance—

KILLER MIKE: Well, I did have to contribute a pair of my shoes. 

EL-P: Yes, and a pair of your shoes. A tragic contribution! And it will be written on your gravestone that you did that.

UITTI: Hero!

KILLER MIKE: Here lies a hero! 

EL-P: Here lies a hero, and his shoes are buried beneath him!

UITTI: You both are synonymous with your individual home cities: Jaime and New York City, Mike and Atlanta. As you look to the future in this changing world, what do you hope for your home cities? 

KILLER MIKE: I thought you were about to ask about the World Series and I was going to say, “Well, the Braves are going to win, sir, what do you mean?” 

UITTI: That’s right! That’s all that matters right now. [Laughs]

EL-P: I would say that I was born in New York City and I’ve lived here all my life. And I love this city and I love the people in this city. This city has been hit with very hard times and everybody is dealing with that. I don’t think those hard times are in any way improving yet. But I know my city! And I know that this city is incredibly resilient. I was here when the planes hit the towers. I was on my roof. I’ve seen what this city can do to come together. Time and time again we prove that we are a city of love and resilience and innovation. I have no doubt in my mind that will always continue to be the case. It’s a beautiful place because of the people. It’s not about what restaurants are open. Of course, it sucks to see people’s dreams and businesses collapse. It sucks to see people not know how they’re going to get a paycheck. It sucks to see that the government has not handled their responsibilities in taking care of those people that are necessary for the lifeblood of not only this city but the country. At the same time, if you’re asking me as a New Yorker how I feel about my city? I love my city and I’m so proud of my city for handling what they have to handle. For being just as wild and just as crazy as they ever were but also taking responsibility. New York got hit very hard. We were one of the first cities that really had to be like, “Okay, time to rethink. We’ve got to flatten the curve now or we are fucked.” Motherfuckers don’t complain and don’t cry. And it’s okay to complain and cry, but I just know that’s not the way it is here. I know that New York City will rise and it will become something that maybe looks different, but I think it will be beautiful as always. And I will always feel that way about my city. 

A still from the video trailer for the RTJ4 performance.

KILLER MIKE: Man, it’s interesting. I don’t know what’s happening, man. It’s growing. For the 40-some-odd-years I’ve been on earth, we’ve been a small town masquerading as a big city. But it looks like we’re growing. I really just don’t know what my city is going to be. I’ve never lived anywhere else or wanted to live anywhere else. But honestly, I’d just like to see Black people all over the world. At some point, when my baby goes to school, I will imagine my wife and I traveling a lot more if not every year. We want to see all of Africa, the Caribbean, parts of South America. I just want to have enough so that I don’t worry about Atlanta obsessively. Because I know that I’ve given the best that I have through millions of mentorships so that this city will be a city where people like my grandparents, who came from the very deep and rural South, can come and within one-to-two generations, their families can be a middle-class family. I’m going to work my butt off to make sure that happens, and then I’m going to just go about the business of seeing what my people are doing all over the world. 

UITTI: What do you love most about music?

KILLER MIKE: Making it with Jaime as a member of RTJ and making people happy. Even though our shit a lot of times is blow-off-your-steam or braggadocio rap, which is what rap should be at its core, people just leave our concerts happy and exhilarated and exuberant. And that’s my very favorite part about doing live shows: making people happy.

EL-P: As a kid who got kicked out of high school at 16-years-old and went to musical engineering school and literally put his first 12” out at 17, I’m just glad the shit fucking accepted me! I’m glad it worked and I’m allowed to do what I love doing because I literally had no backup plan. I’m just so fucking grateful that I get to spend my days obsessing over sound and ideas and art. My ambition always extended just to that point. Like, look, if I can make music and I can do this for a living and never have to work for someone I don’t want to work for, then I will consider myself the luckiest fucking person in the world.