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The unexpected cult of Run the Jewels

Run-The-Jewels-POSTPhotos by Alfonso Solis // Written by Mike Frash //

Run the Jewels with Ratking, Despot //
Mezzanine – San Francisco
November 14th, 2014 //

“A lot’s happened in the last week, but we are gonna give you a blockbuster night.” -El-P at Mezzanine

Populist leaders and destroyers of fuck boys, purveyors of high fives, hugs and grit-grime aggression that’s cartoonishly giddy, delivering dead-serious messages while inviting you the listener to join them — Run the Jewels operate in a self-imposed world of duality.

And since releasing Run the Jewels 2 on October 28th, the duo of Michael Render and Jaime Meline has exploded. Shortly after rave reviews started rolling out, their show at San Francisco’s Mezzanine sold out, and suddenly tickets were going for $150 into the thousands. Were the tickets being sold in the $800-$1,200 range on StubHub from fans extending RTJ’s penchant for absurdity? Or perhaps the exceptional amount of hype and well-deserved praise being showered on El-P and Killer Mike meant some engineer from Google or Facebook would actually pay 30 times face value. Either way, it shows how popular Run the Jewels have become.

Run the Jewels created this atmosphere by engaging with their audience online, enabling their biggest fans to feel like part of the RTJ inner circle, sharing the cultural torch that’s currently lighting the way to bigger and better things for El-P and Killer Mike. They’ve wisely relied on their audience, which is growing in volume at an exponential rate thanks to their open relationship both new and established media, but more importantly, by creating direct lanes with their fans.

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The Emergence of a Cult Following

Certainly it helps when your new record will widely be considered one of the best albums of the year, but El-P and Killer Mike’s non-stop promotional blitz has been rooted in engaging their supporters, with the half-joking deluxe album options that turned into the forthcoming Meow The Jewels remix record, giving RTJ2 away for free via social media and with Tag The Jewels, a truly worldwide street art project that has sea legs of its own. Run the Jewels have grown into a progressive, cultish movement, one that is completely inclusive, as long as you are on the right side of history.

The Tag The Jewels project looks to take the Run the Jewels hand sign from both RTJ album covers and turn it into an iconic mainstay. Outside of Mezzanine on Jesse Street this past Friday, the brand-new Run the Jewels tour bus hovered over the venue’s entrance with the RTJ2 album cover adorning its side. Unsurprisingly, fans took this opportunity to stand between the two mummy-fist-talons, turning their right hand into a two-fingered gun and the left into a fist holding a real or invisible 36” chain.

During their SF show, El-P and Killer Mike used the hand sign as a calling card much more than on their first tour, throwing up the signal as many as five times — and all the way to the back of the rectangular club space, show-goers mimicked El and Mike, even throwing the RTJ hand sign up on impulse to show love back to the artists.

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“It’s all love and respect.” -Killer Mike at Mezzanine

Much like a Phish or Die Antwoord audience, most everyone in the room at Mezzanine was there in “full buy-in” mode, not worried about what someone might think of you by getting a bit too into the moment. Which, when you think about it, is pretty elusive for a rap act that is beloved by the indie blogosphere and its readers. Yet, there is a collective acceptance, a mentality that has bubbled up from impromptu social media memes, gifs and videos, including El-P auditioning cats for Meow The Jewels by playing them “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry”.

In Run the Jewels’ return to SF, the guys seemed thoroughly blunted when they arrived on stage. They could barely open their eyes for the first few songs, but this didn’t thwart the lyrical precision we’ve come to expect. Relying on audience participation more than the last tour, something that is likely organic since people know RTJ’s material better now, the crowd committed to reinforcing each song with key words and phrasing, creating a sense that we’re all in this thing together. During the show, El-P candidly mentioned that everyone in the room are family, and “we are family now because you paid me.” The crowd was alive and engaged more than a large majority of most concert experiences, to which El-P tweeted post show as “the livest show I’ve ever had in San Fran in 15 years. fuck.”

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Invigorating, Giddy Aggression

Run the Jewels’ lyrical violence is intended as a form of fantasy. Killer Mike made sure it was clear to FOX News watchers that his name refers to “killing the mic” when he went to discuss protests in Ferguson, Mo. And during El-P and Killer Mike’s recent hour-long interview with Microphone Check on NPR Music (a must-listen for fans of Run the Jewels), they spoke to this point:

El-P: “You’re listening to our record and you’re gonna grin. You’re in on the fun. This is not us threatening the listener … We’re not going on records and just being like ‘We’re gonna kill you!’ We’re having fun, and we’re also completely comfortable in our ridiculousness.”

Killer Mike: “And we understand you do want to kill people. But you can’t do that. So, let this be a way for you to kill people and then go back to work and don’t kill anyone.”

Mike is alluding to Run the Jewels as an outlet for invigorating, giddy aggression — to get that aggression out in a way that is cathartic, that doesn’t hurt other people, that is punk rock in its nature.

For example, in “Lie, Cheat, Steal”, Killer Mike states, “A revolutionary banging’ on my adversaries / And I love Dr. King but violence might be necessary / Cause when you live on MLK and it gets very scary / You might have to pull you AK, send one to the cemetery.” While Mike may seem like a civil rights leader more in the vein of the Black Panthers than Martin Luther King Jr., this example is about righteous self-defense.

Bottom line, it’s refreshing to see prominent rappers who are standing up for the good of the people, all people excluding fuck boys. You won’t see Run the Jewels putting down gay people, but most notably, Run the Jewels love women.

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On Charges of Misogyny

Before launching into the most controversial song off RTJ2, El-P said “This city [San Francisco] has taught me that there is a place for filth in your life.”

Rap music has always had a reputation for being somewhat connected to misogyny. But when I first heard “Love Again (Akinyele Back)” through the second minute of the record, I thought that it was a bit of a departure since El-P and Killer Mike have a clear history of celebrating women.

For example, they satirize date rape’s place in contemporary club culture with “Twin Hype Back” character Chest Rockwell, who says ridiculous things in a cheesy way that contrasts RTJ’s machine gun fire smoothness. In speaking to political power, El-P rhymes “There’s truth where the filth is / There’s lies in the law / You want a whore with a white dress / I want a wife in a thong” in “Angel Dust”. And in “Get It”, El says all he wants is “a castle / and to move like a man with a minimum of harassment / the company of women with opinions and fat asses”. You won’t find any obvious denigration of women in RTJ1 or in Mike or Producto’s solo work, so it sounded a bit odd hearing them get hyper-aggressive in a sexual manner on “Love Again”.

But that was until the third verse of the song, where they hand it off to female rapper Gangsta Boo to flip the script and give a raunchy, sexually empowering section that holds up to nasty nasty of Run the Jewels.

In their NPR interview last week, El-P said, “Girls listen to raunchy, funny stuff too.” Killer Mike discussed that his wife has heard “Love Again” and immediately compared it to “Just Put It in My Mouth” by Akinyele. The guys then referenced 2 Live Crew and Too $hort as inspirations for the song as well.

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El-P and Killer Mike also addressed the inevitable presumption of misogyny some people have with “Love Again”:

Killer Mike: “So, my thing is, I trust that women are intelligent. And I get offended — I have five sisters … Women are human. I think that when we start saying equal and human, that’s across the board, you know? Women enjoy sex … I’m just happy that our audience gets it …

El-P: “… Our intention is clear. We know our intention. Listen, real story: We made that record, and it didn’t have Boo on it. And we went and got Boo because we knew what we needed for that record … We have good intentions. I know that we are not being misogynist because we are not, a) being completely serious and, b) we’re talking about fucking here. I’m sorry if you’re offending by my language … but you’re not gonna tell me that being raw or being filthy is misogyny. I know the difference.

By definition, misogyny is the dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women. And when you let that definition sink in and listen to “Love Again” on RTJ2, labeling Run the Jewels with hating women is absolutely ridiculous. Sure, Run the Jewels often treat women as sexual objects, but they project and treat women as intellectual equals.

During the performance of “Love Again” at Mezzanine, Mike relied on the crowd to take on the “Dick in your mouth all day” refrain, making it more of a collective, fun thing. But they performed only two-thirds of the song — the all-important Gansta Boo verse was not played disembodied or with a replacement performer. This takes away from RTJ’s spirit of equality and opens the door to critics — especially since El-P admitted in the NPR interview that Gangsta Boo’s verse was a last-minute addition to rectify the song. El and Mike should find a creative way to fix this, or not play the song live, if they want to shut the door on charges of misogyny.

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This was one of the most action-packed hours of live music I’ve ever seen. Ending with the final songs off of their two albums, “A Christmas Fucking Miracle” and “Angel Duster”, the cult of Run the Jewels was mostly spent as the clock approached 1 a.m. That said, most people would have been happy to hear more. Forget the last week though, El and Mike have had a non-stop couple of years and have already gone a long way to solidifying their legacy.

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