Smile Politely

Run them jewels fast

What a time to be alive. No, I’m not talking about the Drake and Future album that just dropped — I’m talking about the literal day and age that we live in.

In 2015, any kid with a laptop and the right software can release music on a massive, instantly accessible platform, foster instant fan interaction and ultimately achieve relative mainstream touring and recorded success, all from a project they recorded in their bedroom.  While this is perhaps hyperbolic in the case of most high-profile rappers, the hip-hop industry is peppered with young emcees like Chance The Rapper, Joey Bada$$, Vic Mensa and Mick Jenkins — all of which relied on a vibrant community of grassroots followings on hip-hop blogs, Twitter and Soundcloud to build a substantial buzz before moving on to bigger things.

The success of young rappers, like those mentioned above, makes perfect sense — their peers use social media frequently, and this inherent familiarization with these new platforms kickstarted the careers of many from a fairly young age.

This year’s Pygmalion Festival headliner, however, presents a fascinating contrary example to this recent trend.

Run The Jewels is a vicious rap duo consisting of Jaime “El-P” Meline and Michael “Killer Mike” Render, from Brooklyn and Atlanta, respectively. Their 2013 debut album Run The Jewels received critical acclaim, with rave reviews from tastemaking publications like Pitchfork, Consequence of Sound and Rolling Stone. The follow-up to Run The Jewels, aptly named Run The Jewels 2, pushed the envelope even further into the modern music lexicon, landing the group spots on “Album Of the Year” lists from massive music publications – and we’re not talking like “24th best album of the year” — we’re talking consistent top-ten positions in nearly every major publication, including Rolling Stone (8), The Guardian (7) and Pitchfork (Album Of The Year).

Though you wouldn’t be able to guess this by listening to Run The Jewels, both Killer Mike and El-P are 40 years old, an age not attached to many contemporarily relevant emcees who aren’t named Eminem, Dr. Dre or Jay-Z. What’s even more surprising than their age is how Killer Mike and El-P reinvigorated their careers after being active in the industry for so long.  The laundry list of emcees (or any musicians) whose careers have stalled or faded into obscurity is miles long, but Killer Mike and El-P are shining exceptions.

If you’re a hip-hop head, you probably recognize the names Killer Mike and El-P from Outkast songs and production credits alike, but if you’re not, here’s a little history: Killer Mike used to be signed to Purple Ribbon Records, an imprint operated by Outkast, where he was a frequent collaborator with Big Boi and Andre 3000 (Remember “The Whole World”?). After Andre 3000’s departure, Mike left Purple Ribbon and started releasing music independently — an entirely new direction for someone who had been signed to one of the most high-profile imprints in the country.

In 2013, he was hooked up with El-P, a rapper/producer from Brooklyn, New York, whose credits span back to 1993 and include collaborations with lyrical heavyweights like Aesop Rock and Das Racist. Shortly thereafter, Run The Jewels was born and the success that followed was remarkable.

In an industry like hip-hop, where stars are made and then become irrelevant seemingly a month later, establishing a career, as Killer Mike and El-P have done, is cause enough for praise on its own. What’s more, the duo has reached a level of popularity that neither Killer Mike nor El-P reached in their solo careers — a marked accomplishment for veterans in an arena that is easily distracted by new fads dictated largely by people half their age.

What’s even more, RTJ have done this without a massive young Twitter/Soundcloud following that boosted a rapper like Chance The Rapper to the limelight. Instead, RTJ is more of a hybrid, combining long-standing cult followings with the shock and awe of explicit-yet-political lyrics that energize younger crowds.  Please don’t get me wrong, though, none of what RTJ does comes off as a gimmick — after listening to them, you’ll just wonder why these guys didn’t blow up before 2013.

Part of the reason that Run The Jewels has struck such a chord with listeners is the undeniable chemistry of Mike and El-P. Their verses seem to weave together seamlessly on tracks like “Blockbuster Night Part 1” — so much so that it seems like an uncanny chemistry has been brewing for years, even though they’ve only been together for a couple. Other notable RTJ cuts include the namesake for this article, “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)” featuring Zach de la Rocha of Rage Against The Machine fame (he performed with them at Pitchfork Music Festival this year and it was insane) and “Lie, Cheat, Steal,” which features some of Mike’s most poignant lyrics and one of the most visually interesting music videos of 2014.

In a music industry that thrives on young stars, Run The Jewels are a conscious firebrand of wisdom, and a wonderful exception for hip-hop as a whole. Daring to be different than the typical hip-hop archetype, their sound leaves listeners on the edge of their seat, always curious of what Killer Mike or El-P will say next.

You never know, maybe they’ll go on a giant political rant at Pygmalion, play some new songs, or even play some cuts off of their upcoming concept album Meow The Jewels, which was produced using exclusively cat sounds (seriously, I can’t make this up). Either way, it’s sure to be a good show — it’s not every day that the artist from one of the best albums of last year ends up in Champaign-Urbana – so please, for the love of music, please don’t miss this show.

Run The Jewels is headlining the Pygmalion Festival this weekend with Purity Ring, RIDE, tUnE-yArDs and more. RTJ hits the Highdive Oudoor Stage on Saturday. Tickets are available here. 

Top photo from OkayPlayer.com, bottom photo from The Windish Agency.

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