It’s been over six months since Run the Jewels released their fourth and arguably best album together, RTJ4, and now the duo of Killer Mike and El-P are finally getting the chance to perform it live. The Adult Swim and Ben Jerry’s–sponsored broadcast, which airs at midnight ET on October 17, is more than just a performance of the acclaimed album — dubbed “Holy Calamavote,” it’s a pre-election call to action and a fundraiser for the ACLU, hosted by Eric Andre and featuring guest appearances by Zack de la Rocha, Josh Homme, Mavis Staples, Pharrell Williams, and 2 Chainz, among many others.
Ahead of the concert’s airing on Adult Swim and HBOMax (as well as streaming on YouTube), Vulture caught up with the duo to discuss their activism, how they’ve spent the pandemic, Mike’s controversial meeting with Georgia’s Republican governor, and what they’ve taken away from 2020’s protests against police violence. As they point out repeatedly, the circumstances for their return to the stage aren’t ideal, but they’re beyond thrilled to get out there and do what they do best: just fuckin’ rap.
How did this concert come about and what’s it been like getting the band back together, so to speak?
El-P: It came about because, at one point, we were asked about the possibility of us doing a concert and I was just really uneasy with that. I was like, “It’s just not the time to do a live show. Everybody’s not safe.” So I started conceiving of a different type of performance we could do, something we could film that was a COVID-safe experience. That idea started to gain some traction and then Ben and Jerry’s stepped to us. They really wanted to work with us and do something around the vote, so we pitched them this idea. We haven’t gotten a chance to perform Run the Jewels 4, and it’s easily the biggest record of our career. We dropped this record and then it was like we Zoomed about it for five months. We’ve been dying to just get together and rap because that’s what we do. In terms of the band being together, it was amazing. I got to be in the same room with my friends and actually got to rap. As much as it’s been awesome to be able to drop this record and get the reaction we got, we’re just dying to fucking do this shit into a mic.
Killer Mike: Oh man, it felt good to put the denim back on. I’ve been a gardener, a better husband, a dad, a doggy sitter, a purse holder — I’ve been everything Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent are when they don’t have the capes on, so it felt really good to be a superhero.
Was there a specific point in 2020 when you knew this year was going to be awful?
Killer Mike: For me, 4/20. Once God said, “Son, fuck your birthday. The international day of getting stoned together is put on pause.” I was like, “Aw man, this is it for us right now.”
El-P: “That’s it. You crossed the line, universe!”
Killer Mike: That was it, that’s when I realized. But when Coachella started closing and concerts started closing, as an entertainer I was like, “Well, it’s probably not gonna work this year.” In terms of the world stopping, I can say I was in a voting line this morning with a bunch of cool people from our community and everyone talked about just appreciating getting back to very simple things like walking in the evenings or actually having time to vote. So, the silver lining for me in all of this has been like a real reconnect with human beings. Whether it’s my wife, or my kids, or just walking in the evenings where neighbors are out getting their body moving, it’s been really cool for me to connect on a human level.
Aside from walking, how else have you guys stayed sane during this year?
El-P: I personally can’t sit here and rightfully claim that I’ve stayed sane. I’ve definitely had, like everybody else, peaks and valleys throughout it. But the one thing that I think that both me and Mike are very grateful for is that we’re okay. We’re all right, but there are a lot of people we know, a lot of people we care about that aren’t, that don’t have any type of safety net or are literally incapable of earning money. I really try to keep that in mind. I’ve got a good situation in comparison to a lot of people out there who have been hurting from day one. To some degree, that’s just a fucking universal truth right now, so for us to be offered a chance to do what we do, to make a statement, that felt really good. We’ve had a lot of chances to talk and contribute in whatever way we can except for us giving our energy in our performance and lending it to something that addresses, in a way, all of this shit. Us saying, “This is for people to pledge to vote,” it really made sense. Everything we’re saying on this record and what we’re talking about, it’s all lending itself towards the idea of improvement and empowerment. You don’t have to explain to anybody why they’re hurting right now. It’s not incredibly political to say “vote.” It’s an acknowledgment that this has been a very tough time for everybody and it is encouragement to say, “Well, let’s do this one thing. If we do nothing else, let’s do this.” For our part, we’re gonna fucking sing and dance for you a little bit to get you hyped up to do that.
And with Eric Andre involved, it’s guaranteed to be something wild.
El-P: Yeah, Eric is someone that we called up because he’s on that shit. He’s very politically minded. He’s very aware. He feels very strongly about it so when we asked him, he immediately was like, “Yes, I’m in.”
Killer Mike: Eric Andre is my dumbass homeboy who will call me at 4 in the morning, drunk as shit at his party as he dances naked and tells me about everyone dressing like a piñata festival or some shit. He’s nuts. He loves us to death. He’s a great guy.
El-P: I don’t know, Mike, if you knew this, but Eric, back in the day when I had the Def Jux label, he straight up came to the office and gave his demo to us. I didn’t have any memory of this, but he told me that when we became friends. There’s a connection in multiple ways to Eric, so having him down with this shit was like, “Yes, of course we have to have him.”
Have you guys been inspired to write at all with this pandemic downtime?
Killer Mike: I jumped on a Black Thought record. Tip brought me in the studio today to jump on a record. I jumped on some records with Big [Boi]. [Rae Sremmurd’s] Slim Jxmmi hit me up. I’m at home bored now that the kids are back in school, so if you sending shit, we rapping. El sent me some beats. I’m going in the studio tonight to play them and see if I get inspired. I’m back in “I just want to rap” mode, so that’s a yes for me.
I spoke to you guys back in 2014 in the midst of the Ferguson protests. How does what you’ve witnessed this year compare to what you saw back then? Does it feel any different?
El-P: I think it’s gotten worse. It was there before that. Me and Mike are tuned into that shit when we write. I think it’s not something that just a segment of the population is aware of anymore, looking at the issues, the struggle between the powerful and the communities that are on the receiving end of a lack of justice and fair treatment. This has penetrated more layers of society in terms of understanding. I think that may be the difference. It’s one thing when you have a conversation with your homeboy who knows about this shit and understands it. It’s another thing when after years and years, it keeps happening, starts to boil up, and there’s a bigger understanding of these issues. And that’s tragic and hopeful. Tragic in the sense that it’s that pervasive, that it’s not getting handled better, that the balance hasn’t shifted yet. But it’s hopeful because it cannot shift until people demand that it shifts, and it cannot be demanded until people are aware of it.
Killer Mike: It’s all gonna get worse before it gets any better, so you just need to dig in. It’s hard. I get it — I’ve been a working-class dad longer than I’ve been a rapper. We need people to be community minded. Between work I’ve done with Tip, PAWkids, and the street fraternities down on the south side, we fed over 1,000 families this summer. This holiday season, I’d encourage people to focus more on the needs of other people in these cold months. People are going to need socks and underwear, women are going to need feminine-hygiene products, kids are going to need deodorant and toothpaste. Let’s make sure that we’re not forgetting to help take care of a neighbor because I don’t think sunshine is right around the corner. I’m just hoping for the best.
Mike, you caught heat for meeting with Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp. What did you get out of that meeting and what do you hope people understand about your decision to do that?
Killer Mike: What I got was the ability to partner with 501(c)(3)s that now get children their GEDs, put them in trade programs, and they graduate with union-scale jobs. You’re talking about a kid who spends 18 to 19 months of his life in school and gets out making $70-80,000 a year. This dramatically changes lives. On a statewide level, I’ve been put in contact with the governor’s office and I’m going to be helping shape a campaign that gets boys and girls from working-class backgrounds who pivot into the trades because Georgia is going to be building for the next 20 to 30 years. There’s going to be a lot of money to be made using your hands. If I do the right thing in this moment, that means that kids will get a proper education that allows them to create stable families, and then big-ups Georgia.
I’m also a business owner and I pay a lot of fucking taxes to the state. And I want to tell anybody out there in any municipality, whether the politician you voted for wins or loses, if you are a constituent in that municipality, engage your political officials. I don’t care if they’re your rivals, if you agree or disagree, engage them because they’re responsible for your money and thereby responsible for your life.
What are your plans from now through Election Day to keep getting your message out?
Killer Mike: On a local level, I got up and voted this morning. I’m just pushing where I can. I’m pushing personally for Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock right now in Georgia. So I’m doing that and staying active beyond elections with organizations like Next Level Boys Academy, New Georgia Project, and Racial Justice Now. Those are organizations I’m supporting on a local, regional, and national level.
El-P: We’re obviously doing this nationally televised special to get our message out on a large level. We’ve previously given over $200,000 just off this last album to the National Lawyers Guild; we’re doing T-shirts that benefit different organizations, including LGBT organizations, organizations that fight for immigrant and refugee rights, and racial justice organizations. We’re trying to end this year off with a bang in terms of using what we can to generate something that’s real, whether it be an idea or whether it be literal money that we give to people who are on the ground and doing the work. It’s something that we’ve grown into and it’s a real important part of who we are as Run the Jewels. We want to be able to do that stuff and we also want to be able to smoke weed and talk about shooting your poodle.
Do you ever feel like there’s an overwhelming amount of focus on your politics and not just the fun of your music?
El-P: Well, those are the times right now, but everyone has fun at our fucking shows. And when you’re rocking our album, rolling down the street, that’s fun, too. We don’t have an undue burden — we do what we want to do. We walk into this with our eyes open. We understand what messages people are connecting to and the context in which it’s connecting. We also know that there will be a moment when you just want to laugh and there’s going to be shit for you there, too. We’re okay with it.
And once this pandemic ends, whenever that is, how are you going to celebrate?
El-P: We’re gonna go tour our asses off and rock for the people. That’s all we want to do. As soon as the gates open, we can’t wait to get in front of the crowds, man. Until then we’re not going to put anybody at risk.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.