Run the Jewels fights the power and celebrates cats

Last summer, veteran emcees Killer Mike and El-P stormed the Internet with Run the Jewels, a furious collab project that catapulted the two indie hip-hop lifers to online stardom. Their eponymous debut, released as a free download, landed on many critics “Best of 2013” lists.

On Oct. 24 the duo dropped the highly anticipated follow-up, “Run the Jewels 2,” another free release. Loaded with frenetically paced electronic beats and furious aggro rap, the album is charged with braggadocio, making a claim to hip-hop’s throne. It’s also a no-holds-barred call to arms, bluntly addressing police brutality, political corruption and class warfare.

In the aftermath of the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black youth who was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in August, Mike traveled to the St. Louis suburb as it erupted in protests. He penned a scathing editorial on the militarization of the police for Sitting on the patio of Red 7 before a ballistic Red Bull-sponsored performance last month, he expanded on his thoughts.

“Whatever happens to the least of us will one day happen to us all,” he said. “That was true in Nazi Germany. That was true in Southeast Asia when they ignored the war machine that was growing and killing people there.”

The son of a police officer, the 39-year-old Atlanta native says he’s not calling for a radical change in our social system, but he warns that “passive non-vigilance” about rights violations have dangerous consequences. As a hip-hop artist who’s connected to the form’s roots as urban protest music, he said he feels obligated to speak out. “If you have had an experience in your life outside of ego or what you can buy … an experience that another human has had that involves suffering or pain or social pain, that deserves to be talked about,” he said.

“Because I’m affected by it and because I’m an artist, I’m not really sure what I’m worth if I’m not trying to be an arbiter of an eloquent translation of that experience,” El-P said. At the same time, he resents the expectation that hip-hop artists be political and the pressure to be a voice of struggle. “There’s a need for nuance and presentation, and I don’t think that anybody needs a lecture,” he said.

There were no lectures during the group’s Red 7 performance. Instead, in a furious hourlong set, the duo whipped the sold-out crowd into a frenzy, delivering verse after verse with brutal, raw skill that put the legions of lesser emcees who lean on vocal backing tracks to shame. They were also funny, joking convivially with each other and the audience.

Further evidence that the group doesn’t take themselves too seriously is “Meow the Jewels.” In a late September, marijuana-fueled attempt at hilarity, El-P, who produced much of the album, promised that if he could raise $40,000 he would remix it using nothing but cat sounds. The Internet responded with a fully funded Kickstarter in less than a week. “We really (expletive) ourselves with that one,” El-P said at the show. “That might be the strongest argument against smoking weed.”

The idea for “Meow the Jewels” came entirely from El-P, who recently laid his 18-year-old cat Mini Beast to rest. Before the insane success of the Kickstarter, Mike had no idea that cats actually run the Internet.

“I’m a dog person. I don’t want no beef, but I just didn’t know,” he said before the show. “But once I understood, I shut up. I got with the plan. … Meow. I’m gonna dress my pitbull up as a (expletive) tiger.”

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