Rage Against the Machine introduced my 13 year old self to the idea of encapsulating politics in art. Most serious art, that most insufferable of phrases, contains a political element, but rarely so nakedly and on the surface as with RAtM. I already knew that music could contain a message. I was even willing to accept that “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” played a significant role in the civil rights movement (because I had seen movie montages) even if I wasn’t clear on the mechanism by which it worked.
But Rage left none of the politics to chance and instead wielded a duel ended sledgehammer of political fury and bludgeoning hard rock and hip-hop. Problematically, I couldn’t tell you exactly what their politics were. Only that they really felt it. Also, think about a duel ended sledgehammer and how well that would not work.
“Bulls on Parade” arrived with an explosive guitar intro and a chaotic video that mixed concert footage with historical protests that served to heighten the “WTF?!” factor for me. Never before had I heard anything like it in the MTV Buzz Bin (if you remember that, it’s ok to feel old). Zach de la Rocha’s line “They don’t gotta burn the books, they just remove ’em now” always stuck with me, like the wisdom of a man who had thought about things. I didn’t even have a half-baked political agenda at the time, but I found value in Rage Against the Machine’s anger over grunge’s general disaffection. Whatever was happening here felt pretty important in 1996.
I don’t know enough about playing the guitar to say that Tom Morello is a great guitarist. I do know enough to say that he teased some devastatingly cool noises out of his instrument and made the sound popular and distinctive. You know when Tom Morello plays guitar. Morello is the Hideo Nomo of guitarists – an unconventional delivery that redefined how to be successful in a craft.
Killer Mike and El-P had banner years in 2012, starting with the release of Mike’s critically acclaimed and El-P produced R.A.P. Music that was soon followed by El-P’s own Cancer 4 Cure. The purest culmination of their collaboration, R.A.P. Music, was the best hip-hop album of 2012 and arguably the best record of the year. Each rapper pulled the best out of the other. El-P’s tendency to construct complex but busy beats was blunted by Mike’s booming delivery, powerful and brash enough to swipe even the most manic track from the jaws of chaos. As the album’s sole architect, El-P’s presence gave Mike’s album a consistent tone that his records have lacked in the past. Their chemistry was undeniable and it is no surprise that the duo reunited for another go-round.
The eponymous Run the Jewels positions itself as the rebellious, purse snatching counterpart to that other hip-hop pairing, but rhymes about wealth have been replaced with ones about being delinquents. Undercurrents of their individual political consciousnesses are present, but ultimately Run the Jewels is about Mike and El-P having fun, trading rhymes, and playing off of each other’s boasts of their own bravado. “Run the Jewels” is the best example of them tossing the mic back and forth, but “Do It” has been my favorite from day one.
Run the Jewels works so well because it gives the impression that Mike and El-P worked on the tracks together. Feature spots on rap records often feel like financial decisions rather than artistic ones and many times it’s easy to think that the track’s host didn’t know what his guest’s verse would be until it arrived by email (*cough* Jay-Z’s verse on “Never Let Me Down” *cough*). “Do It” features the kind of rolling, bass heavy beat that I love and a great pair of verses that you know had to be written with full knowledge of the other:
My name is Jaime Meline
I’m not chasing the green, I’m taking it
Bosses don’t change a thing in the name of seemingly making it
Servants’ll kiss the ring of whoever they think is paying ’em
You don’t deserve the spit that they hurdled up in your face and shit
My name is Michael Render
And we are the new Avengers
We’re here to tell you all your false idols are just pretenders
They’re corporation slaves indentured to all the lenders
So even if you got seven figures, you still a n****
At a compact 40 minutes and a price of free, Run the Jewels is the best deal of the summer. The only thing that I don’t like about it is the cover art, so I snagged alternatives created by superfan @sawbrey from El-P’s tumblr.
Eric: So I heard that they’re going to be making a Captain Planet movie.
Friend: *singing* Captain Planet, he’s our hero / Gonna take pollution down to zero
Eric: That was definitely a memorable theme song. You know what was the best series theme though?
Friend: The Perry Mason theme?
Eric: No, I actually don’t know that one. I was going to say the X-Men theme.
Friend: Ahh… Well I don’t know that one.
Eric: What?! You’ve never heard it? You’ve gotta listen. *googles the youtubes*
Friend: Well, let me find the Perry Mason theme too then.
Eric: Here it is. The animated intro isn’t too shabby either.
Friend: Yeah, that is good. Well, here’s the Perry Mason theme.
Eric: Oooooh. I do like that. But you know what…
It’s the same song!