The reaction to the recent news of Marvel’s Howard The Duck #2 & Deadpool #45 getting Run The Jewels themed variant covers formed a wide array of reactions from “huh?” to “who?” to “YEAAAAAHHHHH” While you can count this writer to be firmly in the latter camp I can understand if some of you were in the former for the lack of familiarity with the group. Rap has always been tangentially connected to comics in a lot of ways. The most obvious is Wu-Tang Clan and especially member Ghostface Killah who has taken on the Iron Man/Tony Starks persona going as far back as his debut album but there is also Kanye West who was studying to be a comics artist before dropping out of college to do the rap artist thing full time, Jay-Z who named his comeback album and based it’s concept around Mark Waid & Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come or MF Doom who has based his entire rap persona around Dr. Doom and like those other acts the members of Run The Jewels have been connected to comics and geek culture from writer Phillip K Dick being a primary influence on the music itself to having Adult Swim be the inception of the group and more. Consider this your unofficial guide to the group, why they are being featured on the cover of two Marvel, why they are important and what that means politically.
Who are Run The Jewels?
Run The Jewels is a rap group with two forty year old men. One is a white guy from Brooklyn named El-P and the other is a black male from Atlanta named Killer Mike. They released their second album, Run The Jewels 2 in 2014 to universal critical acclaim and love from their loyal fan base.
Wait they are 40 year old rappers?
And they’ve only released two albums?
Yup and how they ended up at this point is a whole other story in itself.
Yeah will get there
Oh do tell?
To understand how Run The Jewels not only became a group but also how they could be separate forces in the culture for so long before coming together you have to understand rap’s history and how El-P & Killer Mike fit into that. From roughly 1995 to 2005 rap music was divided by a false narrative that one side was “underground” & the other was “mainstream” and this essentially created a divide that prevented certain artist from working with one another. This was never a hard line as an artist like Eminem started out as “underground” until he was signed by a major label and taken under Dr Dre’s wing while Wu-Tang Clan were decidely “mainstream” by the middle of the 90’s as they were biggest rap group in the world while by the middle of the 2000’s they were basically off the radio and “underground”. Until that dichotomy was blown up El-P & Killer Mike were on opposite sides even though they’ve always shared a musical aesthetic.
Underground rap was basically 80% marketing 10% aesthetic and 10% based on the size of your record label. Originally underground was used as a label for dope rap music that was unappreciated like this:
That these were really good rap songs that didn’t make it on the radio or become widely popular more or less created a movement of fans and artist that worked under the principle that mainstream media outlets didn’t support “real” hip hop. This was exasperated by the popularity of Puff Daddy and the “shiny suit era” while the idea that their brand of “real hip hop” was being shunned by mainstream media outlets basically became a self fulfilling prophecy as groups that identified as “underground” never really broke on the radio, MTV or BET in spite of some of them trying very (some way too) hard later in their careers. Still out of this side there were a handful of classic albums and El-P was heavily involved in at least two of them. Originally he formed a group with fellow rapper Big Jus and DJ Mr Len called Company Flow. They would release an extended play of an EP titled Funchrusher Plus via the label Rawkus Records, original home to more famous rappers Mos Def & Talib Kweli and owned by Rupert Murdoch’s son, who according to El-P was about as big of a scumbag as his father. Funcrusher Plus was the first album to come out on Rawkus and easily the best and most interesting music to be released by the label. It is a deeply paranoid and brutal examination of life in New York City that takes cues from science fiction like Blade Runner & The Twilight Zone while rallying against the establishment and authority under the rallying cry of “Independent as fuck!!!”
Company Flow would follow up Funcrusher with an instrumental album about a child escaping from a mental hospital before leaving Rawkus. From their they founded the record label Def Jux, dropped a game changing lead single and then broke up within a couple years. El-P would continue to run Def Jux as a home for like minded left of center nerdy rap artist such as Aesop Rock, Mr Lif, Murs, C Ray Walz, RJD2, Dizee Rascal, Cage, Camu Tao & perhaps best of all Cannibal Ox.
Much like Company Flow on Rawkus records, Cannibal Ox was the first group to release an album on Def Jux in 2001 with Cold Vein. Produced entirely by El-P it easily one of the ten best albums ever created and would be the greatest nerd rap album of all time had Wu-Tang rapper GZA never saw the film adaptation of Lone Wolf & Cub & made an album based on that in Liquid Swords. Cannibal Ox were two rappers from Harlem who rapped about the day to day life of a drug dealer in urban poverty with science fiction metaphors as a form of inspiration. El-P provides large epic back drops that sound like the score for 2001 Space Odysey if it was about finding a parallel New York City ghetto in another technologically advanced galaxy.
It’s hard not to state just how next level The Cold Vein was and still is really. Like there’s MC Chris or there’s Drake and then there’s Vast Aire with
See I exist
Came out the womb of a phoenix expect nothing less
Then a mature flame velocity’s my plane my thought is my train
The galaxy’s the body sun is the heart and the black hole’s the brain Heard my verse had nothing to say
I leave your mouth open when you’re standing
The word’s the missile, esophagus is the cannon
Cipher unknown the upper hand on overstanding watch the landing
Believe it or not I’m walking on air
Last of America’s heroes here to close the circle
I still remember the days of Coleco
A daily struggle but I hold onto the vision
Hip hop at it’s best when it lacked television
And everybody wasn’t an emcee
You know where the flows be and if you check the rhyme slowly
You’ll find out cats is unseen like Jarobi
And most likely opening doors with the psyche
Give it to Mikey. He’ll eat anything
Starving but hack or crush anything
Body scars from the songs we sing this shit’s ridiculoid
Or Vordul Mega just being cool as the other side of the pillow with
Now listen, how sick is these niggas?
Atoms the illest, cap peelers
And don’t tote guns, smoke onions
Crying with no funds no fun trying
To get by but we still do it and rep music
‘Til death do us wet your noodle
With raps in the pot hard boil the rap gargoyles
Stoned at night on top of buildings Gothic
Like Bruce in the blue suit let’s get it popping
Watch it drop out of the sky in the rotten
Apple, where some get tackled
Hooks that grapple right on your Adam
Got you choking off the rhyme potents
Stay focused while you villains stay joking
We serious on the mic get ignorant
Delivering rap vocals for the new millennium
With a million marching in atomic garments
Bombing all the nonsense, nonsense, nonsense……..
Yo, yo, yo,yo.. you cats ain’t ready for this, heavy abyss
Thoughts that travel through the tunnels of crypts
My mic holds one in the clip and fours packed under the dick
Spit rhino acapells gun in your shit
Get rap plug’s stuck in your whips fucking with this
Over these El-Pro percussion hits
We love to rip, love to sip, love to rep Jux to Def
Just casually drops two ill Batman reference’s and then calls his group music “heavy abyss” and closes it out with “Atoms” the way other rappers would say “Brooklyn” or some shit. This is a record with songs called “Iron Galaxy” “Atom” “Battle For Asgard” “Real Earth” & “Scream Phoenix” while still making you believe lyrics like
“What’s going on? Everything going wrong in the ghetto cops desert storm or blocks all torn up…..Now they can call me Batman, beyond your maneuvers. Shit, I’m Atoms Fam to the bone marrow
Fuck a soul, even God knows this body is hollow…..Put a mic in front of me, and I’m gonna bless it. Hummingbird style, seventy times in one second”
on a song called “Stress Rap” as it navigated between the ethereal street narrative and big idea science fiction. It’s an album unparalleled and unlike anything that came before or after in the thirteen years since it’s release. It was also the last album the group would do as they basically fell off the face of the earth (until very recently). Still Def Jux would continue releasing new music from it’s staple of artists including El-P himself as a solo artist, like this song he did with with Trent Reznor
But eventually “underground” rap fans grew out what was a false dichotomy, the culture moved on, people stopped buying music altogether and independent labels like Def Jux couldn’t support themselves, closing for good in 2010.
Meanwhile over in the mainstream side of rap Outkast was able to transcend from being the token Southern rap group of it’s era to the biggest rap group in the world within three albums as pop audiences became more open to non coastal rap. The Atlanta duo actually had a pretty cool comic in the liner notes of their second (and best) album and would cultivate an extended family of like minded Atlanta based artist called the Dungeon Family such as Goodie Mob, Witchdoctor, Bubba Sparks or Cool Breeze. In 2000 on Outkast most forward thinking left of center album Stankonia, the group introduced Killer Mike on the gut punch “Snappin & Trappin” before featuring him on the duo’s hit single “The Whole World”
Probably unbeknownst to fans, Killer Mike or Outkast themselves was that this would be the last hit song Outkast would do together as a group, they would follow their greatest hits record into a half decade long winded breakup that would include a grammy winning/diamond selling group album that was really just two solo albums packaged together, a terrible HBO movie and for Killer Mike a hit solo song that he would later deeply regret, a turn in a the short lived Purple Ribbon All-Stars & followed that attempting to be an independent solo artist with fantastically unappreciated solo music before fading into obscurity as the music rapidly changed around him.
Basically Kanye West became the biggest rapper alive by his second solo album partially based on destroying the binary between underground & mainstream hip hop. From there popular rap artist Lil Wayne would reinvent himself in much the same way by embracing a lot of the alt culture that was prevalent in underground hip hop after spending close to a decade as a “mainstream” artist and child rapper with the Cash Money record label. From there you get the Seinfeld loving Wale, walking/talking/breathing real life meme Lil B, emo space cadet Kid Cudi, sensitive lover boy Drake, proud college graduate J. Cole, pan-Asian third world populist MIA, goofy stoner Whiz Khalifa, goth skate punks Oddfuture, drugged out ghetto hipster A$AP Rocky, Nicki Minaj’s sex positive lyrical assassin feminism, anti-materialistic Macklemore and the encased in gold best rapper alive Kendrick Lamar who was equal parts 2Pac, Jay-Z and Mos Def while probably being better then all those guys combined. Rap was no longer mainstream or underground, it was something else entirely and it looked like the El-P’s or Killer Mike’s of yesteryear were left in the dust. That is until Adult Swim came calling.
In 2011 Adult Swim Vice President/Creative Director Jason DeMarco urged Killer Mike to return to rap through the TV blocks distribution channels. Adult Swim’s foray into hip hop is not without precedent as they released albums from the likes of MF Doom & Dangermouse or Killer Mike’s old Dungeon Family cohort Withdoctor. DeMarco suggested that Killer Mike check out El-P for production. The pair got together in the studio with the intention of making a couple songs together. They ended up doing an entire album produced by El-P that would result in 2012’s R.A.P Music via Adult Swims Williams Street record label. It featured music that basically ranged between hard core goon rap epics like “Big Beast” (video is not NSFW because of topless zombie strippers)
to angry politically charged songs like “Reagan”
A year later El-P would join Killer Mike on the vocals to form the group Run The Jewels whose first album was basically 30+ minutes of the hardest shit you’ve ever heard like this
and then closed out with one of the most powerfully heartfelt rap songs in recent memory
They would follow that in 2014 with Run The Jewels 2 which was everything the first album did times ten
The record is a huge success as it get’s album of the year from prestigious music site Pitchfork in addition to near universal acclaim from critics, a performance on the Adult Swim cruise for NYCC and now a couple Marvel covers. Victory!!!!
So who cares if Marvel put’s them on a cover?
On the surface probably just Run The Jewels fan’s who read comics but if you think about it in the context of recent history it takes on a lot deeper meaning. Think back to last summer when police officers killed unarmed civilians Michael Brown in Ferguson & Eric Garner in Staten Island. By pure coincidence Marvel was relaunching it’s Captain America title with African American character Sam Wilson taking over as the lead protagonist. As is typical of corporate comics the book was launched with series of variant covers including one with teen rap group Rae Sremmund.
Rae Sremmund had an accidental hit with the song “No Flex Zone” which in a vacuum is basically a dopey rap anthem telling people to chill on the violence but in the context of Michael Brown & Eric Garner it took on a life of it’s own as an anthem for the have not’s that felt the killings were symptomatic of large scale oppression against African American communities in the United States Of America by it’s police force.
There is a level of ambiguity and subtlety about using Rae Sremmund on the cover. It’s pointing towards a stance on the #blacklivesmatter movement without explicitly saying it. This is important because Marvel is a subsidiary of Disney corporation, a traditionally conservative media organization. While it only takes a cursory look on social media to see where the majority of Marvel’s creators stand on the issue, figureheads like Axel Alonso or Joe Quesada can’t explicitly say the same things as it’s talent because of their position in the organization. So putting Rae Sremmund on the cover is a way to point in that direction with a level of plausible deniability. Putting Run The Jewels on the cover of your comic’s doesn’t have any subtlety, Run The Jewels is not only firmly in the camp of #blacklivesmatter unequivocally, they’ve become one of it’s loudest voices. When Run The Jewels fans raised $40,000 via kick starter for the group to create a remix of the new album using all cat sounds (seriously) Killer Mike and El-P donated all the money to the families of Mike Brown & Eric Garner. Killer Mike was especially vocal about the problems surrounding Ferguson penning a fierce editorial on billboard.com about the situation while acting as a thoughtful, reliable and most imortantly no bullshit mouthpiece on the cable news circuit
But that was all basically prelude to when Run The Jewels detoured to St Louis on the night that the grand jury decision was handed down as a matter of principle followed by Killer Mike’s impassioned response on stage to the results
“It is not about race, it is not about color, it is about what they killed him for. It is about poverty, it is about greed and it is about a war machine. It is about a war machine that you refute as a battery. So I might go tomorrow, I might go the day after but there’s one thing I want you to know; it is us against the motherfucking machine”
Axel Alonso, Tom Breevort or Joe Quesada may not be able to say that but Run The Jewels can and did. The people in charge of Marvel are pointing you in that direction with those covers, come Run The Jewels with us.