Run the Jewels dropped a video for their new single “Ooh La La” on April 27th, 2020, and in the days since I’ve watched and rewatched the video more than 16 times, not counting several stretches of listening to the single on repeat. It would be lying to say it hasn’t driven me to distraction. The anti-capitalist hip hop duo — Stereogum’s Tom Breihan aptly describes them as ‘brick throwing’ — composed of Atlanta based Killer Mike and Brooklyn native El-P, were supposed to have released their latest album RTJ4 by April 10, 2020 at the earliest, before they were scheduled to perform at Coachella with Rage Against the Machine headlining. Obviously, our collective circumstances have changed, and we will have to wait a bit longer.
But the video. Silent movie style intertitles in etched-on-the-wall font lead off, quoting an ‘Ancient Proverb (probably)’ that at the end of capitalism and the abolition of class, people will throw a … very big party, and a demand for some Moët (retail price: $49.99 per my alcohol delivery service app). Several minor piano chords later, an ember ignites a dollar bill, and then Greg Nice raps the first lyrics: “Ooh, la la, ah oui oui!” People throw cash and make it rain credit cards on a conflagration in the middle of what looks like a newly liberated European capitol on V-Day. (I checked; it’s a film set in LA.) And around that fire, people dance. Prisoners still in their correctional gear and slip-on shoes crip walk in unison. Women who might be strippers aim a gold-plated money gun apparently repurposed to shoot fire at the ongoing blaze, while a fierce-eyed preteen pauses only to hurl a snowdrift of bills on the flames. Zack de la Rocha marches along with RTJ, bobbing his head as though it’s all just a little too much fun for him. And through it all, Killer Mike and El P are our guides. It is the end of capitalism, of monetary and disciplinary systems, and everyone gets to celebrate with their own bottle of Chekhov’s Moët at the tailgate. It’s a post-world order, and it is good. That this was all released two days before May Day felt auspicious.
How did this happen? Shots from helicopters’ POV early in the video hint at a military force, but later in the video, planes that could be re-appropriated fighter jets fly loop-de-loops and streak the sky with magenta, teal, and violet plumes. As timing would have it, the video was released two days after Italy’s Liberation Day, the Anniversary of the Resistance. Photos of Italian women in brogues, tweed skirts, and trench coats carrying rifles leading men wearing fatigues and suits, as well as pictures of fascists executed at the gallows by those partisans filled my twitter feed. These elegant comrades were not to be messed with; neither is the dapper crowd on display. El P and Killer Mike wear black twill work jackets and pants; they alternate with elegant leisurewear: El P’s navy and maroon jacquard smoking jacket and bright pink beanie, and Killer Mike’s vintage Polo anorak. Dancers are wearing universally cool clothes: vintage shirt dresses and suits reminiscent of the forties, white shoes before Memorial Day, an assortment of Members Only jackets in a rainbow of muted colors. Even the released prisoners’ coveralls (in a chic neutral cream) are en vogue, if the myriad emails in my inbox advertising sales on jumpsuits are anything to go by. Those jumpsuits, emblazoned on the backs with a block-font “Department of Corrections” label, hint at the violence that likely brought things there, party vibe notwithstanding.
This is a chronicle foretold in RTJ’s catalog of songs and music videos. “Call Ticketron” on RTJ3 manages to impugn environmental exploitation, television news and corporatized ‘Behind the Music’ style band narratives, bands that sell out, literally and figuratively, and big bad Ticketmaster, the monopolistic ticket retailer in the US guilty of not refunding concert ticket-holders for indefinitely postponed shows in our moment of cultural transformation post-Covid. The apocalyptic aftermath of the meteor’s impact in that video presaged the physical and social emptiness that followed the early weeks of lock-down, as well as the freaked-out feeling most of us had as we tried to process how much everything was changing and would continue to change. There are RTJ’s micro and macro takes on the brutality of the American criminal justice system and the structural reach of its injustice and racism, throughout their canon. The video for “Legend” imagines Killer Mike and El-P being placed in a series of manipulated lineups for a witness to ID, walks the viewer down a prison corridor to the sound of cheers and statistics about the thousands of people incarcerated in the United States and the metastasis of our penal state year to year, and ends forcing us to gaze into Killer Mike’s eyes as he is bodily restrained on the ground just as Eric Garner was. And then there are the lyrics from “Close Your Eyes (And Count to …)” enumerating the physical and psychological torture implicit in the carceral state; Zack de la Rocha, in the final verse, extends this indictment to capitalism and the factory system.
Current reports that Covid-19 has ravaged prison populations and vulnerable workers in essential industries, especially meat processing, and services, grocery, medical, and delivery in particular, despite those workers’ loud pleas have lent extra urgency to Killer Mike’s Cassandra style warning in the final bars of “Talk to Me”: “I told y’all suckers, I told y’all suckers. I told y’all on RTJ1, then I told ya again on RTJ2, and you still ain’t believe me, so here we go…” The capitalist system’s abuses of workers and humanity are legion; they always were. Karl Marx himself wrote in Capital Volume I, “Capital cares nothing for the life of labour-power. All that concerns it is simply and solely the maximum of labour-power, that can be rendered fluent in a working-day. It attains this end by shortening the extent of the labourer’s life, as a greedy farmer snatches increased produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility.” Consider the reports in the early weeks of the US panic over the pandemic when profiteers hoarded hand sanitizer, its price soared, and New York’s Governor Cuomo announced that New York would start producing its own, and that he declined to mention that “the fluid’s manufacturer was the state’s prison-based product company, Corcraft.” Or the horrifying news that Smithfield, the meat processing company and epicenter of Midwestern US outbreaks of the disease, which would not provide workers with adequate space to cover their mouths when they coughed, had long denied its workers adequate bathroom breaks, leading workers to develop urinary tract infections before Trump’s announcement that he would [attempt to] classify meat processing an essential service. Horrifying, but not unfathomable: the meat packing industry and industrial agriculture have long shocked genteel bystanders when their practices have been exposed to sunlight on multiple levels – exploitation of animals, predation of workers, documented and undocumented, and corruption of the environment. Planned slaughter of unsold hogs, hearkening back to Agricultural Adjustment Act of the New Deal, in the midst of reduced food stamps, thousand car lines at food pantries, and soaring rates of hunger ice the cake.
And just as these subjects and the discourse about them are nothing new, musicians have thrust these injustices into the ears of the suspecting and unsuspecting in years past. I hadn’t quite realized before delving in for this piece the extent of Zack de la Rocha’s collaboration with RTJ – he’s in this video, he helped write and performs on “Close Your Eyes,” as well as “A Report to Your Shareholders/Kill Your Masters,” for RTJ3, but he had been working with the members of RTJ for some time before. El-P was one of several producers to work on de la Rocha’s never released solo album, and also produced de la Rocha’s single “Digging for Windows” in 2016. It makes sense that de la Rocha and RTJ would have arrived at their current relationship of frequent collaborations. Rage Against the Machine (RATM) were not exactly lone voices in the desert before RTJ, but they were excoriating landlords and imperialism, exploitation of immigrants, police and state brutality, and the broad injustices of wage labor in decades before de la Rocha’s first work with either member of the duo. RTJ’s “Lie, Cheat, Steal,” with its references to the Weathermen, corporate pathways to political power and revolving doors, and Martin Luther King Jr, casts its gaze on “Take the Power Back,” “Wake Up,” and “Guerilla Radio”. RATM’s “Down Rodeo,” conflated commerce with racism: slavery engendered capitalism, capitalism enslaves, and the historic means of breaking out of those cycles were violent; El-P and Killer Mike echo this in “Everybody Keep Calm,” and “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost),” in the post-Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown context. These controversies persist, if the ongoing debates about the New York Times feature 1619 was anything to go by. And there, again, is de la Rocha, on “A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters”, closing out a manifesto aimed at the American state, military and police, and financial capitalism, that invokes the sordid history of each.
Both groups have powerful musical instincts. I may not have been able to explain the power of Brad Wilk’s drumming and Tom Morello’s virtuosic guitar scales as a teenager, but the opening guitar riffs from “Sleep Now in the Fire” still hit me somewhere deep. But… the liner note, repeated across all their albums that RATM never used samples or synthesizers? Part and parcel of the joy of listening to RTJ is the happy riot of drum machines, samples of boozy horn lines, alien voices, elephant trumpets, a Clear Channel worthy “Li-i-i-ve at the Gardens!”, and so many other flourishes that they integrate throughout. I can’t imagine de la Rocha and confreres ever opting to remix an album over cat sounds, which El-P somehow made fun to listen to, perhaps at the expense of his own sanity. Do RATM’s lyrics make me smile? Not the way that taunting corporate entertainment like Shark Tank or calling out arrogant high school teachers can, I’m afraid to say. Even de la Rocha seems to lighten up in Killer Mike and El-P’s presence – I might have expected him to name-check Clive Owen in ‘Children of Men,’ but his reference to Disney’s ‘Frozen’ caught me off-guard. It’s tricky to balance being serious with having fun in ways that don’t feel like hectoring. El-P’s line ‘I’m dirt mother*** I can’t be crushed’ nestles comfortably with the point that he’s ‘smart and stuff.’ These are words to empower.
We live in strange times. Francis Fukuyama captioned a face mask selfie on Instagram with the words, “Me trying to rob the Safeway yesterday,” on April 25, two days before the ‘Ooh La La’ video hit. Fukuyama may have tried to drop the mic on irony, but history abides. We are lucky to have Zach de la Rocha and RTJ both fighting the good fight. They appreciate that the struggle against capitalism requires our labor and costs us dearly; their music is a worthy and complementary soundtrack. And if El-P and Killer Mike can remind de la Rocha to have fun in the process, we would do well to remember it, too.
 Reader, I empathize.
 “Talk to Me”, Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 3