Run The Jewels is by far one of the most interesting hip-hop groups to emerge in the second decade of the 21st century. Helmed by Atlanta based African American rapper and activist Michael Render (“Killer Mike”) and the Brooklyn native rapper and producer Jaime Maline (El-P), Run The Jewels is a musical collaboration like no other.
While both artists have maintained successful solo careers independently from each other in the first years of the century, the two were introduced in 2011 and began collaboration with El-P producing Killer Mike’s Album R.A.P. Music while Killer Mike appeared on “Tougher Colder Killer” from El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure. With the successful release of each album within weeks of the other, the two rappers decided to tour together, eventually culminating in their decision to release a mutual album, the self-titled Run The Jewels in 2013, and the even more successful follow up Run The Jewels 2 in 2014.
The success of Run The Jewels might seem like a surprise to some, as hip-hop is still largely seen as rooted within the African American poetic tradition and is still largely the domain of African Americans. While there have been successful collaborations between African Americans and Caucasians in hip hop in the past (most famously that of the African American Dr. Dre and the Caucasian Eminem), rap crossovers within hip hop of different races are (somewhat) rare. While the skills necessary for a successful rap career (such as rhythm, rhyme and lyrical prowess) are not necessarily belonging to any one group of people, the history of Hip hop and the perceived skill of white rappers and black rappers makes a collaboration between two rappers of differing skin colors something of a social taboo.
However, Run The Jewels’ continued success proves that each rapper brings out the artistry in the other, while still maintaining their own rhetorical styles and patterns of imagery. (As Pitchfork says, “Mike’s role is that of the street preacher, empowered by the support of his people, whereas El plays the wilderness prophet, his madness spurred by the realization his craziest thoughts are coming to pass.”) However, despite their dedication to their craft, there still remains a fundamental difference in the phonological and grammatical features of these artists’ lyrical styles.
By rapping so closely together on the same tracks repeatedly, Run the Jewels gives their listeners an excellent opportunity to compare their styles within the context of the African American English oral tradition and the traditions of Standard American English, while still being rooted firmly in the context of hip hop, a predominantly and historically African American art form. One perfect example of a track that gives us an opportunity for study is the opening song on Run the Jewels 2, ‘Jeopardy.’
While there is not enough room here to view the lyrics in full (they can be found at https://genius.com/Run-the-jewels-jeopardy-lyrics), we can still find examples from the verses of each rapper to support our points that there is indeed a stylistic difference between them, stemming from their respective grammatical and oral traditions.
Let’s start with Killer Mike. At the very beginning of this song, Killer Mike aggressively champions his skills, pumping himself up and giving an introduction to the power this album possesses. Quickly, however, he begins utilizing notable AAVE features. For example,
“You might wanna record the other way
You finna look at history being made!”
Mike’s use of finna to mark the immediate future establishes himself within the AAVE tradition in order to announce the importance of his work. Mike also frequently makes allusions to other rappers not only by name, such as when he says:
“The passion of Pac, the depth of Nas, circa nine three
Mix the mind of Brad Jordan and Chuck D and find me”
but also borrows from their slang as well, frequently utilizing the infix “izzle” slanguistic style of Snoop Dog, a rapper no doubt deeply respected by Mike and one of the Godfather’s of the current African American rap tradition.
Further establishing Mike within the African American Vernacular English tradition is his 100% dropping of the g in -ing’ suffixes throughout his verse, such as when he states;
Mike’s language also possesses a copula presence for a plural subject when he states ‘the villains is here,” a feature identified by John Rickford as one of his fundamental AAVE phonological and grammatical rules (rule 20b).
El P on the other hand, has a markedly different style. Throughout his entire verse, El-P makes no allusions to any other rappers, including Killer Mike, and with one exception (the heavily emphasized "what's poppin'?" at the end of the verse) has a 100% case of final g pronunciation. Yet, even within his departure from Killer Mike’s aggressive AAVE, there are still a few features that El-P picks up on, such as his use of ain’t in
“Like assuming the war is won ain't a symptom of arrogance” and copula absence in
“I been here making raw shit and never asked to be lauded” we can see a slight, but noticeable adaptation of certain AAVE phonological features.
The ultimate question is this: Is El-P adopting grammatical and phonological features of African American Vernacular English as a part of a process of socialization in order to succeed within the African American social context of hip hop? Or does his use of language stem from his newfound proximity to Killer Mike, with the language spreading as a result of their direct contact? Further study is required.
Regardless of the process of transmission however, it is unarguable that AAVE enriches the musical and poetic capabilities of both artists. By comparing the two rappers’ styles, we can see that not only is their juxtaposition a helpful tool for us to understand the different uses of African American English, but also shows us that native or non-native AAVE is not an inhibiting factor for artistic collaboration.
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