All last week I was enjoying Gabriella Coleman’s history of Anonymous, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. For anyone who is interested in the intersections between Internet and underground culture, this is a hell of a book. Plus: political discourse, the radical left, 21st-century dissidents, Occupy, pwning Scientology, and many, many other things.
One of the first things Coleman gets into in this book is the idea of the “lulz.” This is a very foundational concept, because the lulz is a core part of the Anonymous aesthetic, and, as Coleman tell it, the unrestrained pursuit of the lulz is essentially what got Anonymous going in the first place. Here’s how Coleman defines the lulz
If we keep in mind that lulz derives from the acronym “lol” (laugh out loud), it becomes easier to see that lulz is primarily about humor. Lols are familiar to everyone who has ever sent a joke to someone by email. Lulz are darker: acquired most often at someone’s expense, prone to misfiring and, occasionally, bordering on disturbing or hateful speech. . . . Lulz are umistakably imbued with danger and mystery, and thus speak foremost to the pleasures of transgression.
Coleman goes on to make the case Anonymous was essentially founded in pursuit of the lulz: she traces the group’s inception to an incident in 2008 when a bunch of irate hackers who had heretofore congregated on the message board 4chan decided to band together to go at the Church of Scientology for little other reason than the lulz of it. The exploit worked out so well that the group snowballed from there, attracting more and more malcontents and moving on to bigger, and more politically viable, targets—like strongmen in Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya, defense contractors selling out our privacy and civil rights for money, etc, etc.
But to get back to the lulz: when I read the above passage, I immediately scribbled “RTJ” in the margins, standing, of course, for the rap group Run the Jewels. For those not in the know, Run the Jewels is one of the biggest things to happen to the rap world in the past couple of years. It consists of Southern MC and Dungeon Family stalwart Killer Mike, plus longtime super-producer, all around genial sociopath El-P. The group’s second album, released last October, easily topped most lists of “year’s best rap albums” and even topped many lists of “best album” regardless of genre. Even since the release of their first album in 2013, they’ve toured the globe a number of times, appearing at sold out venues. A Kickstarter attempting to raise $40,000 to get the duo to do an all-cat-sounds remix of their album Run the Jewels 2 got funded with over $65,000 in donations (called Meow the Jewels, it is currently in production). They’ve even appeared on David Letterman.
Now what does this all have to do with Anonymous? Well, I think one of the biggest factors contributing to Run The Jewels’ success it its huge appeal to the same culture of disaffection and underground/DIYism that inspired the phenomenon of Anonymous and invested it with so much cool credibility. Like participants in Anonymous, the fans of RTJ are fervent (as testified to by that Kickstarter), and they tend to like to take the transgression ball and run with it. Just have a look at all this graffiti inspired by their “Tag the Jewels” project, appearing pretty much in every part of the globe.
And to get back to lulz, the music that Run the Jewels makes has an undeniable lulz-y component to it. In general, rap is a genre of music that traffics in the lulz, having given birth to the terms “ill” and “sick” as compliments. (I’m not exactly sure of the definition of “ill” and “sick” as used in rap, but I do know that they bear some sort of relationship to “lulz.”)
El-P and Killer Mike are pretty sick MCs. In 2012, Mike made one of the best songs of his career (and of the year) by calling out sucker MCs and Ronald Reagan at the same time, concluding the song by essentially calling Reagan the devil. That same year El-P released a song that is essentially about encouraging his upstairs neighbor in Brooklyn to kill his other neighbor by saying, “yeah, I know you need to do this, just do it, I won’t say anything to anyone.” The hook is a very subtle, “If you kill him I won’t tell.”
That’s some pretty lulz-y music, so when Mike and El-P get together on an album, you know what to expect. And, true to expectations, Run the Jewels has given us a lot of transgressive lyrics to laugh somewhat uncomfortably over. Take, for instance, the ironically titled “All Due Respect,” off Run the Jewels 2, which begins rather lulz-y with Mike spitting the lines:
This year we iller than a nun in a cumshot
Getting’ double penetrated in a dope spot
By two hard pipe hittin’ Niggas
On the orders of Marcellus to the soundtrack of 2pac
Mike goes on to make it clear that he does this sort of thing for the sheer malicious pleasure of it:
Blow marijuana smoke no incense
Exhale in the face of innocent infants
On some “Ah hah look what I did” shit
And if I get stopped by a crooked ass cop I’m a put a bullet in a pig
And Rin Tin Tin, ah hah hah look what I did again
This essentially tells you what to expect for the rest of the song. While not every track on Run the Jewels 2 is so unabashedly lulz-y, there is a clear lulz component throughout out. It’s not just the lyrics of it: anyone who has listened to El-P’s production knows that he has honed a sound that is essentially the sonic equivalent of the lulz. Run the Jewels just wouldn’t be the same without the lulz, and I doubt they would be such a success. The “wrongness” and willful transgression is a clear part of what has made the music turn into such a viral phenomenon (and it perhaps tells us about what makes things on the Internet go viral in general).
Yet, like Coleman’s description of Anonymous, Killer Mike and El-P are not simply sociopaths out to transgress ever boundary possible. Rather, I’d say that they’re very decent human beings with a malicious streak that they love to productively indulge in their music—and which they can oftentimes use in the pursuit of good. After all, El-P announced that he was dedicating his portion of the Meow the Jewels Kickstarter money to a charity for those hurt by police brutality. Similarly, Killer Mike has gotten major praise for his leadership remarks in the wake of Ferguson. Or, if that’s not enough to convince you, just have a look at them attempting to speak from the heart to teenage girls on Rookie’s “Ask a Grown Man” series.