Run The Jewels on the brutality, music, and magic of Steven Seagal

Run The Jewels on the brutality, music, and magic of Steven Seagal

The Internet features more than its share of negativity and snark—sometimes you’ve just gotta vent. But there’s plenty of room for love, too. With Fan Up, we ask pop-culture people we admire to tell us about something they really, really like.

The fans: Killer Mike and El-P are both hip-hop veterans, coming up as part of the Dungeon Family and Company Flow, respectively. Both achieved some success individually, but together as Run The Jewels, they’ve become an unlikely phenomenon in middle age without having lost a step. This year’s Run The Jewels 2 is one of the best albums of the year, finding two artists at the height of their prowess, soaring on the back of El-P’s hard, explosive beats and Mike’s righteous political lyrics. In addition to the rappers they shout out on the record, Killer Mike and El-P are also huge fans of Steven Seagal—okay, it’s mostly El-P, but that didn’t stop The A.V. Club from diving deep into the life and work of the man behind Above The Law, Marked For Death, and Out For Justice.

AVC: What do you guys like about Steven Seagal?

El-P: Where to start? Above The Law, Out For Justice, Marked For Death. All of the early classic Seagal films. I even followed him into his direct-to-DVD stage, where he was just obese and just stood still and often had people dub his lines—he would leave the production halfway through and just have people overdub his voice with a different actor. I just love the man. He’s an important part of action-movie history for me. He’s incredibly brutal; he’s confused about his heritage, his culture. What’s not to love?

AVC: Let’s talk about Out For Justice.

El-P: Hell yeah. You’ve seen that shit, right Mike?

Killer Mike: I’ve seen them all, though I must admit that all of Steven Seagal’s movies have just melded into one big, horrible B-movie for me. I’m more of a fan of his style of martial arts than I am his movies. So Aikido I’m definitely with, but in terms of Steven Seagal as an action hero, you know, he’s second tier. He’s no [Sylvester] Stallone, but he’s good enough.

El-P: What you have to understand is that Steven Seagal isn’t about being a good action hero. He’s always about being a complete fucking asshole. That’s, like, his duty. The thing about Out For Justice—also the first Steven Seagal movie where he’s just clearly getting fat, which I love because he didn’t wear sleeves the entire time, so he just had flabby arms and kind of a pot belly? The most classic shit about that movie was—and I actually wrote a piece of fan fiction about this.

AVC: Really?

El-P: Yeah, I did. I wrote a piece of fan fiction from the perspective of Sticks, who if you remember, when he went into the bar...

AVC: The guy with the pool cues.

El-P: That’s right. And they were like, “Sticks!”

El-P: I mean, the whole phenomenon of some Asian dude who’s a ninja who uses pool cues so much that they call him Sticks, that he’s just on call for any time there’s ever any beef, and this guy just waits around all day long and doesn’t do anything until someone comes in like Steven Seagal, and then they say “Sticks!” and he has to fight Steven Seagal. Of course, he doesn’t realize Steven Seagal is going to put a pool ball in a fucking sock or a fucking towel and mercilessly smash everybody’s teeth in. I just love Steven Seagal for his pure—his perspective on what being a hero is just a purely evil, cruel perspective.

KM: You know what I took from that scene? That I could really put a pool ball in a sock and beat the shit out of somebody with it.

El-P: Yup, yup. That’s an important lesson.

KM: That was the significance I got from it. Thank you, Steven Seagal.

El-P: Steven Seagal in the same movie, Out For Justice—there’s a scene where he twitches somebody’s ankle—actually, it might be Above The Law, it’s the scene in the butcher’s shop?

AVC: I think that’s Above The Law.

El-P: Also one of the best sets in that movie.

AVC: And that one is just Steven Seagal fighting the CIA over Iran-Contra.

El-P: That’s right. And Steven Seagal loves to paint himself as, like, this mysterious guy who was maybe in the CIA at some point, but you’re almost sure that he wasn’t, because everything he says contradicts everything else. I actually own Steven Seagal’s albums as well, by the way.

AVC: Wow.

KM: I own absolutely nothing from Steven Seagal.

El-P: And I have Steven Seagal’s energy drink. Two cans of it. It’s called Lightning Bolt. I bought it online.

KM: The only thing I successfully took from any Steven Seagal movie was how to properly apply a wristlock.

AVC: Not the pool ball?

KM: The pool ball thing I kind of knew from watching the movie Bad Boys as a kid—when they put a lock in a pillowcase.

El-P: That’s right, that’s right. That’s a classic scene.

KM: It just reinvented the lock for me.

El-P: The thing about Steven Seagal is that he clearly wants to be a great person, but he just doesn’t know how. He’s just a cruel, fucked-up guy, but he likes to paint himself as sort of like a philanthropist, in a way, and a man of the people. So he keeps switching ethnicities. Like, remember the one where he was in Alaska, and he was sort of Native American or something, and he’s defending this guy in the bar and he’s kind of trying to be a defender of the people, but he keeps saying shit that’s really belittling, like “You’re going to pick on this pathetic, Native man? Pick on me!” He’s just kind of always got it wrong, in his quest to be a good dude.

And I appreciate the way he dresses. I like the fact that as he got fatter, his outfits became more outrageous. Like, by the time he got to The Glimmer Man, he’s got a golden robe.

AVC: Mike, it sounds like you’re not quite as into Steven Seagal. Do you have a preferred similar action hero?

KM: I’m into fighting. So I appreciate Mr. Seagal as a fighter. I like fights. But at the point he comes on-screen and you actually have to take him seriously, I start to nod off a little bit until the fight scenes.

El-P: Oh God, you cannot take him seriously. But the thing—no, this isn’t about taking Seagal seriously. My love of Seagal is ridiculous. Like, I love this man. I love how ridiculous he is. I mean, he made an album called Songs From The Crystal Cave. How can you not love this motherfucker?

AVC: Why is the album called that? Does Steven Seagal have a crystal cave?

El-P: I really hope so! I feel like he deserves a crystal cave at this point. At least an honorary sort of like, shitty McMansion version of a crystal cave. Like, maybe it’s a grotto that he’s living in?

KM: You know who’s dope to me? I like Chow Yun-Fat. I’ll tell you why I like Chow Yun-Fat. Because with The Killer and Hard Boiled, the shit about John Woo’s directing is that, stereotypically, you expect the Asian actor to show up and know kung fu, karate, or something. But the reason I like Chow Yun-Fat is because he was better with a gun than a NRA instructor. Like, he fucked people up royally.

So I would say if I had a guy, it’d probably be Chow Yun-Fat. Because if I was Asian, I’d want to be tall, and he definitely looks tall, and I’d want to be tan—he definitely looks tan. He always had a tight Asian chick and he always had two guns, and the fucking dove that flew when he murdered somebody. I wish I could have got to that before Baby from Cash Money. So Chow Yun-Fat is going to be my guy.

El-P: Right, but we’re talking about Seagal.

KM: But I picked him instead of Seagal, because your guy’s a pussy.

El-P: Well, it’s not really “my guy.” I wouldn’t really say “my guy.” I don’t think you’re getting the way I’m looking at this, Mike. I don’t think you understand my love of Seagal. It’s not in an admiration way. Like, I love the fact that when Seagal tries to do good it’s just him being brutal and a complete fucking asshole. I love the way that Seagal fails to be who he wants to be.

I also love that, for instance, in Marked For Death, one of my favorite scenes in any action movie, is when he takes Screwface and smashes him over his leg. But the moment that you see him break him over his knee—

KM: It’s just a doll!

El-P: It’s very clearly a doll. A dummy! That he then throws into an elevator shaft, and it’s just so clearly a doll. It’s one of my favorite moments ever.

AVC: “I hope they’re not triplets.”

El-P: In the same movie—remember in Marked For Death when he goes home and says, like, “I’m a man of peace now,” and he goes into his childhood home, and he goes into his bedroom, and the first thing that he does when he’s having this sort of nostalgic moment and sitting in his bedroom is take out a little gun and take it apart and clean it and put it back together. Like, you could just picture Steven Seagal as a high school student killing animals. I just—I love the fact that his perception of nostalgic Americana is just the most brutal, violent shit ever. And he walks around in super-tight jeans and a little jacket, and he’s just clearly getting fat.

So my perspective is not [an answer to] “Who’s the best action hero?” There’s mad better action heroes than Seagal, but in terms of my personal enjoyment of someone being completely ridiculous and amazing, that’s Seagal. Because he’s out of his mind. He’s just completely out of his mind.

KM: Respect.

El-P: When he did The Glimmer Man, remember in The Glimmer Man when—what’s his name?

KM: I didn’t ride the boat this long. I was well off the boat by then.

El-P: By the time he got to The Glimmer Man, he was just morbidly obese, and he was wearing a gold—

KM: I can’t believe they let you do this interview, man.

El-P: He was wearing a golden shawl, basically.

KM: He looks like your grandmother’s sofa with that throw she puts over it. I know the movie you’re talking about.

El-P: You know the movie I’m talking about. He had a credit card with a razor blade that popped out of it that he used to slice the throats of people. He’s an amazing person, man. He’s a philanthropist; he’s a reggae artist. A lot of people don’t know that.

KM: And he could probably fuck us up still. Fat and all.

El-P: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. If he could catch us. One of Seagal’s biggest problems is running. Like, if you ever notice, whenever you see him on the run, he runs like a girl.

KM: And he wears cowboy boots. It’s hard to run in cowboy boots, if you’re not a good runner.

AVC: Mike, it does not sound like you have the same perspective, or do not appreciate the same things about Steven Seagal.

KM: Absolutely not. It’s funny to laugh at.

El-P: But that’s what I’m saying. It’s funny to laugh at. That’s the whole point for me.

KM: Yeah. Wow.

AVC: Have you guys seen his reality show? The one where he’s a sheriff?

El-P: Oh, hell yes!

KM: No, this is not true life. This is a real show? I’ve been watching Love & Hip Hop and fucking Ice Road Truckers.

El-P: Yeah, he’s a sheriff, and when he does the narration, he’s driving around, they’ll show it from his perspective—him driving around, driving in a cop car, describing how he can see into people’s souls and see if they’ve done things wrong, and then they do like a Predator vision thing. Like, Steven Seagal looking out the car and seeing people in infrared.

This is the same show where he ran a tank over a chicken coop and killed this guy’s entire chicken coop.

KM: I can’t, I can’t. I’m sorry.

El-P: Because he thought that it was an illegal cockfighting ring! And he killed all this guy’s chickens, like he’s getting sued.

AVC: He also got sued for sexual harassment by his assistant.

El-P: Oh no, he’s a complete scumbag. There’s lots of horrible stories.

I once heard a story about Steven Seagal—this is another reason that I love this motherfucker—I heard a story from somebody about Steven Seagal, that a producer came into his—I think this story’s out now, but I heard it years before it came out—that he called his producer into his home, and he said, “Come here, you have to come here,” and the guy came into his home, and Steven Seagal had a 10-foot wooden desk, and on the desk was a script and a gun. And Steven Seagal was sitting at the desk and he was crying and the guy said, “Steven, what’s wrong?” And he looked up and he said, “I just read the best script I have ever read in my life.” And the producer said, “Wow, that’s amazing. Who wrote it?” And he said, “I did.” Like, Steven Seagal is batshit, fucking insane.

I tried to get Steven Seagal for my “Stepfather Factory” video in 2002. I wanted him to play my abusive robot father.

AVC: What happened?

El-P: I couldn’t get to him.

AVC: You just couldn’t get to him?

El-P: No, Steven Seagal still had a career in 2002. But right now, I might be able to get him.

AVC: You guys could get him now.

El-P: I mean, maybe. He’s still Steven Seagal, you know?

AVC: You guys could just use footage of him being a sheriff in Louisiana.

El-P: Like, yo, Steven Seagal is my Ric Flair, essentially, Mike.

KM: Ric Flair is my Ric Flair. I love that dude.

El-P: Yeah, but he’s over the top and just out of his mind.

KM: You know what’s crazy? Everything you just said, Jaime, I just pulled up Steven Seagal on Google Images. In front of me, I have Steven Seagal’s credit card with a razor blade in it, which is a pretty shitty prop. It’s actually just a fucking X-Acto knife cutter out of a gold card.

El-P: Yup.

KM: I have Steven Seagal with his hands on a young woman’s breasts, who’s obviously uncomfortable. I’m looking at Steven Seagal repeat one of the greatest martial arts quotes ever. He said, “Any great warrior is also a scholar and a poet and an artist.” The actual quote is more like, “For every warrior, you must also be a poet.” He added artist and scholar and made it his quote. Steven Seagal is possibly the biggest slimeball since George W. Bush.

El-P: Absolutely.

KM: And he’s wearing a fucking coat that looks like my grandmother’s sofa in ’85.

El-P: Recently there was an interview with Steven Seagal where he was expressing being a little bit bitter that Al Gore was getting all the credit for fighting climate change, when he did that in one of his movies where he was in Alaska with Michael Caine as the bad guy, and at the end he gave a big speech about greenhouse gases and fossils fuels and just walked out of the room.

KM: I cheer for the villain. I’m now a fan of Steven Seagal. I’m all in.

El-P: Well that’s the brilliant thing about Seagal. Seagal is, to me, to my generation—every generation has an action hero that’s actually a villain. Like, Charles Bronson was a villain in Death Wish movies. He would like, go to a poor neighborhood, park a really nice car—

KM: And hunt a child, and kill them.

El-P: He’d wait until somebody broke into the car, then blow it up with a bazooka. That was the generation before us. Steven Seagal is our hero/villain, where he’s apparently the protagonist, but he just does the cruelest, most fucked-up shit that he possibly can.

KM: That is Aikido. Like, Aikido is the art of—you’re not an attacker. You receive the attack. In receiving the attack, and misdirecting the energy, it’s amazing, because if someone’s throwing a slap at you, it isn’t just to block the slap. It’s to allow the slap to go through and be in joint lock and break their arm in the most brutal way possible.

El-P: Right, and you’ve never seen someone so gleefully do that to so many people.

KM: I’m also looking at the evolution of his hair. This hair—it went from being, like, a slicked-back Italianesque-type ponytail, to literally just a spray-painted “V” that they placed on his head at the end of the film.

El-P: Mike, you’re starting to understand why I love this man so much. He’s completely batshit, fucking insane.

KM: I have a picture of him singing into a microphone. You have told no lies. You are a fair and honest man.

El-P: I am a fair and honest man. And the best shit about Steven Seagal is his attempt to be culturally changed. Like, Steven Seagal now talks in a Southern accent. That motherfucker’s from Jersey.

KM: Oh my God, this is amazing. Beautiful.

El-P: It’s incredible. He’s good friends with Putin.

KM: There was a Steven Seagal’s blues music tour 2014, and he had on glasses like Blind Willie.

El-P: Yes, and he wears sleeveless kimonos, and he’s 400 pounds.

AVC: He said in the same Al Gore interview that Putin was a “true martial artist” and a great leader.

El-P: Yeah. I mean that’s just because—you know your country’s fucked when Steven Seagal’s an honored fucking constituent.

KM: I can’t speak.

AVC: They probably have a great time riding horses around shirtless. But I want to hear more about this Sticks fan fiction. What is your version of Sticks’ interior life like? What does he do all day?

El-P: I essentially pictured Sticks as a family man who had to take a shitty, low-level mob enforcement job, and didn’t really want to be there. He shows up every day, because he has this one particular talent set, which is that he can fight with pool sticks. And he just prays every day that he doesn’t have to do it. It’s a shitty job, but ultimately, it can be really terrible if someone like Steven Seagal shows up.

So the piece of fan fiction I wrote was him just, you know, really hoping they don’t call his name, and they do call his name. And then Steven Seagal puts him in the hospital, and I kind of follow him and his family in the hospital. I like—Steven Seagal does that thing where he walks into the room and just destroys people’s fucking bodies, like he just kills and maims motherfuckers. He doesn’t even really kill people, he just mercilessly maims them. And, as in any good action movie, you follow the protagonist out the door. You never see the guy again, and I thought it would be really cool or tragic to follow Sticks to the hospital, through his recovery, and his rehabilitation, his conversations with his wife. I just thought it was a tragic American story.

AVC: How does he end up? Does he heal over the course of the story?

El-P: Ultimately we leave Sticks in the hospital, and we don’t really know how it turns out. But we do know that his life is forever changed.

AVC: Because he encountered Steven Seagal.

El-P: Steven Seagal’s the kind of guy whose idea of morality is very clear. Like, when in Out For Justice, Steven Seagal is just this brutal guy who goes around smashing people’s teeth and breaking people’s arms and just shooting people, and then he’s driving and someone throws a puppy out of a car in a bag, and he stops and gets out of the car and gets the puppy, and that’s the moment where it’s like, Seagal is a good guy, because he gets the puppy, and he brings it with him. And then at the end of the movie he finds the guy who threw out the puppy and beats the shit out of him. This is the Seagal perspective on morality. “I’m a good guy, because I found a puppy, and it doesn’t matter that I literally just destroyed someone’s trachea with a pencil. The puppy is more important.” And, you know, I respect him and his delusions.

AVC: Do you still have the Sticks fan fiction?

El-P: Yeah, I can get ahold of it. I think actually someone may have published an edited version.

AVC: I think it would be a useful companion for understanding Steven Seagal. I hadn’t considered what happens to Sticks. He definitely doesn’t have disability or a pension or anything.

El-P: No, he doesn’t have a fucking pension. It’s a terrible job. And they push shit on him, and they call him Sticks, which is insulting. He’s got a name.

AVC: Does he even have a name in the movie?

El-P: No, it’s just Sticks. You only see him for a little while, that’s the thing that fascinated me, is that, like, here you have this sort of tertiary character who gets the shit beat out of him, and then you leave, and I just thought, well, Steven Seagal walks in and just causes tragedy. He just destroys people’s lives, and then he walks away. I thought it would be interesting to look at it from Sticks’ perspective. It’s a new genre that I’m starting, fan fiction of incidental action-movie characters.

El-P: Anybody. What’s their backstory?

AVC: Mike, it sounds like you don’t have any more thoughts about Steven Seagal.

KM: I’m listening to this bullshit. I’m on WorldStar.

AVC: But are you on board with Steven Seagal now?

KM: I’m definitely on board. He’s just the illest slimeball to ever make it man, so I’ve got to ride with that. I’m down with the villain. I definitely will be taking some Aikido classes this spring. Fuck that. If you can be that fat and still rock, I gotta do it.

El-P: One thing that should be noted about Steven Seagal and his later work as an obese man is that, if you notice, he’ll always have a shadow right over his face no matter where he is, which I think they do in post just to cover up some of his jowls or whatever.

KM: Steven Seagal is going to kick your fucking ass man. He’s gonna hunt you down in Paris and beat you in the streets and make you say “Uncle!”

El-P: And I will say, “Uncle!” immediately, because he is a scary man.

KM: But he’s evil, so he’s going to have to hear something crack first. Like, if he makes you say, “Uncle!” he’ll make you say it in Eskimo, the hardest language in the world.

El-P: That’s true. I mean, what can I say? I respect the man’s work and I’m an observer.

AVC: That’s a good plot for the next Steven Seagal movie. He just comes after you after reading this.

El-P: Yes, it would end quickly. It would just be one scene. He meets me, I try to get an autograph, and then he breaks my arm and walks out of the room.

AVC: Just rips it off, like all the limbs in Marked For Death.

El-P: So here’s the thing about Marked For Death. They say that Steven Seagal went and studied the dark of voodoo to prepare for the movie.

KM: Yo, I was cheering for the Jamaicans that whole movie, bro. That whole movie, I wanted those Jamaicans to kill the fuck out of Steven Seagal.

AVC: I just wanted to hang out with Screwface, or Tommy Lee Jones’ character in Under Siege.

El-P: Screwface was amazing, even when he turned into a doll.

AVC: Steven Seagal is going to love this.

El-P: At the end of the day, I just want it to be known that I am a legitimate Steven Seagal fan. My motives may not be normal, but I am a fan, and I support the man’s work. I hope he continues making movies and reality shows for the rest of his life.