by: Tom Rau and Michael Shields
Two of Across the Margin’s longtime contributors break down EL-P and Killer Mike’s Run the Jewels tour….
Its been said that Killer Mike and EL-P are an odd couple. This implies that they don’t belong together in some manner. We beg to disagree. Rather, we tend to look at these two as a match made in some dystopian hip-hop heaven. A colliding of worlds that was inevitable since the beginning of time. Killer Mike’s verses fit like a glove within EL-Ps monstrous experimental beats. And EL-P sounds reinvigorated, and straight out the box fresh, since he started working with Killer Mike. The two recently teamed up for a collaboration album entitled Run the Jewels, and on the back of that release set off on a nationwide tour. A tour that has been generating a strong resonating buzz as it jaunts from city to city, leaving jaws dropped in their wake.
Two of Across the Margins writers, who double as hip-hop aficionados, caught up with the Run the Jewels tour in North Carolina and New York this past week, and surprise – they are here to write about what they witnessed….
August 9, 2013 Cats Cradle Carrboro, NC (by: Tom Rau)
Hip-hop shows have a strong tendency to suck. For an art that is based largely on lyricism, it’s quite shocking when you learn that you can’t understand the lyrics at 95% of hip-hop shows. Imagine Charlie Brown’s teacher spitting over a massive 808 bass drum for 45 minutes and you have a typical hip-hop set. I blame everybody: The sound guy, the rappers, the DJ’s, even the fans for continuing to show up. But I still love hip-hop. Simply for the fact it takes all these different pieces of our culture and layers them on top of each other to form this hypnotic tapestry of sound and earth-shaking greatness. If hip-hop was a visual artist it would be Banksy, taking pieces of the old and reassembling them to make new comments on our society and culture. But then you show up to see it live and it’s all just bass and for the most part undecipherable warbling. That said, when my favorite producer EL-P teamed up with one of the South’s most poetic and outspoken microphone fiends, there was no chance in hell I was going to miss it.
Chapel Hill’s Cat’s Cradle was ripe for the taking when Killer Mike finally took the stage for a quick “greatest hits” solo set. And despite the fact that it suffered from the same curse that almost all hip-hop shows do, Killer Mike overcame. Maybe, it was the fact that NC legislature is in the middle of being slaughtered by the right-wing and Killer Mike loves to talk politics and religion. Maybe it was the fact that the crowd was going nuts and knew almost all the lyrics. Either way, from the moment he uttered the words, “I don’t trust the church or the government ((From “Untitled” ))” I was sold. That said, for me, the highlight of his set was still the acapella version that he did of his political classic “Reagan.”
EL-P was on deck, and took the stage to follow Killer Mike before they would team up for a Run the Jewels set. I wasn’t sure if he was going to be playing with just a DJ or if he would have some additional musicians joining him on stage. All I knew prior was that he was going to be doing his dystopian sci-fi rap b-boy thing.
I’m still debating almost a week later if the fact that the sound was so much better had to do with the fact that EL-P is a producer himself, or if it was because he did in fact have a dedicated synth player, and the always fun to watch Little Shalimar (who spent the set switching between percussion, guitar, and additional synths) bouncing around on stage with him. Either way, the difference in sound was evident and the crowd ate it up like post-apocalyptic refugees waiting in line to be handed their bread rations.
Anyway, after that spaceship sailed it was time for the main event. EL-P introduced Big Mike as his “best friend” and this is what immediately came to my mind. On the surface, I’m not sure anyone would expect Killer Mike ((A southern rapper who is often thrown into a class with Ludacris, Outkast, T.I. & Twista.)) and El-P ((A Brooklyn rapper most known for his work with Company Flow and for producing the underground rap classic Cold Vein for Cannibal Ox.)) to be a good fit. Needless to say, the second you begin peeling back the layers, you learn a few things. Killer Mike is about a lot more than rapping fast over 808’s and lightning fast hi-hat patterns, and EL-P is a way more gifted MC than anyone ever gives him credit for. But beyond the camaraderie and ability to sync up lyrically, which was apparent the second the first lyric dropped, the two of them give each other something much greater. For EL-P it’s the chance to reach a more mainstream rap audience and to garner attention as a versatile producer who can work with artists outside of the “experimental” rap genre. For Killer Mike it’s an opportunity to share his dissertations on systemic corruption with the same people who previously listened to EL-P – college kids on drugs and those with an open mind.
August 14, 2013 Webster Hall New York, NY (by: Michael Shields)
After Former Das Racist space-case Kool A.D and Def Jux vet Despot ((Who got things jumping with the Def Jux classic “Crap Artists”)) made things sufficiently weird (good weird – not bad weird!) Killer Mike hit the stage, as the Run the Jewels duo split up for a solo set before their powers were combined for a dominating closing number. Killer Mike is an imposing presence in every sense of the word. Performers usually have a towering persona when perched high above the crowd on a stage, but Mike takes this to a whole new level with his imposing size and evangelistic style. Killer Mike dove heavily into 2012’s masterpiece R.A.P. Music ((Any Best Albums of 2012 list that didn’t include Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music or EL-P’s Cancer 4 Cure loses credibility instantly.)), unleashing a steady stream of classics starting with “Big Beast”, which morphed into what he admitted was his favorite verse he has written, from “Untitled”.
Now, everyone who knows Killer Mike’s catalog is familiar with the fact that he has beef with the government, and this is never more obvious than when you see him live. During “Reagan”, which Mike rapped entirely acapella ((“Go” was also performed fully acapella.)), Killer Mike led the chant of “Fuck Ronald Reagan!” Many moons will pass before I forget the sight of a room full of people chastising the former actor turned president while pumping their fists in the air. It was a remarkable thing to behold.
Killer Mike closed his solo set by submerging himself into his sea of admirers, dipping into the crowd to intimately bless those assembled with 2008’s “God in the Building,” Things were heating up.
When EL-P hit the stage for his set he wasn’t alone. With him were a group of talented instrumentalists who have served as his backing band for the entire tour ((Including the ridiculously talented Shalimar!)). EL-P kicked his set off with the incendiary “Drones Over BKLYN”, and followed it with the ferocious “The Full Retard” which he introduced by describing it as “an incredibly depressing poem.” He then dove deep into memorable cuts from earlier in his career including an acappella performance of his verse from his former group Company Flow’s “Patriotism”. Two perfect sets back to back, yet the crowd was still hungry for more; eager for what they came for.
It was time to Run the Jewels….
With the PA blasting “Bad to the Bone”, Killer Mike and EL-P took the the stage and went to work immediately donning matching 36 inch gold chains. Performing their album in just about its entirety, taking one break in the middle to perform 2012’s “Tougher Colder Killer” ((Off of Cancer 4 Cure.)) with Despot, the set had the feeling of a celebration. This show was the finale for the Run the Jewels tour, a tour EL-P described as “the most amazing tour I’ve ever had in my life.” The whole thing felt like a victory lap. The evening was equipped with a few surprises, in the form of Company Flow’s DJ Mr. Len contributing cuts to “Get It”, and an appearance by the legendary Prince Paul in character as the perverted and depraved Chest Rockwell on “Twin Hype Black.” “DDFH” (Do Dope Fuck Hope) and the title track from the album “Run the Jewels” brought the house down, whipping into a frenzy one of the most attentive and engaged audiences I have witnessed at a hip-hop show in New York.
Before the night ended with a group hug between the entire crew while the crowd showered the stage with applause and thanks for a memorable night, EL-P took the time to thank his mother who was in the crowd. “Hey mom,” he said with a smirk on his face, “remember when I got kicked out of all those high schools? “This,” he said while pointing to the stage he stood upon, haloed by an iridescent white spotlight, and the crowd before him on the floor, “This is what I was gonna do.” Indeed. Consider the Jewels ran.