First, some math: El-P + Killer Mike = Run The Jewels x The Cat’s Cradle = A Helluva Rap Show
A lot of people have written a lot of things about Killer Mike and El-P through the years, most of them positive. So when the “new avengers” of rap—along with opening act Kool A.D. of Das Racist fame—rolled into The Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro Friday night I expected nothing less than to be blown away by a live set from two hip-hop veterans who seem to be back on their game as of late.
Although I did approach the show with some trepidation. Having been to my fair share of underground hip-hop shows, I was worried that (like shows in the past) it would be a crowd full of college-age hipsters with their arms crossed. I should have known better considering Mike’s background, but El-P’s pale face and legacy as an underground rap titan had me somewhat concerned about the diversity and intensity of the crowd.
But the show proved that Killer Mike and El-P are no longer on the fringes of the underground, but instead have a large and diverse following that in closed confines produced the best rap show I’ve seen in my life.
When we entered The Cradle, Kool A.D. was already almost half through his set. He has a massive and impressive beard that would make him fit perfectly on the set of Duck Dynasty. I have barely heard any of Kool A.D.’s post Das Racist work but his flow sounded tighter live than on the previous records I’ve heard. He was certainly serviceable in his duties of hyping the crowd for the three-pronged main event.
As Mike said himself on stage several times, he intended to take the crowd to church; and indeed he did. He opened with the first track off of R.A.P. Music (an acronym for Rebellious African People) called “Big Beast” where he proudly boasts that he makes rap that is “the opposite of that sucka s-(stuff) you see on T.V.” After the opening track Mike explained to the audience that due to their extensive tour (they had been on this particular trip for the last month and Mike has been touring relentlessly since last summer) he had lost his voice, to a certain extent, and wouldn’t be talking to the audience very much or necessarily bringing his A game. But I learned quickly that 75% of Killer Mike is still better than whatever they play on T.V. (looking at you Drake).
He quickly transitioned into his anthemic and polemic track from R.A.P. Music, “Reagan” by asking the crowd to repeat after him and say “F- Ronald Reagan.” There certainly weren’t any young Republicans in the crowd because for the next several minutes Mike shredded the ultimate contemporary conservative icon by rapping about how his administration put drugs in low income black communities as a tactic to imprison the youth who peddled them. “They declare a war on drugs/ like a war on terror/ but what it really did was let the police terrorize whoever/ but mostly black boys/ but they would call us ____/ and lay us on our belly with their fingers on they triggers/ and they would beat us up if we had diamonds on our watches/ and they would take our drugs and money as they picked our pockets/ I guess that’s the privilege of policing for some profits/ I guess that’s the privilege of policing for some profit/ but thanks to Reaganomics, prisons turned to profits/ cause free labor’s the cornerstone of U.S. economics/ cause slavery was abolished/ unless you are in prison/ You think I am BS’ing then read the 13th Ammendment/ Involuntary servitude and slavery it prohibits/ that’s why they givin’ drug offenders time in double digits.”
Mike does not limit his criticism to the politicians past or to simply republicans. “Ronald Reagan was an actor/ not at all a factor/ just like the Bushes, Clinton and…” he pointed the mic at the crowd and they replied “Obama!” “Just another talking head telling lies on Teleprompters.” The song then points out that Reagan and Obama both went after Qaddafi. “We invaded sovereign soil, goin after oil/ taking countries is a hobby paid for by the oil lobby.”
It’s insightful socially critical lyrics like these that have made Mike the closest thing this generation has to Chuck D of Public Enemy. He is not the rapper having dinner with the President; he is the vindictive preacher speaking truth to power (if they are bothering to listen).
Fittingly, after going hard on several more tracks from R.A.P., Mike took the crowd back to church with his final song of the set “God in the Building” from his mix tape I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II. After the first verse he stopped the beat to recite the lyrics again to make sure the crowd heard and understood them. “The Church ladies weep when they hear ya man speak/ They say they see God in me but I’m in the streets/ they ask me why I’m rappin, tell me I’m called to preach/ I smile and kiss them on they lily white cheeks, I tell’m God bless’m and they can serve for me/ but you can never walk on water if you still fear the sea/ If Jesus came back where you think he’d be?/ Probably in these streets with me.”
After Mike’s raspy yet rousing performance his partner in crime El-P hopped on the stage and kept the crowd hyped. The highlight of El’s solo performance had to be when he performed his paranoid anthem “Patriotism.” The song dates back to the 1999 mix tape Soundbombing II and is prophetic considering the recent revelations regarding the NSA’s domestic surveillance program.
I’ll just throw a spattering of the most prescient lyrics because like his flow, El-P tends to jump from topic to topic with each twist of his tongue. “A proletariat crushing state of the union/ between serpentine words and mass confusion/ of media controlled blurb advertising disillusionment… You up against Jesus freaks formin corporations with young republicans/ indelible NATO force, hidden agenda, puppet government, I’m lovin’ it!”…”Don’t look into the oculars of a daylight saver/ erase your city head and monument defacer comprising of Patriot droids sent into the void with lead linings/ employed by the bureaucrats of automatic twisted rhyme timing.”… And the song concludes with: “Treason will not be tolerated/ you have been enlisted into a lifestyle that you may not change/ Understand! You can’t be happy… and smile… for the cameras… !!!”
Recently El spoke with Grantland.com about the political nature of his lyrics: “I’m just a dude who talks about [stuff] in his records because it’s a part of my life. And it’s been that way since the Clinton era. I’ve been talking this [way] since everything was supposedly great. I think the veil is either there or not. If you get it pulled away at an early age, you can’t unsee certain things. That happened for me, and it just coincided with when I started making music professionally.”
Later in the interview he described how making music helps him deal with his case of modern paranoia: “I’m too self-aware and too [messed] up to ever lecture anyone. All I can ever do is relate to you my insanity … My perspective … I hate my perspective. My perspective is a drain on me psychologically. I’m sensitive to the stress and the insanity that a lot of people don’t tune in to. That’s why I make music, I think. That’s the valve. I can walk around and joke with Mike and chill and be a person, because I can make records where the insane voice in me gets a chance to speak. And if I weren’t making those records, the world would be a more dangerous place. Because I’d be naked, with a brick, in the street. Shouting at children.”
But that’s enough political talk for a review of a rap show that hearkened back to hip hop’s golden era in the level of talent performing and the level of crowd excitement. This was certainly the intention of the tag-team Run The Jewels headlining show, as El and Mike came out on stage showing off their cheap plastic knock offs of Run DMC/ Eric B. and Rakim-era thick, braided, 36 inch, gold chains.
And damn if they didn’t burn the stage down like it was the golden era. El and Mike came out and ran through most of their Run The Jewels album — the free download record they made with Fool’s Gold Records. Here’s a snippet from Banana Clipper; El: “Little man against Hellion/ With the heart of an orphan/ I got the words of a murder and an eye for distortion/ You take a slice of my portion, I’ll take a piece of your profit/ I drive at illegal speeds and keep an o-z in my pocket.” Mike: “We run the jewels in your town/ A quarter pound on my person/ I’m known for pounding the stage I’m talkin burnin and cursin/ Producer gave me a beat said it’s the beat of the year/ I said El-P didn’t do it so get the F out of here.”
Many people will quickly dismiss the last line about El’s production capability because his style of beat-making is very different than say, DJ Khaled. Throughout his career he has used distorted synths and jagged beat structures that led one friend of mine to describe his style as like “he’s punching your ear.” My response was, “well yeah, that’s why it’s so dope.”
Speaking of dope, the duo had the entire crowd of college kids to guys in their forties of a variety of races chanting “Do Dope F-Hope” during the chorus of the track called “DDFH.” And though El’s production credits (which include the classics Company Flow Funcrusher Plus and Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein) often overshadow his talents as a rapper, he proved, to me at least, Friday night that he is just as capable with a mic in his hand as he is behind a laptop and turntables.
El’s production expertise is part of what has brought Mike to a larger audience. Though he won a Grammy with Outkast for the track “The Whole World” in 2003, he largely went unheralded and forgotten until he teamed up with El-P despite the underground success of his three “Grind Time” mix tapes.
Before their final song El talked about how — because of their fans — Run The Jewels became a mini hit in just a year amidst mostly over-hyped releases by more mainstream artists (J. Cole cough, cough) and after the final song Mike told the crowd that he loved us all.
While they are starting to gain mainstream notoriety and attention (despite the fact that El-P is banned for life from B.E.T., a fact that he is proud of) they remember their underground roots and demonstrated so by setting up by the merchandise table after the show to sign records, CDs, T-shirts, and other miscellanea for everyone who wanted to meet them, take a picture, or have something signed.
That’s common for an underground rap show, but with Run The Jewels, Killer Mike and El-P have finally made enough noise that skeptics and the industry have to listen.
Photos courtesy Run the Jewels