In a city of student government types, D.C.’s general population seems awash in people who actually believed high school and college SG’s mattered, rebellion feels fairly relative. Anyone who has spent a time in the nation’s capital recognizes the countless freshly scrubbed college graduates that cling tightly to their newly won internships. Saving the world one Xerox at a time, they tell themselves. Raised on Aaron Sorkin like dreams of West Wing do goodery (when the reality is probably closer to the acidic and hysterical Veep), D.C.’s youth culture often reflects this dynamic. So when ATL’s Killer Mike led Saturday night’s crowd at the 9:30 Club through an impromptu battle cry of “Fuck Ronald Reagan”, the collective flipping of the bird to the now deceased former president felt subversive. Between Killer Mike’s rabid dismissal of American politics and El-P’s Orwellian, technology dominated dystopian view of the world, it goes without saying one might expect a concert in which the two rappers co-headlined to be drowning in disaffection. One would be wrong.
At this point everybody knows about El-P and Killer Mike’s triumphant 2012. Both put out well-received albums, each appeared on the others work, and to top it off, El-P produced Mike’s R.AP. Music. So their recent collaboration, the free downloadable Run the Jewels, provided them with an opportunity to take their collective act on the road while performing a sort of victory lap.
For the most part, Run the Jewels has enjoyed a very welcoming critical reception. Pitchfork’s Nate Patrin noted that most of the album consists of “throw-shit-out-a-window anthems which take the early-LL knuckles-first bragging that inspired the name, running their own psilocybin-tinged mean streak through it.” Yet for some, like Sound Opinions Greg DeRogatis, the albums lyrics underwhelm and lack the depth and substance of 2012’s R.A.P. Music and Cancer for Cure. Of course, DeRogatis bagged on Kendrick Lamar’s most recent effort so one might question the source. To be clear, DeRogatis is wrong. Sure Run the Jewels doesn’t have “Drones over Brooklyn” or “Reagan” , but that’s not the point. “It’s a game of the dozens where the barbs are aimed outwards and funny-looking moms are swapped for an all-encompassing People Who Fuck With Us category,” Patrin concluded. With lines like “It’s like Tyson in the ’80s, nigga snap and punch your lights out/It’s like Tyson in the ’90s, if I’m losing take a bite out,” and “Dolphins prone to rape’ll hear the tape and start to think about it/Monks won’t immolate themselves until the record hits the shelves,” the former by Killer Mike and the latter by El-P on the track “Job Well Done”, you get the idea.
When was the last time you attended a four-hour rap show? Neither had we but ToM’s D.C. correspondents, braved the capitol’s U street corridor to take in opening acts Kool AD and Esquire along with the aforementioned duo of Mike and El-P. First a word on the opening sets. ToM has long heralded Kool AD’s former group, the now defunct Das Racist, but his solo act borders on boring. How many times can you facetiously claim to be the greatest rapper in the world until it stops being funny? How detached can you pretend to be? Should twittering a picture of the audience that you just told to hold up their lighters in the middle of a song count as cheeky or inattentive? One should ask the former member of Das Racist these questions and wait for whatever academic bullshit answer he gives. Still, ToM dug both the final song of his set and his Shabazz Palaces shout out. Esquire followed and proved anything but boring. In general, he came off like a shirtless Biz Markie off his meds rapping songs like “I fucked my bitch in my studio,” which might have been a joke but with his manic behavior it was pretty hard to tell. Whatever, El-P clearly digs him as the Brooklyn rapper bounced to Esquire’s rhymes like a kid on a pogo and segments of the crowd enthusiastically embraced his set. In the end, the best thing ToM can say about the two opening acts is two fold: 1) they will improve and 2) they demonstrated the difference between opening acts and established artists. Needless to say, what came next proved well worth the wait.
Killer Mike, rather ponderously, stepped up on stage and it was clear from the beginning: the showmanship and entertainment value were at a completely different level. Killer Mike’s performance completely lacked the meta-stage presence of Kool AD and, to a lesser extent, Esquire. Everything has to be ironic these days. While the first acts seemed to acknowledge, “I am a performer and you here to watch me perform, but we all know this is an act,” Killer Mike fully immersed himself in his character, as it were. His performance was mostly based off of R.A.P. music and he consistently hit on the anti-establishment themes from this album throughout the show. “I don’t trust the government and I don’t trust the church,” was a refrain that KM ran into the ground. Indeed, ToM correspondents agreed, Killer Mike’s politics, at least from what he said at this show, had a strong Libertarian bent.
KM’s intensity was palpable. Concertgoers told ToM correspondents that Mike seemed “like a preacher.” His voice and demeanor even took on a gospel preacher like tone as he said the introductory lines to the title track of his 2012 album: “I’ve never really had a religious experience, in a religious place. Closest I’ve ever come to seeing or feeling God is listening to rap music. Rap music is my religion. Amen.” Watching the crowd move and respond to KM, the energy emanating from the stage may have not been spiritual, but it was certainly captivating.
At one point in the evening, he led an extended “Fuck Ronald Reagan” chant following a performance of “Reagan”—even his swag featured an “I’m glad Reagan’s dead” t-shirt. Young Republicans in the crowd must have been shaking in their Sperrys. Evidencing a Baldwinian, and certainly unsurprising, distrust of the police, KM spit “Don’t Die” with an authenticity that can only be displayed by someone with lived experience. The first bars of the song were an eruption; “I woke up this morning to a cop with a gun, Who told me that he looking for a nigga on the run.” In a sense, “Don’t Die” hits on themes that run from James Baldwin through Public Enemy and beyond. Baldwin argued in 1966:
“…the police are simply the hired enemies of [the black] population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function. They are, moreover—even in a country which makes the very grave error of equating ignorance with simplicity—quite stunningly ignorant; and, since they know that they are hated, they are always afraid. One cannot possibly arrive at a more sure-fire formula for cruelty.
This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.”
For KM, not much has changed since then. And policies like stop-and-frisk or the dramatically disproportionate racial disparities in incarceration rates buttress KM’s anger, hostility, and fear.
With that said, don’t think KM doesn’t look in the mirror and wonder if not only the system is to blame. Fewer critics have pointed out that the opening verses of “Reagan” take aim at our own culture of consumption– “We brag on having bread, but none of us are bakers/ We all talk of having greens, but none of us own acres” – and rap’s glorification of the nihilism, ”We should be indicted for bullshit we inciting/Hand the children death and pretend that it’s exciting/ We are advertisements for agony and pain/We exploit the youth, we tell them to join a gang/ We tell them dope stories, introduce them to the game.” While it may not all be equivalent, our sorry state of affairs in 2013 stems from more than one source.
When EL-P came on stage the crowd was zoned in and ready to explode. To be sure, some of this had to do with the fact that everyone had been standing around for close to three hours drinking $7 Stellas. But, EL-P delivered. While Killer Mike’s stage presence, probably aided a bit by his corpulence, was impressive, EL-P’s performance was slightly more polished, if not less in your face and commanding.
EL-P also primarily played songs from his 2012 album Cancer for Cure. And while a few years ago songs like “Drones Over Bklyn” would have come across as so much conspiratorial hyperbole, well, things have changed, as the Obama administration has considered using drones for border surveillance and other law enforcement purposes—not to mention the revelations Edward Snowden revealed regarding NSA surveillance. EL-P’s technological dystopian tracks have all the sudden become much more pertinent. And maybe one day we’ll be “pumping his shit from the chip under our wrist skin,” as he suggests in “The Full Retard.” El-P’s neo-Dickensian growl on “The Jig is Up” reflected similar impulses. “Tell me who sent you here, what agency … what do they have on you to bribe you?” Accordingly, El-P “knows a thing or two about a thing or two” even if as Patrin points out the Brooklyn based artist “still raps like somebody who’s not sure if he’s the last sane man or the craziest man on earth.”
Watching the DC crowd bob their heads and jump up and down to these sorts of songs, ToM correspondents could not help but enjoy the irony. The tone of the show changed from straightforwardly political to celebratory when Killer Mike and EL-P took the stage together to perform songs from their collaborative effort Run the Jewels. There can be no doubt that the collaboration is relatively vapid compared to the political tracks the two rappers are known for, but it’s hard to listen to the album and 1) not totally enjoy it and 2) view it as an opportunity for two serious artists to have a little fun together and rap about their “36 inch chains.”
Killer Mike and EL-P put on a helluva a show and their politics and message are increasingly relevant. It’d be interesting to know how the DC crowd of hill staffers and government contractors felt about their underlying messages. In the meantime, let’s hope for more from these two artists.