All hyperbole aside, El-P and Killer Mike have joined forces to produce one of the best live-music experiences of the year as Run the Jewels. Those present at The Independent for sold-out shows July 30th & 31st were treated to a triple threat of sets — Killer Mike got things started with an incredibly memorable solo set before El-P took over for the second act. Then, just before midnight, the best rap duo alive joined forces to Run the Jewels in epic fashion.
Killer Mike might look and sound intimidating to some, but he’s really the Robin Hood of Rap, a populist leader at heart that looks out for the downtrodden. As much as Michael Render despises the government, racial-based violence and institutionalized religion, he sure presents himself as a preacher — a most awesome evangelist of justice and women’s rights while still enjoying life’s vices.
He connects with everyone in the room through individualized eye contact, by sitting down on the stage with his legs dangling and by projecting everything he stands for passionately, and it draws the audience in. Everything Mike does works toward the message that we (the audience and Killer Mike himself) are on the same team, working together to fight the people, actions & power that create society’s ills — most notably politicians, police and racially-based hatred.
But let’s be clear — if you’re not on Killer Mike’s team, watch out; Mike’s foes are repeatedly the subject of his vitriol and death wishes. While introducing “Burn”, a new song dedicated to Oscar Grant, Mike simply stated that the police officer who shot the young black man should be killed. Mike cultivates an ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality, and by engaging with concert goers this way, it wills everyone to reciprocate by participating in call-and-response moments while putting hands in the air.
Mike’s banter is as entertaining as his R.A.P. music, and the control he exhibits over his rhymes, body language & subsequently the audience is admirable. Almost everyone in attendance got involved in a striking a cappella version of “Reagan”, but Mike switched up the form of the song to make “fuck Ronald Reagan” the refrain so everyone could sing along multiple times. With no instrumentals in the background, Mike slowed the song down, delivering the lyrics with whispered urgency, like he was telling a secret.
The high point of the set arrived during Mike’s introduction to “R.A.P. Music”, when he allowed himself to be vulnerable by sharing an important moment in his life. Render discussed how his mentor challenged him six years ago when he was formulating a new album. His mentor asked him if he wanted to make a party record, or something meaningful. That was clearly a turning point in Michael Render’s life, and it’s obvious he picked the correct path — Killer Mike has certainly found his calling. He continued on, saying “God is in the building tonight,” and that we were experiencing “Rap Church.” This is his standard introduction to the song — but Mike showed extra emotion Wednesday night. He said he’s never had a religious experience in a Church, but we were giving him that feeling people look for in religion. But in reality, Mike Render only gets back what he gives on stage. Hands down, Killer Mike is one of the best entertainers in music today.
El-P, the sole producer of Killer Mike’s music and their collaboration Run the Jewels, took the stage with two instrumentalists and a second MC to perform his solo work. El-P exhibited his hyperactive spits with fire, contrasting perfectly with Mike’s message-driven music. Random sounds like clown horns, crying babies and dolphin squeaks pop in to add elements of humor during otherwise serious songs. While introducing the second song of his set, El-P got serious, only to drop quickly into “The Full Retard” with spastic flair.
El Producto is such a future-forward, progressive producer, and beats from all three sets came from his pioneering brain. His style is based in weirdness — his instrumentals utilize non-standard form and his sound layering, often built off modulated vocal beats, cross-pollinates with so many genres like dance and rock music successfully.
El-P and Killer Mike (aka Run the Jewels) got into character with their faux-opulent chains, and they said as much before they performed their album Run the Jewels in its entirety. They held their chains in one hand and pointed at them with the other, as portrayed on the cover of the Run the Jewels album. But before starting, El-P disclosed that their jewels were fake, but the chains make them feel good and powerful when they are worn. It proved to be a candid lesson about 21st Century materialism, showing that it’s more important how you feel over how you spend.
Half way through the set, Killer Mike complained to his tour manager that they need wireless microphones — and that is a fact. He then turned his annoyance into a vaudeville-esque skit, shuffling over to EL-P to hold the twisted cables over their heads, joking that they were connected by friendship beyond the physical tanglement happening in the moment.
El-P stopped the set before “Get It” to tell the story of how he was discovered. El-P was at a club in San Francisco when he slipped DJ Qbert one of his early records. Qbert previewed the track in one ear, nodded in approval, then mixed in El-P’s cut, proceeding to scratch over it for four minutes. All the producers in the room ran over to meet him, and the rest is history. Then El-P introduced DJ Qbert himself to guest DJ for the song.
By seeing El-P and Killer Mike perform their solo material, then their collaborative work as Run the Jewels, adds up to the perfect equation. They are an ideal yin-yang duo, complementing each other with grace. Killer Mike has more fun but still interjects meaningful messages into a handful of songs, while El-P tones down his cartoonish antics in favor of machine gun back-and-forth rap mastery. Together they have produced a concert experience with an entertainment-first mentality, something that music fans — not just hip hop or rap fans — will enjoy thoroughly.