All words: Alan Pyke — All photos: Kara Capelli
It was about halfway through his set that Killer Mike paused to sing D.C.’s praises. That might sound strange given the Atlanta MC’s famous contempt for government, but he was talking about the Howard University crowd that went ape for his appearance with Bone Crusher about nine years ago. He credited that experience — being nervous about D.C. crowd reputations, until the “Never Scared” beat dropped and everybody lost it — with opening the door to his now-storied career.
If that crowd scared him a decade ago, the couple hundred people who packed the Rock and Roll Hotel on Sunday night skewed the opposite direction. He broke off a track once to demand that we rise to his energy level. Sunday was the final night of his tour with El-P and Mr. Motherfuckin Exquire, and he said he meant to “burn this motherfucker down,” and I can’t help feeling like the room full of El-P fans let him down a bit. He paused again later in his set to explain that there’d been a group of fans violently bouncing at the front for every show of the tour, and to explain the rules. (Really just the one that mattered: if somebody falls, help him up.)
But even if we weren’t quite as rowdy as Killer would’ve liked, it was still a great show. About 80 percent of his set came from R.A.P. Music, this spring’s collaboration with El-P. It’s a badass album that will make a lot of top 10 lists at year’s end, and almost every cut is a banger. Mike’s relentless, fiery delivery fits over El-P’s gritty, thumping tracks so well that it’s a shame they didn’t get together sooner. The ATL-NYC connection doesn’t look natural on paper– maybe for a single, but it doesn’t suggest a whole album when you see it written out. But it sounds perfect. The guts are all trunk-rattling southern shine, but the accents are pure El-P weirdness and innovation. Mike reached back for a couple old cuts aside from “Never Scared,” but the highlight of the show was the venomous, unsubtle “Reagan” from R.A.P. Music. Even in D.C., the folks who show up for a Killer Mike show are down to scream “FUCK RONALD REAGAN!” as many times as you ask for it.
Actually, the real high point of the show came right after “Reagan.” On-stage pontificating can be tedious, but Mike struck a beautiful note as everyone came down from the collective high the song induced. Our parents’ generation might have venerated politicians, but we’re smarter than that. Our parents’ generation may have let race or creed or subcultures divide them, but we’re more evolved. And the most beautiful thing about this tour, Killer said, was watching multicolored gangs of young people thrashing out and having fun night after night, together.
This crowd may have been 90 percent white, but no matter. The sentiment holds. And when Mike gave way to El-P, the energy level crept up a notch but the idea was the same.
I don’t really have words for how good El-P’s set was. This year’s Cancer For Cure delivered on the raw promise and uneven product of I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, which is apparently five years old at this point. (Sorry to make you feel ancient, but I didn’t want to be the only one.) El-P’s records sound like creeping dread, like zombie movies set in the future, but his stage presence is lively, engaging, a hell of a lot of fun. He had cats rapping along to damn near every word from the new tracks, and seemed just as reluctant to let the tour end as Mike did before him.
I’ll not soon forgive myself for missing Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire’s opening set. Next time somebody tells you hip hop shows always start late, slap him. Especially if it’s me. Friends who saw this group play elsewhere tell me he was the perfect opener, on point with his musical delivery and off the chain with his crew’s stage presence. From what I saw of the headliners, he would’ve had a hard time outdoing their energy. But it was clear somebody had set the table well for both men. This lineup needs to get out on the road again pronto, but in the meantime, we apparently have an El-P/Exquire album to look forward to. Hard to complain about that.