Review by Jeb Gavin, Photos by Alex Lee
We are fast approaching becoming the latest lost generation. I say this knowing it’s an obtuse generalization, and yet I can’t shake the feeling we’re all going out night after night, desperately searching- for what exactly, I do not know. Call it faith or meaning, whatever it is, circumstance has forced us to idealize happiness, and recklessly pursue it for fear we may squander whatever contentment we may earn in a manner which in retrospect doesn’t resemble our own mental image of a good time. Killer Mike recommends we place our faith in hip-hop as he does, and after his Saturday night show at the 9:30 Club with El-P as Run the Jewels, I’m inclined to believe him. I looked around the room right before the show started, curious to see who attends rap shows these days, and was disappointed by the array of ironic facial hair. It was only in rubbing my own scruff contemplatively I realized my judgmental dickishness served no one- this was about the music, and everyone was there looking to have a good time.
The evening started with Kool A.D.- a Bay area rapper formerly of the duo Das Racist. Of the four rappers who performed, Kool A.D. was the most laid back- yet as the opener, he had the most to prove. It was a mellow set, laconic even, but a good way to work into a Saturday night party. I like Kool A.D., mostly because his flow makes you feel like you’re shooting the shit with a really stoned friend at a house party.
Next up was Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, not so much grinding the gears as setting the whole transmission aflame. Channeling Bushwick Bill, eXquire pummels the audience with words with a level of misguided aggression you almost immediately identify with, so powerful is his delivery. He routinely gets looped in with guys like Danny Brown, except eXquire doesn’t need to affect a voice to make you remember him. If anything, he’s a more accessible Death Grips, taking off his shirt, wrapping himself in his mic cable, but still crouching down to chat with the audience and get them to curse out his cousin on the phone.
The de facto headliner of the night was Killer Mike. El-P was great, he and Mike together were wonderful, but the peak of the evening was definitely Mike on his own. Most of the set, even while rapping was spent espousing philosophy and giving an extended civics lesson which boiled down to, “I don’t trust the church or the government.” I wouldn’t go as far as to call Killer Mike rap’s first anarchist, because he does, after all, believe in rap itself, but the argument could be made he’s as close to a pure libertarian voice as exists in rap music today. The set drew mostly from his latest album, tracks like “Reagan” and “Player Pentecostal” and the titular “R.A.P. Music” fueling and providing substantive evidence for his “thesis of the night.” It was simply, a sermon.
I don’t mean to short change El-P in describing Mike’s set so effusively, but the audience thinned noticeably once Mike departed the stage for the first time. The founder of the label Definitive Jux has long been a staple as a producer, but a producer’s producer, like how people used to describe Louie CK as a comedian’s comedian. He’s been rapping since the early ’90s, but pops up sparingly on other people’s tracks, such that it’s hard to convince folks a white guy from Brooklyn who isn’t in the Beastie Boys isn’t just a one hit wonder or wannabe. It wasn’t until last year’s Cancer 4 Cure that I could convince my own friends to listen to the guy, and that was mostly for the hook and beat from “The Full Retard,” which sounds even more absurd live (it didn’t help he introduced the track as a sort of ode to the loners and disaffected in the audience.)
The set required two keyboardists, one donning a guitar at times, the other kitted out with a key-tar. By his own admission, El-P is aiming to be the man who brings the key-tar back to hip-hop. Considering it’s possible the last instance of key-tar in hip-hop was Morris Day and the Time sample, El-P’s efforts need not be strenuous (not that it’d stop him from overdoing it.) Towards the end, the key-tarist and DJ teased A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?” looping the Lou Reed guitar line into a sort of audible grin. The whole set then dissolved into a Zappa-like freakout with the guitar and key-tar both soloing, and the hype man pounding away on a lone high hat mounted on the DJ’s rig. That was El-P in a nutshell: paranoid rhymes by a gifted lyricist, a sly, almost childish nod to the past plowing right into the next night’s party.
After that, Run the Jewels was just gravy. Mike and P didn’t come back out until nearly one in the morning, and only the diehards were left to watch them throw on 36 inch gold rope chains, strutting around to “Bad to the Bone,” and then launch into their collaborative effort as though the night was just starting. The material on this year’s album also titled Run the Jewels seamlessly integrates similar Weltanschauung and just pumps out from whatever sound system is at hand… and that’s just the record. Live you get the feeling passing car radios would pick up the signal and start blasting the live show from proximity to power. At one point one of the keyboardists (the one who played the guitar, for those keeping track,) switched over to a pair of bongos, slapping out this tattoo of such urgency, for three minutes your heartbeat synced to it against your will.
I almost felt sorry for the folks who left early, but now I understand they were just chasing whatever they expected their perfect Saturday night to be. Too bad it didn’t involve sticking around to see the whole of this rap show. For me it’s hard to imagine spending, not wasting, spending a hot summer night doing anything else.