During last night’s show at The Independent in San Francisco, Run The Jewels dedicated their performance to Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin. Killer Mike told the predominantly white crowd that it was about “us against them.” The tension immediately swept over the sold out venue, and for obvious reasons. You don’t have to watch the news to know that Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant were victims of serious injustices against African Americans. Both events provoked protests and overwhelming outcry, pushing racial tensions. However, Killer Mike made it clear that his reference to “us against them” was about the people in this country who are attempting to seize control of the rest of us. One might say that his brief explanation of the “us against them” campaign won the fans over. But the fans were already on board with his music well before he graced the stage.
Killer Mike, who recently teamed up with producer/rapper El-P to form the duo known as Run the Jewels, came to San Francisco with a powerful message to accompany his hard-hitting lyrics. At the end of his solo performance, he proclaimed his spiritual connection to the city of San Francisco. He joked that his connection was a positive one unlike 2 Chainz, who was robbed at gunpoint in San Francisco earlier this year. The love Killer Mike had for San Francisco was visibly reciprocated by those in attendance. As he performed hits from his popular 2012 album R.A.P. Music, hands were in the air the entire time and most of the crowd rapped along word for word.
But those who know Killer Mike’s music know that his lyrical content isn’t as predictable as most rap artists’ today. The Atlanta-based, critically acclaimed rapper has a southern influenced sound that makes his serious problems with the world easy to listen to. It’s hard to not be on board with his values when he so accurately depicts the current state of the world with such musical awareness. Some people in hip hop make songs that teach about hardships and corruption, but it’s hard not to make those songs feel like you’re listening to a book on tape. Fortunately for listeners, the same can’t be said for Killer Mike. A prime example was when he performed “Reagan,” a song about Reaganomics and the severe repercussions many continue to face as a direct result of his presidency. The song concluded with fans chanting “Fuck Reagan” and “I’m glad Reagan’s dead.” I couldn’t help but feel like I was witnessing a prophetic sermon on the mount in the form of quality rap music. Apparently the feeling was mutual when Killer Mike said that these performances were like Church to him, and he closed out his solo set by stepping off the stage and rapping in the middle of the rowdy crowd. He then introduced his partner in crime, the other half of Run The Jewels, El-P.
Based out of Brooklyn, El-P has been a prolific and influential producer and rapper for well over a decade. His educated palette for creative beats has awarded his fans the opportunity to witness the rise of a gifted contributor to the entertainment industry. The fans knew his story as much as they knew Killer Mike’s. El-P himself was even caught off guard, when a fan in attendance shouted “Come on, Jamie!” He laughed and remarked how it felt like he had family members in attendance. The whole vibe of his set felt like a homecoming, even though his actual home is on the other side of the country. When he introduced his popular track “Full Retard,” the whole crowd lost their minds. His knack for developing unique instrumentals was displayed through his supporting cast, which consisted of a DJ, two band members, and a backup rapper. They danced around as if they couldn’t remain calm while they flawlessly delivered top shelf beats. He even utilized a Keytar. A KEYTAR! It’s not the first time someone’s attempted to bring the retro instrument back by incorporating it into a live performance, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it work since the Ninja Turtles used it to take down the Shredder (see Secret of the Ooze). The most impressive part about El-P’s onstage work ethic was at the end of his solo performance when he immediately returned with his Grammy Award winning counterpart to perform an entirely new set, this time as part of the heavily anticipated rap duo Run The Jewels.
Their recently debuted, self-titled album was released to the public for free. After I first heard the album, I wanted to find a way to buy it. It’s that good. We all have a list in our heads of a handful of albums that you can play from beginning to end without skipping a song. And in 2013, albums like that have been hard to come by. Run The Jewels knew what kind of effect they have in the hip hop atmosphere. That sentiment became clear from the moment they took the stage together as the rock and roll song “Bad to the Bone” played in the background. They proceeded to play the first half of the album in order. There’s something about the way it flows from one song to the next that shouldn’t be altered. The first song, also titled “Run The Jewels,” set a captivating tone that even a nicotine addict like myself couldn’t leave for a smoke break.
Their mutual respect for each other was so powerful that you couldn’t tell who was a bigger deal. So much of hip hop today is about the prestigious lives rappers live. Somewhere above the clouds in the VIP section of Mount Olympus is where they chill, burning hundred dollar bills to light their cigars, buying art by Picasso to hang in their bathrooms, or wearing jewelry that could put a homeless person through college. The only signs of a rapper being born on this planet is his gang affiliation and tax evasion charges due to drug-related income. It all sounds nice, but what does that have to do with us? Those are topics of discussion for the 1%. Killer Mike and El-P embody where hip hop should be heading: Back to the people that support it. They drove that point home when they closed with arguably the hottest track on their new album, “Get it.”
There have been lingering questions regarding the current state of rap music. Run The Jewels is the answer, and everyone at that show felt like part of the solution. Their gift for creating hits has doubled since they began collaborating. And their appreciation for their newfound partnership is almost tangible. They do secret handshakes onstage, and they even hugged once. And this mutual admiration they often display isn’t because they’re going to make a fuck-ton of money together (well, it might be), but they actually seem to respect how they’ve elevated the standard of music they put out, as well as the bar they’ve set in the rap game. Whether it was Killer Mike jumping in the crowd to perform an entire song, or El-P bringing beers to the opening act while they were performing, these guys showed that they do this for our benefit. These guys are the People’s Champs of Hip Hop. What better group to have rise to the top? They even ended the show by inviting everyone to stay after and party with them. They’re clearly an extremely big deal, but they carry themselves as just a couple of talented human beings, while we stand in awe. They Run The Jewels while the listeners can’t help but put their hands up.
Words – Zack Chiappellone, Images – Ryan Holmes (16thandBroadway)