In the line up at the sold out Run The Jewels show at The Biltmore Cabaret, it was easy to spot El-P holding the curtain open for a few babes as they entered the back of his tour bus. I made it in the venue, grabbed a beer and arrived at the back of the crowd just as the opening act hit the stage.
First up was Kool A.D. who proclaimed himself “probably the best rapper in the world” before launching into a song that sheepishly toyed with the idea of the possibility. He was just messin’ though. Vancouver offers an unfathomably meek, predominantly white audience, mostly attached to their phones, which helped me blend in perfectly as I typed my notes and watched my fellow Van kids passively absorbing the build up to the meat and potatoes. The second opener, Despot, kicked in with the crowd-rocking “Look Alive,” which boasts production by Ratatat. An unassuming voice had the audience waving limbs like zombies to an act that most of them had never heard of.
Finally the meat and potatoes: First came Killer Mike with his custom brand of Dirty South electricity. By the time “Reagan” came on, the crowd was with his every (audible) word. The sound was not terrible but not great, making this a very “underground” feeling event. Then the big guy told us about the “church of rap music” which lead to the notion that rap music is a religious affair and the track “R.A.P. Music”.
The Biltmore has a low stage which makes it extremely difficult to see the performer from anywhere behind the first 5 and 1/2 rows. I managed to shimmy my way into an empty space near the hallway to the men’s room in time for Killer Mike’s outro acapella, which had the room’s full attention.
A live drumroll, eastern string sample, Carl Sagan vocal cut, the crowd chanting his name and out came El-P clad in a red Yankee’s hat launching into “Drones Over Brooklyn.” This is when the crowd exploded. El-P is basically an alternative grunge rapper and an angry b-boy. He makes total sense to the twenty-something, post Bush-era generation-xxxer’s and the connection is strong. His sci-fi model of hip hop with dripping synths and hyperspace drum patterns made him seem like the captain of some interstellar space craft, flying us all straight into a Red Giant Star.
That energy continued into Run The Jewels set. El-P’s singular kinetic flow honed during his years in the New York underground combined with Killer Mike’s tightly controlled Atlantan drawl is a match made in heaven. Neither emcee presented an attitude of superiority but remained gratefully engaged with a crowd that ate up every second of it. “Banana Clipper” tastefully avoided the use of Big Boi’s featured verse, something many other artists might try and wave around like a trophy. “36” Chain” was, put simply, fun. The track “Sea Legs” sent shivers down my spine, exhibiting masterful rhymes over rapidly oscillating filtered goodness. A full night of exceptional hip hop and I went home drunk and awestruck.
By Harold Richter