It was only a few months ago that Atlanta hip hop heavyweight, Killer Mike, celebrated his birthday with an exhilarating performance on The Orange Peel stage while opening for mentor and fellow Atlantan, Big Boi. Last Thursday, the southern fried soul man returned to Asheville alongside rapper, producer and Def Jux founder, El-P, in the midst of their Run the Jewels tour.
Supporting the release of their eponymous mixtape from earlier this summer (a monster 10-track collaboration currently available as a free download), the pair hit the Peel with a high-volume stage show that perfectly complimented the record’s immense energy.
Together, Killer Mike and El-P made a natural duo, fluidly trading and doubling verses throughout the brisk 11-song set. Brandishing heavy gold chains emblematic of the Run the Jewels album artwork, the two MCs strutted and mugged their way through a tremendous show that included just about every track, in order, from the record (the only diversion being two quick posse hits with opener, Despot, and El-P’s hype man).
Throughout the set, both rappers looked thrilled to be sharing the music from Run the Jewels, and that more than translated to the room. Live renditions of “36-inch Chain”, “Get It” and “Run the Jewels” (to clarify: the duo, their album and its opening track are all called Run the Jewels) were exceptionally well received, sending the audience into a series of bouncing, sing-along frenzies that elevated the performance even further.
Run the Jewels put together the kind of set that will likely stick with each member of the audience for a long time. It was fun, somehow simultaneously relaxed and raucous, and very well-executed.
Tour openers, Kool A.D. and Despot offered brief but very entertaining runs that helped raise audience energy in the weirdly warm and muggy room. Kool A.D. (one-third of indie-rap darlings, Das Racist), while perhaps a bit despondent (read: texting?), knocked out a speedy, angular set showcasing his unorthodox cadence. Def Jux veteran, Despot, followed with a slightly more robust jaunt that felt a little ragged now and again, but kept the crowd moving.
After the proper openers exited, both El-P and Killer Mike performed solo sets prior to teaming up for Run the Jewels. El-P took the stage first, and really upped the mood with a series of hilarious and thoughtful hits from his lengthy recording history. One of the highlights included a long-winded salute to the “consciousness” of his own rap in preface to his washy, wobbling jam, “The Full Retard.” Solid. El-P did not disappoint.
But, then came Killer Mike.
I’d like to say that Mike is one of the most entertaining performers I’ve ever seen, but I think that undersells his shows a bit. Referring to him as a performer carries some implication of embellishment or acting. That’s not the case at all.
Killer Mike doesn’t perform. He just speaks. I don’t quite know how else to put it. His solo sets are some of the most remarkably honest and affecting shows I’ve seen. There’s no pretense, just a guy loving his job like few of us ever will. He makes you feel like you’ve been friends for years, and like each song is simply the next part of a long conversation about God, the South, the world and rap (sounds a little grandiose, but it never felt manufactured in any way).
We were treated to burning versions of “Big Beast”, “Untitled” and “Reagan” from last year’s outstanding R.A.P. Music album, as well as Bone Crusher’s “Never Scared,” which just about sent the room over the edge. But, the real magic happened between the tracks.
After several songs, Mike would stop the music and repeat verses back with the tusk and temper of a Baptist minister. Again, in the wrong hands, this would have been an insufferably self-indulgent exercise. But, when the big man wants to tell you something, it matters, and it feels good.
To finish his set, he stepped out into the audience and shared lines from the incredible “God In the Building.” The beat was gone, but the words were too important to let alone. As he gave us each line again, we stood rapt and quiet. It was the kind of thing you just don’t see at concerts, really ever. It was a moment that mattered. A true rarity at a time when so much live performance seems entirely fabricated. It was superb.
Photos by Rich Orris.