“I’m known for pounding the stage, I’m talking burning and cursing”
– Killer Mike, “Banana Clipper” by Run The Jewels
Known for the sheer volume and intensity of braggadocio that Run The Jewels has committed to vinyl (or bits, if you prefer free downloads: Run The Jewels and RTJ2), one would be forgiven for questioning whether Killer Mike and El-P could live up to their recorded claims and bring the fire live. Such a skeptic might be forgiven, but their doubt would be foolish as evidenced by RTJ’s recent sold out show at the Majestic.
It should be noted that Friday night’s show was not the duo’s first appearance in Madison. As mentioned in WSUM’s preview, Run The Jewels had previously performed a free concert at the Memorial Union Terrace back on July 20, 2013. Having attended both shows, it was interesting to see how the performances compared.
The first thing to note is that the Majestic Theater is not the Memorial Union Terrace. As any aficionado of the Terrace’s outdoor shows will admit, there is a trade-off between the beautiful setting and consistency of sound. While it was cool to watch Kool A.D. open the RTJ show at the Terrace by spitting verses while staring out across lake Mendota and Despot engaging us in calisthenics against the backdrop of the setting sun, I can’t say that the sound remotely touched what the Majestic offers. At the right concert the Majestic absolutely shakes. This really add a sense of immediacy to music, which is perfect for Run The Jewels.
As for the lineup, the previous show featured Kool A.D. (formerly of Das Racist) and Despot handling opener duties, which felt like an NYC family affair. Kool, Despot, and El-P all come from the NYC underground and so I felt there was a common thread tying their performances together. The same could not be said for Friday’s show, which left things a little disjointed.
I was unable to catch opening act the David Ruffin Theory, but was able to gather that while they had a great energy and sound, their hyped-up take on southern club rap didn’t mesh well with the rest of the evening.
I was able to arrive for the start of Despot’s set and was very pleased to the Polo-sporting rapper again. Clad in a ridiculous striped sweater, the Queens-based rapper took the nearly-full audience on a tour of his still unreleased material. Focusing mainly on tracks he’s been working on with electronic rock duo Ratatat, Despot took the stage alone (save for the aforementioned sweater), handling his own beats by simply hitting play on his device. While this might sound awkward, the transformation he undergoes when rapping is amazing. When rapping, he commands the stage, dabbling in twisty wordplay and spitting each syllable with precision. It’s this transformation, and the fact that he directs the audience in calisthenics mid-set, that makes him so fascinating.
Ratking was a different story. A duo (at least for the night), Ratking consisted of a rapper/singer and a beat-maker/hype man. Their sound marked another turn for the evening, featuring beats constructed live via a sample pad and a table of effects devices. With rapid-fire sung/rapped vocals, the constantly shifting beats resulted in a sound that never really settled enough to land with the audience. Some members seemed to appreciate the music, but Ratking didn’t have quite the sway that Despot had just exerted.
After Ratking it was time for the main event and the atmosphere of the packed house was electric. For their previous Madison show, Killer Mike and El-P split up the headliner spot so that each could perform material off of their most recent solo records (2013’s R.A.P. Music and Cancer 4 Cure, respectively) before performing together as RTJ. I was unsure whether they would follow that format again or perform only Run The Jewels material, as the release of RTJ2 expanded their catalog enough (now 72 minutes of music!) to support a full set. Either way, I was sure the show would be fun.
With the Queen classic “We Are the Champions” playing, El-P, Killer Mike, and Madison’s DJ Trackstar all arrived on stage. After taking some time to sign a couple autographs and flash their trademark gun and fist hand sign, the two men got started. First up on the list was “Run The Jewels”, the hyped-up opener off of 2013’s RTJ (rap’s unholy trinity a la “Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath on Black Sabbath), which whipped the crowd into a frenzy. The pedal was kept firmly pressed to the metal with RTJ2‘s two pre-release bangers, “Oh My Darling Don’t Don’t Cry” and “Blockbuster Night Pt. 1”, both performed with such a ferocity that I was floored. From there, it was clear that this was strictly a Run The Jewels affair, as all guest verses were stripped from the songs. The one exception was a rendition of El-P’s “Tougher Colder Killer”, which saw Despot come back out to trade verses with El and Mike. Set highlights included particularly ruthless renditions of “Sea Legs”, “All Due Respect”, and “Lie, Cheat, Steal” (complete with audience-shouted chorus). In a case of fan-artist synchronicity, my personal choices for set closer, “A Christmas Fucking Miracle”, and encore, “Angel Duster”, were just that. At the end of “Angel Duster”, Run The Jewels bit the rabid audience adieu and left the stage.
Even with my lineup qualms and my slight disappointment that Run The Jewels didn’t engage in as much audience interaction as they had during their last Madison appearance, I must admit that Friday’s show was amazing. More punishing shows can only be found in the most intense of metal genres. I was also lucky enough to have an artist interaction highlight, as Mike read to the crowd what he had inscribed on my Mets hat after the last show (“Fuck da Mets” – Mike is an Atlanta Braves fan).
Now that the dust has settled, it is clear that Run The Jewels has crushed Madison twice; with RTJ3 already in the works, we can only hope they’ll do it again.