The tag-team rappers known as Run the Jewels opened their gritty, adrenaline-pumping set at the Regent Theater in downtown Los Angeles as any self-respecting conquerors would: to the sound of Queen's "We Are the Champions."
Pumping their fists, shaking fans' hands and leading their tribe, while behind them their nimble turntablist DJ Trackstar pushed forth Freddie Mercury's victory chant, lyricists/MCs Killer Mike and El-P arrived like soldiers rolling through a ticker-tape parade.
They were returning to Los Angeles for the third time in six months in support of "Run the Jewels 2," the hip-hop duo's deep, dense sequel to their self-titled 2013 debut. One of the best albums of 2014 in any genre, the record captures a duo in the middle of an explosive, creative run, the once-in-a-career kind. Killer Mike and El-P spent much of the last year on the road, and have continued to accrue a fan base that sold out the newly opened Regent (capacity about 1,100) in 24 hours.
By the end of the night the packed masses were bouncing and sweaty, an ocean of nodding heads and gesticulating arms getting rubbery to the beat. At any given time, half the room recited Run the Jewels' politically informed and philosophically dense lyrics. Who says kids don’t memorize poetry anymore?
El-P, who early in his career founded the influential label Definitive Jux while simultaneously becoming a unique, jagged-edged track producer, reveled in language, throwing words around like super-balls. "Hey kids, I’m a computer/I’m a trooper feeling super/shoot the future like a looper," he rapped during “Blockbuster Night, Pt. 2.”
Both El-P (born Jaime Meline) and Killer Mike (Michael Render) are masters of percussive lyricism, the kind that on Wednesday split syllables into fractions that gracefully moved in well-timed increments alongside the tracks’ punchy eighth-, quarter- and half-notes. Both veteran artists have clocked their proverbial 10,000 hours toward mastery, and it shows; this year each will turn 40 within a few months of the other, and are doing so in peak form.
The resonant protest song "Lie, Steal, Cheat” saw Killer Mike raging against the systems that control the world's wealth and power. He stormed into verses like an interrogator tearing into a captive, a self-described "revolutionary bangin' on my adversaries.”
His is a commanding voice, both in verses and between tracks. In November, Killer Mike earned attention after the grand jury in St. Louis County declined to indict the Ferguson, Mo., police officer who shot unarmed citizen Michael Brown. Run the Jewels happened to be performing that night in St. Louis.
Before that set, instead of that “We Are the Champions” intro, Killer Mike delivered an emotional response, which was captured on video and passed around online. Sounding at times both defeated and determined, he spoke first as a father: “I have a 20-year-old son and a 12-year-old son, and I am so afraid for them today.”
He harnessed that widespread frustration for “Lie, Steal, Cheat” at the Regent, a venue whose sound system channeled acoustically solid tones throughout. Describing an America whose people are "overworked, underpaid -- we're underprivileged," Killer Mike posed a labyrinthine line of questions about hidden power structures, about “the man behind the man behind the man behind the throne.”
Echoed by the hundreds in the crowd who'd internalized these rhymes, Killer Mike demanded response: "Who really run this? Who really run that man that say he run this?” He repeated the question, then moved to money: “Who really fund this? Like, who really fund who say he fund this?"
Near the front, a mosh pit opened up in the crowd. As the beat -- a layered mix produced, like all of them, by El-P -- moved toward the chorus, a bunch of scrawny twenty-somethings knocked against each other like they were at a 1981 Black Flag gig. They chanted the chorus, expressing frustration at the messages our political leaders tacitly convey: "Lie, cheat, steal, kill, win! Everybody's doing it!"
Luckily, Killer Mike and El-P are here to document it.
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit