Run The Jewels, Ratking
The Fine Line Music Café
November 20, 2014
Earlier this week I attended an artist’s talk/writer’s workshop-type thing here in Minneapolis. Kevin Bowe, who’s toured with Paul Westerberg, recorded as a member of the Replacements, produced the Meat Puppets, and written award winning songs for people that can’t write them themselves, was interviewing Jon Bream, the lead music critic for the Star Tribune. Bream has been writing about music since 1974, so he’s pretty much seen, listened to, written, and read it all.
In a rather leading manner Bowe asked Bream about his approach to writing concert reviews, following up his question by stating, “I don’t want to hear about how many beers the reviewer drank; I want to know if the show was good.”
Bream said that even though he doesn’t write that way, mostly because he works for a daily, that he thinks it’s totally legitimate to interject oneself into the story. “An event review is ultimately about the experience of the person who’s writing about it.” Said Bream. “If the reviewer drank four whiskey Cokes it is likely going to affect their experience. Why choose to ignore that?”
I had six beers tonight.
By the time I arrived at the Fine Line I was already three beers deep. I had a Fat Tire Amber Ale and a Fixed Gear American Red at home prior to leaving. I also had can of Hamm’s which I mainlined in two ginormous chugs in the parking lot behind the venue. Upon entering I stopped to take in the scene for a moment, opened my arms wide, and declared vociferously, “HIP-HOP!” A few people looked at me sideways, and a few others raised their drinks in agreement. It felt good to be out, as up until very recently I’d been sidelined for nearly four months as the result of a ruptured achilles tendon. I quickly made my way to the bar and got myself a Summit Saga IPA.
I missed the opening act, whoever they were, but had arrived as planned just in time to see Ratking. Ratking is a group of youngsters from NYC made up of rappers Wiki and Hak and producer Sporting Life. They mix an alluring cocktail of post-everything/no-nothing—punk, wave, EDM, graffiti culture, whatever—noise that is strangely and undeniably hip-hop. Hip-hop with a capital H. It makes perfect sense that they are touring with El-P, a fellow and elder New York-ian that’s been making bombastic, boundary-bending hip-hop for nearly 20 years. Metaphorically speaking, in many ways Ratking are the offspring of El-P. I fell in love with them the moment I saw their Ari Marcopoulos-directed video for “Piece of Shit.”
They took to the stage amidst a hazy blue fog and went right into their set with little fanfare. Hak was not in attendance tonight, so Wiki handled vocal duties solo. From my vantage point it was difficult to make out exactly what instruments Sporting Life was using to create the grandiloquent soundscapes. It appeared to be a combination of drum machine, mixer, MPC, and oddly enough, a large drum pad. I might not know what I’m talking about when it comes to that other stuff, but one thing I’m certain of is that there was a drum pad. I know this because he was repeatedly hitting it with a drumstick throughout the duration of the set.
I’d estimate that about half the audience was familiar with Ratking’s material - the Wiki93 EP and So It Goes LP. The only song that wasn’t recognizable was one Wiki referred to as “the new new.” I didn’t catch the name but it was just like their other tracks – pulsing, near-theatrical beats matched against Wiki’s metrical Ad-Rock on Adderall-like mic control.
Wiki’s voice is brash and nasally but his cadence is so rhythmic that at times I forgot that he was actually saying real words. On “Eat”, a song about OxyContin addiction, he rapped, “Pops cooked away the trouble of his day / All the Oxy out his cupboard that I ate, vomit / Step in the puddle that I’d make” and I was like, oh shit, that’s right, this kid can write too!
Appearance-wise, Wiki and Sporting Life are your average twenty something everymen – hooded sweatshirts, baggy polo shirts, slim fitting pants that still manage to sag, and Adidas Sambas and shell-tops. They’re the kind of guys that could jump off the stage after their set and blend into the crowd with ease. Which is basically what they did.
Because Minneapolis has an inferiority complex about out of towners, the sound guy played an Atmosphere song right after Ratking’s set. I grabbed another Saga and caught up with my friend DJ Morplay Katana, who hosts an excellent hip-hop show called Rebel Lego Radio on KNDS 96.3 FM out of Fargo, ND. I hadn’t seen him for a couple years but we fell right back into it, cracking jokes and talking about ridiculous things. We lamented the decline of the deejay in rap music, and specifically at shows. Ten years ago this show would’ve had a live deejay spinning between sets to keep a party atmosphere going. We also talked about how lame it is when a rapper comes on stage without a deejay.
Then Despot came on stage without a deejay. He rapped some songs and then he was done. Some people might have paid attention but I wasn’t one of them.
I grabbed my final beer—a third Saga—and posted up near the back of the room where there was still a little breathing room and braced myself for Run The Jewels. El-P, Killer Mike, and Trackstar the DJ entered the stage to Queen’s “We Are the Champions” and it was as if the size of the crowd had doubled itself. Suddenly lines were longer, the temperature had risen, and people were wild’n the fuck out. Within the first few minutes “Run The Jewels” two gentlemen were thrown out for fighting – plowed towards the door, arms twisted up their backs by bouncers, and out onto the cold city streets.
Run The Jewels’ thriving amalgamation of conspiracy theory, science fiction, and loud fucking bass is penetrating enough that it can cause people to act out of character. At one point Killer Mike stopped mid-song to squash some front row beef between two other overzealous fans. “Alright, you take one step back. And you take one step back.” He instructed. “This will be your area to bug out. And that will be your area to bug out. We don’t need any violence up in here.” Then, with an ear to ear grin, he asked them, “We cool?”
I’ve seen El-P countless times over the years but it never ceases to amaze me how goddamn hard his beats come across live – booming from the speakers with panic attack-inducing intensity. And even better, they are given an extra bit of oomph thanks to Trackstar’s non-stop record scratching. This marks the third time I’ve seen Run The Jewels and I have to say, I prefer them this way – just a deejay on the ones and twos backing them, rather than the additional band members they had when they toured on El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure and Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music albums.
They ran through a lengthy and comprehensive set that included all the best tracks off of both volumes of Run The Jewels as well as the ones from their solo albums that feature each other. “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” and “Love Again (Akinyele Back)” rang the hardest, with the crowd singing in unison “suck my dick, that’s word to pimp” and “she want this dick in her mouth all day” respectively. Give a large group of young men the opportunity to scream misogynistic obscenities and they’ll happily oblige. I had to wonder if Gangsta Boo had been there to do her verse from “Love Again (Akinyele Back)” if the few ladies in the house would have shouted along, “He want this clit in his mouth all day!”
On the surface El-P and Killer Mike may seem like an oddball paring. But onstage, like on wax, their interplay is seamless; surely a result of extensive recording and touring together. El-P, for all his titled cap buffoonery takes hip-hop very, very seriously. And Killer Mike, well he just goes hard. One of the things that makes Run The Jewels work so well is the personality that that pair have cultivated as a duo. While their music is tough-as-nails hip-hop, their outwardly appearance is a satirical caricature-like ode to a much more dangerous time in rap music.
I had to laugh at the predominantly young and predominantly Caucasian crowd mimicking the RTJ B-boy stance – pretending to hold a gold rope chain in one hand and a gun in the other. Likely very few in attendance tonight realized the irony. I’d tell you about the time a junior high version of me had his jewels ran on him on a winter’s night in downtown St. Paul, but that’s a story for another day. I’ll just say a fake gold rope chain with a dollar sign symbol hanging from it aint worth it.
Here’s a possible set list. Keep in mind, I did have six beers. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, yes the show was good.
Run The Jewels
Oh My Darling Don’t Cry
Blockbuster Night, Pt. 1
Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck)
All My Life
Tougher Colder Killer (El-P song)
Butane (Killer Mike song)
Lie, Cheat, Steal
Pew Pew Pew
All Due Respect
Love Again (Akinyele Back)
A Christmas Fucking Miracle
(Killer Mike & El-P photo from Creative Commons Image. All other photos by Nathan G. O'Brien.)