Fires, gas masks, rocks, riot gear, gunfire, smoke pouring out of the smashed windows of an Advance Auto Parts ... everyone saw last night's news, and many St. Louisans were wary of becoming part of it. But following a grand jury's decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown, attendees at Tuesday's impeccably timed local show by rap duo Run the Jewels weren't exactly in the mood to burn this motherfucker to the ground. Ten miles south of Ferguson, the Ready Room was crammed with bearded, sensitive rap fans who'd ventured out on a night when much of the city was bunkering down. They'd paid $30 for a hip-hop show, and given the tragic circumstances, they were hoping for the best one they'd ever seen.
St. Louis is a sprawling but largely uninhabited city; despite what you saw on the news, one could have driven all around town last night and not known anything was amiss. The normally bustling Grove neighborhood, site of the show, was a ghost town. Everyone was on high alert—I for one stayed hella sober—and the freeways, even those not blockaded, were particularly empty.
Inside the club, the lineup was certainly stacked: Homegrown openers David Ruffin Theory featured delightful madman Rockwell Knuckles and citizen raptivist Tef Poe, who has been a steadfast voice for protesters in the wake of Michael Brown's August killing; diminutive indie-rap superhero Despot and super-intense Gotham duo Ratking followed. But oddly, no one said much about the evening's announcement at first. Considering the concert started just as the news was breaking, Tef Poe may not have had time to gather his thoughts, though he made up for it with his on-the-scene, not-so-figuratively fiery Instagram images throughout the rest of the night.
But Atlanta-born Killer Mike, standing in his 6XL shirt alongside Run the Jewels partner El-P, was born for this situation. Taking the stage to a cold opening with no music (usually they walk out to Queen's "We Are the Champions"), Mike sent an RIP to Brown, a word of support to peaceful protesters, and "thoughts and prayers for the people who could not hold their anger in, because riots are only the language of the unheard."
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Clutching the mic stand with his right hand, he expressed grave disappointment with prosecutor Bob McCulloch's bizarre, hostile televised announcement, his voice cracking. "You motherfuckers got me today. I knew it was coming … you kicked me on my ass today, because I have a 20-year-old son, and I have a 12-year-old son, and I'm so afraid for them." People in the crowd drunkenly screamed out, "We got you!"
"Don't fucking cry," El-P said, speaking to Mike, himself, the crowd, everyone. By the next morning, video of the speech had gone viral.
Many believe mainstream rap hasn't gone hard enough for the #ferguson cause, but Killer Mike plunged directly into that void and emerged a leader. The son of a cop, he has taken to unlikely outlets like Fox Business to calmly make the protesters' case, after soothing white people by explaining the genesis of his name ("I kill mics"). He has oration in his bones; he's a powerful rapper and an equally powerful speaker, though his messages can sound garbled to traditional liberals. He has had choice words for Obama and preachers, is extremely pro-gun in addition to being pro-stripper, and even calls himself "conservative." Though he has won a Grammy, is pals with Outkast, and already had an outstanding back catalogue before hooking up with El-P a few years ago, he had never quite broken through. Speaking with him a few year ago before Run the Jewels kicked off, he told me he makes about $50,000 a year; his wife was utterly appalled by the tiny advance he received for his El-produced 2012 solo album, R.A.P. Music.
Long a complex medium in search of a straightforward message, Killer Mike has now seized the chance to help lead a coalition. Unlike, say, unwitting Occupy Wall Street ally Jay Z, Mike is a perfect representative for the Ferguson protestor movement; nobody presses more flesh. Or, given the right situation, rocks harder. The 800-capacity Ready Room was nearly but not completely full last night, and though no one wanted a riot, everyone wanted to rage. Earlier in the night, folks in the crowd surfed Twitter, anxious for updates and to know if our blocks would still be standing when we got home. Half white guys, half ladies and people of color, there was a "we're all in the same boat" feeling —it went without saying that everyone thought the verdict was bullshit, and this was not the place for hostility. Really, folks wanted release, and got that when Mike took the stage, everyone drunk and emotional, commiserating and communing with him at first, and then bouncing for the rest of the night. It was catharsis following trauma.
The show went hard all the way through, rocketing through the duo's two albums from the first track ("Run the Jewels") to the last ("Angel Duster," closer of the free Run the Jewels 2, which came out last month to rapturous acclaim). It was by far the most energetic, exuberant Killer Mike show of the many I've seen.
EL-P, for his part, wasn't entirely sure what to do with himself at first; perhaps because he looks so much like Tim Heidecker, he often seems most comfortable smirking. But last night he knew just when to give Mike a hug, when to rocket the intensity level way up, and when to be silly, like when he acknowledged just how uncomfortable it suddenly was to perform, say, "Love Again (Akinyele Back)"—the song with a refrain of "Dick in her mouth all day." They mentioned the day's events a few more times, but things gradually shifted toward a normal Run the Jewels show, and a loosey-goosey one at that, with El grabbing Mike's belly and encouraging him to do goofy dances.
The St. Louis stop was a late addition to the tour, and the guys almost didn't make it; their massive, pimp-wrapped tour bus broke down somewhere in the middle of Illinois yesterday afternoon. But nobody ever really doubted that Killer Mike would be in St. Louis on the night it needed him most. Who fucking knows what's ahead for this city and this country; the outcry will surely intensify when it sets in that closure and justice aren't things we can have. But a sweaty, angry, but somehow still-exuberant party? That's almost always the right short-term solution.
Ben Westhoff is the author of Dirty South, and is writing a book on classic L.A. gangsta rap for Hachette Books. He's on Twitter here. Photo by the author.
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