One of the more random success stories in recent music history has to be the rise of El-P and Killer Mike as Run the Jewels (pictured above). Though both rappers had a sizeable fanbase as solo artists before getting together, the pairing has cracked things open in a way no one could have truly predicted. On their own, they were likely playing rooms holding 500 to 800 people, but their current tour finds them playing 2,000-plus capacity venues, like this sold-out show in Columbus.
For tour support, Run the Jewels has picked an eclectic crew to open up. Starting off the night was Nick Hook, probably best known as the producer behind “All Meow Life,” the Meow the Jewels remix of “All My Life.” As a DJ, his set was a bit disjointed, and it seemed like he was afraid to lose the crowd. While the selections were on point, he never seemed to get into a flow, switching tempos and moods in a way that felt like DJ Interuptus. Such problems were only made worse by the fact that the soundman seemed to set the bass on “beat-up Pontiac driving through your neighborhood at 2am.” It was so comically distorted, it was like he had stepped outside for the duration of the set. Things gained a little momentum (and the bass was tamed) with the performance of Cuz, formerly known as SL Jones. Cuz, who was a member of the Grind Time Rap Gang with Killer Mike, also performed on the RTJ track “Bust No Moves.” His set, with Hook as his DJ, was fine, but leaned a bit too much on current radio styles, complete with some lightly auto-tuned crooning to open the set. Things got a bit more interesting when he took a detour into a West Coast–influenced storytelling track, but overall the set was more memorable for the repeated call and response of “What up Cuz?!” than any of the songs.
That wasn’t the case for rap veteran Gangsta Boo. While she’s likely known by RTJ fans for her turn on “Love Again,” she’s the only female rapper to join the Three 6 Mafia and has an extensive catalog as a group member and as a solo artist. In her brief set, she covered a lot of ground, including some songs from her ’98 debut, Enquiring Minds, which she wryly noted “was probably before a few of you were even born!” Her performance experience showed, and the crowd responded. She exited the stage before Hook resumed his solo DJ set, but this time setting up for Gaslamp Killer (pictured below). Instead of a set break, Gaslamp simply transitioned from Hook’s set into his own.
Even if you only know Gaslamp from that iPad commercial, you have a pretty good idea of what he’s about: part one-man dance crew, part DJ/live remixer, and part Muppet come to life. If you can imagine Animal from the Electric Mayhem getting into electronic music, then you kind of got it. Moving between a mixer, an iPad, and a turntable set-up, he segued from straight hip-hop to glitchy beat workouts to 8-bit covers to thrash metal breakdowns to Turkish and Syrian music. He was all over the place, but it didn’t feel disjointed. He was so obviously confident of where he was going that he didn’t fret if he lost people for a bit.
It was an hour and 45 minutes before the only set-break of the night occurred to clear Gaslamp Killer’s and Nick Hook’s equipment and set the stage for RTJ. While in some other appearances RTJ were accompanied by musicians, for this tour it’s simply the two emcees with DJ Trackstar.
It’s hard to imagine a crowd more rabid for the headliners than the crowd assembled this night. Breaking into steady recurring chants of “RTJ! RTJ!” the feel in the room was less a concert and more of a big-room revival. The group’s success hasn’t been built by radio, but organically through word-of-mouth, which was evidenced by the response to the material from RTJ’s imaginatively named third album, Run The Jewels 3. The record was originally supposed to be released in January, but the group dropped it on Christmas Eve instead. Nonetheless, the crowd greeted these songs as if they were long beloved classics and not from a record barely three weeks old.
If the performance cliche of, “the more energy you give us, the more we’ll give you” is true, then the RTJ set can be considered the textbook example. Bounding, spinning, striding, and dancing all over the stage, El-P at times seemed astounded by the crowd response. Mike was every bit his equal, but used his energy to work the crowd like a preacher. There are a lot of great groups in hip-hop, but it’s hard to imagine one with better onstage chemistry. You have to hand it to a performer like El-P, who admits to laughing at the chorus to “Love Again” every time he performs it because it’s “literally the dumbest chorus ever!” Their rendition included a show-stopping cameo by Gangster Boo.
It was a night that felt special, significantly because Columbus is a town that played a large part in El-P’s personal and professional life. The roster on his now defunct Def Jux label included Columbus-based artists RJD2 and SA Smash, which featured Metro and Camu Tao of the MHz crew that also included indie-rap notable Copywrite. The emcee formed a deep friendship with Camu Tao, who died in 2008 and whose solo album was the last release by Def Jux. El-P didn’t dwell too much on it, but he did take a moment to dedicate the set to Camu, and spoke briefly about his love for Columbus before moving on lest the moment overwhelm him. Nevertheless, RTJ closed the show with RJD2, Metro, Copywrite, and Camu Tao’s family members onstage while Camu’s solo cut “Hold the Floor” boomed over the PA system. It was a fitting end to an already exhilarating night.