When I heard that the incendiary duo of Killer Mike and El-P aka Run the Jewels had booked a show at Nashville’s Marathon Music Works, I was skeptical. They were just here a year ago at Exit/In, and Marathon is three times the capacity. They had just played Bonnaroo over the summer. There was no way they could sell 1,500 tickets. They had reached a little too far, too fast, and I anticipated the show would get bumped down to a smaller venue before too long, just like Morrissey had to move from the Opry to the Ryman when ticket sales lagged. Maybe it’s embarrassing—Moz apologized during the show for it—but it made for a much better experience, since the Ryman was very nearly full where the Opry would have been half-empty. I thought about seeing RTJ in the cavernous brick space of Marathon with a small crowd and it didn’t feel good.
I’m glad I bought a ticket anyway, because the show ended up selling out and me and every damn one of those fourteen hundred and ninety-nine ticket holders crammed ourselves in and had a good old-fashioned rappin’-ass hoedown. Mike and El took the stage to the strains of “We Are the Champions” and simply stood there, arms raised, surveying the enormous crowd, all of whom were throwing up the hand sign together. I don’t remember them saying anything before the first beat kicked in, El started jumping and shouting “HEY” with the voice of the possessed, and that crowd turned it on, whatever the mythical x-factor of one point five thousand people gathered in the same place on the same wavelength is, it was cranked and it stayed cranked and the two guys on stage fed off the energy.
Run the Jewels is very atypical in sound and style. There’s a full-on intensity on all fronts—in the music, the vocals, the attitude, the politics—that everyone aspires to and very few acts are able to achieve. Listening to the songs at your desk or in your car or even at a party is several magnitudes of order less than feeling the beat at the show and hearing El and Mike flawlessly stutter across the gaps. Yeah, they rap fast. The easy comparison is lightning or guns but imagine Rogers and Astaire tap dancing on a giant typewriter and you get the idea. It’s rare that one rapper can manage this kind of consistency, much less two. Maybe it helps that El is on the beats or that they’ve both been in the game 20+ years.
I expected a higher production value than what I saw last time and what I got was a larger backdrop (cool) and a goddamn smoke machine (awesome). I also got the power of a much louder system, the kind of system Run the Jewels were built to wreck. At the same time the show maintained a certain intimacy, because El and Mike treated it that way. They talked to us like they would talk to a buddy at the bar. They complimented us and our city constantly. They shouted out to Jack White’s Edward Scissorhands-looking ass up in the VIP section. (Jack put them on at Madison Square Garden, which is a genuinely nice gesture. I have to give him some respect for that.)
A few songs in, there was a “beeeeyotch”-off. They wanted to know who could shout “beeeeyotch” the best. Mike, the traditionalist, offered a vibrant, clear rendition. El revved himself up and issued a throat-shredding roar, the roar of the death of time, the song of Cerberus. Mike bowed to him in deference.
In between songs they lectured us, but never with condescension. They told us to put the selfie sticks away, for safety reasons. “You never know when somebody is gonna grab that thing and beat the shit outta you with it!” They condoned the crowd surfing, probably because it was beautifully done. Not only people floating around horizontally, but sometimes a bro got thrust straight up and held there. And every single crowd surfer was pointing at the stage and rapping along the entire time.
Run the Jewels bestowed upon the audience a permanent, invisible 36” chain and said we would know each other from this point on by flashing the RTJ hand sign, and that under no circumstances were we to take any shit from anyone who didn’t recognize it. I was inducted into the Wu-Tang Clan by Raekwon and Method Man a few months ago. Now I have everything. I am content.
This is the new success. The typical barriers of entry are gone. You can’t put a price on music anymore, as much as some artists would like to. You can’t berate fans for not spending enough money in pre-approved ways. You can’t lock your tracks up and spend all your time and resources keeping it away from people who want to support you.
Every Run the Jewels track is free to download. The store on their website is full of compelling stuff to buy. Not just one or two clothing designs, there’s twenty. All the vinyl is awesomely colored. They did a remix using only cat sounds, and that’s free too. You better believe I bought that brown vinyl.
El told us during one of his last monologues that the first Nashville show back in 2013—where I witnessed, among other things, Killer Mike descending into the middle of the crowd to hold a powerful church service—was not only a great show, but instrumental in making Run the Jewels happen. “You can quote me. You can go on YouTube and look. I haven’t said this anywhere else.” El and Mike later agreed that the Marathon show was another highlight, a huge compliment from a group who has spent most of this year on the major festival circuit.
This is the new success.