El-P and Killer Mike at Varsity Theater, 7/19/13

El-P and Killer Mike at Varsity Theater, 7/19/13
Anna Gulbrandsen

El-P and Killer Mike
with Despot and Kool A.D.
Varsity Theater, Minneapolis
Friday, July 19, 2013

We of the millennial generation grew up in the golden era of the Dynamic Duo. On wax and on the basketball court, players and artists that could have been superstars in their own right formed partnerships greater than the sum of their own talents. Jordan and Pippen, Eric B and Rakim, Shaq and Kobe, Mos and Kweli, Duncan and Robinson, Salt-N-Pepa. The list goes on. In the age of the iTunes single, true collaboration is scarce, replaced by look-at-me features assembled cross-country through emails and Pro-Tools magic.

That's probably why the recent combination of Atlanta-bred Killer Mike and Brooklyn's own El-P feels so refreshing, and yet so familiar. Despite the cutting-edge production on their new mixtape Run the Jewels, the way Killer and El Producto play off of one another on the mic is pure throwback. They're the John Stockton and Karl Malone of underground rap, and their tag team live show Friday night was the definition of "Dynamic."

See Also:
Slideshow: El-P & Killer Mike at Varsity Theater

El-P and Killer Mike at Varsity Theater, 7/19/13
Anna Gulbrandsen

Show opener and Bay-Area native Kool A.D. certainly seemed a little lonely without his old partner up there. Best know for his work with the avant-rap group Das Racist, which also featured the inspired microphone talents of Queens-spitter Heems, Kool A.D. has been striking out on his own in the wake of the group's 2012 breakup. While his hazy, free-associative verses are better suited for blunted headphones-examination than rocking large stage, A.D. is armed with his own unique charisma and a wickedly dry sense of humor that made for an entertaining performance. Starting the show by proclaiming himself "probably the best rapper of all time...give or take..." the slothlike MC continued to pepper his bars with hilarious asides like "I feel like Macklemore right now" while surveying the undeniably pasty crowd. Finishing his set with a 10-minute long song that showed remarkable endurance, Kool A.D. and his producer/DJ Amaze 88 left the stage victorious despite a few skeptic hecklers.

Second act Despot's name isn't probably too familiar to many midwesterners. Despite his 10-plus years in the east coast rap game, the Flushing-based MC has yet to release an official full length album. Sacrificing time in the booth for time spent playing and organizing grassroots shows in his home city, Despot's confident and aggressive rapping was a definite shift from the mellow verses of his offstage friend Kool A.D. Connected to the headliners through his time at Def Jux records, the MC shares a similar musical palate but tends towards grimier, more street-level subject mater. Between songs, the diminutive rapper was a bit more left-field, stringing together monotone bits about modern dance and even inviting El-P and A.D. back up to the stage for an aerobic synchronized dance routine.

El-P and Killer Mike at Varsity Theater, 7/19/13
Anna Gulbrandsen

Killer Mike wasn't involved in the aerobics. Killer Mike has such a fearsome delivery that he doesn't even really need to move. Standing at a monolithic six foot something and built like an NFL lineman, the Killer is a master of the hardcore ATL style, nimbly switching between a swaggering baritone and a growling bellow that command attention whenever he touches the microphone. Ringing in the headliners with the massive, El-P produced "Big Beast," the MC mugged like a reigning heavyweight while the songs piercing uptemo trap beat caused a surge in the crowd's front rows.


El-P and Killer Mike at Varsity Theater, 7/19/13
Anna Gulbrandsen

Mostly focusing on material from his fantastic 2012 album R.A.P. Music, one his most explicitly political releases, Mike harnessed the simmering rage of songs like "Reagan" to set the stage for several eloquent and powerful between-song speeches. In the wake of the recent injustices in his neighboring state, Mike delivered a fiery and moving tribute to Trayvon Martin that can only be described as an immensely cathartic experience. Going beyond mere lip service to the tragedy against justice, the Killer delivered a plan of action: harness that rage into a full-blown boycott of Florida. "Let's starve that motherfuckin' state" the rapper ordered, and directed the crowd to turn their violent urges into enthusiasm for the music, willing the crowd to "Burn this motherfucker down," and setting off the hook for the bombastic "Burn."

Closing the set with the one-two punch of his album's title track and explosive "Butane," welcoming his partner to the stage for the later while the Atlanta MC's trademark "YaYaYaYa" blared from the PA. Characteristically, Mike left the stage with one more incendiary observation before disappearing from the stage to "go find a joint", Mike asserted "I don't fuck with the church, but I've felt god at a rap concert".

El-P and Killer Mike at Varsity Theater, 7/19/13
Anna Gulbrandsen

El Producto arrived with a live band of sorts including guitarist/technician Torbitt Schwartz, Synthesizer/Keytar whiz Wilder Zoby, DJ Trackstar and hype man Shannon T. Moore who moonlights in NYC hardcore band Activator. The additional personnel helped flesh out the already-huge in-house beats that give El-P such a distinctive sound, as well as diminish the gaping hole in the stage left by Killer Mike.

Beginning with the sci-fi political epic of "Drones of Brooklyn," El buoyed the already crackling room with "The Full Retard" and its infectious, get-stupid hook. Unlike his partner, P is agile onstage, constantly bouncing and spinning like a point-guard. Playing off of the energy of his bandmates, the Company Flow alumn' live show was full of raucous enthusiasm and abandon. Wilder Zoby nearly destroyed his complex electronics setup by rocking out too hard, and Shannon Moore brought a confrontational, punk rock intenstity, constantly in the faces of the front rows.

El-P and Killer Mike at Varsity Theater, 7/19/13
Anna Gulbrandsen

Ever the musician, even when he's wearing his rapper's snapback, El blended several songs into medleys, riffing through recognizable melodies from classic hip-hop beats in between his own songs, and never truly settling. "EMG," from his 2007 release I'll Sleep When You're Dead, was the climax of his solo portion, band wailing away at the pulverizing beat while P rocked the microphone stand like Trent Reznor. Calling Mike back onstage for "Tougher Colder Killer" was an inspired bit of stagecraft, setting up the final portion of the night: Run the Jewels.

As "Bad to the Bone" (yes, that one) blared over the PA, El and the Killer explained that the project had been intended as a thank-you from both artists to their fans for supporting them through their respective album releases in 2012. Kicking into "Banana Clipper," one of the album's best joints, Mike brags "Me and El at the top of the heap," and it's easy to see why he's confident. When their powers are combined, the two rappers that make up Run the Jewels have the perfect mixture of gritty, east coast flavor and infectious southern funk. Like a true partners, their verses intertwine with one another, making winking references and building even larger payoffs.


El-P and Killer Mike at Varsity Theater, 7/19/13
Anna Gulbrandsen

Most of the lyrics on Run the Jewels are concerned with describing, in painstaking detail, how much cooler the duo are than you and the myriad ways in which they could maim your ass. Despite the violent subject matter, Mike actually broke up several fights throughout the night, giving a shoutout to all the "moshpit mamas" in attendance who were being undoubtably crushed against the rail by the sometimes unruly male presence. The towering MC spat like an Atlanta Chuck D on "36-inch Chain," which El-P explained as their attempt to take jewelry back to the people, and crushed his verses on the album's title track, despite all-too-common microphone issues.

The venue's setup was useful for the night's final song though, and album-closer "A Christmas Fucking Miracle" began by showering the crowd in fake snow. El-P claimed the track as a tribute to Trayvon Martin, Pimp C, and our own Michael "Eyedea" Larsen, then passing it off to his man to take the song home. Running with the assist like Karl Malone on a fast break, Killer Mike unleashed the rap equivalent of the two-handed monster jam to close out the night, pouring every last ounce of energy into his final bars, voice breaking into a growl.

The energy in the room was at such a critical overload that the MC was forced to break-up another fight during the duo's triumphant walk-off. The violence would actually continue after the music, nearly including this writer and sending several patrons into the alley with security at their throats. The message was clear: Run the Jewels had won the night, cut the net, and smashed the backboard to into shards. Dynamic Duo indeed.

El-P and Killer Mike at Varsity Theater, 7/19/13
Anna Gulbrandsen

Set List:
--Killer Mike--
Big Beast
Don't Die
R.A.P. Music

Drones Over Brooklyn
The Full Retard
The Jig is Up
Sign Here
Tougher Colder Killer

--Run the Jewels--
Banana Clipper
36" Chain
Run the Jewels
We Did It
A Christmas Fucking Miracle

Critic's Bias: Run the Jewels might be the Reeses cup of my favorite chocolate and peanut butter in the underground rap game.

Spotted in the Crowd: Our own P.O.S, looking healthy and pal-ing around with El-P and fans before the performance. He later tweeted that this was one of his favorite rap performances in a while.

Random Notebook Dump: Other hilarious Kool A.D. one liners include "Did anyone check out those palatial bathrooms back there? I was in one earlier. Very luxurious."

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