Last summer, veteran emcees Killer Mike and El-P stormed the Internet with Run the Jewels, a furious collab project that catapulted the two indie hip-hop lifers to online stardom. Their eponymous debut, released as a free download, landed on many critics “Best of 2013” lists.
On Oct. 24 the duo dropped the highly anticipated follow-up, “Run the Jewels 2,” another free release. Loaded with frenetically paced electronic beats and furious aggro rap, the album is charged with braggadocio, making a claim to hip-hop’s throne. It’s also a no-holds-barred call to arms, bluntly addressing police brutality, political corruption and class warfare.
In the aftermath of the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black youth who was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in August, Mike traveled to the St. Louis suburb as it erupted in protests. He penned a scathing editorial on the militarization of the police for Billboard.com. Sitting on the patio of Red 7 before a ballistic Red Bull-sponsored performance last month, he expanded on his thoughts.
“Whatever happens to the least of us will one day happen to us all,” he said. “That was true in Nazi Germany. That was true in Southeast Asia when they ignored the war machine that was growing and killing people there.”
The son of a police officer, the 39-year-old Atlanta native says he’s not calling for a radical change in our social system, but he warns that “passive non-vigilance” about rights violations have dangerous consequences. As a hip-hop artist who’s connected to the form’s roots as urban protest music, he said he feels obligated to speak out. “If you have had an experience in your life outside of ego or what you can buy … an experience that another human has had that involves suffering or pain or social pain, that deserves to be talked about,” he said.
“Because I’m affected by it and because I’m an artist, I’m not really sure what I’m worth if I’m not trying to be an arbiter of an eloquent translation of that experience,” El-P said. At the same time, he resents the expectation that hip-hop artists be political and the pressure to be a voice of struggle. “There’s a need for nuance and presentation, and I don’t think that anybody needs a lecture,” he said.
There were no lectures during the group’s Red 7 performance. Instead, in a furious hourlong set, the duo whipped the sold-out crowd into a frenzy, delivering verse after verse with brutal, raw skill that put the legions of lesser emcees who lean on vocal backing tracks to shame. They were also funny, joking convivially with each other and the audience.
Further evidence that the group doesn’t take themselves too seriously is “Meow the Jewels.” In a late September, marijuana-fueled attempt at hilarity, El-P, who produced much of the album, promised that if he could raise $40,000 he would remix it using nothing but cat sounds. The Internet responded with a fully funded Kickstarter in less than a week. “We really (expletive) ourselves with that one,” El-P said at the show. “That might be the strongest argument against smoking weed.”
The idea for “Meow the Jewels” came entirely from El-P, who recently laid his 18-year-old cat Mini Beast to rest. Before the insane success of the Kickstarter, Mike had no idea that cats actually run the Internet.
“I’m a dog person. I don’t want no beef, but I just didn’t know,” he said before the show. “But once I understood, I shut up. I got with the plan. … Meow. I’m gonna dress my pitbull up as a (expletive) tiger.”
More selections from the Blue Stage
2:15 p.m. SZA: The first female member of the Top Dawg Entertainment clique (home to Kendrick Lamar) spins dreamy watercolor swirls of abstract R&B over cool chillwave grooves. Also, she might just have the best hair in the business.
5:15 p.m. Ginuwine: Look, ladies, “Pony” isn’t the only reason to catch the smooth crooner. This is the man who gets “So Anxious” when he sees you “In Those Jeans.” Bubble baths and back rubs for everyone!
7:35 p.m. Atmosphere: The Rhymesayers collective kingpins put Minneapolis on the map as a hip-hop backpackers’ paradise almost 20 years ago. Though deeply introspective, their latest release “Southsiders” is also both accessible and danceable.
2:10 p.m. Mas Ysa: Deeply emotional and evocative electronic compositions from a Canadian who’s emerging as a force to be reckoned with on NYC’s avant indie scene.
7:15 p.m. Nas: The hip-hop superhero is celebrating the 20th anniversary of his classic “Illmatic,” but at recent shows he’s mixed the track-by-track recital up with spirited selections from his catalog of hits.
8:45 p.m. Girl Talk: I’ll admit I was a little surprised that Nas didn’t get top billing, but if you’re trying to take Saturday night out with a boogie-down dance party, the mashup master’s totally got your number.
1 p.m. The Internet: The warm and sensual R&B side project of Syd tha Kyd and Matt Martians from the shock rap collective Odd Future.
4:50 p.m. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib: Gritty street tales from Gary, Ind., hustler Gibbs come to life over the cerebral, jazz- and funk-laced grooves from hip-hop super producer Madlib.
6 p.m. Sky Ferreira: Don’t hold the Miley Cyrus tour (or the heroin bust) against her; Ferreira’s “Night Time, My Time” was one of the best gauzy dance pop releases of 2013.
7:25 p.m. Flying Lotus: “You’re Dead!”, the new album from producer Steven Ellison, is an expansive composition that blends soulfully orchestrated vocal harmonies and mind-boggling, complicated jazz over loosely constructed hip-hop beats.
Run the Jewels at FFF
4:15 p.m. Friday on the Blue Stage