Hail El-P & Co. At The Echoplex
It’s something you don’t think about, but it’s somewhat terrifying to see a man like Atlanta’s Killer Mike cry onstage. All these varying emotions come up in you seeing this massive man, who just moments before was spitting about running you down for a beating, break down in tears and then admit it to a packed house. That’s exactly what happened on Thursday, June 28, 2012, at the Echoplex in Los Angeles, but that will only be one of the reasons why that show will stand out to me for an extended period of time.
The Into The Wild tour steamrolled LA like few shows (especially rap) are able to do. However, when you get a bill that is filled out with Despot, Mr. Muthaf***in’ eXquire, Killer Mike, and El-P, you know you’re dealing with a group of tougher, colder killers on the mic. The craziest thing to me is that none of the four master emcees have much ego. It’s refreshing to see a collective not brag but let their destruction of the mic do the talking.
At about 9:45pm, Queens emcee and BANGSTYLE featured musician Despot hit the stage. Like a miniature bull, he leveled the stage and left the crowd’s jaws on the floor. At only a little more than five-feet tall, the emcee certainly doesn’t look like he could command an entire venue by himself, but that’s exactly what you’re able to do when your voice booms with the confidence of a tyrant and lyrics that are a blueprint for how to rhyme with meaning.
For anyone who’s followed him since his Def Jux days, you know that the running joke is that he hasn’t ever actually released an album. His guest work is extensive, but no one is more aware of his lack of output than Despot himself. “Hello, my name is Despot, and I’ve been working on an album for 1,000 years,” he deadpanned in the middle of his set. While he was at the top of the bill, all you had to do was look around occasionally to see people looking at their friends with disbelief regarding some of the lines Despot dropped. “Opinions are like a**holes, they all stink/So all she gotta do is bend of to let me know what she thinks,” he spit on one of his new Ratatat-produced cuts. There’s not a single doubt in my mind that once Despot does get around to releasing his debut LP, he will be considered one of the breakout emcees of the year even if he’s no spring chicken.
Mr. Muthaf***in’ eXquire is the newest addition to the post-Def Jux posse that has unofficially come to be over the last year or so, but his raw power is something to behold. Hailing out of Brooklyn, he’s got quite a bit of heat on him because the crowd he’s running with (El-P, Killer Mike, Danny Brown, Das Racist, Despot), but this emcee doesn’t have to worry about having any kind of identity crisis. Adorned in turquoise knee-shorts and tank top, red aviator glasses, and a Russian winter hat, eXquire claimed his place on the stage with a free-wheelin’ set that switched between party-rap chants and wordsmith lyricism. I was already a fan of his Lost in Translation mixtape, but his infectious stage show freak charisma shows justification for why he’s running with some of hip-hop’s elite.
Co-headliner and Southern rap legend Killer Mike hit the stage a little before midnight and proceeded to jump right into establishing himself as one of the elder statesmen of hip-hop. He kicked it off with “Untitled,” and it’s still hard for me to choose who had the more booming voice between eX and Mike. When he hit the lines “I don’t trust the church or the government, democrat ‘r republican, Pope or a Bishop or those other men,” it carried the tonal qualities of a true poet; one who could put you in a headlock faster than you could say Killer Mike.
Mike was the one emcee of the show who continually dug deep into his past catalog, at one point even pulling out his verse and chorus on the Outkast classic “The Whole World” which set the Echoplex ablaze. That said, Mike also was hell-bent on pushing his new El-P produced album R.A.P. Music as well as his hatred of politicians. R.A.P. standout “Reagan” stood as the second most intense moment of the show (more on the insanity that followed later). While the song’s title might lead you to believe it’s a simple Reagan bashing, Killer Mike spares no one. What lends more weight to Mike’s words is the fact that in interviews and between-song banter he is eloquent, but jolly. Killer Mike isn’t some screwball conspiracy theorist, but rather a man who’s seen quite a bit and is intent on pulling the rug from beneath the lies. By song’s end, the entire packed house was chanting the chorus in unison. I’ve really come around to Killer Mike as an artist this year, but I kind of wish he were my uncle now.
Around 12:30am, amid a stage filled with so much smoke I couldn’t see fifteen-feet in front of me, the man himself hit the stage. El-P, Def Jux founder and perhaps the most universally respected mind in underground hip-hop, tore through his amazing new LP, Cancer For Cure from front-to-back. The breakbeat rhythms of “Request Denied” cranked the tension up to such a fever pitch that when El tore into the first verse, I was half-expecting he’d butcher the rapid-fire lines. Thankfully, my paranoia was firmly put where it belonged, and the Brooklyn emcee pinned the beat down like a wrestler on a bunny.
Jumping right into “The Full Retard,” the crowd roared back the refrain of “You should pump this s**t” like they do in the future,” before El’s DJ abruptly cut the beat. I legitimately thought it was glitch.
“It just doesn’t feel right,” said El. Seconds later, Murs jumped onstage to hand-deliver El-P’s right-hand man (errr, squirrel), Mr. Killums. If you don’t know about Mr. Killums, I suggest you stop reading this review and check out “The Full Retard” music video. Mr. Killums should be a front-runner for Best Supporting Actor at the upcoming Academy Awards, but the voters usually botch it. As soon as they impaled him on the mic stand, the beat dropped once again, and the machine-gun lyricism commenced.
El-P’s live band should be commended like few hip-hop bands this side of the Roots should. The only performer of the night to have a full band, they added their sense of the appropriate to songs that are already some of the densest examples of hip-hop production of the year. “Drones Over Brooklyn,” a track that on record is already thundering, turned into chaos live. An added trombone section and guitar solo cranked the dial up in a way I haven’t seen since I saw Every Time I Die at the Glasshouse three years ago. “Drones over Brooklyn, Drones, Drones Over Brooklyn,” the audience hollered back.
After he finished album-ender “$4 Vic,” which El dedicated to “anyone that went just a little too soon” (originally written in memory of Camu Tao), the crowd obviously wanted an encore. Hell, I needed an encore. I felt that as much as I love “$4 Vic” (certainly one of the best tracks of the new album), it ended on such a bittersweet note. A minute later, El returned to the stage and tore through “EMG,” “Flyentology,” and the most intense song of the night, “Deep Space 9mm.”
On the record, it is one of the least bombastic tracks El has ever produced, but it’s become such a classic among the underground hip-hop club that nearly every line of each verse was directed back at El from the crowd. Amid the song’s chant of “Deep Space 9mm keep smiling,” Despot hopped into the audience for some crowd-surfing fun. The excitement and passion was palpable. There was passion in the delivery from El and the passionate respect that the crowd had for well-crafted, thoughtful hip-hop in a time when being a moron on the mic is label-worthy.
As an all-encompassing event, the Into The Wild tour feels like a crowning of princes (Despot, eX) and the retaking of the throne (El, Killer Mike) in a time in hip-hop that is vibrant but still owes an immense debt to forefathers like El-P and Killer Mike. Point-blank: this was the most intense show I’ve been to in three years.