If there was one couple to top the ‘Name A Better Duo’ challenge, it is unequivocally Killer Mike and El-P. The word iconic gets thrown around a lot, but these guys are every bit the cornerstone hip-hop duo – each of their three albums is a surefire classic (well, four albums if you count ‘Meow The Jewels’, the crowdfunded remake of their second LP, where all instrumentals were replaced with the sound of warped cats purrs. Because they are Run The Jewels and they just could, and did.)
Whether it was the El-P billed show at OAF in 2013, their Enmore show alongside Danny Brown and Earl Sweatshirt in 2014, or their set at Spain’s Primavera festival in 2015, every RTJ live show I’ve witnessed has been nothing short of phenomenal. Pedaled by the samurai sword-sharp wordplay of both rappers, and El-P’s production mastery, the pair’s discography peels away the excess embellishment added on by most mainstream rap, tackling hard-hitting issues in a way that challenges their audiences using lyrical force abrasive only to the point of necessary to drive the idea home.
It might seem odd at first glance but upon consideration, it makes total sense that RTJ doesn’t summon your typical Aussie hip-hop show crowd. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not an absence of energy but rather a median age of 30 and a mixed bag of sartorial and sonic subcultures. From your former Subsonic attendees, to your matured EMO kids, to your younger trap kings and queens, they all came together to form an eclectic and infectious mood for the evening. It was strangely harmonic, and RTJ intended on keeping the peace. Earlier in the day, they’d been interviewed on Triple J, calling for good, non-asshole behaviour at their live shows. It’s a no harassment sentiment they made clear to their sold-out Big Top crowd from the outset: “Two rules. A lot of people are going to be flailing and smashing so keep the energy but keep an eye out, and keep your hands to yourself, and not on girls you don’t know. This is your community,” Killer Mike asserted.
But RTJ fans had already laid the groundwork for an impressive evening, with the mood set by Brooklyn-based hip-hop honchos Flatbush Zombies who delivered a high-octane opening set beneath the huge blow-up pistol and fist RTJ iconography hanging above the stage. The trio – Meechy Darko, Zombie Juice and Erick Arc Elliott – have been serving up experimental, East Coast rap since forming in 2010, but waited till 2016 to release their debut album LP, heavily influenced by psychedelics and featuring throbbing bass and dark off-kilter beats. On stage, animated and punchy, Flatbush traded bars with ease and invited the filled-out room to take things up a notch with a dose of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, summoning raised middle fingers amongst plumes of spliff smoke and evaporating sweat. Newer tracks like “Bounce” and “Trade-Off” had the floor shivering beneath moshing soles, proving the boys are still at the top of their game.
Walking out to a stadium cheer and Queen‘s “We Are The Champions” blasting through the speakers, RTJ arrived with an almost regal air, asserting their authority and bringing the crowd to boiling point just by raising their mics to their lips. It’s easy to forget how many standout cuts RTJ have produced over the years until they run them back to back with no time to take it in. RTJ are veterans at their game; they don’t need fancy or flashy visuals, backup dancers or confetti to keep their crowd entertained. Just two microphones, good ol’ strobe lights, and DJ Trackstar spinning the tracks. Killer Mike and El-P bounced off each other like two champs playing doubles in a Wimbledon grand final, they’re each equally powerful in their approach and know very well that they can steer the energy with a single word.
Bass-driven songs like old favourites “36” Chain” and “Sea Legs” came full circle when placed alongside newer offerings “Call Tickletron” and the Kamasi Washington-assisted “Thursday In The Danger Room”, the latter which Mike dedicated to his late mother. While two-thirds of the crowd cut shapes relentlessly on the dancefloor, the other third were comfortably posted in the seated balcony section, absorbing the atmosphere and taking in the sophistication of RTJ’s song composition. “The thirty-somethings up top — don’t worry, I’d be sitting too if I came to watch me,” El-P quipped jokingly. Minor technical hiccups were smoothed over quickly, leaving RTJ completely unphased as they barreled through timeless track after track.
In a time where hip-hop is saturated with autotune and “PMW” sentiments, it’s always refreshing to have enduring greats like RTJ bring it back to hip hop’s foundations, using their platform to give voice to the disenfranchised and outcast, synonymously striving for innovation in the intricate layers of music around their message, while, of course, leaving just the right amount of room for fans to get lit.
Photos by Keegan Thomas.