“This song is about Ronnie fuckin’ Reagan. I have an extreme detest for Ronald Reagan because I was alive when he was president, and fuck what Fox News says, it wasn’t that great of a time, and he wasn’t that nice of a guy.”
The rant could have come from a D.O.A. or Verbal Abuse show, but nope—it was Killer Mike, who peppered his set in San Francisco Friday night with similar remarks about burning banks to the ground, staying active in the community and fighting the cops. Many know Killer Mike from his Drive-inspired, nine-minute video for “Big Beast,” or for his appearances on Outkast records, but his politics have grabbed the attention of everyone from NPR to Davy D, and they took center stage at the Regency Ballroom.
Killer Mike’s new album R.A.P. Music is packed with signposts of rap music’s history—quotes from Boogie Down Productions, N.W.A., Public Enemy and Russell Simmons—and on stage, fired up at being in the Bay Area, the Atlanta native shouted out our own legends: Mac Dre, Too Short, Messy Marv, San Quinn, and Spice 1.
But he cared about our politics, too. “That Oscar Grant shit really fucked with me, really, really, really, really bad,” he said, leading into “Burn,” a song released in the wake of the killing. If you’re looking for tips on how to put on a live show, look elsewhere—at times, Killer Mike seemed unsure of what exactly to be doing on stage, as on the choruses of “Untitled.” Still, damn if R.A.P. Music isn’t an instant classic.
The renaissance of El-P in 2012—having produced both Killer Mike’s album and his own Cancer for Cure, neck-and-neck contenders for vital rap album of the year—feels victorious not just for the veteran producer but for the now-splintered movement of what used to be independent hip-hop. Def Jux is dead, and realistically, 99% of all rappers are “independent” these days anyway. (El-P’s album is on Fat Possum, a Mississippi-borne blues label, and Killer Mike’s is on Adult Swim, a wing of the Cartoon Network.)
But there’s also a renaissance for that idea that rap music can crib from and reclaim those core ideals of punk rock—abrasive sounds, in-your-face politicizing and a defiant stance. Cancer for Cure comes across as more abstract lyrically and sonically than the Killer Mike album, but retains the scattershot punk independence. Abrasive frequencies stab and roll throughout; the basic ’90s boom-bap has died, with a dense industrial replacement. To recreate this, EL-P is on tour with a live band that plays guitar, keytar, trombone, electronics, keyboards and more.
Without a doubt, El-P stole the night in San Francisco. Kicking off with album opener “Request Denied” to a stage full of strobes and fog, the perpetually mic-stand-strangling MC ran through key album cuts with intensity and razor-sharp focus. It felt not like a concert but, like, a historic event, man, and no, I wasn’t stoned.
El-P himself came across as incredibly personable: he joked about the Yankees, about his openers, and about his ability to somehow attract such a big crowd. And instead of shouting out Camu, who inspired his album, he instead invited everyone to shout the name of a loved one they’d recently lost. With El-P, it’s not about him, it’s about you.