ACL Fest 2017: Run The Jewels display wordplay wizardry

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Of course no one was going to steal the show from Killer Mike or El-P once they took the stage at Austin City Limits Music Festival, but Bruce sure did try.

Jay Janner/Austin American-StatesmanKiller Mike, left, and El-P of Run The Jewels perform at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park on Sunday October 8, 2017.

Bruce was a fan pulled from the crowd about 20 minutes into the set when the MCs saw his sign claiming he could rap Killer Mike’s parts on the Run The Jewels track “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry.” That being no easy feat, the performers decided to let the super fan – wearing a T-shirt with the group’s signature pistol-and-fist imagery – take a turn on the microphone, with the added hurdle that he had to perform without a backing beat to keep the rhythm. And if he slipped even a bit he’d lose the mic and be shown back to he crowd.

But wouldn’t you know it, a minute-long blur of ballerinas and Pontiac Catalinas later, Bruce backed up his brag and won the cheers of the audience and slaps on the back from his apparent heroes.

That crowd-pleasing diversion was about the only pause in the hour-long set that saw the ATL-meets-NYC pairing make yet another argument for them being the best live hip-hop act currently active.

With lyrical flows that regularly exceed 100 words per minute it’d be easy for each rapper’s delivery to turn into a blur of syllables, but the vocal control and movement in timbre and dynamics they put to use constantly adds an important textural variety within songs and individual verses. That helps preserve the inherent bounce that is so crucial to making Run The Jewels a group that stands pretty far apart from its peers.

It’s also part of why next Saturday they’ll become perhaps the most lyrically aggressive and profane rap group to record an episode of the Austin City Limits television show.

One does wonder, even with the show having plenty of lead time for editing purposes, how the show’s producers will manage the bleeps or silences in the audio to obscure objectionable words from the eventual public television broadcast.

Whoever gets that task will need to have a pretty deep knowledge of the lyrical nooks and crannies of the group’s three-album and possibly million-word canon. Hope someone can get them Bruce’s phone number. Seems like he’s up to the task.

Set list:

  • Talk To Me
  • Legend Has It
  • Call Ticketron
  • Blockbuster Night Part 1
  • Oh My Darling Don’t Cry
  • 36” Chain
  • Stay Gold
  • Don’t Get Captured
  • Panther Like A Panther
  • Nobody Speak
  • Close Your Eyes (And Count To (Expletive))
  • Hey Kids (w/ Danny Brown)
  • Report To The Shareholders/Kill Your Masters
  • Thursday In The Danger Room
  • Angel Duster

ACL Fest 2015 Review: Run The Jewels, Runs the Show

They came onstage blaring Queen’s “We Are the Champions” — and then threw all irony out the window, by actually proving it. Run The Jewels are untouchable.

Is there anyone in hip-hop with a live show this good? Actually, how about anyone in any genre? The manic energy, the must-bounce-to-it beats, the laser sharp wordplay and social commentary. Killer Mike and El-P in a class of their own.

They started with their killer track, “Run the Jewels,” and the crowd lost its mind. Thousands of hands moved to the beat and the MCs went to work.

Killer Mike, left, and El-P of Run The Jewels perform at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park on Friday October 2, 2015.  JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Killer Mike, left, and El-P of Run The Jewels perform at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park on Friday October 2, 2015. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

This is part of what works for RTJ so well in their live show: songs that sound fierce on their mixtapes come out as a bangers on stage. Even the most serious, stinging political tracks are something you can move to.

“Welcome to F*****n Zoomba class,” Killer Mike said after their first track.

RTJ pulled from new and old (no cat-infused remixes though), and had fun with the crowd all set long.

“We were sitting in a border security office about 27 hours ago,” Killer Mike told the crowd. Apparently the band ran afoul of the feds, with two grams “and no excuses.” (He may have said ounces, if an enterprising reader has the tape.) “I want to thank Officer Rodriguez,” Mike continued. Yikes.

But mostly it was non-stop compliments for Austin, the crowd, and the year RTJ have been having. They felt grateful, and their excitement flowed through them into the audience.

And the crowd was deep into this one. By far the most energized I saw on Friday. At one point I looked back to see (fake?) bills being thrown in the air. Someone was making it rain. Or something.

RTJ couldn’t help themselves but call out one guy, whose “flag” was actually a huge picture of someone’s face. The MCs wondered aloud whether it was a picture of the guy himself, or someone else. And they agreed that despite this possibly obscenely crass display of ego, they were down with it either way.

A few political words were thrown in. Nods to crises in Ferguson, and to the general disarray of American politics and persistent injustice — “Lie, Cheat, Steal,” was introduced as the five rules of today’s society. (The others are “kill” and “win.”)

But there wasn’t much in the way of preaching. Kind of amazing that they avoid going down that path, honestly. It must be so tempting to use the stage as a pulpit. But this live show delivers the goods while making you move. Actually, the songs have way more energy on stage than they do on recordings. Both MCs covered the stage and just owned it, completely unselfconsciously.

They had a pair of guests. Boots, on stage for the chorus of one of their most intense songs, “Early.” That appearance was fine enough, but then they brought out Gary Clark Jr. for a gnarly short solo.

That, as you might imagine, was a huge crowd pleaser, and totally unexpected. In fact they sounded kind of perfect together. More where that came from, please.

This was a show for the college crowd, who knew all the lyrics of an act that is still miles from being a household name. But it was a winner for everyone else who ventured over in the early evening to catch them, because it seemed obvious from their set, that the more people listening to their music, the more energy feeds these guys. Catching Run The Jewels now is seeing two guys who can seem to do no wrong and just holding on for the ride.



Fitz and the Tantrums, Run the Jewels tower over South Congress Hotel block party

Fitz and The Tantrums perform at Samsung Pay Block Party | Getty
Fitz and The Tantrums perform at Samsung Pay Block Party | Getty

Fitz and the Tantrums have nothing to prove. Especially in Austin: Having garnered a record deal at South by Southwest, sold out Stubb’s, and planted a flag on the Honda Stage at ACL last year, the soul-pop band has hit for the cycle. Thursday night’s gig at the Samsung Pay Block Party, then, was a one-off victory lap.

“We started with like the small, hot, sweaty club in a basement. There’s always a special place in our hearts for playing a smaller venue.” frontman Michael Fitzpatrick told Austin 360 pregame at the South Congress Hotel. His band had been on a seemingly nonstop run of outdoor festivals, and the tall, sunglasses-clad soul singer was just happy to be close: “People are going to be literally three feet away. You can grab them. You can touch them. You can dance with them.”

Thursday’s show doubled as a party to launch Samsung Pay, but for Fitzpatrick and fellow Tantrums singer Noelle Scaggs it was a comfortable toast before getting back to the high-stakes notion of recording album No. 3. And after Ellen Degeneres endorsements and singles like “The Walker” and “Break the Walls” doubling as definitive soundtracks to most brands, it’s going to have to be a blockbuster follow-up album.

“Of course going into our third record, we’re on a new label, there’s gonna be some kind of nervousness for us because this is our first experience working in this kind of scope.” Scaggs said. “But at the same time we’re still creating songs, and strong songs, that we feel really good about.”

Scaggs said that 2013’s breakthrough “More Than Just a Dream” was an album reverse-engineered from the band’s loop of festival appearances. It tapped into the rhythm and will of massive, 30,000-plus crowds. It dials in on plucky keys and chants, with thin themes about being alive and inspired. It’s a stuffed suitcase of hooks, where the hand claps are slid into the most opportune breaks.

For the band, it’s an instinct-driven accomplishment. Scaggs said the key is “doing music for ourselves and doing music that’s fun and that inspires us.”

With an intimate crowd of maybe 150 Thursday night, Fitz and the Tantrums played loose games of cat-and-mouse with a happy crowd of Samsung loyalists. From Jay Z and Kanye West to D’Angelo to Iggy Azalea, the mobile giant makes it a habit to unpack a seasonal base in town as a backdrop to flagship music events. The drill is constant: Brand users can download varying apps, engage with them, and get a shot at access for their troubles.

With free food and beverage, however, the Tantrums did an admirable job of not playing wedding band and roping in the gathering. Their superfluous Eurythmics cover of “Sweet Dreams” made sure, with even the taco vendors singing along.

“You always approach it to have a really good time and make sure everyone’s engaged,” Scaggs said earlier. Done deal.

For its part Samsung Pay is Austin City Limit’s official mobile pay provider. (Attendees will be able to get a 50-percent discount on ACL gear using the service and buying from its pay stands.) A cursory on-site demo verifies that the service is easy enough for my dad to use and Samsung says that despite launching in late September its mobile-wallet service already works in more stores than Apple’s or Google’s. The line in the sand has been drawn, apparently.

Afterward at the Samsung Level Up rooftop party, streets-defending rap duo Run the Jewels (El-P of New York, Killer Mike of Atlanta) blitzed through a warm-up set of cacophonous, back-and-forth hulk raps. “We’re not your usual corporate act,” the perennially subversive Killer Mike told a stripped-down crowd of people who knew people and were standing next to a Samsung pool. Whatever, it was an earnest qualifier.

The party was hosted by fellow ACL performer A$AP Rocky, who hung out, posed for selfies, and in probably the biggest marketing win of the night slid into someone’s Instagram video and threw stones at iPhones.

“Samsung! We don’t do iPhones n***a.”

Run the Jewels to play SXSW

Vic Michael
Vic Michael

Good news, hip-hop lovers. Internet rap kingpins Killer Mike and El-P will take a break from advising teenage girls, serving as comic book superheroes and auditioning cats for their Meow the Jewels all star remix project to stop by the South by Southwest music festival. No word on when and where RTJ will be playing, but there’s a little extra incentive to pick up that SXSW wristband today.