"It was a really good show ... but-"
After Run The Jewels ended their set, my friend Kevin and I pushed our way through the dense stream of bodies lining up to leave the Marquee and got back on the road. As I drove him back to his place, we talked about the show. The consensus was that we both dug the hell out of RTJ, but that there was something missing, something off about this show.
We had seen RTJ in concert before. A few years back, when RTJ dropped their first album, Kevin and I caught them at the Crescent Ballroom. It was a great show — there was a large and enthusiastic crowd there, but it wasn't jam-packed wall to wall with bodies. El-P and Killer Mike both did headliner-length solo sets before they came together as Run The Jewels. That night, they were the Rap Game Wonder Twins, activating their potent microphone powers to take the form of straight fire.
Seeing them at the Marquee was different. It was like going to your favorite restaurant, ordering your favorite dish, taking one bite of it, and immediately tasting that something was different. It's still a wonderful restaurant, the dish still tastes great, but it doesn't taste the way you remember it tasting, the way you always want it to taste. It changed in some small way that's hard to put your finger on, and as much as you enjoy finishing your meal, the experience is soured by the suspicion that it'll never taste the way you want it to ever again.
Before we can talk about the main course, though, we have to address the setting and appetizers. The Marquee was packed to the gills that night. I've been to some tight shows there, but nothing on this scale. It was almost claustrophobic, weaving through the gaps in the walls of onlookers. There were lines everywhere: long lines snaking towards the merch booth, the bar, and the even-more-disgusting-than-usual bathroom.
The stage had a lighting rig set up, flanked by a pair of giant inflatable hands. They were throwing up the iconic RTJ sign: the pistol and fist. Colored light blue and covered with black veins and cuts, they looked like they were about to accordion the DJ booth at any moment.
One of the opening acts was playing a DJ set. I didn't catch his name — I was too busy covering my ears to block out the steady stream of idiot banter pouring from the speakers. Whether it was the confusing compliment/admonishment of "Fuck yeah, you guys are lit! Slow down!" to the hilariously unnecessary VH1 Storytellers moment where he explained, "I made this next song with 21 Savage — it's about getting your dick sucked" (hilarious, because you'd have to be deaf to not hear Savage say "head" at least 40 times in the song), dude's mic work was so embarrassing that I couldn't bear to stay and listen to him spin records.
After hanging out with various peeps in the smoking section and wading through the sticky floors of the men's room to answer nature's call, I returned to the floor to see the Gaslamp Killer do his thing. If you take anything away from this article, take this piece of advice: If you get a chance to see Gaslamp live, do it.
The man is a goddamn Muppet come to life, a hyper-energetic DJ whipping around thick clouds of hair and dropping one incredible jam after another. He played songs that Thundercat wrote about his cat, covers of J. Dilla instrumentals performed by Indian trios, even a medley of 8-bit chip tune renditions of rap anthems. You haven't lived until you've heard a Gameboy spit out "Ridin' Dirty."
Towards the end of his set, Gaslamp Killer started hyping the crowd by shouting that RTJ would be onstage in "five minutes." When he left the stage, you could feel a palpable energy coursing through the crowd. People were amped, chanting "RTJ!" at the empty stage. And then they kept chanting. And chanting. And RTJ didn't show up.
Five minutes passed. Then 10 minutes, 15, 20. Occasionally, a roadie would come on and strike something or add a mic and the RTJ chants would resume. That electric feeling that coursed through the room after Gaslamp Killer did his thing was starting to die down. Marquee is a terrible venue for standing around and waiting: The concrete slab flooring makes mincemeat out of your feet, and the huge crowds are so packed that trying to leave is a hero's quest in its own right. As much as I loved RTJ, I could feel my enthusiasm for their performance dampening with every minute that passed waiting for them to come on.
After almost half an hour, rap's number-one tag team finally stepped onstage. Bathed in red light, they walked on to Queen's "We Are The Champions." El-P and Killer Mike grabbed the mics and sang along to the music. It was a cheesy thing to do, goofy rock star shit, and you could tell they knew it by their delighted, shit-eating grins. It was a fun opening ... but it didn't feel earned. Frankly, if they had come on five minutes after Gaslamp and sang Queen, I would have been getting my Freddie Mercury on right there with them. But after waiting and waiting and waiting for the champions to arrive, I couldn't muster the will to join them in their karaoke victory lap.
If it sounds like I'm being a hater, here's the truth: It was a great show. El and Mike are such charismatic, affable guys that it's hard not to root for them. They've got great crowd control skills, engaging the audience with goofy asides and heartfelt pleas for folks to stay sane and positive in these dark times. Sometimes the political "up with people" banter sounded boilerplate, but I can't fault them for wanting to lift people's spirits in these troubling times.
The crowd went bananas as RTJ played cuts off all three of their records. Unlike their Crescent gig, they didn't do solo sets. That was back when none of us (and not even them) knew if RTJ was going to be more than a one-off. Back then, they were the underground rap Goku and Vegeta, fusing for one epic moment to blow our minds with a white-hot rap Kamehameha. The fusion took hold, and now they feel like a proper band — not just a pair of solo artists working together, but a truly cohesive unit, forming that "third mind" William Burroughs used to say came into existence when two artists worked closely together.
You can see their joy onstage, the gratitude they must feel to have achieved such staggering critical and commercial success this relatively late in their lives (most rappers are washed up and on the "grown and sexy" circuit by the time they hit 40). And the songs are perfect for moving crowds: pistol and fist hands went up and stayed up for "Stay Gold" and "Oh My Darling Don't Cry," and you could feel minds getting blown when Gangsta Boo hopped onstage in the middle of "Love Again" to drop her fantastically freaky guest verse. Even more somber tunes, like the police brutality track "Early," killed
It was great ... and yet the dish tasted different. It was a great show, but it could have been an amazing one without that long wait. Or maybe it was something else that unsettled the both of us. Driving into downtown Tempe, we talked about the crowd and how different it felt there then it did at Crescent. At the Crescent show, everybody there knew who Mike and El were before RTJ; at this show; I'd wager more than half the crowd had never known there was a time before RTJ when they were on their own. "Fantastic Damage" and "R.A.P. Music" may as well have never existed to the bros and babes shoving past us to rage at the front of the stage. RTJ had become that rarest of creatures: a musical supergroup whose success and profile had eclipsed the original members' work. The third mind was more powerful than the two that had birthed it.
That's not a bad thing. That's just how it is. Great bands blow up big, attracting new fans, and the older fans are left wondering if they've changed or if the recipe really is different now. All I can say for sure is this: The first time RTJ played Phoenix, they didn't make us wait a half hour to do their thing. And that's the sort of change that always leaves a bitter aftertaste.
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Last Night: Run The Jewels with the Gaslamp Killer at Marquee Theatre in Tempe
The Crowd: A vast barbarian horde, composed of college kids, hip-hop heads, record store clerks, Electric Daisy Carnival rejects, crust punks (a surprisingly large amount of crusties in attendance, actually), dudes in Choking Victim shirts, old-ass guys in "Where's Waldo" hats, a trio of blissfully stoned cats that looked like they were a P.M. Dawn cover band, and a girl with a gold scale shirt and baseball cap that read "Single As Fuck."
Overheard: "There's going to be no white bodies — by 2050 we'll be all tanned as a motherfucker." — one of many shimmering, beautiful pearls rolling out of the mouth of the Gaslamp Killer. Someone call Nicolas
Random Notebook Dump: Standing at the entrance for 10 minutes because your goddamn phone's data slowed to a crawl and won't open your digital ticket becomes an infinitely more frustrating experience when the Marquee security guards admit that yes, Marquee has Wi-Fi, and no, they don't know what the password is.