It was a show that probably never should have happened.
Run the Jewels, the rap duo of Atlanta's Killer Mike and New York's El-P, had added a St. Louis stop to its already-planned tour only a month prior. The venue made the announcement on October 24, the same day the group released its critically lauded new album, Run the Jewels 2, to the public. According to remarks El-P made onstage, it was the last city added to the tour.
Additionally, RTJ's tour bus broke down on the day of the event, leaving El-P and Mike and their crew stranded on the side of the road in the middle of Illinois. When it looked like the bus would not be moving again anytime soon, Ready Room owner Mike Cracchiolo rented a U-Haul to pick them up. It was a cargo van, devoid of seats -- the last vehicle available.
ok the venue just told us all they could send us is a cargo van with no seats. for an hour drive. this is amazing.— el-p (@therealelp) November 24, 2014
Thankfully it didn't come to that, and the bus lurched back to life around 5:40 p.m., a little over two hours from the start of the show. Also scheduled for 8 p.m.: the press conference to announce the grand jury's decision in the matter of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson's killing of eighteen year old Mike Brown.
Mike and El could have skipped the show, and most people wouldn't have blamed them. In fact, just a few days prior, country stars Hunter Hayes and David Nail had done just that, citing "respect for the state of emergency" that Governor Jay Nixon had put in place a week prior. Multiple shows in St. Louis that had been scheduled for Monday night were were called off as well, and a number of businesses closed early -- some even boarding up their windows in anticipation of unrest.
we have got to be some of the only people trying this hard to get IN to STL right now.— el-p (@therealelp) November 24, 2014
Run the Jewels took the stage close to 11 p.m. Sans music, Killer Mike, El-P and Trackstar the DJ were greeted with cheers from an enthusiastic and packed crowd. Whereas normally the group would come out the Queen's "We Are the Champions," tonight, the usual routine was eschewed.
As announced on live TV by St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch just a couple hours earlier, Wilson would not be charged with a crime in relation to Brown's death. Reports of arson, looting and tear gas in and around the St. Louis area already filled social media -- ultimately, over a dozen businesses in Ferguson would be burned to the ground. About a mile from the show, protesters had shut down Highway 44, sitting in the middle of the road as riot gear cops swelled in numbers.
Mike was the first to speak: "First off, I'd like to acknowledge everyone that made it out tonight. I'm very grateful that everyone in this room is here."
He dropped a "rest in peace for Michael Brown" that was largely drowned out by cheers before continuing. "I would like to give all thoughts and prayers to the people who are out there peacefully protesting. And I also give thoughts and prayers for the people who could not hold that anger in, because riots are only the language of the unheard."
"Before I came out here, there was no peace in my heart, and I wanted to walk out to burn this motherfucker down. Burn this motherfucker down!" Mike said.
"But I gotta tell you," he continued. "I'm from Atlanta, Georgia, and something said, 'Just look for something Martin King might have said.' So I Googled Martin King, and Wikipedia popped up. And he was 39 years old when you motherfuckers killed him. He was the same age as I am, the same age as El. He was a young man when they killed him."
Throughout Mike's impassioned plea, El-P, appropriately, stood in silent support. Mike discussed his fear for his children's safety, his voice cracking as he fought to hold back tears. He pointed to El, who is white, while addressing the system he so opposes. "We know you don't value my skin, and we know you do value his. But you know what? We're friends and nothing is gonna devalue that."
The diverse crowd erupted in cheers. St. Louis has been fractured by seemingly rampant racism in the months since Brown's death, straining relations between white and black residents in comment sections on news stories and baseball games alike. But Mike said it wasn't about race.
"If I die when I walk off this stage tomorrow, I'm gonna let you know this," he said. "It is not about race. It is not about class. It is not about color.
"It is about poverty," he continued. "It is about greed. And it is about a war machine. It is about a war machine that uses you as a battery. So I might go tomorrow. I might go the day after. But the one thing I want you to know: It is us against the motherfucking machine. Let's go!"
With that, the opening strains of 2013's "Run the Jewels" poured through the house system, and the packed crowd began dancing and waving their arms furiously. The energy was electric; there was clearly a cathartic release of tension in the room. When Mike altered the lines of one of his verses from "I put the pistol on that poodle" to "I found the prosecutor," the assembled mass screamed "and I shot that bitch!" louder than anything else I'd hear at the show.
Continue to page two for more.
Now, I am a man who has white skin. Next to me was a man I didn't know, who had black skin. As the song continued, I reached my hand up to scratch my head and accidentally bumped my arm into him. I apologized immediately; he grinned, stuck his hand out to shake mine, and said, "It's all good, man." It seems facile to look for meaning in something so innocuous and inconsequential, but with Mike's words still ringing in my ears, it certainly felt meaningful. We shook hands and each smiled and turned our attention back to the show.
Onstage, RTJ transitioned immediately into "Oh My Darling Don't Cry" from this year's album, as Mike -- his voice again cracking -- said, "No tears, motherfuckers. Run the Jewels 2, motherfuckers!" At the conclusion of this song, El-P approached Mike and gave him a hug, their friendship palpable.
"We're here tonight live, and we brought music," El-P said, encouraging the audience to enjoy themselves even as our city was in turmoil. "You may find yourself wanting to smile at some of the things you see here tonight, and that's OK."
"We're together," Mike added. "We gotta smile."
The ensuing hour-long set would bring many smiles to the faces of performer and attendee alike. After performing the sexually explicit "Love Again (Akinyele Back)," El dubbed the track "the great uncomfortable song of RTJ2." Mike cut a rug onstage during "Get It," remarking, "I may have lost my voice, but I haven't lost my moves." They had kind words to say about St. Louis as well, dubbing Tef Poe and Rockwell Knuckles, who opened the show and performed on a few out of town dates with RTJ as well, "the illest motherfuckers."
"The whole fucking Foot Klan. The whole fucking Foot Klan. The whole fucking Foot Klan," Mike said emphatically. "That's St. Louis."
The show, which started off emotional, even tearful, ended on a note of triumph and jubilation -- the healing power of music in full effect. After an encore, Run the Jewels exited the stage to rapturous applause.
"There's an old saying in the South," Mike said earlier in the show. "'You got to shout to get it out.' And I'm so happy to be here in St. Louis."
Outside, clashes between police and protesters continued through the night. Tear gas hung in the air at the protest sites in the city and county, and buildings burned to the ground.
At the top of its lungs, St. Louis was shouting.
Run the Jewels Oh My Darling Don't Cry Blockbuster Night Part 1 Banana Clipper 36" Chain DDFH Sea Legs Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck) Pew Pew Pew Tougher Colder Killer (El‐P song) Lie, Cheat, Steal Early All Due Respect Love Again (Akinyele Back) Get It A Christmas Fucking Miracle Encore: Angel Duster
Follow the author, RFT's music editor, on Twitter at @fatrobocop.
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