Before the Firebird audience was treated to Killer Mike and El-P, talent from across the country warmed them up. Jabee, an energetic, frenetic rapper from Oklahoma City started things off. He played with the crowd throughout his set, making jokes and giving us a biography through rhyme. Following him was Kool A.D., formerly of Das Racist, hailing from San Francisco. He high-fived the crowd as he came on stage and proclaimed himself the best rapper in the world. There was no ego here though as he also dubbed his DJ, Amaze 88, the best, too. He even shared the stage after giving the audience what it really wanted: his new single "Manny Pacquiao." Third on the bill was Despot of Queens, N.Y. As compared to the others his style was much more serious and very intense. Sometimes the bass was so heavy it was hard to discern his rhymes over the thunderous beats. At the end of his set, though, the crowd was moved and were hanging on his every word.
Last year, while reading a few different "best of" lists, I came across Killer Mike's "R.A.P. Music." Self-described as the opposite of bullshit, that is exactly what you get when you see him live. He is a smart, quick, engaging person. The theme for the night was authenticity and neither he nor El-P, his co-headliner and collaborator disappointed. Killer Mike proclaimed, "I don't make dance music," and then went into a rap about Ronald Reagan and American economics. He later joked with the crowd about reading Noam Chomsky and the trouble he has with cops, despite his father being one. The beats were heavy but not overpowering. The end of the show took a heartfelt turn as he genuinely thanked the audience and his fellow performers for the night. He welcomed local artist Tef Poe on stage and shared the spotlight, which he admitted he doesn't normally do but an exception was made.
El-P closed out the show with an intensity that was unmatched by anyone before him. He was flanked by a DJ, guitarist and another rapper who complemented him during his rhymes. The overall sound was, not surprisingly, slicker and more produced. This wasn't bad, just different than the straightforward bass or pre-recorded mixes we'd heard before. That level of production also gave his time on stage the air of performance and show more than the others. A standout song for me came towards the middle where El-P's rap was superimposed over a melted '50s-sounding ballad that changed and morphed, teetering between innocence and disintegration. It might have been the only love song of the night.
If Killer Mike was there to "edutain" us, El-P was there to give us a show. And the crowd was there to soak it all in and share this experience across all boundaries. While a guy standing next to me wearing a t-shirt that said "I Am Trayvon" reminded me of how far we have to go, being in that room with all the different folks surrounding me, reminded me how far we've come.