Christmas in July - By Volume

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Christmas in July

Adrian Hertzberg witnesses a life-changing Run The Jewels show in Vancouver. Author: on July 29, 2013
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I really had no idea what to expect from the Run The Jewels show at one of Vancouver’s tiniest legitimate venues, the 400 person capacity Biltmore Cabaret. I had seen rap shows at the various festivals I’d attended over the years – A$AP Rocky, The Roots and Big K.R.I.T., to name a few – but this was different: indoors, with a small crowd, and in my hometown. As I devoured the self-titled debut from the lethal duo over the past month, to the point that I could recite nearly the entire album word-for-word, forget genre or venue: this was quickly becoming one of my most anticipated live music events in recent memory. And the way that it all panned out was nothing short of spectacular.

When it became apparent that my friend had not actually bought an advance ticket, some concerns arose. I explained that the Biltmore was a very small venue, and while these guys are only “big” in the underground sense, the tour has been getting a lot of hype, and a sold-out show wouldn’t surprise me. A quick phone call to the venue confirmed this fear and we immediately abandoned our casual stroll, hailing the next available cab to make a bee-line for the venue. We arrived 45 minutes before the door was to open, six people waiting in line ahead of us. Strangers exchanged worried words: “Did you get a ticket?”, “I didn’t think it would sell out either”, “They’ll have some to sell, for sure.” The silver lining was that we did get to see both El-P and Killer Mike getting into the tour bus parked right outside, Mike exiting the venue and joking “that’s it!! Show’s been canceled!!!” and sporting an amazing DO DOPE FUCK HOPE t-shirt.


After an excruciating wait, a bouncer told us that there were five tickets to sell. Five. There were six people in line ahead of us. As I claimed my will-call ticket, I watched my friend anxiously shuffle up to the ticket booth just as two of the people ahead of him peeled off for will-call as well. Do the math yourself to be sure, but my friend literally got the last ticket, crushing the hopes of the dozens of fans in line behind us that had similarly underestimated this tour’s popularity. Scott, my good man, if you’re reading this: you are one lucky, lucky guy. Having narrowly avoided a huge bullet, the two of us breathed massive sighs of relief and took it all as a sign of the surely legendary night ahead of us. But we had no idea.

Kool A.D. (of Das Racist fame) opened the night as only a rapper could, casually greeting us before launching into “is Kool A.D. the best rapper in the worrrrrrld???” We all over-excitedly agreed and absorbed a short set of chilled-out summer-time rap. I had never heard his music before the show, but my lack of familiarity was not an issue amid the positive vibes. Kool A.D. used his opening spot to lay the groundwork, hype-wise, for the stacked bill to follow, engaging the crowd in some call-and-response interaction, and sprinkling in humorous stage-banter from time to time, which worked well with his laid-back attitude.

Next up was Despot, a rapper I had only become familiar with in my recent obsession with anything El-P related. He’s been signed to Def Jux (El-P’s label) since 2004, but aside from a handful of singles, has never officially released anything. Nonetheless, he has become an integral part of the underground rap scene in New York, and for good reason. He confidently took the stage and within seconds of his opening lines “I’m going HAM, I’m going cheese, I’m going bread/I’m going sandwich, hold that famine, bitch I’m fed” he had commanded the attention of every onlooker in the packed room. The energy was noticeably ramped up as he performed most of his “rap music album, soon to be released!” and Despot himself was pleasantly surprised with the audience’s knowledge of his (officially) unreleased lyrics, making sure to convey his glee between songs. While I couldn’t claim knowledge of most of his material, it felt nice to be a part of a crowd which was giving these hip-hop maestros the reception they truly deserved. Both Kool A.D. and Despot put all of themselves into their sets, and the crowd was responsive every step of the way. We even mindlessly obeyed as Despot brought some others on stage (including El-P, at which the crowd grew even more excitable) to run a two-minute aerobics session. Imagine: hundreds of sweaty rap fans in the small basement of a hotel in a quiet East Vancouver neighbourhood, running on the spot and extending arms skyward at the whim of some scrawny ginger kid from Queens (who spits hot fire, incidentally). The atmosphere was already electric, and the main act(s) had yet to even take the stage.

As Despot accepted his raucous applause and faded off-stage, a hushed excitement filled the air. I foolishly offered to buy the next round of drinks and returned to my friends only five minutes later to find them in an infinitely denser crowd than I had left them in. Soon enough, Killer Mike strutted on to the stage, and the few-hundred onlookers exploded with gasps of excitement. That unmistakably nasty beat from ‘Big Beast’, the opening track from 2012’s superb R.A.P. Music, filled the room, and mayhem erupted as Mike passionately shot his opening words: “Hardcore G shit, homie I don’t play around” (protip: he doesn’t). My other friend, a quite short girl, immediately abandoned the heart of the crowd as the flying elbows and bubbling pit got the best of her mere seconds into the opening song. I could hardly blame her: it took every bit of energy I had to stay right in the middle of the chaos throughout Killer Mike’s inspired set, and it was but a light warm-up for what was to follow. Some of the most memorable moments of the night came from Killer Mike’s slot, including the intro to ‘Reagan’ in which he had us all chanting “Fuck! Ronald! Reagan!” before the beat dropped. His closing song was an absolutely enchanting rendition of the title track from his recent LP in which he likens the religious experience of attending church to the feeling of listening to rap music and being a part of its community. It was a positively inspiring moment, almost tear-inducing, and the point at which I appreciated what was happening for me personally, being accepted into a sub-culture that had to that point been entirely foreign to me. I’ve always been a spiritual person but have never identified with any religion, thinking that that segment of my life was just off-limits, plain and simple. But all religion does is tap into that human desire to feel connected to a larger purpose, and that’s what music has been for me over the past decade or so. I’ve grown estranged with a world I once thought myself so familiar with as a child, but my intimate personal connections with my favourite music have always kept me tethered to Earth. Listening to and interacting with art can be an indefinable and larger-than-life experience: music is the vehicle for most of my spiritual connection with this world.

This revelation had hardly had a minute to sink in before El-P took the stage with convincing force, turning the crowd from “wait, you sure this isn’t a punk show?” to “ok, holy shit, we’re breaking some fire codes and/or bylaws here.” El absolutely tore the venue apart. He rampaged through tracks from his last solo album, 2012’s Cancer For Cure, with complete and reckless abandon, spitting lines with such intensity that it could have been the last show of his life. “Drones Over Brooklyn” created tremors that would have registered on the Richter scale, causing the entire audience to shake the small venue to its foundation, people bouncing off the walls, sweat flying through the air, scores of grinning idiots gasping for air and swaying with the random movements of the crowd. Ditto “The Full Retard”, which had everyone screaming: “So you should pump this shit like they do in the future!” at the top of their lungs as they energetically rushed about the crowded room. It wasn’t some conscious attempt at a mosh-pit either, (how unfitting that would be, indeed,) but rather the organic result of the movement of hundreds of individuals entranced by and completely engaged in El-P’s performance. It reached a point where he actually had to pull a small 20-something on to the stage, not to include her in the show, but to save her from the building testosterone of the rabid crowd (his words).

It was all in good fun though; an ear-to-ear grin was a permanent fixture on his face during the down-time between songs. He even took a moment to express his sincere gratitude towards the crowd’s glowing feedback throughout the night: “You know what? I love Vancouver,” he said, as if musing on it for a moment, letting us all catch our breath. “Everywhere else, people see me in the street and call me El-P, but people here say ‘what’s up Jamie?!’ and I kind of like it. Usually it’s just friends and family that call me Jamie but, fuck it, you guys can call me Jamie.” This of course received overwhelmingly thunderous applause. After barreling through some more of the high-energy tracks from his recent album, El-P took to the mic to set the stage for his performance’s most beautiful moment. Bear with me as I paraphrase: “You know, looking at the songs that you guys request online, I gotta say, y’all are the biggest fucking pussies,” he said, howling laughter ensuing from the audience. “It’s ok though, you know? Cause, hey, I’m a massive pussy too, so this one’s for all us pussies out there, and it’s called ‘The Overly Dramatic Truth.’” The rowdy crowd dialed it back, if only a notch or two, and El-P presented to us his most touching song, a number that I have personally been growing alarmingly fond of lately. I took two steps back in a naive attempt to enjoy it from a safer distance so that I could detach myself from the movements of others. I slipped into my own head as his words filled the room, and without even meaning to or realizing that I had done it until minutes later, I belted “you think I’m a genius, I know I’m a whore” as the time came. It was a moment of pure cathartic release, done completely unconsciously, and it would not be the only time that night.

His set came to a close and my friend and I made a desperate push to the front of the crowd, so that by the time Run The Jewels (Killer Mike and El-P, fuck boys, think about it) returned to the stage, we were an arm’s length of the legendary duo. “36” Chain” drew a predictably enthusiastic response; “Sea Legs” was delivered in an even more impassioned and pointed manner than on the album; ‘Job Well Done’ was fierce and thrilling; and “A Christmas Fucking Miracle,” well, don’t even make me talk seeing that song performed live. Seriously, that was about as close as I’ve ever come to having a “religious” experience in my life. As expected, they played through almost their entire debut album, swapping out “Twin Hype” for a track from Cancer For Cure, “Tougher Colder Killer” which features Killer Mike and Despot. At this point, words to describe what occurred honestly elude me. I’m tempted to throw out lofty descriptors like “mind-bending”, “perfect”, and “transcendental”, but even those don’t seem powerful enough to describe what occurred over the next half-hour. I recited the album like it was my bible, accompanied by hundreds of like-minded followers, not caring that I was forgetting to breathe in between verses and therefore becoming even more exhausted by the sudden ten-foot sideways movements of the rambunctious crowd. Mike and Jamie (fuck it, I’ve earned the right to first-name him, apparently) were hanging off the ceiling and leaning into the crowd as they fervently delivered their assessment of 21st century culture, and all us willing disciples were clinging to their every word. El-P’s beats sounded absolutely massive through full-sized speakers, engulfing my body in a sea of monstrous bass and pounding percussion. Apart from all of this, though, the most satisfying thing about their performance was seeing the sincere looks of astonishment on El-P and Killer Mike’s faces as the crowd communicated simply how much it meant to us all to be experiencing their music live. They looked genuinely impressed that a tiny little venue all the way up in Canada could produce an audience so hungry and responsive. And they paid us back by pouring every ounce of energy that they had left after their respective solo sets into the final performance.

To me, the entire night felt like something much more than just some people watching some other people performing their art; it was a fleeting moment of connection with something greater than all of us there in the room that night. It embodied everything that I think live music can and should be: pure, unadulterated joy and cathartic release combined with a strong sense of community and togetherness. For three hours I stood in a humid, crowded basement in front of a stage no more than two feet off the floor, my clothes becoming heavier and heavier with sweat (most of which was not my own) with each passing moment, and yet they were three of the best hours of my concert-going life. I was exhausted, not only physically, but mentally as well – the feelings and thoughts that had been nurtured in my head during those hours have since crept into my life philosophy, which has been undergoing some drastic changes recently. I don’t need religion or anything like it to funnel my spirituality; I have music. I don’t need any artificial rituals or ceremonies to make me feel connected; I have the release of live music. I don’t need to spend precious time worrying about how much money I can acquire in my lifetime, because, as El-P poignantly exclaimed on the closing song of the night: “Whoever, whatever [your] lord is, couldn’t give a fuck if you ever made fortunes/Fuck anyone ever trying to run that punk shit, send em to the flames where the orcs live/Them and the lost minds thinking they’re smarter than us don’t understand love’s importance/and we can weaponize that, bring em back to the truth where the ashes and dust got formed in.” I had been heading towards these realizations by myself, regardless, but that show at the Biltmore helped me to redefine what it is that I find important in life.

I know that this article has been heavy on the philosophy and light on what one would actually expect from a traditional “concert review”, so let me try and break this down: this show taught me what you stand to lose when your focus is in the wrong place and when you let others dictate how best to live your life. So, yeah: 10/10, quit your job and dump your significant other if it stands in the way of you missing the Run The Jewels show in a city near you. Seriously, that shit was mental. Oh, and as for my very, very lucky friend from Coquitlam who acquired literally the last ticket? Well, we arrived at the train platform around 1:30 AM, about ninety seconds before the last train out of Vancouver left, meaning he lucked out, again, and was able to narrowly avoid either a thirty minute cab ride home, or crashing on the couch in my dingy East Van apartment. The night ended, naturally, with A Christmas Fucking Miracle. In July.

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