Producer, rapper and general music-world personality extraordinaire El-P headlined a four-act show at The Mohawk on June 23, and it was one wordy-ass night, mostly in a good way. The show featured three NYC MCs—Despot, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire and El-P himself—teaming up with famed ATL badass Killer Mike, all four of whom did a set but also jumped up on stage with the others for most of the show.
Despot was the first MC to grab the mic, and he flowed like only someone who grew up in Queens and Brooklyn rapping since they were a kid can, with a punchy braggadocio style that he backs up with ultra-creative words. I got a bit of an updated-Biggie feel from Despot, who is currently working on getting
better known in the rap world. Following him was the hilariously named Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, whose chain-swangin’, shirt-rippin’ off Brooklyn style of rap worked perfectly following Despot’s set. This was a man with swagger and big, badass East Coast beats that were produced by people who are obviously
trying to push the boundaries of hip-hop instrumentals. Both openers gave a good reminder that hip-hop can be fun and badass and still experiment, all while maintaining a maturity uncommon in most rappers.
Hugely connected rapper Killer Mike started out his set with a little bit of early Texas love, saying, “Pimp C taught me how to be true and real trill,” a heartfelt sentiment that popped up repeatedly throughout the night and drove the appreciative crowd wild. Mike played a long, varied set of hip-hop with a Southern flair and a great relationship with the crowd, a large amount of which knew most of the words to his tracks and rapped right along. I especially dug the tracks off his new album, R.A.P. Music, and the big single off that joint, appropriately called “Big Beast” and featuring T.I., Bun B and Trouble on the recording, was maybe the single best track all night.
Backing up his reputation for collaboration, both eXquire and Despot jumped on stage with the man for a lot of his set, and even his DJ (who was scratching and cutting like a true oldschool beat-bringer) got on the mic to add some flava to the whole thing. Near the end of his set, Mike showed how he knows his crowd by dropping Outkast’s “The Whole World,” probably the biggest track he’s been associated with, just long enough that he could throw down his verse in it, which of course set the crowd off to an even higher level of craziness before he passed the mic to the man, El-P.
Sometimes when people start a venue-filling chant for the headliner, it feels like a bit more than the artist deserves. But when he took the stage to hundreds of passionate fans screaming “ELLL P, ELLL P,” the fervor for the man who’s one of hip-hop’s greatest still-active legends felt perfectly right. P jumped right into it with his aggressive, take-no-fucking-prisoners cadences, and within a few tracks every other performer from the night was on stage, plus a back-up MC and two multi-instrumental musicians who used keys, synths, guitars and more to pump out the beats (and one of which was wearing a boat captain’s hat and a bathrobe, a la Hugh Hefner).
El-P ran through his whole, long gamut of sounds, with the more straightforward old school hip-hop tracks coming early in his set and moving into the more aggressive political jams as the energy grew. His new track, “The Full Retard,” off the just-released Cancer 4 Cure album, sounded especially good that night, with the crowd really getting into chanting the track’s demand that “You should pump this shit/Like they do in the future.” El-P really made the show seem like it was a special event just for Austin, and not just the same ole thing they do at every club. At one point he told the crowd, “We have completely lost our minds, and it’s five days into the future. You’re literally seeing the last show on the tour where we have any semblance of sanity.” Right after that, a weird brown, fuzzy puppet they had put up on a mic stand like a mascot got stolen by someone in the crowd, who didn’t make it far before he was jumped on, with El-P and the other MCs talkin’ shit about the guy back on the stage. This slight snafu seemed to only fuel the love between the crowd and the rappers, who just slammed right back into their groove.
El-P is known for both hip hop and his strong, loud political views, and it was clear that some of his fans were more about the latter than the former. Once he started in on the real heavy, dark political shit, some of the crowd that had seemed rather quiet really went nuts, and it started to feel more like a rally than a hip-hop show. For me, this was cool for about two tracks before it started feeling seriously heavy-handed and too similar. Up until that point, the show had been doing well by bringing the energy up and down, showing a lot of dynamism, but once the political tracks started, the loud, dark and heavy tone stayed in the high-energy stratosphere for most of the rest of the show, and I think it suffered for it. Overall though, the man straight killed it that Sunday, and he did it with a humble-yet-confident air that most rappers utterly fail to achieve.
To wrap up this show, here’s a story that I think sums up the whole night: I once told a professor in a class that taught hip hop as literature that I didn’t agree that modern rappers aren’t as good, because there are some of the best yet out there right now. He turned to me and said, “You mean like El-P? Well if we could get everyone to write like El-P, things would be different wouldn’t they? But that isn’t going to happen.” El-P and all three of his fellow MCs that played the Mohawk are a different breed of hip-hop; one that puts skill and message over hype and image, and their live show brings that focus to an audience that eats it up. El-P himself said at one point “I can’t say no to Austin,” and despite a bit of a drag near the end of the show, it seems we can’t say no to him either.