Run The Jewels Stage a Rap Show During a Race Riot

Amidst chaos in Ferguson, Killer Mike and El-P come together in perfect harmony

Byron Crawford
Nov 25, 2014 · 19 min read
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Hours before Run the Jewels were set to hit the stage last night, their tour bus sat stranded on the side of the road somewhere off in the sticks. Killer Mike may have sat on the same side of the bus as El-P and Despot and caused a problem with the suspension. They said it was in Missouri, but it looked like Illinois to me. It takes having lived in the Midwest your entire life to notice the subtle differences between vast, harrowing expanses of desolation.

I was planning to have something to drink anyway, because why would you want to go to a concert sober, and also because I still had about $8 left from the first month’s sales of Kanye West Superstar, which I received a few weeks ago. I was counting on there being a new Kanye album this fall that might help boost sales. There wasn’t, and that was all the more reason to drink.

Of course I get to the grocery store and the entire shanty town is there stocking up, maybe because it’s only a few days before Thanksgiving, but maybe also because a race riot is set to kick off in a mere matter of hours, right as Run the Jewels is set to hit the stage at a new concert venue in a gradually-gentrifying gay nightlife district maybe 15 miles from Ferguson. Who knows if the grocery store will be open tomorrow. Grocery stores in the hood aren’t worth a shit even when there’s not a race riot going on.

I hit Killer Mike about getting in for free, because you probably thought I was bullshitting about having $8, and he said the in-store beforehand at Vintage Vinyl in my native U. City had been canceled. There just wasn’t enough time for them to get there. But the show at The Ready Room was still a go. Either someone from the venue would come get them in a $29 Home Depot panel van used to transport illegal immigrants to asbestos removal jobs, or someone would come fix the bus.

How ironic is it that Run the Jewels 2 has a line about a rapist van, which El-P refers to as a rape van, and now Run the Jewels were seriously facing the prospect of having to be carted to St. Louis in the back of a rapist van, for a concert by an interracial rap group set to take place during a race riot, the same week that America’s Dad, Bill Cosby, was revealed to be a serial rapist. If they’d brought the Cos out to do that Jello pudding dance during “Love Again,” my head would have exploded. Literally.

At home, I drank more beers than I’d be comfortable admitting to, even in this otherwise very candid essay, before shifting my pre-game festivities to Blueberry Hill, a few doors down from where Run the Jewels’ in-store appearance would have been. Blueberry Hill is a Chuck Berry-themed restaurant, where Berry himself still performs once a month at the ripe old age of 106. Sometimes he forgets where he is mid-show and has to be reminded, but he can still do that thing where he gets down in a crouch position and kicks back and forth across the stage. I probably couldn’t have done that shit when I was 25 years old.

It was a ghost town last night. It was a Monday night anyway, but it still seemed like there may have been fewer people than you’d expect. People must have been staying in last night, checking Don Lemon’s expert analysis on CNN. I probably would have done the same thing, if Run the Jewels hadn’t been in town, though I may have tried to find an Infowars live stream. In times like this, I look to Alex Jones to explain what’s going on in the world.

The week before, there had been protests on this same stretch of block.

People lied down in the street and drew chalk outlines around themselves. Police had to close the street to car traffic, lest someone get run over. They were taking advantage of the media coverage of the St. Louis International Film Festival. I actually went to that festival and saw that Illmatic movie. One of the guys I went with last night got me a pass. I didn’t bother writing about it because I would have been literally the last person on the Internets to do so, including people in furrin countries.

The protests had died down by the time I caught Time Is Illmatic. Otherwise I might not have gone. I’ve been avoiding places where people are protesting because I don’t want to put my parents in the weird position of having to tell me that no, they won’t be coming to bail my black ass out of jail. After all, what do I need to be out for, to find out who’s on this week’s Bang Bus? A few weeks ago, they picked up a girl in a wheelchair—or so I’ve been told. As De La Soul and/or R. Crumb’s brother would say, stakes is high.

On the way to pick up my groceries, I told Killer Mike the in-store appearance was in the same area where there had been protests. Turns out he didn’t have anything to worry about, both because they couldn’t make it in time anyway and because that part of town was eerily quiet. I kept seeing cop cars go by, all in the same direction, maybe headed towards Clayton, the rich, white part of town where the courthouse is. I sat and watched CNN’s coverage of the protests on a muted TV above the bar.

I saw where 5–0 had Clayton blocked off to where you couldn’t even throw a rock far enough to hit one of those buildings. They had Gaza-style road blocks set up and probably weren’t letting anyone through who didn’t work or live there. Some of the nearby residential areas are like that already, except instead of an official road block there’s just one guy sitting there in a cop car waiting to pull over every black motorist who drives by. There was a national news story on it a few years before the Mike Brown shooting, and it may or may not have been cited in the thing Radley Balko wrote about St. Louis’ bizarre, apartheid-like traffic court system.

Governor Jay Nixon gave a pre-announcement address at UMSL, a directional school near Ferguson (and my mom’s undergrad alma mater), probably to keep any rioting that may have ensued restricted to mostly-black neighborhoods. It’s clear to me that the whole thing was very carefully planned out. The grand jury may have had its decision as early as yesterday morning, if not at the end of last week, and they purposely waited to hold off on making an announcement until late in the evening, as if it being dark out would hinder people from burning and looting.

Any true racist knows the real way to get black people to not show up for something is to schedule it for when it’s too cold out. As the saying goes, when it’s too cold out, dreaded n-words don’t want to work. When it’s too hot out, dreaded n-words don’t want to work. And when the weather is just right, it’s time to have an MFN barbecue!

Any day last week would have been perfect to announce the verdict. I don’t need to tell you what it was like here, because it was somehow freezing in all 50 U.S. states, including Hawaii. It was so cold I could barely stand to walk from my front door to The Van. I started to call in to my job at the BGM, but I didn’t want to be viewed as a stereotype. Plus, I can’t afford to take a single day off from work, even if I catch Ebola. No one works or shops there except white people, so fuck it—that’s what they get.

Because it took them this long to come up with a decision, I honestly wondered if they might decide to indict. I was cautiously optimistic. I figured, if all they were going to do was let this kid get away with it, they could have done that the same weekend he popped a cap in Michael Brown’s ass. They were at least spending the time it took to examine the evidence. I know better than to think that a court would side with a black kid over a cop, let alone a ginormous black kid they got on tape stealing Swisher Sweets, but I figured they might at least let it go to trial and let Darren Wilson walk that way.

I don’t know what I was thinking.

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I couldn’t make out half the shit prosecutor Bob McCulloch was saying before he finally announced that Darren Wilson got away with it, but I already kinda knew as far back as when Jay Nixon was giving his address. The chyron on CNN read that Darren Wilson had been told that he didn’t need to appear to turn himself in—which I took to mean that he’d been told earlier in the day that he’d gotten away with it and hence he was free to get TF out of dodge before someone found out where he was and popped a cap in his ass.

We know where he lives now, because he got married the other day in Overland, a not-very-big town a few miles down the road from Ferguson. The chick he married is also a cop in Ferguson, and I’m assuming she plans to leave the force too. They can probably skip town and live for a while, if not forever, on money racist CACs donated via Indiegogo.

What little I could gather of Bob McCulloch’s bizarre, lengthy speech before he announced the grand jury decision seemed to center on contradictory eyewitness statements. It sounded like they heard from quite a few people who all claim to have seen Darren Wilson kill Mike Brown, and they all had different versions of events. Which, according to Bob McCulloch, means they must have all been lying—literally every single one of them.

Probably at least a few of them were, either because they thought it might help get Darren Wilson thrown in jail, or because you should never tell the truth to the police, as a matter of general principle, or because eyewitness accounts of crime are notoriously untrustworthy… and that’s why something ridonkulous like one in ten people sentenced to death row might not even be guilty. More and more people are being exonerated based on DNA after being convicted based on eyewitness testimony.

The fact that people have no idea what they saw is to be expected, and I’m at a loss for why it should preclude Darren Wilson from having to stand trial, where we might actually get to the bottom of what happened that day.

According to many an alleged legal expert on Twitter, including at least one guy who—like Star Jones and the Internets’ own Combat Jack—claims to be an actual lawyer, there’s basically no way Bob McCulloch couldn’t have gotten an indictment, if he wanted to.

This whole thing was purposely set up for Darren Wilson to get away with it.

With that, it was off to The Ready Room for Run the Jewels. I didn’t see any burning or looting on TV before I left the bar, and it would be a while before I was in front of a TV again.

As the decision was announced, people were just kinda standing there crying as if they honestly believed that shit about post-race Murica and they’d just had the rug pulled out from under them. No explosions or anything went off that very moment. I told a guy there at the show that maybe the protests wouldn’t be nearly as bad as Alex Jones had predicted. Never question anything Alex Jones says. Everything he’s said has come true, and everything he’s done has been right.

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As I was walking in, Despot was making his way from the bar area in the front of the venue to the stage. The place was packed, but you could tell it was him because it looked like someone had been allowed to bring their kid and now he was running loose throughout the venue. He’s a little bit on the small side. If he weren’t increasingly beginning to look like Wallace Shawn (from, among other things, The Princess Bride) he may have had problems getting in the door.

Despot took to the stage and immediately announced that Run the Jewels’ tour bus had been broken down for four hours and he’d barely had time to take a shower and change clothes before heading to the venue. I wouldn’t have bothered doing either, and that’s one of many reasons no one’s paying to see me perform, or even write this article.

He said he didn’t have time to fix his combover, which makes me wonder just how long that would have taken. Maybe it doesn’t take that long, but you gotta wait until your hair is dry to do it. I wouldn’t know. All I know about white people’s hair is what I’ve been told by a guy named Moreffa. Namely, that it smells like wet dog.

What little hair Despot has left just kinda sat there in a wet clump on the top of his head. Truth be told, it didn’t look any worse than how he usually wears it. You get the sense that Despot, like literally everyone else in the world, was following the unfolding events in Ferguson, and that he was upset about it, but it’s just not in his nature to directly address the situation the way Killer Mike would shortly thereafter. Complaining about his combover is how he expresses his feelings.

And then there’s his songs. All seven or eight of them. If you’ve been keeping track, that’s maybe twice as many as he had when I saw him a little over a year ago. Either he’s been more busy in the past year than he was in the first 10 years of his career, or he’d been holding out on us. Alas, he perfomed these songs to what sounded like MP3s with the vocals still in them, like he may have given the sound guy his cell phone and cued up a playlist. Do rappers keep their own albums on their phones? I’ve got a few of my books on my phone, but only because I use it for testing purposes, to make sure they look right—er, as right as I can manage—on a phone.

In between Despot and Run the Jewels was Ratking, who seemed like they hadn’t performed very many times yet. The kid who raps seemed more enthusiastic than anyone else I saw perform last night, like maybe he hasn’t experienced as much disappointment in life as some of the older rappers on the bill. A lot of young people don’t follow the news. I didn’t get there in time to catch Tef Poe, or as El-P calls him, Tef and Poe, who’s been on the front lines of the protests in Ferguson, getting arrested at Walmart and appearing in a thing in the New Yorker on Anonymous. I wish I had caught him. Alcohol cost me.

All night long, I was checking Twitter on my phone, seeing whether or not people I follow were disappointed in the decision and trying to keep track of what was going on with the protests. It’s always a trip to see white chicks who could give a rat’s ass about a situation like this still talking about whatever garbage sitcom comes on Monday nights, or trying to get people to join in one of their cam shows. It’s also weird to keep having hardcore pr0n images pop up as you scroll through your TL in public. At least one chick I follow seemed to be pro-Darren Wilson, but there’s no way I could unfollow her, because her body is incredible even relative to other girls who can make a living just posting pictures of themselves on the Internets. #priorities

At that point, I started hearing more and more stories about burning and looting.

People tried to flip over a cop car, and when they couldn’t get it all the way over they set it on fire. People were running out of convenience stores and fast food stores with arms full of junk food and alcohol. Admittedly, I was kinda jealous. And a few fast food places apparently got burned to the ground. There’s nothing you can take from a fast food restaurant that you wouldn’t still have to prepare, so I guess they figured they might as well just burn the place down—though I know people who lived for years and years on boxes of meat and shit they took home from fast food restaurants.

I’d hate to see all that meat go to waste. And I might even be interested in purchasing some of that shit, depending on how much they want for it. If you came up on some shit during the riots you’re looking to unload, email me at the address listed on my site. As discussed in the article I wrote a day or two after the Mike Brown shooting, looting stores is not just about being able to have Alizé and Cheetos for dinner for the next six months straight, though that’s a distinct possibility. You can sell that shit for money that you can then use to buy drugs and truly come up. Because all the cops are busy monitoring the situation in Ferguson, making sure it doesn’t spreat to any white neighborhoods, this is as good a time as any to buy and sell drugs.

It looks like Killer Mike and El-P may have been watching the news on the tour bus, which somehow made it to St. Louis. From now on Killer Mike will have to be sure to sit on the opposite side of the bus from El-P and Despot, like during Jim Crow. Killer Mike posted a picture of what looked like a TV on the bus airing the announcement on CNN, with a caption that read that he didn’t have shit to say just yet. He may have been saving it for when Run the Jewels hit the stage, not very long after that.

First St. Louis’ own Trackstar the DJ came out and did that Run the Jewels hand symbol, which is a thing now. I don’t recall seeing a single person doing it back when I caught the first Run the Jewels tour, in the summer of 2013. Now it’s like Run the Jewels’ equivalent of that W thing people do at Wu-Tang shows, which also—as I recall—came along after the crowds at those shows became increasingly suburban. There may have been three times as many people out last night, on a Monday, during a race riot, than there was last summer. The crowd skewed young, maybe 20 years old on average, and it was probably 97% white, which was about the same as both last time and most hip-hop shows.

As Killer Mike and El-P have pointed out in interviews, some time in between then and now Run the Jewels blew up. And it isn’t clear how exactly, aside from the albums being arguably the best rap music—the best music period, really—of the past couple of years. But plenty of people have put out great music and didn’t connect with an audience to such a degree. Glossed over in that Illmatic documentary I saw last week, as pointed out by Paul Cantor here at Medium, is that Illmatic caught a brick when it came out. Only a small handful of people copped it, at least by 90s standards, and that’s why Nas hasn’t made anything quite like it ever since.

This current Run the Jewels mania is like if Nas had the balls and the sense to record an Illmatic 2, people actually bought it, and all was right with the world. It’s literally the only positive story in the news right now—unless you consider what’s happening to Bill Cosby positive, in the sense that it might save some poor girl from having a rough weekend, to say the least.

I figured Killer Mike might address the Ferguson situation, because he spends half the show talking to the crowd anyway. Before he got with El-P, he was big on doing that thing where he spits a particularly profound verse a capella, to make sure you understand just how brilliant it is, for rap lyrics. It would have been weird to start the show without acknowledging that there was a race riot kicking off maybe 20 minutes from where we were standing, plus random, scattered protests a lot closer than that, not to mention the great injustice that precipitated those events.

Maybe you already caught the video of Killer Mike’s remarks. It was somehow already on YouTube and then on Twitter before Run the Jewels’ set was even over. I was only getting a 3G signal, barely good enough to fire off a few tweets, which makes me wonder what kind of phone someone used to upload that video. There’s probably a few of them now. I consulted the Google, to see if any sites had posted it, and I see it’s on all kinds of MSM [mainstream media] sites, like it’s the announcement itself. I imagine this is due in part to the fact that Killer Mike may have been the very first entertainer to address #Ferguson in the wake of the grand jury decision and in part because the MSM’s m.o. these days is to just post everything.

Last night was a big night for the Internets, business-wise, and the way to truly capitalize is to post any- and everything you can possibly find. If there’s a ham sandwich that’s somehow related to Ferguson, post that shit! Make sure your post went up a few minutes before the next guy’s post, and make sure your tags and SEO and shit is correct. Black kids get killed by the police on the reg, but it’s not every day that so many people seem (emphasis on seem) to give a shit.

Killer Mike said something about wanting to burn this MFer down, which I took to mean that maybe they were about to go into his song “Burn,” written in response to another black kid who got killed by the police on some ol’ bullshit. Maybe Oscar Grant, but who can remember anymore. There’s been so many of them. Granted, it would have been irresponsible to perform a song about burning shit down quite literally during a race riot, but those kids looked like they never burned shit other than a shedload of weed. Run the Jewels’ new fan base skews as nerdy as it does young.

Killer Mike was verklempt to the point where I wasn’t sure if he’d be able to make it through what he was trying to say. It was truly uncomfortable to watch. I definitely felt where he was coming from. I’ve seen too many of these things happen to truly be surprised to see a cop get away with killing a black guy, but I was still kinda surprised at the visceral impact it had on me when it actually happened. I got about as choked up as I get, which is to say kinda. Watching the riots unfold on Twitter probably didn’t help matters. Killer Mike was full-on choked up.

He says he consulted the Google to see if there’s anything Martin Luther King, Jr. said that he could quote for the audience, which is never a good move. MLK was one of our greatest leaders and one of our most eloquent speakers, but the Internets are filled with fake quotes attributed to him. You’d be all day trying to find out if he actually said something you found on your mom’s Facebook. Remember that time Obama finally caught bin Laden, and people were circulating that MLK quote about how you shouldn’t celebrate? Your best bet is to not believe anything you find on your mom’s Facebook.

Before he could find an appropriate/accurate MLK quote, Killer Mike was struck by the fact that MLK was 39 years old when he died, the same age as Killer Mike and El-P. Shit like that is always impressive to stoners and five percenters, to the extent that those two groups don’t overlap. 39 seems old as shit when you’re in elementary school, but by the time you get to be 33 you realize how young it is. I would imagine, if the trajectory of my adulthood is any indication, that it’s quite possible to reach that age and not have any idea of what you’re doing with your life. And as the success of Run the Jewels has proven, it’s not too old for a second act, for people who actually have something of value to offer society. Tragically, Mike Brown will never get anywhere near 39. He was barely out of childhood, ginormous though he was.

The rest of the show proceeded from that point in a weirdly solemn mood for a performance of a buncha songs about shooting poodles, putting your dick in a girl’s mouth all day long, ordering people to run backwards through a field of dicks and how much El-P likes to fuck. Maybe I’m exaggerating the phallic nature of Run the Jewels’ music (though I could come up with more examples of it than just that, including at least one instance of El-P calling himself a phallus), but there’s quite a bit of that sort of thing, in addition to more serious-minded lyrics about social conditions, including a few things that were recorded pre-Ferguson that nevertheless seem eerily prescient. And I don’t know if Killer Mike can get through a show without doing several different dances that all seem to be variations of the truffle shuffle from The Goonies.

So there was definitely bits of levity here and there, but for the most part, last night’s Run the Jewels show was unlike any other concert I’ve ever seen. Certainly it would be difficult to replicate the circumstances that led to last night’s show, and god forbid anything like that should ever happen again. A few people Killer Mike retweeted compared it to being at church. I’d agree, except, at 33 years old, I’ve never had such a profound experience in a church. I’ve experienced things in church that were decidedly sad, like a funeral, especially funerals people entirely too young to be dead, like Mike Brown, but this wasn’t just sad. It was sad, funny, triumphant, awkward, more homoerotic than I required, and just plain dope, all at once. Nhjic.

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Top photo by Timothy Saccenti via NPR

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Medium’s Premier Music Publication: An ear for the new, a…

Byron Crawford

Written by

Best-selling author of The Mindset of a Champion, Infinite Crab Meats and NaS Lost @byroncrawford



Medium’s Premier Music Publication: An ear for the new, a heart for the classics

Byron Crawford

Written by

Best-selling author of The Mindset of a Champion, Infinite Crab Meats and NaS Lost @byroncrawford



Medium’s Premier Music Publication: An ear for the new, a heart for the classics

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