“El-P and Mike are going to make some effort to ‘clean up’ some of the lyrics in their raps,” “Austin City Limits” executive producer, Terry Lickona said via email Saturday when we reached out before the rap duo’s taping to find out how exactly producers of the iconic Austin TV show planned to edit the least PBS-friendly group in history.
But let’s be honest, cleaned up is not how RTJ rolls.
“We’re going to light this (expletive) on fire like Willie Nelson would light a joint,” Killer Mike said at the top of the set, after he and his partner in rhyme entered the way they always do, to the chorus of Queen’s underdog anthem “We Are the Champions.”
Then the duo launched into a ballistic rendition of “Talk To Me” off their 2016 album “Run the Jewels 3.”From there it was into the grinder. El-P and Mike spit furious rhymes to the relentless pulse of menacing bass and drums, blasting through “Legend Has It” and “Ticketron” before pausing to breathe. They’re only the third hip-hop act ever featured on the the show, but, they boasted, “the first real rap show,” with nothing on stage but two emcees and a DJ.
Run the Jewels, however, doesn’t have a traditional hip-hop sound. With vicious machine gun flows, they make mosh pit rap for the Warped Tour generation. Their shows pass in a flurry of aggro-rhymes spat over turbulent, pounding beats. In many ways, they’re the most fascinating phenomenon in modern music: a pair of 40-something indie rap lifers who just as easily could have ended up making an “Odd Couple”-style YouTube buddy comedy, but instead inspire thrashing masses of humanity to chant “R-T-J” at the top of their lungs while rocking imaginary “36” Chains.”
They know it’s a fluke that it panned out this way, and the love they expressed to the crowd multiple times throughout the night was genuine. At one point El-P shouted out a older couple in the crowd. He said he was watching backstage through the monitor while the pair, who looked like traditional PBS supporters, arrived early and took their seats in the in the front row. He said he kept thinking, “I hope they like us.” Turns out it’s easy to get swept up in a RTJ show and even the senior citizens seemed to be having a good time.
The obvious knock against RTJ is that there are very few levels in their shows. They go hard non-stop, and it’s a visceral rush, but it can get monotonous. While some songs have distinctive sonic flourishes, like the cascading guitar line in the beginning of “Nobody Speaks,” many bleed into each other indistinguishably. Their die-hard fans don’t care, though, and the floor section of the club, was jam packed and as rowdy as its ever been through the whole show. The vast majority of the crowd in floor seats never sat down.
At the end they mixed it up, bringing out singer Boots to do his part on “2100,” and Dungeon Family queenpin Joi to close out the set, singing her hook on “Down.” The latter song is the lead track on “RTJ3” and Joi’s syrupy Southern soul makes it stand out from the rest of their catalog. Mike, who intro-ed the track by reminding the audience to look out for each other and help the downtrodden in our community, said it was a song to lift you when you’re feeling down, unloved, “when life kicks you in the (expletive).”
It was an emotional close to the most hardcore show “ACL” has ever produced. The folks in charge of silencing all those obscenities were probably shaking their heads, but the crowd said “R-T-J, R-T-J.”