As someone who lives and studies in Orange County, I typically only ever shoot here or in LA … but January 30th (a Monday) was going to be a special night. A special night that had me heading down to San Diego for the first time in several years. The reason? RTJ. Run. The. Jewels.
The only other time I ever got to “see” Run The Jewels was in 2015 at FYF. They played a their set, but I was relegated to “watching” the performance from the first aid tent while a friend a mine received first-aid for an ankle injury. Blood is thicker than water, but damn …. I wish I could have been in the trenches for that performance. Needless to say, I was incredibly excited for this one.
The drive wasn’t too long. but I was still a couple minutes late. I could already hear music coming from inside as I picked up my credentials from the box office. Going through security, I could already hear the crowd inside chanting “RTJ”. The adrenaline started pulsing through my veins.
I was greeted into the building by a chorus of people chanting “Fuck Donald Trump” and the two giant inflatable hands that symbolize Run The Jewels raised high above the first act, NY based DJ Nick Hook. His setlist consisted of a mix between trap, rap, and classic hip hop songs. After a few minutes into his set he brought out his guest Cuz Lightyear, an Atlanta Based hip hop artist originally from Arkansas. He had this wonderfully quirky habit of saying, “WHAT UP CUUUZ?” in between songs and the crowd, without fail, always said it back with warm tones. After a few tracks he pulled out his phone (A flip phone) and held it out.
“Do ya’ll know what this is?” he said. He gave us a number and said the first to text it would receive signed merch and a backstage pass to hangout with him after his set. I tried to text the number he gave, but it wasn’t in service. Oh well!
The following song was his new single that he wrote with his mentor Killer Mike, “Pots N Pans”. After which, he thanked the crowd for positive reception of him and his performance. “It’s cool that you call me cuz.” he said, “It’s cool that you let me in.”
The next performance was San Diego native, Gaslamp Killer (who earned that name by being able to clear out a dance floor with his very stylized DJ sets when he played in San Diego’s Gas lamp District). He was about to bring us into his world through a DJ set that transcended genre.
He opened up with Kendrick Lamar’s “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” then slowly starting switching from a hip hop vibe to match the tone of the last performance to a more glitchy electronic sound that seemed to resonate through his entire body. While you can’t always predict what GLK’s set will sound like, you can guarantee that his energy will be incredible. His giant mane of hair bounced up and down almost violently as he moved through his set like a mad scientist taking a journey through sound.
He then slowed down the tempo, reminding us that his grandma is from Syria as he played a few tracks that kept true to his style yet brought it to a different area of the world.
“Music transcends government, music is law, music is god, music is karma.”
These are the words he recited to us during these tracks. The rest of his DJ set went anywhere from the theme song to the Zelda video games, hip hop hits such as “Dirt Off Your Soldier” by Jay-Z to psych rock artists Tame Impala.
The wait before RTJ seemed like a long one. The crowd seemed restless. There was a long row of photographers waiting next to me to enter the pit. I could hear murmurs from the people waiting talking about their favorite songs, speculating on what they would and wouldn’t hear. When DJ Trackstar came on stage, security finally allowed us to set up in the pit.
After a few moments, Freddie Mercury’s voice sang “We Are The Champions” from the speakers. Once the chorus hit, our heroes came out with almost as much excitement as the crowd. With giant grins on their faces, they ran up and down the stage hyping up the crowd as Freddy kept singing, until it faded out and “Talk To Me” began. I have to say that I wasn’t really prepared for what happened next.
As soon as the beat dropped the entire building seemed to start shaking as the crowd started jumping up and down in unison. I was able to feel it in my feet and move up my body. I took my eye away from my viewfinder and turned to a fellow photographer I was chatting with earlier and we shared this look of astonishment. As Killer Mike and El-P spit the lyrics, “He wore a bad toupee and a spray tan” (an obvious reference to our current president), the energy in the room exploded. As El-P chanted “HEY” in unison with the audience prior to “Call Ticketron”, there was an undeniable sense of solidarity. The energy that RTJ graced us with was engulfed the entire venue. From the VIP balcony, to the back area by the bar, to the sidelines filled with people dancing and singing with full enthusiasm throughout this sold out show.
Mid-set, El-P had a few words to share with us:
“I know you’re a civilized and wonderful group of human beings and I don’t have to get into the lecture about picking someone up if they fall…respecting peoples personal space here, especially the women in the crowd, because you guys already know what the fuck you’re talking about…”.
Considering that the duo had already seen two fights at their shows on this tour (once in Nashville and again in St Petersburg), I can fully understand where those words came from. On “Love Again”, Gangsta Boo came on stage to join our boys. I had a little bit of a chuckle when the girl that was standing behind was eagerly belting out the chorus (“I put my dick in her mouth all day”). After this song El-P had some more words he wanted to share about our current administration and the frustrations he has with it.
“Donald Trump is a dickless piece of human filth and he believes in nothing but empowering themselves. They’ll all lie, cheat, steal kill, win”.
This transitioned into the track “Lie, Cheat, Steal” perfectly.
The last song they performed before leaving the stage was “Down”. It’s a slower song about Mikes previous, darker life that had him dealing drugs just to get by. “Don’t be scared. Those feelings of being down will go away,” Mike said after the song,“We need these songs more than ever.”
He sang one more chorus from “Down” before they both walked off stage as the crowd madly cheered “RTJ, RTJ, RTJ”. After but a few moments, they returned for their encore. After “Kill Your Masters” El had one more thing to say
“We want to say sorry for people that thought they were coming without moving”
… And with that “Close Your Eyes and Count To Fuck” started sending everyone, including me, into a frenzy.
Having their tracks going through your headphones is one thing, but seeing these two go at it live is such an amazing sight to behold. The relentless energy they bring to the stage is nothing I’ve ever experienced before, and the message they have in their lyrics- lyrics which are more important now more than ever- provides a unifying outlet for anybody who is feeling disenfranchised and hopeless with what is going on in the news today. It was protest music, but at the same it it was more.
“At some point in the future they’re going to try to label us a political rap group. We aren’t. We don’t care what party you belong to. We don’t care who you supported. We don’t care what you’re doing tomorrow politically. We care socially that every one of you know, you are absolutely born free and nothing has a right to interrupt that freedom.” – Killer Mike
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— Hector Vergara (@Hextrn) February 8, 2017
— Hector Vergara (@Hextrn) February 8, 2017