Killer Mike gets up close and personal with his fans during a raw, urgent… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)
When Killer Mike arrived to play his set at Echoplex on Thursday, the rapper had reportedly already sold out of T-shirts that read "I'm Glad Reagan's Dead." The merchandise was spun off of a brutal lyric about the late president from the Atlanta rapper's new album, "R.A.P. Music."
Are hip-hop fans that furious at a long-deceased icon of conservatism? Were they enticed by the shirt's shock value? Perhaps the fashion statement signals something more fundamental happening in rap music — a genre born in rebellion is rediscovering its anger and outsider status.
At Echoplex, Killer Mike joined the Brooklyn, N.Y. headliner El-P on the bill, two well-seasoned veterans from the margins of the genre unexpectedly moving into the limelight with furious, sonically restless new albums. There isn't quite a term for what they're up to yet, but if Kanye and Jay-Z are plying "luxury rap" on "Watch the Throne," El-P and Killer Mike's sets were the exact opposite — lean, hungry and frothing with raw humanity.
Killer Mike (Mike Render) is a rare success story of an MC getting a late-career second wind in a young man's game. Mike, 37, is a onetime label-casualty given new life in the Internet underground (he's signed to the label imprint of the cable comedy bloc Adult Swim), and his new album is produced entirely by El-P. He's built like a cement mixer, and his flow is just as hefty and churning.
Cuts from "R.A.P." such as "Big Beast," in which he promised, "We down to eat the rich" and the aforementioned "Reagan," could have come off as provocative yet ultimately empty jabs. But in Mike's hands, they had a mix of menace and rallying urgency that hearkened back to gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A. Mike's music is rooted in Southern rap, but the connection to L.A.'s most dangerous band is intentional — onstage, he shouted out Ice Cube as a major influence.
It wasn't all so serious — when he introduced the lascivious bounce of "Southern Fried," he implored the Echoplex's ladies to "take your man to the strip club and let him loosen his collar." But mostly his set took a sledgehammer to a rap world (and an American political climate) that sees wealth as its own virtue. After performing "Reagan," he said, "Aw, Fox News is gonna be [angry] at that." Incurring the wrath of Bill O'Reilly is a sure sign an MC is doing something right.
El-P, the alias of the 37-year-old MC and producer Jaime Meline, is an even less likely figure for a new critical breakthrough. El-P's respected career has been pegged as too flinty and self-aware for the mainstream. Yet he's also uncomfortable as a figurehead of indie-rap — he shut down his respected Definitive Jux label two years ago.
His Echoplex set suggested his new priorities are paying off. Joined onstage by a motley assortment of live musicians (including an occasional trombonist) and obscured in dry-ice fog, he performed from his new album "Cancer 4 Cure" with the ravenous energy of a teenager and the steely resolve of a grown man. Cuts like "The Full Retard" have a disorienting insouciance on record — organs bend and creak out of nowhere, the drums are propulsive and ominous.
Live, Meline made them feel even more singular — he's less monolithic than Killer Mike, and prowled the stage like a prosecutor going in for a courtroom kill. He's had decades to hone his verbal dexterity, and with this new rash of sonic inspiration, he did to musical structure what Killer Mike did to Reagan's reputation — blew it to pieces and found some new truth underneath.