It’s 8:30pm and the scene outside Leeds Arena is bleak. Aside from a couple of nervous-looking teens passing a bummed cigarette back and forth the place is deserted, dead. What the hell is going on? The place should be popping. The lines should be round the block. One of America’s premier hip-hop acts is playing tonight and yet there’s not one tracksuited and booted bad boy or chin-stroking Pitchfork reader to be seen. I check my phone. I’m at the wrong place.
It’s real cold outside, too cold even for a November evening, but there’s steam practically pumping out the doors of Leeds Academy and the lines are in fact stretching round the block as predicted. Inside Danny Brown prowls around the stage; blue and white strobe lights thump and basslines thud. The foggy atmosphere seems to be affecting my ears as well as my eyes and up here on the balcony you can’t make out a word of what he’s saying – Brown’s trademark snappy and inventive bars are lost in the mud of the mix. Nevertheless, the crowd below are lapping it up, all smiling faces and bouncing arms.
Run the Jewels have been on the road since their critically-acclaimed third album dropped on Christmas Eve last year, and tonight is the penultimate show of their Run The World tour. You might think they’d be going through the motions by this point: well-rehearsed moves, slickly delivered “It’s great to be here, Leeds” lines, all business, bish, bash, bosh and bail. You’d be wrong, though: El-P and Killer Mike are in an altogether hungrier mood tonight.
The lights come up and illuminate the two huge Run The Jewels inflatable golden fists above the stage and the duo stride out to Queen’s We Are The Champions, setting the scene for a night that feels emphatically triumphant from the get go. It’s been a long wait between the end of Danny Brown’s set and the start of the main event, and as opener Talk To Me blasts out everyone goes positively nuts, before going even nutsier for the next song and the next, everyone shouting ‘That’s word to pimp!’ on Oh My Darling Don’t Cry.
El-P signals a quick break is needed and addresses the grinning faces. On some nights he says you know you’re gonna have to explain the rules early: some nights it takes a while for the crowd to get going, but nights like tonight when it’s popping from the get-go you gotta embrace your community. Rule #1 is if someone falls down, you pick em back up. Rule #2 is if you see someone you don’t know, don’t touch that person”. Killer Mike chips in here to clarify: “That means the guys keep your damn hands off the girls!” Encouragingly, this gets a huge response from the crowd and the second biggest cheer of the night. It feels depressing that this needs to be stated, but it’s reassuring to hear this explicitly stressed by RTJ. Given the recent and widespread #metoo revelations, we must once again re-evaluate the objective worth of men as a species (and once again find them severely lacking). Rule #3 is that if you start a fight, you must do so outside, and the band’s security will be all too happy to help you facilitate this. That’s word to pimp. On with the show.
RTJ have been hailed as saviours of modern hip-hop, a welcome reminder of the golden era of the 1990s, and it’s easy to see why. They clearly have the skills on the mic, they have the lyrics and they have the breath control to carry it off live without dropping a beat. Time after time Killer Mike jumps on his flow in his distinctive southern drawl and the syllables just keep tumbling out, spilling over each other without making way for oxygen. The pair move around the stage like men much younger than their 42 years and El-P leaps around like a toy poodle after invisible bouncy balls. Their enthusiasm rocks the crowd and the whole spectacle harmonises as the energy flows between the performers and audience. As the chopped-up vocals of Zach De La Rocha signal the start of Close Your Eyes (And Count To F), the whole room bounces together, until one-by-one everybody is lured into a strange hypnotic trance by three minutes of intense strobe lights.
The Academy is a decent sized venue but tonight it’s like a giant lung, the walls sticky and slick with condensation from the sweaty mass swaying back and forth below. It’s hot, and as the lights flash through the fog you can catch the occasional silhouette of a cloakroom receipt fluttering upward, riding a rap thermal to the rafters.
A good hip-hop tune makes you feel like a badass and it makes you boogie. And while there’s people getting down everywhere, there’s one dude on the balcony who’s really into it. Strapped in a grey tracksuit, he moves like third-rate boxer who’s sunk a first-rate bottle of bourbon and is going at the heavy bag, arms flailing and failing to land a single hit. In his head, he is the badass narrator of these street brags and burns, feared by men and loved by women. He’s having the time of his life. That’s word to pimp.
Frequently the music stops and RTJ start talking. And while they are engaging and funny dudes, my only criticism of the night is that this happened too often and broke the flow. There seems to be some contradiction at work here too between their rap personas and the men underneath. Even though their lyrics may deal with violence, spiking drinks and selling cocaine to a pregnant woman, between songs they are sincere, humble and even cuddly. You could take them home to your dear old mum. Clearly they are skilled character actors, one minute rapping about spraying mace in a play pen and asking fans to throw their drugs on stage, and the next minute regaling us with the fun they had at Leeds Christmas Market that afternoon.
As the inevitable end rolls around the songs, the crowd become a little more subdued and RTJ are getting philosophical and emotional. El-P tells us how privileged and fortunate he feels to be doing this, but how difficult it is to leave people behind, hand outstretched to try and make that connection with the fans. He tells us of the daily dialogue in his head with friends who passed away while he was off pursuing his own dreams. How does a man reconcile the bittersweet balance sheet of ups and downs? He encourages us to think of someone special, someone where that connection has been severed, and what you would say to them if they were here.
Mike concedes “We’re getting deep tonight” before speaking his piece on depression, an illness with which he’s struggled. He warmly declares that “if you’re depressed, you have to know that you are valuable to humanity and that you are valued, and if you’re lucky enough to be happy then you have a responsibility to share that happiness”. This gets the biggest cheer of the night and it’s a noble way to end the evening.
Between the stage props, fancy lighting, quips and stage banter, ultimately it comes down to well-crafted songs, skills on the mic and good old pop hooks. Fortunately Run The Jewels showed us that they have all three locked down. Roll on album number 4. That’s word to pimp.
Jim writes for Leeds Living on contemporary music, bringing gigs alive for readers who couldn’t be there.