El-P & Killer Mike unite for politically potent performance at Altar Bar

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Though no concert ever goes exactly as planned, Killer Mike has a formula for his live shows: The first half delivers a hefty dose of anger, passion and raw emotion; the second half sees his performance transform into a celebration, showcasing some of his more jubilant, up-beat tracks; and the third half is dedicated to his fans.

But the 38-year-old Atlanta, Ga., rapper was not performing alone Saturday night at the Altar Bar.

Just over a month after releasing their album "Run the Jewels" free of charge, Brooklyn producer/MC El-P joined up with his partner-in-rhyme for a show in Pittsburgh. Even though the two distinctly different solo rappers chose to split their time on stage for the majority of the show, their hatred for corruption and greed united them, confirming why El-P & Killer Mike have become one of underground hip-hop's most powerful forces.

"[The police's] boots was on our head, they dogs was on our crotches/And they would beat us up if we had diamonds on our watches," rapped Killer Mike, leading the crowd in politically-charged songs like "Ronald Reagan" only a few hours before the verdict for the controversial Trayvon Martin case was delivered.

The often political southern rapper's hatred for what he deems to be a corrupt U.S. government comes through in a less-than-blunt way in most of his songs, which call for the American people, regardless of race or religion, to educate themselves on their situation in order to better it.

"What's exciting to me about working with Mike is seeing where our cultures, our influences become one thing," said El-P, speaking in an interview before the show on the way the two successful solo artists have merged to create one sound. "And you'd be surprised about how many parallel lines there are."

As Killer Mike continued his solo set, often closing his eyes and shaking his head from side to side as he yelled into the microphone, another part of his concert formula became apparent: In-between each song, Mike delivered a sermon-like segue to the crowd that used the theme of the upcoming track to create a seamless transition.

One such instance involved Mike discussing his storied career, which has included working with groups like Outkast, Jay-Z, Ludacris and The Game. Before the song was played, however, Mike made sure to pay his respects to his fellow group member and friend: "This is produced by the great El-P!" he yelled into the mic as the sound emitted from the speakers sent the crowd jumping.

"We knew that to everyone else [El-P & Killer Mike] would be crazy. Not because it is crazy, but because we've all boxed ourselves into a corner in the way that we think about music," said El-P, who believes that music has become lost in a sense of subculture, division and homogenous region.

By the time the second half of Mike's set was finished, the vibe had swung from passionate anger to the unbridled happiness of a party. Mike even taught the crowd a new dance move -- which involved putting your dukes up like a boxer and then lowering them in unison to the bass-heavy beat -- before performing his verse on the track "Thom Pettie" off of fellow Atlanta rapper Big Boi's 2012 album "Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors."

When El-P replaced Killer Mike on the stage, with the help of an electric guitar, a keyboard and other instrumentals, the show quickly started to sound like a punk rock show.

With a set that included a guitar solo, a flurry of airy electronic noises and El-P ferociously rapping into the mic, the energy level once again reached a fevered pitch, only this time it was as if the crowd was witnessing a performance by a mix of Rage Against the Machine and Brother Ali.

Even El-P's interludes took a different, less-rehearsed approach.

"I'm angry right now, and I'm taking it out on this crowd tonight," he proclaimed, before beginning a track off his critically acclaimed 2012 album "Cancer for Cure." His rage carried on in tracks like "Tougher Colder Killer" and "The Overly Dramatic Truth." He would later dedicate a heartfelt song to Martin.

By the time El-P & Killer Mike both took to the stage together, entering to the George Thorogood classic "Bad to the Bone," it was already 11:15 p.m., a time when most groups would be ushered back out for an encore. Instead, the group's latest album "Run the Jewels" became the encore, performed nearly in its entirety, including tracks like "Sea Legs" and "36 Inch Chain." The friendship between the two artists made for a performance that seemed as natural as the half-hug that is synonymous with hip-hop.

"Oh god, what are the first week sales gonna be?" said Mike jokingly before the show, referencing the hype over the recent album release battle between Kanye West, J. Cole and Pittsburgh's own Mac Miller. Just as in the performance of their new album, the group seemed stress-free. "None. How 'bout that?"

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Andrew Gretchko: agretchko@post-gazette.com or on Twitter @Andrew_Gretchko.


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