Killer Mike | XOYO | 21st May, 2013
It’s hardly a revelatory observation that humility and modern hip-hop make for unlikely bedfellows. Since the dawn of gansta rap in the mid-nineties, the genre has fermented into a concoction of brashness, bling and braggadocio.
All the more refreshing that Michael Render – for our purposes Killer Mike – emerges on stage at a packed XOYO with a smile, a DJ and not a hype man in sight. The Atlanta native may have recorded one of the defining hip-hop records of the past decade in last year’s El-P-produced ‘R.A.P. Music’ but the only baggage that the 38 year-old seems to carry tonight is his considerable frame.
The point really does bear repeating: no matter how many interviews you watch, or how many reviews you read, nothing will prepare you for the contrast between Mike’s furious lyricism and his cheerfully gregarious on-stage persona. One minute the rapper seems acutely preoccupied with paying respect to his fans, the next he’s in full-flow savaging Ronald Reagan or railing against police brutality.
The incongruence only intensifies the impact of the music. Initially tempered by some poor levelling and DJ-related technical mishaps, the stuffy basement venue – better known for its disco house nights than hardcore rap shows – is soon bouncing to a fierce, pounding set than culls heavily from last year’s aforementioned breakthrough classic. ‘Big Beast’, ‘Go!’, ‘Don’t Die’ and ‘Butane’ are all present and correct.
Mike prowls the stage throughout, leaning into each flawlessly-delivered verse and playfully demanding the capacity crowd get involved with virtually every song. Playful or otherwise, as he casts his gaze on the front row – and your correspondent – few dare not comply.
As the night continues, the crowd loosen up and become far more boisterous, much to Mike’s apparent delight. “This feels like a homecoming,” he says, grinning ear-to-ear as the audience roars in approval.
At one point a studious-looking fan calls out for a track from an early EP and Mike seems genuinely humbled, taking time to wax lyrical on his days trying to pay the bills by selling CDs out the back of his car. Then, as though with a flick of a switch, he’s back to political proselytising and disavowing organised religion (in front of a guy wearing a turban, no less).
If there’s any justice, even at this comparatively late stage in his career, ‘R.A.P. Music’ will catapult Mike into the same stratosphere as some of his golden age forebears (and OutKast collaborators). If so, this could be one of the last times the veteran plays such an intimate venue in the UK.
Not that we need worry. Jumping off stage and wading through the crowd as he wraps up his set, Mike takes time to personally say thanks to as many fans as possible, promising to head straight to the bar after the show. Rest assured that wherever Mike goes next, he’s taking us with him.
© 2013 James Francis Thompson | Never previously published