“Fuck Ronald Reagan!” she screamed. She was diminutive, the vitriolic words juxtaposed by blonde, straight bangs capped with a tight little top knot, the chunky gold hoops framing her cherubic face and her cut off flannel vest, the tartan constructed from the soft, warm hues of mother of pearl pistol grips, strawberry saltwater taffy, and raw salmon steaks. Appearing far from the uniform political dissident, and with no trace in her attitude or demeanor before her outburst that would point to her as being a particularly angry young woman, there was only one explanation for her aggression: she was being coaxed by the man on stage in a black tee and bright orange Miami Marlins cap, one whose power did not simply come from his intimidating stature, although he was a kodiak of a man, who commanded the crowd before him, our Reagan hater included, with little more than a microphone and his music.
This man, who carried the nom de guerre Killer Mike, had an entire venue full of predominantly young and hep people — many of whose knowledge of Reagan and his policies was likely as dubious, as their memories of his presidency — with middle fingers high, burying an actor’s legacy as they suffered from it. Dear God, what kind of power can this rap music have?
Any emcee worth his salt can move the crowd; it is as integral to his rapping as flow, rhyme, and timbre. One of the form’s most incredible sights is watching one or a few rappers, with little more than microphones and a DJ, not only completely and wholly force everything but themselves from the audience’s existence, but to also enthrall them, forming disparate hearts and minds into one head nodding, arm swinging organism, a willing colony stronger than its separate parts, a veritable man-of-war. There is no sharper distinction between artists than their stage presence; it supersedes everything, even pure talent, as becoming the overriding factor as to whether one gets it, buys in, and allows the music to take control, or does not.
Some rappers accomplish the feat with sheer energy, or, in the case of Rick Ross, overwhelming gravitas. Others, like Action Bronson, perform so sublimely and intimately that one is helpless to resist. Massive beats overwhelm, delicate beats beg to be scrutinized — thereby monopolizing thought — and a cappella verses show off raw microphone skill. An artist can live or die by any of these tactics, and few places are crueler crucibles than the stage.
Few acts can exercise such complete power over the people like the Bottom Lounge bill did. Despot, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, the aforementioned Killer Mike, and headliner El-P were in the West Loop on July 6th, and they flexed their muscles with an ease and artistry that was neigh incomprehensible, a demonstration of talent and skill and more than a little voodoo.
Diminutive Despot, unfairly perhaps the least known rapper on the bill (battling eXquire for the right), had the audience doing aerobics — a shadowbox-esque shuffle run, starfish arms, and Swedish Chef pantomime fist pounding — when not performing songs laced with bars delivered with the sharpness and humor of an icepick with googly eyes. His self-depreciating attitude played well with his formidable talent and boastful lyrics, adding up to a stage persona that was approachable while trading in acid. Tales of his diva behavior (“I took a shower before coming on stage,”) and laziness — he copped to killing Definitive Jux because he was too lazy to drop an album — were part of a playful banter that one requires if they wish to make the audience perform a routine seemingly lifted from Sesame Street, which they did. Despot’s flinty and piercing lines were best put to use on “Look Alive,” in which he decimates the beat from Ratatat’s fine “Glock Nines” remix and “Crap Artists,” a song that punctuates his flow with stomping brontosaurus beats and the grime one expects from a Def Jux associate.
Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire leapt on stage with a surpassingly lithe grace that invoked the leopard print jacket he was wearing, and proceeded to tear through a high-energy set that came as fast and hard as a train wreck. His trademark thicket of necklaces in various shapes, colors, and textures bounced off of his unabashedly pouched midriff as eXquire pulled all into his loose, strange world. Rubbery voiced and enthusiastic, his songs are wild, crudely intelligent, like Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings, and infectious. eXquire is the gut of New Guard hip-hop, the man in the trenches, so to speak, the one whose lyrical abilities are most keenly hidden beneath a drunken haze. Crowd favorite “Huzzah” is perhaps the perfect example; a sing-song hook and refreshingly organic feeling fuck-the-world mentality that turns Necro’s nasty “Scumbags” into an unabashed party anthem, and perhaps one of the most clever ones, at that.
All of the rappers could make the crowd jump like a cattle prod, but El-P proved to be a masterful wizard, shepherding his flock from atop a forever dark stage through some of the most byzantine and Cimmerian production imaginable. He rapped with the venom and precision of a cottonmouth with a laser scalpel, channeling the dystopian passion he has always trafficked in and providing the most accessible of high level music.
Cuts off of Cancer 4 Cure dominated the pre-encore set. Flanked by live musicians, who electrified pieces with banshee wail guitar and screaming, tortured synth solos, El-P opened with the EDM-laced “Request Denied” before going into “Full Retard,” the most approachable of the album’s songs. It is exhibit A for an aspect of Cancer 4 Cure that may be lost in the shuffle: the fact that, for as brutal as the cuts are, they are sometimes held together by rusted, chummy hooks that, while the antithesis of El-P’s historically rococo lyricism, are crucial for crowd mastery.
“For My Upstairs Neighbor (Mums the Word)” would have been almost too much to bear if we had not gotten to sing along; same goes for “Tougher Colder Killer,” performed with Despot and Killer Mike. There was little respite between numbers, which combined with the dark stage to form a highball of exquisite terror and a rousing performance. “You’re going to tell me what I want to here,” he commanded, to which the crowd’s only possible answer was “yes.”
Post-encore El-P tore through a set of older tracks, including a crowd pleasing rendition of “Vital Nerve,” wherein screams of “matic” rained down upon him. Basking in the glow, he admitted that it was not lost upon him that he could perform a song from 15 years ago and still have the crowd hang on every word, the piece as potent as it ever was.
Killer Mike was the perfect counterpoint to the headliner, same color, different shade, his animosity channeled through the righteous ground level fury of N.W.A. or Public Enemy. Poignant and highly politicized, his voice, masterful and muscular and most aptly compared to Scarface, inspired frenzied response to his music, which too bubbled with ire. Mike’s R.A.P. Music was one of the best rap releases of the year, and the crowd vibed with every selection off of the magnum opus. A guest spot by El-P helped fuel “Butane (Champion’s Anthem),” while “Willie Burke Sherwood,” dedicated to father figures, showed that the emcee’s depth of feeling was not relegated to rage.
There is no doubt, however, that rage is the medium in which Killer Mike works best. His scathing “Reagan” was that rarest of all beasts, a truly bipartisan political statement. He lobbed grenades at both sides of the aisle, cheered on by a glittering wave of middle fingers.
Intercut into the set were older tunes, including raucous renditions of “Never Scared,” “God in the Building” and “Kryptonite,” the last of which was performed from the middle of the crowd, what Mike deemed “Gangland.” Compared to the multifaceted fury of El-P, the rawness of Despot, and the tongue-in-cheek Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, Killer Mike’s straightforward, unflinching set was the embodiment of rap music at its most unadulterated.
It was a beautiful violence Killer Mike and El-P traded in, a poetic aggression that, despite its acerbity, one could dance to. After the Bottom Lounge emptied, I sat dazed on the Ashland Station platform, waiting for the Pink Line above Lake Street. El-P’s performance in particular was brutal and demanding, an assault of sound and skill, one reaching in and rattling your thoracic cavity while the other liquefied the frontal lobe. It left those who had witnessed it battered and bloodied, and we had screamed for more. Now that is power.
B. David Zarley is a freelance writer based in Chicago. You can find him on Twitter, @BDavidZarley, or check the bars around Wrigleyville on any given night.