Bottom Lounge is one of Chicago’s finest venues, with a number of extremely strong attributes. For one, they have the best beer selection of any music-centric establishment in the city — always a major selling point of any quality venue. They have one of the most consistently crisp sound systems as well. But possibly the best thing they have going for them is their fearless strategy of booking just about every genre. We’ve hit up numerous jam, electronic, and hip hop shows there in recent months, and they have a heavy rotation of hardcore, metal, and punk of which we haven’t even scratched the surface. About the only thing we haven’t seen there is bluegrass or jazz, but it wouldn’t be much of stretch to see bands like Greensky Bluegrass or Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey pop up on their calendar at any time. On this muggy July night, it was another hip hop show that piqued our interest: the recently formed tandem of producer/MC EL-P and lyrical wizard Killer Mike.
Let’s just cut to the chase: it was hot as balls in Bottom Lounge. One of those summer shows where beads of sweat seem to seep right out of the air and land on your skin. But it’s just one of those things you suck up and deal with when you’re in a room full of rowdy people in front of a stage where extremely talented musicians perform. There were a couple of another hip hop artists who performed just before Zlatko and I arrived, but we arrived in perfect time to catch the very beginning of Killer Mike’s set. Fresh off the release of one of 2012’s best albums — R.A.P. Music — Killer Mike set out on tour with EL-P (who produced the album) to form an unlikely & contrasting combination of styles. Mike’s set was the typical brief but dense set of hip hop that covered a large portion of the new album. The political bomb “Reagan” was a serious high point as he got the entire crowd to put their middle fingers in the air and yell FUCK RONALD REAGAN a bunch of times. Dude did not pull any punches when it came to his contempt with American politics, casting a wagging finger at a wide scope of issues, even strongly criticizing some of Obama’s tactics. It was a very honest display, a truly refreshing thing to hear an artist ‘leave his lane,’ as it were, and voice his opinions on a larger scope than music. Often times these things can come across as preachy, contrived, or downright out of place but with Killer Mike it felt genuine, like he was just telling it like it is.
But it wasn’t all politics, Mike was on a mission to get the crowd hyped and he did just that when OutKast’s “The Whole World” rolled out. It was a condensed version with a couple of hooks surrounding Mike’s section, but it instantly engaged everyone and got us singing along. Then EL-P came out for “Butane,” his lone guest rapping role on R.A.P. Music and one hell of a gritty song. Then, right at the end of his set, Mike called for a photographer to get to the stage. Naturally, I jumped up there. He jumped down off the stage, leaving me alone up there until one other photog arrived, and made his way into the crowd for one last song immersed in his fans. Needless to say, this was really fun, definitely like no photo op I’ve had before. What a damn good way to start the night.
The good shit kept coming when EL-P, flanked by a plethora of instruments and three-piece band, came out rocking a straight up electro dance beat that almost felt as aggressive as MSTRKRFT. But as he moved through his set, the parallels to the Saul Williams show I saw earlier in the year at Bottom Lounge became apparent. He also focused on his most recent album, Cancer 4 Cure, which has moved in a gruff hip hop-upon-punk direction much like Williams’ material has. EL-P has long been known as an ‘alternative’ hip hop artist and this show was a showcase of his genre-bending style. With potent electronic elements, huge percussion elements, and utilization of distorted electric guitar, his brand of hip hop has veered well off the beaten path. While EL-P’s lyrical style wasn’t quite the virtuosic nature of Williams (I mean, who can actually hang with that? Saul Williams is in a league of his own.), it certainly wasn’t anything to sneeze at. He was very impressive in his own right, with a distinctive style that featured pace changes like few MCs I know. He would often completely change the pace of his lyrics, moving from slower, well-spaced sections quickly to rapid bursts of words like a rollercoaster of lyrics. His band was sharp, putting everything they had on stage to use, cycling through various elements from a wide array of genre influences. There isn’t much better than music that seems ‘produced’ played out in front of you with live instrumentation like that. Much like a live electronic show, a live hip hop show feels like something special.
EL-P came out for an extended encore with a medley of old school hip hop that gave everyone something familiar to hang onto. Then he played one last song, an original that had a softer, throwback hip hop energy that must have been from one of his earlier albums. It was a great way to end what was one of the most progressive hip hop concerts I’ve attended. Chalk up another fantastic hip hop show for Bottom Lounge, they always book the best ‘underground’ artists and this one was as good as it gets.