He the Deejay

Tom Horgen

El-P and his Def Jux monolith hovered over Minneapolis several weeks ago. But underground hip hop has felt this looming presence for more than a year. Since mid-2001, when El-P introduced Cannibal Ox to planet Earth, his Def Jux label has been bombarding hip hop with new sounds and new voices. The line up is staggering. El-P, along with Can Ox, Aesop Rock, Rjd2 and Mr. Lif have smothered the musical landscape with a barrage of classic albums, all in a year’s time.

The Revenge of the Robots Tour is the sequel to last September’s Def Jux and Rhymesayers extravaganza, Who Killed the Robots. The fun doesn’t stop when naming tours, does it? The roster has been trimmed, with only the three hottest Def Junkies in attendance – Mr. Lif, Rjd2 and El-P. Like all of Def Jux, these guys represent the past and future of hip hop. Mr. Lif wields a political flow chiseled from the bedrock of Rakim. Rjd2 brings more power back to the DJ and is Shadow’s most fierce competition. And like an umbrella hanging over all of Def Jux is El-P’s electro-heavy, planet-hopping production. Slap these pieces together and the future is quite shocking.

Since the best comes last, and without tattooing anyone, let’s make like Memento and walk backward through Revenge of the Robots.

The main event had El-P and Mr. Lif performing side-by-side – sort of a one-two punch to keep things fast and furious. They went back and forth, one dropping a verse and the other playing hype man. This quick pace was maintained by Lif’s striking hand gestures. With one stroke the next song would explode.

Lif was a ball of fire on stage, neurotically charged and commanding. When the crowd first saw him, only one thing could be said. Dreadlocks. Big, crazy dreadlocks. They looked like bulky tentacles, sculpted to perfection. Beyond hairdos, though, the duo sprinted through the most punishing joints from El-P’s four-month old “Fantastic Damage,” Lif’s summer masterpiece, “Emergancy Rations” and tracks from his still simmering LP, the new “I, Phantom.” There were a few pauses, though. After a staged beef between the two MCs, younger heads were beamed back to the Run-DMC era for a senses-shattering b-boy pose down. New school b-boys chuckled throughout First Ave.

The two hit their sonic apex when Lif unleashed the rolling thunder of “Phantom,” his proletariat battle cry from “Emergancy Rations.” Afterward, they jumped right into “Tuned Mass Damper” where El-P proclaimed, as if nobody knew, “I’m El-P, I produce and I rap too.” His electronic, booming production on these two behemoths filled every inch of First Avenue. And where do you go from there, after “sonically robbing a nation?” George W. Bush, of course.

It wouldn’t be a hip hop show without a shout out to our commander and chief. El-P ignited the flames and Lif kept pouring the gasoline with his ferocious critique, “Home of the Brave.” He rocked the second verse acapella – the venom sinking in with “Bush disguises his blood lust as patriotism/ convincing the living to love ‘Operation: Lets Get ’em.'” He then turned the burners on high and just cooked. It’s one of the few hip hop songs addressing America’s transformation since 9-11.

It should be mentioned that Rjd2 opened the show, manipulating two sets of turntables at once. And Cage and Copywrite performed together, following the same formula as El-P and Lif. Unfortunately, their lyrics painted them as crazy, weed-smoking misogynists. Or maybe they were critiquing such idiocy. It doesn’t matter, because this was El-P and Mr. Lif’s night. Oh, and the sound was a little rusty, but it always is. That’s hip hop, smooth or dirty, it always sounds good and it’s always gripping. You can’t stop the monolith.