BY ANDERS SMITH LINDALL
For the Sun-Times
AUSTIN, Texas -- Rap royalty came to Austin on Thursday night in the form of Ice Cube, LL Cool J and Public Enemy. But while hip-hop's former kings were cavorting for an exclusive crowd on a garish corporate-sponsored stage, a young prince -- Atlanta MC Killer Mike -- was proving he now deserves the crown.
The contrast couldn't have been starker. The superstars were ensconced behind a high fence, surrounded by satellite trucks that webcast their appearance to the world and dwarfed by giant ads for the snack-food corporation that was footing the bill. The hulking Killer Mike -- so named for his deadly tongue -- paced beneath a tent in the back yard of a bar in an outlying location, armed with nothing but his intellect, humor, ferocity and a DJ for backup.
Born Michael Render, Killer Mike is no secret in the rap world. His 2012 album "R.A.P. Music" was critically adored by the "beloved jaded bloggers" he playfully teased last night, and the new project he previewed -- a collaboration with the underground icon El-P -- seems destined for the same.
What he called his "ghetto gospel over gutter songs" was even more compelling in live performance. Over the minimal accompaniment of DJ Trackstar's beats and scratches, Mike rhymed about violence as cold reality not cartoon fantasy in "Big Beast," and about oppression as systematic not partisan in "Reagan." He celebrated his wife -- "If you have a cool old lady, make some noise," he implored -- and his roots, goofing with a drawl that gave "Southern" three syllables. And he poked fun at hip-hop tropes and at himself, striking a pose with arms folded and then laughing, "That's an old school move. Guys end the song and stand like this. I don't even know why!"
Killer Mike was recently added to this summer's Pitchfork Music Festival lineup.
Downtown, the hip-hop kings basked in attention and adoration, reliving old glories to further a marketing scheme. Out behind the bar, Killer Mike just went to work, educating and entertaining. Maybe one day, his commercial success will match his outsize talent like his big personality does his bulky frame.
Anders Smith Lindall is a Chicago music critic.