Freddie Gibbs Killer Mike Montreal Jazz Fest festival

Photos by Frédérique Ménard-Aubin

Hip hop at the Montreal Jazz Fest: Freddie Gibbs and Killer Mike were night and day

A tale of two mics.

About an hour before opening my laptop to write this column, I experienced a pang of nostalgia as I walked up the front steps of a venerable downtown music and bookshop. For anonymity’s sake, we’ll call it “Inexpensive Excitements.”

Between both hands and with a large purse hanging at her side, a woman balanced her smartphone and the edges of a paper bag containing a vinyl record as she stepped down the stairs, checking her phone and looking up at the street, presumably getting her bearings. 

One step ahead, a boy no more than 10 or 11 years old, holding a sizeable and brimming boutique shopping bag by its handles, half-faced the woman, doing that kind of hyper, side-step dance shuffle that only a happy kid can pull off confidently while descending a concrete staircase.

“Mom, Igor is such a great album!” he enthused. “Because before Igor, Tyler was…”

All the times that I convinced my parents to buy me cassettes and CDs, on childhood trips downtown or away on vacation, flooded in at once. 

There’s 12-year-old me explaining how Fear of a Black Planet wasn’t just rap music, but an investment in my education. 

There I am at 15, describing how Incesticide isn’t a studio album and that the sound quality on the CD is going to be a lot better than on the cassette I copied by taping over something else. Plus the sleeve was collage art created by the singer, who was more than just an average rock star.

And a week or month or year later, there’s me explaining why I’m wearing a shirt bearing a pile of human skulls that says “Dead Kennedy’s Holiday in Cambodia.” No, it didn’t come from the Gap, where yes, I told you I was going. It came from the Bay Area (or at least Dutchy’s) and by buying it we were supporting independent music instead of corporate greed. 

A hundred other parallel situations play out in my memory. There are my parents, losing interest in my teachings halfway through, looking around the parking lot or street trying to remember where we had left the car. And thankfully, deciding to just let me be myself, a kid who loved music, without much further questioning.

Then my mind flashed to a great Instagram post shared by the Montreal International Jazz Festival a few days ago. In it, groups of friends and individuals in their late teens and early twenties were asked who won the battle between Kendrick and Drake, and who they’d love to see perform in Montreal while waiting for last Sunday’s free headlining show featuring U.S. rapper and actor Freddie Gibbs and NYC band El Michels Affair.

Hip hop at the Montreal Jazz Fest: Freddie Gibbs and Killer Mike were night and day

Impossible to know how many other participants didn’t make the cut, but the answer was unanimously “Kendrick,” and more than one concert-goer suggested Tyler, The Creator would be a great fit for Jazz Fest. Can’t argue with either.

I didn’t cover the Gibbs x El Michels Affair show in my first set of reviews for a couple of reasons, the main one being that I only stayed for about 20 minutes. Also, I had just finished being mind-fucked by André 3000’s flute. 

And frankly, I’d seen Gibbs twice before and never been left with a sense that I’d seen anything special. I thought that perhaps with the addition of a live band (especially one that has headline appeal of its own) and with the crowd that would be attracted to the festival’s largest outdoor stage on a long-weekend Sunday night, things would be different.

No offence to Gibbs or his fans. He’s a talented lyricist and MC with a stage presence. His collaborations with exalted L.A. producer and beat conductor Madlib, plus Gibbs’ solo releases, have their place in the canon of underground rap. He is a favourite rapper to a lot of hip hop lovers and I even get why. 

But he’s boring. As observers on social media remarked, and as I’ve noticed before, too, he gets too stoned on stage. And as a personal observation, he is too into being Freddie Gibbs. At all three festivals I’ve now seen him play, he behaves as though the audience came to see him personally, and not to experience his performance. 

He goes through the same motions on stage, bantering about himself, overusing the term “motherfucker” as if it were 1983 and he was the star of Delirious, and getting the crowd to yell “Fuck police!” between every song until the message loses all meaning. 

What makes matters truly frustrating — and, granted, I didn’t see the entire show — is that the band on stage with him could have headlined Jazz Fest on their own and had the spotlight to themselves. I don’t know if El Michels Affair was given time to shine sans “Gangsta Gibbs,” and I’m not even suggesting that they should have. It was, after all, a collaborative effort. 

Freddie Gibbs is a legitimately respected hip hop artist, and he’s easy to digest, which makes him perfectly presentable for a wider audience. Despite his credibility, he’s also a non-rap fan’s idea of what a gangsta rapper is. That’s fine for Jazz Fest, but I didn’t have to see this entire show to understand that El Michels Affair was underused as a headliner and that Freddie Gibbs on his own would have made for a more intimate fan experience at a venue like MTelus.

Which, it so happens, is where I saw my favourite concert of the 2024 edition of Jazz Fest (and perhaps of the year so far) last Tuesday when Killer Mike, accompanied by five-member gospel choir the Midnight Revival and his long-time DJ and Run The Jewels bandmate DJ Trackstar, brought last year’s triple Grammy-winning MICHAEL to life with the Down By Law Tour.

The word “influencer” gets tossed around, so let’s forget what we think that means and simply credit the Atlanta-based MC for the consistent social impact he’s had over the last decade-plus. Not to speak of the fact that he’d already shared a Grammy with OutKast well, well before becoming a marquee name in hip hop outside his hometown, Killer Mike is a performer and activist who found himself with a podium and used it wisely, influencing everything from hip hop, fashion and weed culture to voter policy and even party leadership nomination races. His decision to back Bernie Sanders as the Democratic candidate in 2015 helped the Vermont senator achieve rock-star status among young voters and political junkies who stuck around to see what this old guy throwing up the Run The Jewels hand signal had to say well past the primaries. 

And what’s crazy is that I’m oversimplifying. Let me put it this way: If I was a teenager petitioning my parents to buy me a Run The Jewels album, my praises for how Killer Mike and El-P managed to commodify their respectful underground rap GOAT-level statuses into a credible social force AND an indie hip hop juggernaut that can basically print its own money, while also staying humble…well, it would get on their damn nerves but they’d admire my conviction. 

Delivering the personal anecdotes and experiential life lessons of gains and loses, successes and failures, and ultimately the humility behind the gospel of MICHAEL (his first solo outing since 2012’s pre-RTJ, El-P-produced R.A.P. Music), Killer Mike showed his Montreal fans what it means to be in something together by bodying the mic. 

So kid, wherever you are now with your copy of Igor, and whatever you were explaining to your mom, just keep doing what you’re doing. ■

Read our report on week one of the 2024 Montreal Jazz Fest here.

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