Musicians are barely getting a slice of music industry revenue, largely eating off of live performances instead. For ’Tour Tales,’ we dig into the rider requests, delayed shows, diligent preparation, and future of touring by talking with the multitude of people that move behind the scenes. Record executives, photographers, tour managers, artists, and more all break down what goes into touring and why it’s still so vital to the livelihood of your favorite artists. What happens on tour stays on ‘Tour Tales.’
Confidence is a required when you’re partly in charge of the sound of one of the biggest rap duos of the 2010s. Trackstar the DJ is confident because he’s seen Run The Jewels’ rise.
“It’s been amazing to watch it go from 200-300 person clubs in 2012 to headlining a show for 8,000 people or performing at festivals for 40,000 people. It’s really gratifying,” Trackstar told REVOLT about Run The Jewels’ concerts.
In this installment of “Tour Tales,” the duo’s longtime DJ explains El-P and Killer Mike’s off-stage dynamic, its live shows, and why he’s excited to hear the new album live.
You first deejayed for Killer Mike in October 2009 in Atlanta at A3C Festival. What was that experience like?
The first show was crazy. The way it came about was nuts. He put his phone number in an interview and I called him on a whim. He answered the phone, we talked for a while, and I ended up doing a mixtape with him. I met him a day before the show and asked if he needed anything while I was in town. I was a huge fan and wanted to help any way I could. He said, ‘I’m opening up for Rakim tomorrow. Do you want to deejay for me?’ That was mind-blowing. The show wasn’t super complicated since we didn’t rehearse or anything. He just gave me the music, plug and play, and made sure I dropped everything at the right time. I had been deejaying for 10 years at the time. I obviously did a good enough job that I got to keep working with him. I wish there was more video of it. [The year] 2009 had camera phones, but it wasn’t like it is now where everything is videotaped.
Before you became the DJ for Run The Jewels, did you continue to deejay for Killer Mike after that first show?
At that time, I was living in St. Louis and was about to move to San Diego for the first time. We stayed in touch. If he was on the west coast, I’d do a show with him. We bumped into each other at South By Southwest in 2011, I believe. We ended up doing four shows there. I bumped into him in the street and he told me he had four shows, and wanted me to deejay them. At the end of the last show, he announced to the crowd, unbeknownst to me, ‘I want to introduce y’all to my new tour DJ, Trackstar.’ I really wish there was a video of that moment. I was behind the turntables like, ‘Oh shit, I don’t even know what that means at this point and time. I live in California, but I’m down for whatever.’
That was around the time he first linked with El-P. They didn’t form Run The Jewels until 2013. When did you know it was formed and you’d be part of the touring?
Spring 2011 is when he made me his DJ. He dropped Pledge 3 that spring, as well. He went on [the Grind N Hustle Tour] with Dee 1, Young Dro and Pac Div. He asked me to deejay that tour. My fiancé and I were living in L.A. at that time. The neighborhood we were in wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great. On that tour, I would’ve had to deejay for all four artists, so the money really didn’t add up for me to leave my wife alone and in that neighborhood alone. So, I ended up saying no to that, which is super crazy. It was the right decision based on what was going on.
Later that summer, I was talking with Mike’s manager. He told me, ‘It’s tough with you being on the west coast. It doesn’t make sense to fly you out for some of these gigs that don’t pay that much. If you lived in Atlanta, it would be different.’ I got off the phone, turned to my wife and said, ‘Baby, maybe we should move to Atlanta.’ I was kind of joking, but then I thought about it. I said it again and I was serious this time (laughs). She had a jewelry business and she could move anywhere she wants. So, two months later, we moved to Atlanta. That’s when he started working with El and the following spring, he put out R.A.P. Music, which El produced. We toured with El and that first tour was so much that Mike and El decided to make it a thing. That’s the beauty of Run The Jewels. It’s entirely based around their friendship and fun. It’s not about it making business sense because, in a lot of ways, it doesn’t. But, they make it work well.
What is your role in a Run The Jewels show? How has it evolved over the years?
When we went on the tour with Mike and El doing solo sets, El had a band. For Mike, it was just him, me and a hypeman. The first Run The Jewels tour (in summer 2013) just combined all of that. It was incredible how they did that. We’d do a 30-minute Killer Mike set, then El and his band would do 30 minutes, then we’d do a 30-minute Run The Jewels set with the band, myself, Mike and El. When they told me that’s what they were going to do, I freaked out. They were opening up for themselves, basically. After that tour, they had it in their mind to be a Run DMC type of thing with two MCs and one DJ, and not so much with a band. It just became the three of us onstage. It just became the three of us. I play music. I do the backup rapping, and I got the best seat in the house.
Over the last six years, what’s been the most memorable show?
That’s tough. Glastonbury (on June 24, 2017) was the biggest crowd we performed in front of. We did a show in Glasgow (on August 24, 2017) where we opened for Eminem and that was crazy. A lot of my favorite stuff has to do with the artist that we open for because I’m such a hip hop fan. We’ve had shows where we’ve had Nas come out onstage with us. The summer that Outkast did all those shows, we did six festivals with them. It’s hard to pinpoint one. There’s a lot of good memories. I always think of this one show that may have been in Barcelona. The power cut out onstage, so not only did the music not work, but the mics didn’t work either. We were mute up there. Mike and El had an impromptu dance-off (laughs). It was beautiful. They could’ve yelled, ‘What’s wrong with this shit?,’ thrown the mics down, and walked off stage. But, Mike started dancing and El did his little Riverdance thing.
They are fun personalities. What are some fun things you all do on tour?
We all love smoking weed, especially if we’re in a place where that’s a thing like in Amsterdam. I really like nature, so every time I get a chance, I love to go hike or go to a park. We also all do things outside of music. Mike gets off stage and is thinking about his barbershop. El is thinking about the things he’s working on. I got my video stuff and radio show. We all stay super focused.
What’s their dynamic off-stage?
They take turns taking the lead. Obviously, Mike is a massive personality. But, they both are in their own ways. That’s the beauty of it. Mike will tell a 45-second speech and it’ll be amazing. El would slip one line in there that balances it out. It’s a lot of give and take. They’re born a month a part. They have so many similarities. They’ve been through everything you could go through on a stage.
You mentioned opening up for Eminem. What were the interactions between Run the Jewels and Em?
I actually had to plot to be involved in that situation. I knew they were going to meet him at some point. As the DJ, my role is that I’m part of the group, but I’m not part of the group. It totally makes sense for me to be included, but it also makes sense for me to not be included sometimes (laughs). After that show, I followed the tour manager and was on his heels. I was like, ‘Yo, where are you going? Where are you going?’ He was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to Em’s compound. I want to see if it’s cool for the guys to come by. I was like, ‘Alright, cool.’ He goes to the door and says, ‘Em wanted to see the guys’ and Em’s security was like, ‘How many of you is it?’ I just leaned over and looked at him like, ‘Yeah, how many of us is it?’ (Laughs). He was amused by it and was like, ‘Alright, we have four.’ I was like, ‘Yes!’
Royce [Da 5’9] and Mike are the first two artists I did tribute mixtapes. They’re two of my favorite rappers ever. Being in the room with all of them was crazy. I was there just playing my role. It was a short conversation. Em had to get onstage. We all just wanted to connect.
How have the Run The Jewels live shows changed over the years?
Onstage, the biggest difference is we have our own lights now. I think we started using lights on RTJ 3. The music has got better. We’ve all got sharper with certain things we do. The presentation hasn’t changed that much. It’s still two best friends having fun. The music’s different, but the vibe’s still the same. They’re still these two incredible, witty, big-hearted, entertaining dudes. In the last couple of years, we’ve had two buses instead of one. We have a bigger crew. It hasn’t changed a whole lot besides the crowd getting a lot bigger. These days we’re less concerned about a show selling out. We pretty much seem to sell out most of our shows. We’ve done a good job of staying on the road, which keeps people engaged and coming out. We’ve had fans that have been to 18 shows.
Even at the start, Mike and El had really diehard fans, but it might’ve been two or three in each city. It’s crazy to see now that they’re waiting outside the fence hoping to catch a glimpse of the bus go by. It’s been amazing to watch it go from 200 - 300 person clubs in 2012 to headlining a show for 8,000 people or performing at festivals for 40,000 people. It’s really gratifying.
How has their trust in you changed?
It’s amazing and a great responsibility to have. I’m happy to be the backbone they can depend on. There’s never been a Run The Jewels show without me and, God willing, there won’t ever be one. They know if they forget a couple of their words, I’ll most likely have their back. I make it my business to know not only the last two words of each line. I try to know the whole line. If someone gets too high and I have to fill in two whole bars, I try to be able to do that. Like most DJs, part of me wanted to be a rapper. But, there’s a lot of reasons I’m not a rapper. But, it’s cool because I get to be a little pretend rapper up there.
Have they ever recorded music on the road?
There have been times when they’ve popped into a studio to finish something up. But, when they go into album mode, they kind of shut down. The last year and a half has been the least shows we’ve done because they’ve been working on this album. Since we got off the Lorde tour, we’ve done maybe 12 - 15 shows. In 2017, we did 119 shows or something like that. They’re pretty good about getting the work done in the off-time, so by the time we get to tour time; it’s go, go, go.
Do you know if they make music by thinking of how it’ll be received live?
I’m honestly not sure how much they take that into account in the process. I can see pluses and minuses with that. When I first hear their new music, that’s what I’m listening to. I’m hearing it and picturing the type of venues we’re going to be playing, and how well it’ll work. I can’t say anything about the new project, but that’s one thing that I’m excited about... I listen to it and it all sounds like it’s going to bang live. I’m excited to hear it onstage for the first time.