Words: Jonathan Shecter Originally published in ego trip #6, 1996
What the hell was he thinking? I asked myself the question again as I filed out of the venue with thousands of other dejected fans. Our eyes were vacant and our conversation was listless, but we all saw it. None of us had said anything yet, but we all heard it, we were all thinking it. How could it have happened? The lyrical God Rakim had taken the stage about forty minutes earlier, mic in hand. Actually, he had risen out from below the stage, hoisted into a giant pyramid as money-green laser lights flashed around him. He had strutted in front of the crowd like a king, draped in a halo of shiny gold. Over 20,000 fans screamed, a sold-out arena full, our mouths open and arms outstretched. In front of our eyes and ears was the poet prodigy with a voice that melts steel – this is who we came to see. Eric B. had cued up a record, and then it happened. The microphone fiend broke live hip-hop rule number one. Rakim rapped over his own vocals. Now, let’s think about that for a moment. It was 1988, mind you, and Paid In Full was already a certified classic. As headliners at the full-size Philadelphia Spectrum, Eric and Ra had obviously put money into their set, creating lavish designs that emphasized their status as the biggest players in the business. They forked over mad loot for the costumes alone – those custom-made, Dapper Dan, Fendi leather items. They were at the peak of their fame and glory. Now it was time to deliver, and what did they have for their fans? A sped-up, whiny, processed cheese version of Rakim’s voice emitted from the speakers as the lyrics began. It was painful and obvious as Rakim’s real voice struggled to match the pitch and intensity of the recorded version. The resulting sound was a discordant mush, an anti-harmony that got progressively worse as the song and the set went on. Nothing happened onstage. No dancers came out – nobody moved much at all really. Rakim just paced back and forth as Eric B. stood blandly behind the turntables. It was like watching a live concert video with shitty sound. Even worse, you had to stand on your seat and wait until the damn thing ended. Why was Rakim even there, I thought to myself, it might as well have been a cardboard cutout. (Speaking of cuts, don’t even get me started on Eric B.’s look-ma-I-got-my-first-turntable performance on the wheels that night: like fingernails on blackboard.) I knew in my heart and I said to myself, “This isn’t what a rap show should sound like.” Let’s shoot to Atlanta for one of the infamous Jack the Rapper events. Here we find Kool G Rap – another emcee widely recognized as a lyrical genius – preparing to go onstage in front of a packed industry-bigwig crowd. Mind you, this is a jaded bunch, difficult for any artist to impress. But we’re talking about Kool G Rap, a rapper whose catalogue of hits includes numerous classics with profound rhymes and party-rocking beats. Party-rocking, that is, if the artist could remember his own lyrics. As G Rap shuffled out onstage and began his show, it became increasingly clear that absolutely no advance preparation had gone into this performance. DJ Polo was on the wheels, basically just cueing up records and hitting “start” as G Rap drunkenly lisped into the microphone, dazed and confused, occasionally glancing at his DJ with a “What are we gonna do next?” look. They were like two ships passing in the night – with nobody behind the wheel of either one. Again, the audience was treated to a vocals-over-vocals sound mush, a listless, half-hearted display of “skills” that deflated any excitement the hit songs might have generated. This low point got even lower when G Rap lost his place in the middle of “Streets of New York,” leaving the recorded vocals running while he stumbled and struggled to keep up. There were dozens of people in the crowd who could have kept those lyrics flowing without missing a beat. Why couldn’t the artist do it? Unfortunately, these experiences are not isolated ones. More often than not, live rap shows suck big donkey dick with a crazy straw. I’ve seen piss-poor performances of all different shapes and sizes, in venues large and small, among new jacks and rap veterans up and down the East and West Coasts. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve also seen many incredible, energized live shows in my day. I’m not at all sleeping on that handful of rappers who’ve got the lock down on live shows: Redman (a rock n’ roll maniac onstage); Doug E. Fresh (truly a great entertainer); A Tribe Called Quest (always come sonically correct); Wu-Tang (now that they’re more in sync); Biz Markie (humor always gets props); Luke/2 Live Crew (believe it – sexy-ass dancers keep it hyped); Biggie (a cannon for a voice box); anything involving DJ Premier or Dr. Dre (great producers who understand the liveness); and of course, the master of them all, that godfather of live hip-hop – KRS-One and his mighty BDP crew. Still, too many emcees and DJs need to absorb some basic facts about live performance – to learn from those who do it well – before they dare step on stage again. Now, I’ve been lucky when it comes to live hip-hop. I grew up in Philadelphia, which was the first city that caught hip-hop fever after New York. Because of its close proximity to the five boroughs – just an hour and a half down the turnpike – Philly became a mecca for rappers looking to make a quick buck off their newfound fame. In the mid- to late-’80s, before insurance hassles and an aura of violence engulfed major rap concert tours, we were host to the biggest names in the business. Season after season, show after show, Philly became the spot where rap stars would flex their muscle, strut their stuff, and promoters would make mega-loot. It was almost too good to be true, with each successive bill out-doing the previous in terms of the numbers and quality of stars. Back in ’84, we hosted the Fresh Fest One, with Run-DMC, the Fat Boys, Whodini, and Kurtis Blow on one stage, and the best b-boys in the business on another. We were the biggest stop of the Radio tour in ’87, featuring LL Cool J, Eric B. & Rakim, Public Enemy, Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Whodini, and Stetsasonic – all in one night! I was there for Chuck D’s greatest hip-hop memory of all-time – the 1988 Spectrum show with Kool Moe Dee, Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, Boogie Down Productions, and Public Enemy, when Nation of Millions was the absolute hottest, most revolutionary record on the street. I saw UTFO, Salt-N-Pepa, and the Real Roxanne (or “Rocksand,” as the bootleg T-shirts hilariously billed her). I saw T La Rock, Doug E. Fresh, Salt-N-Pepa, even N.W.A, who rocked the set with a slick, exciting show that clearly had Dre’s professional touch. When I came to New York in ’88, my streak of concert attendance continued, but the venues became mostly smaller clubs. I’ve seen everything from new jack emcees who just got a deal to veterans on their last legs. I remember Leaders of the New School at Car Wash before they had a record, and Brand Nubian at Irving Plaza when they just a had a single – being introduced by Ice-T, no less. I remember the whole room jumping like madmen when Das EFX took the stage at the old Muse on Canal Street – “They Want EFX” hadn’t even come out yet, but already everyone knew the lyrics word-for-word: pure hip-hop energy. I was there when Queens-based emcee Mikey D won the emcee Battle for World Supremacy, knocking out MC Serch and others, only to be challenged by a shirtless, pumped-up Melle Mel. (Melle and Mikey traded rhymes, both solid emcees, but Mikey too the crowd when he looked towards the old schooler and said, “Yeah, I’ll give respect where respect is due/ Nah, fuck that, I’ll give respect when my rhyme is through!” Melle wasn’t impressed; he grabbed the huge leather championship belt from Mikey’s shoulders and left the venue unchallenged.) And oh yes, I’ve seen KRS rock the set probably fifty times, everywhere from S.O.B.’s to the Paramount Theater to the Supper Club to the legendary show at a barren gymnasium on the Lower East Side called Cuandos that became his great Live Hardcore Worldwide album. The point I’m making is that I’ve been to enough live rap shows to offer an educated opinion on what works and what doesn’t. I’m tired of being bored and disappointed. It is with the betterment of hip-hop in mind that I now offer the following simple guidelines for a successful rap performance – for the sake of the fans and the artists.
Rule #1: Keep Everything Live.
There’s nothing worse than waiting 45 minutes for a rapper to take the stage, only to hear someone say, “Roll the DAT , yo!” before they even introduce themselves. From that point on, we know we’re gonna get a pre-packaged, TV dinner performance – no crowd interaction, no spur-of-the-moment freestyles or DJ breaks, no go-with-the-flow spontaneity. Fuck that.
DJing is where hip-hop started and it is where the essence of the art form remains. A live DJ is an essential part of any live show – he or she must control the flow of the set, making the transitions smooth and livening up the party with cutting skills and exciting drops. Rappers: if you don’t have a talented live DJ, you will inherently suck when you get onstage. Bottom line: there is no room for a pre-recorded show in hip-hop – it simply goes against the basis of the art form itself.
This becomes even more important when it comes to the vocals: if they’re pre-recorded, why even bother performing them? Anyone who pays good money to attend a rap show does not want to hear the record; they can do that in their own home, for free. Above all else, use an instrumental for every song that you do! I can’t stress this enough.
But wait, I hear the amateurs whining already: “We don’t have an instrumental for all our songs… what about the album cuts?” Then press it up, dummy. KRS has been doing it for years. Every time he makes an album he record an instrumental version of every track and presses it on a separate piece of wax, either as singles or as an album of all instrumentals. This simple task costs only a few hundred dollars and guarantees that he will always rock a party. DJ Premier does the same thing, making Gang Starr shows and any others that he spins (such as his remarkable collaboration with Branford Marsalis at S.O.B.’s in ’91) incredible freeform events where true skills are displayed – the way it was meant to be. Even as recently as the big “Old School Throwdown” that Hot 97 put on, MC Shan stepped to the stage with pre-recorded vocals and barely got the crowd to stop booing in his face. Kris came out and rocked hit after hit, 100% live. Who do you think won that little battle?
Rule #2: Don’t Blame the Sound Man.
It is so tired to get up onstage, have your levels wrong or the sound mess up somehow, and then put on a whole cocky “Fuck the sound man!” routine. I’ve even seen rappers threaten to kill the sound man after the show, or waste time urging the crowd to chant disses against the hapless guy in the booth. For any rappers doing this, I have news for you: you look like assholes. We know the messed up sound isn’t your fault, so be constructive about it. If a mic isn’t working, stop the show, point out the problem and fix it (this is another problem with using a DAT – you can’t pause the performance if something goes wrong). If it still doesn’t run right, work around it. During one BDP show that I saw, one of the turntables completely lost power. Lesser artists would have ranted and complained, stopping the show and losing all the energy of the room. But Kenny Parker – knowing that momentum and energy is everything – kept the hits coming with just one 1200.
Rule #3: Organize.
Look, we’re (usually) paying money to see you perform. The least you can do is take some time and put together a nice little show. We’re not looking for much – just a dope routine, your hits, maybe a couple of freestyles and then you’re outta there. Don’t let your ego get so huge that you think simply appearing on the stage will have us running to the record store to pick up your latest release. (Ol’ Dirty Bastard is perhaps the one exception. Before his album dropped, he rushed the stage with other Wu-Tangers at a Def Jam party at The Palladium and drunkenly commanded, “Give me a fucking round of applause!”)
Keep the show exciting, and consider adding elements to make the performance more lively. Dancers are okay, especially if they’re female and sexy. Should you have a Flavor Flav-ish hype man accompany the rappers? Probably not, this only works for a limited few. (Remember Too Big MC – Hammer’s boy? Yikes!) As I said, a great DJ is a huge plus, so consider giving him a solo spot to show his skills. Above all else, put in some rehearsal time; this is your job as an artist. If you’ve ever seen Salt-N-Pepa perform, you know they work extremely hard on their show, and it pays off with the huge response they always generate (granted, they’re often performing to larger venues and more crossover crowds). In the end, you don’t need a lot of bells and whistles; if you’ve got skills it should be enough. But don’t walk out there and look like an idiot. Know what you’re gonna do and keep it tight.
Rule #4: Give the People What They Want.
The rap audience is notoriously shortsighted and unfaithful. I’ve seen enormously talented artists literally get booed off the stage, while a one-hit wonder had the crowd screaming the same night. The general rule is unless you have a current hit, or you’re a rap all-star with a catalogue of classics, it’s gonna be tough to get the crowd behind you. This is especially true in New York, where rappers are often not afforded the star status given to them in other cities. Here, if you don’t catch the crowd right away, their response will be apathy or boredom.
So how do you overcome this? First of all, understand that hip-hop crowds primarily want to hear things they’re familiar with. That means rappers should primarily stick to their hits when setting up a show. If you’re a new artist you can still do a new single, but strongly consider using familiar instrumentals or break-beats for any other rhyming that takes place. By no means should you launch into three or four completely new cuts – that’s absolutely too much new material for the crowd to digest. Hot instrumentals and classic break-beats have a doubly good effect: kids will nod their heads to the familiar beat and they’ll pay closer attention to the lyrics since they already know the track.
Rule #5: Most of all, entertain!
By now, hip-hop is so huge in every big city around the country that every successful rapper in the business has performed in a huge variety of venues. That’s why it’s so dope to live in New York. This is truly the hardest and deepest testing ground for emcee and DJ talent. Entertaining us is not easy, but if you come correct we’re ready to get open and have a good time.
So surprise us – bring out a guest emcee, the wilder combination the better. One way to make the crowd jump like mad is to perform a hot posse cut. I’ve seen L.O.N.S. and Quest rip “Scenario” a few times, and I’ll never forget watching the first New York performance of “Headbanger” at a Source party in the old Mars; Redman destroyed the room.
Finally, don’t forget the old show biz adage, “Leave them wanting more.” Stopping your set at the height of the energy will leave the crowd mad charged.