Please Explain: Rappers in Concert

After watching Kanye West do everything in his power to wreck The Police’s set during their Live Earth appearance, it dawned on me that I’ve rarely heard a rapper good in a live setting. Let me mention that I’m not a rap hater. While I do think the whole genre has been pretty stale over the past few years, rap music has produced a lot of classic works. The one thing rap hasn’t done is consistently produce compelling live performances.

During the early 1990’s, musical festivals were at their peak, providing some of my favorite musical memories. My greatest musical experience was 1992’s Lollapalooza, which featured a lineup of the Jesus and Mary Chain, Lush, Ministry, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The only mediocre performance of the day was by Ice Cube. Ice Cube was at his peak at the time, with a number of great songs in his playlist, but he couldn’t come close to translating the power of Amerikkka’s Most Wanted or Death Certificate in person.

My second favorite festival show was at WOMAD 1993, which featured James, Crowded House, Lenny Kravitz, and Peter Gabriel joined by special guest Sinead O’Connor. Not only were these acts uniformly top-notch, but rap-inspired groups PM Dawn and Stereo MC’s were every bit as good. While nowhere as influential as an artist like Ice Cube, these bands had the ability to present their rapping with some musicality.

This is the major problems with most rap acts in a live setting, as the best samples and turntable gymnastics don’t translate well in a live setting. It seems to be harder to actually rap than it is sing in front of a live audience, considering how so often the vocal elements of the genre becomes a monontony of "Party People in the House Say Oh Yeah" time after time after time.

The only rap acts that consistently make for good live performances have brought instruments to the party, like the Roots or the Beastie Boys. Two of the greatest live acts in the history of rock and roll music are James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic. Both also happen to be among the most sampled artists playing in the beats that have appeared on rap records. As great as bands like Public Enemy and De La Soul were, they lost some of what them made them special when they played live, as the samples and turntables just don’t translate well to the live experience.

Despite how badly most rap music sounds during a live performance, all award shows feature the top stars in the genre. Outside of a rare performance like LL Cool J, whose charisma and power sold Mama Said Knock You Out or the amazingly cool style of an MC like Rakim, most rap performances fall flat, without a live band supplementing them.

So throw your hands in the air…and wave them like you just don’t care. When an MC says this at a concert, it’s like they are reading my mind, because I truly don’t care…don’t care to hear rap music from a stage.

Please Explain Rap Music during a live performance. I dig Beck, but why I should appreciate just 2 turntables and a microphone, when I’m at a concert hall?

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Quick review of Al Gore’s Live Earth spectacle. It fell mainly flat for me. Where were the major artists who make me feel passionate about political issues? (U2, Rage Against the Machine, System of a Down, Rise Against, etc.) Sorry, but Madonna and Duran Duran don’t cause me to feel much connection to climate change.

Kudos does go out to Cameron Diaz and her sexy legs going on forever in her short shorts. When she introduced Gore, I felt a serious case of global warming going on in my shorts! (Can I get a drummer, please?) Yes, whatever you say Mistress Cameron. I must buy a hybrid and use only 2 squares of TP per day.

17 thoughts on “Please Explain: Rappers in Concert

  1. 1.  I drive a hybrid, but make up for it via my TP consumption. Or something.

    Live rap? I think a big part of why some don’t like it stems from the whole MC aspect — it’s a party, y’all, and we have to buck buck buck like we just don’t care. And, well, having been raised on rock I don’t care which side of the auditorium can yell louder, just as I don’t care which side of the Wrigley bleachers sucks harder. (The answer is both.)

    Your main point drives to a bigger question: can a live show in which most of the sonics aren’t being played live be any good? I mean, the turntable jams shown in Juice get me going, and I can imagine where something like that would be fun to attend — those dudes are playing.

    But having been to two Public Enemy concerts and seeing Terminator X mime doing the deejay thing while MIDIs or tapes or whatever supplier the music left me feeling let down, perhaps in part because both shows also had rock bands on the bill. Even knowing that tapes and offstage keyboard dudes “enhance” U2 and Rush performances leaves me a bit cold. But then, I love New Order, and lord knows the older they get the more canned certain aspects of their performances become.

    File under: non-answer.

  2. 2.  I’m not even a fan of this group, but it was one of the best live performances I’ve ever been to: The Roots in Central Park in the late 90′ was quite a show.

    Otherwise, I have found live rap shows lacking. Mainly, I think the turntable sound doesn’t translate well.

  3. 3.  I heard Talib Kwali when he came to UCLA. There were a couple of opening acts that were incredibly lame that left me wondering if it was a waste of time being there (particularly MF Doom, he has been good on albums but was terrible live). But man, Talib was awesome. Justin Timberlake’s Futuresex/Lovesound tour was the best “show” that I have seen in my limited concert experience, but the crowd at UCLA was pumped for Talib. When he capped it off with “Beautiful Struggle”, along with an extra verse railing on current social and political absurdities, the crowd went wild. He let his DJ spin for an extra 20 minutes and let some people from the crowd come on stage and dance. Greatest lyrical performance I will probably ever see…

    The best rap concerts are underground artists. Jurassic 5, Quannum, Talib Kwali. Unfortunately, current rappers have CD’s that are heavily overproduced, where the rapper is supplementing the beat and sound, as opposed to the other way around. Take away that clean production, and no dance moves, and you are left with a mediocre rapper and 40,000 fans wondering why the song sounds weird.

  4. 4.  DMX came to Columbia, MO recently and I just had to go – not because I thought the concert would be a quality musical experience but because I wanted to sit actually see that crazy mamajamma stand up in person and croak out ‘Wheeeeeeeeres My Dooooooogs Aaaaaaat??’

    Other than that, it was crap. I think that is the reason people go to see Snoop in concert. Not because they expect awesome musical experiences, but because they want to say they’ve been in the same room with Snoop.

    The Pharcyde was by far the best rap concert I’ve ever seen, and they had live instruments up there.

    On a side note, I never liked Twista much but after seeing him perform I can’t stand him. He only rapped 1-1 1/2 minutes of his songs, then went right into another one. That was pretty retarded.

  5. 5.  Rap…isn’t…music. That’s not to disparage the genre or its fans, but the thrill of live music is to see the interplay of musicians — whether it’s the Miles Davis Quintet or the Sex Pistols. Rappers don’t really do that. They speak, not sing, and they are backed up by prerecorded beats and samples, not actual musicians. Is there a single rap record with a memorable solo in it? Can a rapper bring the house down by hitting a high note? No, it’s all about spittin’ out the words in the precisely planned way rappers do.

  6. 6.  Rap is all about the producing. The magic is in the production room, not in the performance. Same reason why I wouldn’t want to see Eno in concert.

  7. 7.  5. Rap is music, even if you don’t like it you can’ deny that it is music, plus that answer doesn’t really explain it, because if the fact that it is not music is why it is not good live, then how do you explain the popularity of beatnick poetry readings in the 50’s. To me, 6. tells you all you need to know, rap , especially over the last 20 years is all about the production room. The only rap concert I went to that I ever really liked was Tribe Called Quest, at a small place where it was more like a party, which is what rap music originally was, just party music.

    4. You live in Columbia? I went to high school there. Used to go see Uncle Tupelo every other week at The Blue Note.

  8. 8.  5 – False. Rap is music. It is a music which trades primarily in rhythm, and a rapper’s use of his voice is much more akin to what a drummer does than what a saxophonist does. Does that invalidate it as music? Of course not. The assertion is ludicrous on its face.

    As far as “memorable solos” go, there is many a DJ who has offered up many a memorable solo, first of all, but beyond that, there’s a hell of a lot more to music than solos. Virtuosity for its own sake is boring. Rap is much more about songcraft, the recombination of elements to make something new, than it is about stroking your instrument until something happens.

    Music is the arrangement of noises into an ordered whole. Hip-hop and rap certainly qualify under that aegis, and to me, they’re a hell of a lot more interesting than hearing the same people pursue the same tired horn-and-guitar ideas that American music was all about in the 20th century. You’re not require to like rap, but to deny it the status of music is to render everything else you say suspect by association.

    As far a live hip-hop shows, it all depends on what you’re seeing, and how much the performers care. There are a certain number of rappers who will just mail it in, show up and talk at you and then screw off. But a great hip-hop show, with a great MC and a good DJ creating music on the fly, can be a pretty amazing experience. Unlike what you might expect, a dedicated DJ can make every concert different, and not merely the rote flipping of switches, which is what most people who can’t get on board with hip-hop assume all hip-hop shows are. And yes, some of them are like that. Good ones are.

  9. 10.  When rap began, it was more interesting live, because for the most part it was fun, party music. From Kurtis Blow to Run DMC to Doug E Fresh, it was about having fun. (Grandmaster Flash being the exception.) This type of party music was more infectious in a live setting.

    With the advent of Gangsta Rap, the music became ferocious in style and message. The attitude and sound really connected on record, but the lack of melody and fun made it hard to listen to in a live setting.

    I don’t know if this makes sense, but it’s my breakdown, now that I’ve thought a little more about it.

    While I think Rap as a genre has grown really stale, I really value its contributions overall, up until around 2003. Maybe something will come out that will revive my interest?

  10. 11.  Because the MCs don’t practice doing it while running around and frontin’ an maxin’, and as a result they run out of breath and lose the syncopation, and lose the flow and then they have nothing.

    Also, the sound is always broke ass. They run the mics way too hot, not sure if they do a sound check, but the MCs always stick the mic all up in their grills, and overrive it.

    So out of breath, off point MCs + Broke Ass sound = bad live experience.

    Even Tribe let me down when I saw them live.

  11. 12.  I suspect part of the reason is that hip-hop artists don’t aspire to play great shows when they’re coming up – they just want to get access to the best producers and get their album to drop, then promote the crap out of it. Conversely, all rock-type musicians I know aspire more to play great gigs when they’re coming up, because that’s where the excitement, energy, and money is. Rock musicians dream of the big gig, and rappers dream of the big album.

    I saw a lot of Hip-Hop and Rap sets in college and was consistently disappointed, bit there are a few solid performers that have already been mentioned here: Pharcyde, Jurassic 5, Xhibit was surprisingly good. But Coolio, Warren G, Busta Rhymes were among the worst sets I’ve ever seen in any genre. It didn’t even seem like they were trying.

    I later learned the reason my college kept booking these acts to play was that they’re much, much cheaper than a “good” band playing rock or something similar. This might also explain their relative lack of execution: motivation.

  12. 13.  7. – Yep, in Columbia. You a Rock Bridge or Hickman guy? I sub at Rock Bridge pretty often.

  13. 14.  Wowzers. I grew up with Hip-Hop, so I saw the infink stages as an infink myself, and loved the Golden Age with a passion, but now I’ve almost completely distanced myself from it, with the total takeover of Hip-Hop by corporately-sponsored production mills. Let me say this about live performances: it’s almost an apple-orange comparison, since the purpose of the genre is almost completely different than with traditional music.

    In early hip-hop, you were involved with the music and the vibe the music created; thus Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa were purveyors of the rythm and controleld the tempo, not necessarily the message. As Graham Central Station and Sugar Hill Gang elevated the purpose of the emcee in an almost novelty fashion, they also changed the expectations people had of what was becoming known officially as Rap. Kurtis Blow certainly solidified those expectations with a slicker, in-depth invocation of griot-style rapping.

    As Scott alluded to, the delivery and purpose changed dramatically with Grandmaster Flas and the Furious Five’s “The Message” (even before that, Flash and Afrika were rivals who “battled” by having face-off sets to see who could get the crowd to respond the most to their sets, and those battles were usually won by the deejay with the loudest system).

    Now that there was a legitimate purpose for the emcee in a rap record, the focus of the music turned to their lyrics, and the quality of the lyrics and deliveries were analyzed within the subculture as the mainstream only began to become aware of the music, which many thought to be either horrendous noise or an evil confluence of ghetto mentality/lifestyle and corrosive or non-existent morals (“jungle” music, how original).

    As time went on, the shifting of importance between the emcee and the deejay became nominal with the advent of the producer (someone who could build complicated, yet signature rhythms for one or more performers) and how the producer eventually transcended the group from which he was spawned and systematically took over the majority of airplay among rap artists. That was also by design, by theway, thanksto the corporations which finally figured out a way to take advantage of the obvious economic interest in rap music after discovering that suing artists into submission or non-existence was not necessarily working.

    All that to say this: rap concerts were and are for the most part an economic side-effect of the popularity of an artist or the genre itself. Rap music is an expression of written or stream-of-conscious thoughts, which are not necessarily practiced in repetition in the manner of instrumental forms of music, like rock, jazz or classical. That is not to say that some rap artists do not practice their form, but that rap is inherently a form of music that feeds on the energy of the listening audience, and does not necessarily confine itself to quality of repetition.

    That most rappers lack skills in playing instruments or reading composition takes it further from a performance-based genre. However, the original purpose of rappers was not to perform in a repetitive manner live, but to generate a response with the ingenuous play of words set to a body-moving rhythm. You don’t see people dancing at a classical music concert (very often, anyway), and you wouldn’t expect to sit quietly and listen to a rapper recite rhymes to a heavy beat. Even the most conscious rappers; the ones who are clearly thoughtful and intelligent in terms of what they rap about and how they construct their rhythms and flow are also conscious of the rhythms that fall behind that, because that is what propels the audience.

    I taped Run-DMC in concert in the eighties at Nassau Coliseum, and though I was disappointed in the quality of their voices and performance, that was balanced and even set aside by the excitement of the audience and the electricity the created in person.

    That is likely how today’s rappers, despite the meaningless and cruel messages they replay in their music nowadays, overcompensate in concert by ramping up the audiences’ ability and desire to participate. Come to think of it, that’s how it’s always been done, hmm?

    There’s more to it than that even, but that goes along the same lines as other genres of music; i.e. the ability and desire to perform live, the creativity in putting on a show, and the charisma of the artists themselves, etc. etc. But this should at least begin to explain it…

  14. 15.  Great Stuff, Chyll Will.

    Here are 2 things I want to add.

    I know that many are stating that rappers today are all about the producers. Good enough, but then why do some artists like what the Police did during Goreapalooza, allow rappers to wreck their songs? Yeah, I know it might make you seem hip, but it is killing the music.

    Also, why don’t these rappers take a cue from people like Ice T (Body Count) and add musicians, so their live performances are better? It seems like a good business decision.

    Some of the best live bands of the past decade featured front-men who rap or do a some kind of facsimile of it. (rage against the machine, nine inch nails, kid rock, beastie boys.)

    The merits of rap-rock produced by bands like Korn, Papa Roach, Linkin Park, and Limp Bizkit can definitely be debated, but their live performances created an amazing energy.

  15. 16.  There are a certain number of rap acts that use live musicians, most notably Roots, who are in fact not a traditional rap act but a band whose front men are not singers but rappers. Lyrics Born also tours with a band, as does Mos Def, though Mos Def sadly does not take full advantage of his band and has a tendency to play the same show over and over again. (My pet theory is that he does this because he’s decided he’s an actor, and doesn’t invest enough time in his music. But that’s another discussion.) There are also a number of sub-Roots live band hip-hop acts, notably Felonious.

    All that said, one of the best live shows I’ve ever been to was DJ Shadow, who had nary a live musician onstage. It’s not rap, per se, but it is amazing music made on the fly, with turntables and samplers as the only instruments.

  16. 17.  Since this is the second time the Roots have been offered up in the comments section, I want to remind that I did mention the Roots (and Beastie Boys) as being exceptions to my point.

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