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Live Hip-Hop Sucks

Why are Jay Z and, er, Mac Miller the only people that can put on a decent rap show?

af Ryan Bassil
26 juli 2013, 10:04am

Photo via

Before a backpack blogger starts hate-crying into a relevant streetwear brand encased tablet, let me get one thing out into the open: hip-hop is in the best place that it’s been since parents feared that Slim Shady could be working in Burger King, spitting on their onion rings. In the same way that Eminem had twelve year olds threatening to stick nine inch nails into each one of their eyelids, collectives like Odd Future, Pro Era, A$AP and TDE are spearheading a movement that has both kids and old school veterans alike, excited. Then there’s the likes of Riff Raff, Action Bronson and Danny Brown, who are bringing personality back with hyper-realised individuality, while old blokes like Kanye West are producing records that not only sound like nothing else, but also have half of the internet arguing about what they even mean. Then there’s Young Lean.

So, why, with an array of hip-hop that could challenge even The Cheesecake Factory’s menu in terms of variety and excellence, do live performances still suck?

A few weeks ago, I went to see Kendrick Lamar in Poland. If you’ve ever been to a concert and come home to watch YouTube footage the next day then you’ll know that the two experiences are about as comparable as Kitty Pryde and Death Grips. In this case, however, if you got someone to stand in front of your laptop, violently eschewing your view of Kendrick and spilling warm Heineken over your hair, then you’ll have pretty much the same experience that I did. One that is distorted in sound, empty, and lacking in the same veracity as his recorded output.

It’s not just Kendrick. In the past few months I’ve seen a large proportion of “1Train’s” extended family. The majority of them believing that just by turning up and asking their fans to put their hands in the air, they’re detracting from the fact that no one is doing their job properly.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that all live hip-hop pales in comparison to other genres. On their Watch The Throne tour, Kanye West and JAY Z not only appealed to Kingston-Upon-Thames parents, but also proved that rap music could not just infiltrate the higher-tiers of live performance, but also smash it on the head. They stuck a steep (but very justifiable) price tag on their show, and rightly labelled it one of the best tours of all time.

The success of WTT is due, in part, to the work of Virgil Abloh, creative director of The Throne tour. Speaking on a VOYR documentary, Virgil explained, "The stage show is like, big and not corny. It's more like dialled-in Americana, Detroit[-inspired] real industrial look, which is cool. Festivals like Coachella are very art world and down that lane but this is like rock 'n' roll. I have this saying that, 'Fuck art, I like graphics'...I really do the whole art world and all that jazz, but I really like graphics." However, the success of the tour can’t be attributed just to the visuals, but also to the sheer power-combo of ‘Ye and JAY, who ensured that they not only performed a career spanning setlist, but also, that each bar was on point, furthering them from their already electric original versions. It worked, too, because while Kanye was throwing suicides on the tour bus, he was also reportedly grossing $1.4 million per night.

It’s important to note, though, that not every backpack rapper can afford a team of individuals to put together a tour. The reality is that half of them can probably just afford a two-bedroom apartment in a capital city if they manage to curb their weed habit. However, while fractions often speak louder than verbs, it’s the content that speaks louder than anything. Suggesting that a lavish tour expense is the sole provider of a good show is like saying that Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Worlds End, is the best film ever, because it cost $300 million to make.

A couple of months back, Mac Miller played to a small capacity venue in Brixton. The highbrowed hip-hop fanatic will probably stop reading at this point and turn his attention back to alphabetising his Talib Kweli collection. But, he shouldn’t, because the above performance is the most organic, soulful, and, for want of a better word, semi-iconic, I’ve seen in a long time.

Unlike most rappers, who weather their inability to keep up with their own flow by rotating between the same “put one hand up, put two hands up!” / “This side make some noise! Now this side make some noise!” crowd participation, Mac added a whole new sonic value to his tracks by coming on stage with Odd Future cohorts, and general purveyors of good taste, The Internet. This pushed the live versions of the songs above their MP3 counterparts, and created an experience rather than a cheap recreation. That’s what live music should be. Not a man shouting over his own record.

Oh, and if you scroll to 36:30, you’ll also see Mac accomplish everything that Lil Wayne didn’t with Rebirth.

It’s not that every hip-hop performance needs a live band. An artist like Tyler, The Creator, who raps over a backing track, can play a show with the certainty that the crowd will lose their shit as soon as “Yonkers” comes on. But, he doesn’t just press play and lazily splutter through tales of walking paradoxes and threesomes with a fucking triceratops. Instead, he wilds the fuck out, spends more time in the crowd than out, and generally, ensures that if you’re not having the best time of your life, you’ll at least leave with a kick in the ribs.

So there are examples, from both ends of the hip-hop spectrum, that rap can succeed in the live arena. It can be artful. It can be mental. And it can be a spectacle that deservedly earns more money than most guitar-playing counterparts.

But, as long as the rest of the rap world sees their live performance as simply their latest mix tape played at the highest volume through shit speakers, then it will continue to fester at the bottom of gig-going tables.

Follow Ryan on Twitter @RyanBassil

Read more on hip hop:

The Conspiracy Theorist's Guide to Tyler, The Creator's 'WOLF' Trilogy

My Thoughts On This Whole Danny Brown Oral Sex Thing

The Noisey Guide to Nardwuar Etiquette

riff raff
Action Bronson
Kendrick Lamar
tyler the creator
Jay Z
kanye west
Danny Brown
Noisey Blog
mac miller
Death Grips
Odd Future
the internet
Joey Bada$$:
watch the throne
Pro Era
Talib Kweli
Young Lean
Live Hip Hop Sucks