Let’s get a couple things straight first.
1. “Wait, so this guy’s saying rap sucks?”
That’s not true. The genre is doing quite well in the studio. I think the last five years alone have provided at least ten fantastic hip hop albums – the types of releases with real staying power. This question is only addressing the live performances.
2. “Well I went to a rap show and it was a blast.”
Same here. In fact, I’ve been to plenty of great rap shows. The problem is that I’ve been to way more that were far from it. I’m not saying that every rap concert is bad. I’m just saying that most aren’t being creative anymore.
I’m not here to bash rap music because I love this genre. The problems aren’t with the rap music produced today. Rap is as interesting now as it has been since the early 2000’s.
No, the real problem has everything to do with the performances. Doesn’t it seem like every rap concert is a product of the genre’s most negative stereotypes these days? It’s easy to shoot down the genre when it spends most of its time providing ammunition. You can expect to be asked to throw that middle finger in the air 3-4 times, to scream “Hell yeah!” if you love smoking weed and to “turn all the way up during this one” for about… 45 seconds. The funny thing is that rap music has always done this. Maybe it felt more fresh in the 90’s.
Regardless, something just isn’t working anymore.
These shows weren’t always bad, but now their time has passed. DJ music looks totally different than it did 20 years ago. Rock music has always been diverse, but continues to add new sounds and live elements each year (see: twentyonepilots, Imagine Dragons, etc.) Country music is even becoming broad with stars like the Tates Creek Killer Luke Bryan selling out shows on farms while Bluegrass bands thrive at festivals and Country-Soul revivalists like Sturgill Simpson ignite the genre. What about rap concerts feels any different than two decades ago?
If you’re asking me, not much. A perfect example was seeing hip hop legend Snoop Dogg in Cincinnati over the summer. Snoop’s stage is pretty standard; there is a DJ playing his instrumentals on deck pushed to the back, one mic waiting at center stage for him. To his credit, other notable figures like Daz Dillinger and Warren G were there. The trio ripped through Snoop’s classics with intermissions of various other hits over the years like “Jump Around” and even “I Love Rock n’ Roll.” The West Coast Dogg-Father may have done all he could to tease out nostalgia from the audience, and that’s okay. This show was good – fun but not truly memorable. Really, there was a better opportunity waiting for him.
Snoop Dogg’s BUSH was his greatest release in at least a decade, with some arguing it as his best since his debut. In my June review, I wrote, “This album is a new birth for Snoop, taking more influence from inspirations than ever before. Pharrell takes Dr. Dre’s P-Funk to new heights that Snoop hasn’t experienced before – and for the most part, it’s really enjoyable.” Heading to Cincinnati, I was expecting a Snoop concert as fresh as his latest album material. BUSH felt perfect for a live band, with Snoop Dogg singing as well as performing full band renditions of classics like “Nothin’ But A G Thang” and “Lodi Dodi.”
My expectations were high, which made for a louder thud when they were immediately dropped when the show began.
Snoop performed with a DJ, which was underwhelming but not a deal-breaker. The nail in the coffin? He didn’t play a single song from BUSH. Why pass up on great new material in favor of 80’s rock songs you had no hand in?
It felt like a wasted opportunity.
You can imagine how the rest of the show went. Middle fingers were thrown up, the crowd was encouraged to scream “Fuck” various things, Snoop mailed in verses from his hits and the show was over in under an hour. I shouldn’t sound overly negative here – this show was a good time. We were close to the front, jumped around and heard a couple songs we grew up loving. It’s only regrettable because the show had potential to be one of the best five I see in 2015. In the end, I’m not sure I’d say it was even one of the best 10.
Until I saw Joey Bada$$ last Friday, I’m not sure I’d seen a really great rap show all year. Joey gave me a little hope. He performed the standard rap show, moving through the typical points. But he performed with a sense of purpose that was escalated by song choice and crowd involvement. That’s a tough balance to strike. For example, Big K.R.I.T. is a rapper that leaves it all on stage. But I’ve seen him twice and came away at least a little underwhelmed both times. Sometimes it’s not enough to bring the energy. You have to bring that energy that encourages your crowd to reflect it right back.
So let’s quickly consider some of the people that are keeping things fresh. Joey Bada$$, Chance the Rapper, Action Bronson all come to mind first.
I hate to feed the stereotype, but Joey really does feel like a 90’s time capsule. His show feels like rap’s oldest conventions are being performed for the first time.
Bronson is similar, but his knack for creating crowd enthusiasm and energy with his humor and antics is unmatched. No one can get a rap crowd stirring like Bronson because he’ll rap songs literally walking in circles through the crowd.
Chance brings a new school attitude to performing that is much appreciated. He tours with The Social Experiment, and they give a new flavor to songs that make them feel surprising live. Chance is the most unpredictable rap performer I’ve seen live, and that’s a rare quality for the genre. No wonder his tours are consistently selling out – he actually sounds different live! It took a modern rapper long enough to figure out the value in that.
There are obviously other examples. Mac Miller toured with The Internet and that did so well they released a live album, something unheard of in rap. These are the rappers I appreciate so much. You’re doing something new – so thank you.
Now there are some common denominators for the best performers in hip hop: unmatched energy and live bands. The ground work has been laid, it’s right there for the taking. Energy is a tough sell – that is easier said than done. But I’m convinced that no rap show is better off for only having a DJ. Even Yelawolf, who primarily has toured with a DJ in the past, recruited a guitarist to add a layered “live” feeling to his instrumentals that pays off great. That’s a cost-effective way for a cheap genre to sound bigger during a performance. I’m begging rappers to get creative with their DJ setups. Most of these DJ’s aren’t even scratching anymore, instead just clicking on certain instrumentals in a playlist.
That is the bottom line: these people just aren’t being creative. For every Chance the Rapper, there are 10 forgettable performers. Its unfair for an excellent genre to be so misrepresented. Rap music purists will tell you that this is how the genre has always been, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’d tell those people to see Snoop Dogg in 2015. You know what else worked really well in 1995? VCRs and cassette tapes. If everything else moves forward, why should rap music be so privileged to not adjust? It’s cheating the audience and the artists themselves out of a great opportunity to do something special. No one benefits from this.
And the decline is raising more than eyebrows, it’s raising serious financial questions. In 2013, traveling rap festival Rock The Bells was forced to cancel the remaining dates halfway through its run due to weak ticket sales. The lineup included Wu-Tang Clan, Kendrick Lamar (and all of Black Hippy in certain cities), J. Cole, Kid Cudi, Tyler, the Creator and more.
Guerilla Union owner Chang Weisberg released a statement following the cancellation: “We did everything in our power to save the show. Unfortunately, the financial loss would have been devastating.”
Devastating. It doesn’t help that this was the festival’s tenth anniversary. Rock The Bells was an established festival with the right financial backing, but ticket sales proved that rap music was trending down and the audience was backing out.
For 20 years, rap music did its job and allowed festivals like Rock The Bells to travel across the nation. But as we creep deeper into the 2010’s, things continue to look ugly for live hip hop.
The original rap concert format had a good run. If there’s any chance for the future of rap concerts, there will be more risks. Otherwise, who knows. There will always be rap concerts. But at this rate, I’m not sure there will always be rap concerts worth going to.
As a fan of the genre, I sincerely hope hip hop paves a new way. There’s no other option anymore.
LFI Columns run every Sunday afternoon. Check back each week for the latest opinion on concert trends.