I Might Be Wrong: Live hip-hop is dead

As we celebrate our nation’s birth this weekend, here’s something to keep in mind about the musical landscape: hip-hop is, and always will be, a truly American art form. And, oh, what a recent one, too. The genesis of rap is so young that Ken Burns might not be able to make a film on its impact for years to come. And while we should all proudly wear rap’s foundation on our sleeves, there are some troubling signs.

For every exciting sound from an Earl Sweatshirt, Big K.R.I.T. or Das Racist, there’s a flat Lil’ Wayne record or mediocre Eminem. The new Shabazz Palaces is stellar, but is it derivative of previous Digable Planets work? Forget all that “death of hip-hop” noise for now; it’s another issue completely and a baseless one at that. The concern, here, deals with what happens when rappers hit the stage.


Amidst all the Conan vs. Leno melodrama, Jimmy Fallon pulled a major coup in 2009. He tapped the Roots as his house band; the Roots! Long known as the the reigning kings of live hip-hop, the Philly group has doubled down on its reputation and enlivened in-studio performances from Raekwon and Ghostface, Big Boi, Talib Kweli, members of Odd Future and even Hot Chip. Not only has “Fallon” become the go-to spot for music — across the board — on late night television, the Roots have cemented its place in hip-hop history. They show up every night and they sound good once they get there.

The Roots have a distinct advantage over most live hip-hop acts; namely, they play instruments. The sound balance at a Roots show, whether in a theater or at a large festival, is flat-out going to be better than a DJ and a couple mics set-up nine times out of ten. But, many hip-hop artists can’t afford (or don’t want) full backing bands. And therein lies the problem: Most live rap is doomed before it even begins.

Speaking of: At the Monolith Festival in 2009, a few hundred people anxiously awaited a masked rapper’s set for almost an hour. When MF Doom finally came to stage (after allegedly finding out his check for the performance was legit), he wasn’t totally uninspired, but his gruff vocals were hard to hear and his hype men overwhelming. That is, of course, if it was even the notoriously fickle and mysterious Daniel Dumile behind the mask. A few months later, when I interviewed Doom for Time Out New York — completely via email, of course — he rescheduled his gig once only to cancel it outright later.

And while I don’t see as many hip-hop shows as some folks, I’d say it’s for a reason. The overt solipsism and swagger of rap can be appealing on record but, when it’s time to show up, many times it doesn’t translate into acceptable live music. The sound-mix oftentimes is completely imbalanced: either the vocals are inaudible or too loud. The performers take the stage far past a reasonable hour. The gigs only last for five or six songs. Why do we accept these blunders as given? Why do rappers get a pass for slip-ups that indie rockers or jazz musicians would be lampooned for?

Some anecdotal evidence: At SXSW this year, I found the most-hyped group, Odd Futrure, to have a set that was energetic but confusing and ultimately lackluster. (Beans was probably my favorite hip-hop act of the fest, the Antipop Consortium member laying down freestyle on minimalistic beats at a hyper pace. For that reason, Friday’s Tech N9ne show at the Fillmore might be worth a trip: his speedy, Micro Machines guy-like cadence will be, at the very lest, a talent to behold.)

The hip-hop powers-that-be have recently jumped on the ATP bandwagon and this year’s Rock the Bells mini-tour sees a whole host of acts doing seminal albums in full. But, I saw the GZA do “Liquid Swords” — one of my favorite albums of any stripe — at the Pitchfork Music Festival a few years ago and, really, I kind of just wished I was at home listening to “Liquid Swords.”

Up-and-comers can be fun: BLKHRTS were rambunctious and lucid at this year’s Westword Music Showcase. Its ascendancy is a good sign for Denver hip-hop. But, maybe, emerging rappers are just mentally forgiven miscues as any local band would be.

While many of my favorite live hip-hop moments have come with actual instruments onstage — whether it be a Roots show or when Jay-Z showed up at Phish in Brooklyn — my favorite rap performance in recent memory, alas, was Snoop Dogg at Bonnaroo. He was engaging, guileless and mirthful. He was not taking himself too seriously yet his sound levels — without the aid of a backing band — were on point. As oxymoronic as it may sound, the dude rapping mostly about getting super baked was professionalism in the flesh.

If this all registers as a sweeping generalization, it’s not. There are hip-hop acts worth catching live; it’s just that there are many more who are not. And a lot of those artists who, for whatever reason, can’t hack it onstage have crafted compelling and sound-rich studio albums. Now it’s time that the audience, those who are buying the concert tickets, demands more.

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Colin St. John is a Denver-based writer and merrymaker. Follow him on Twitter and check out his blog.