On conscious rap’s need to reconsider and improve standards of live performance excellence…
In seeing Lupe Fiasco, Erykah Badu and Mos Def – three of the most influential conscious hip-hop artists to date – in one week, it created a personal awakening surrounding a desire to re-consider how/if we should analyze hip-hop as a performance art? Is Hip-Hop a performance art? Arguably, it is. The mainstream music industry is now pushing not just hip-hop artists, but all artists into relying heavily on concerts as their most stable source of immediate income. Therefore regardless of whether it is a performance art or not, artists to perform well in order to survive.
Historically, hip-hop culture centered around a party where the emcee just kept the party going. However, if the emcee is standing in place rapping the lyrics to his own song couldn’t you just do the same while a DJ spins at a local club? Prior to this I have attended many Hip-Hop shows and the usual routine is the show starts late, an opening local unknown rapper bores the crowd, then the mainstream artist finally comes out. Artist noted as old-school such as The Pharcyde, Smif-N-Wessun, or M.O.P usually have over ten people on stage along with weed smoke and alcohol. Watching a rapper on stage can be as grueling and enjoyable as karaoke. Sure you get to rap along, but the actual performance doesn’t matter much. As long as the crowd is familiar with the song the show is considered awesome.
This is exactly what I was thinking at the Lupe Fiasco concert at the Filmore (Silver Spring, MD). This was his first time back in the DC area after being kicked off the stage for repeating one verse of “Words I Never Said” at an inauguration event. The Filmore show did not sell out which is evidence that his poor performance at the inauguration could have possibly affected ticket sales in this area. Fans buy concert tickets to see their favorite artists perform. If your favorite artist is Lupe what you enjoy is a single rapper on stage with a DJ rapping his songs and moving no further than a square away from the mic. In between songs he made statements like “I don’t give a f*ck, but I give a f*ck” [paraphrased]. He also spoke against rappers who don’t stand for anything. This was similar to old school Hip-Hop artists. They too often have a moment in their show where they criticize the radio or the government. Arguably, this made yhe Lupe show was boring and uninspired. Fans were forced to enjoy his presence in the room (which is all they were going to get) vs. his presence and a moving performance. There was no light show, no LCD displays behind him, there was nothing to enhance his performance. Lupe’s music came off as self-centered, the artist projecting his thoughts on others during his performance.
One day later Erykah Badu performed at this same venue and it was a entirely different story. Beyond the Erykah Badu most noted for being a neo-soul singer is an emcee who started out freestyling on the radio as “MC Apples.” She is also a producer and member of the “Soulquarians” a neo-soul/hip-hop music collective which includes Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Questlove, D’Angelo, Q-Tip, James Poyser, Bilal, and late great Hip-Hop producer J Dilla. Erykah’s show was sold out with minimal promotion within moments of tickets going on sale. There was no opening act. Her DJ spun for roughly 30 minutes before her band members took their places. She walked out on stage and addressed the crowd with body language. She approached the mic and stood there for a second while the crowd went wild. Then she raised her arms toward the ceiling striking her warrior princess pose. The music started and she performed the entire Mama’s Gun album with minimal banter in between. Her performance was all about the music and the fans. Erykah Badu IS her music and during the show you become her music. There was a large screen speckled with stars burning bright then fading during various songs behind her. After each song the main show lights would dim to signify the end of the song. She had a drum pad and multiple instruments as usual. At the end of her set the crowd cheered for an encore. She came back out on stage and performed three more songs including “The Healer (Hip-Hop)” giving special tribute to J. Dilla. No matter where you see Erykah Badu it is a cosmic vibrating experience. She is also standing in place, but her energy is changes with the energy of the song therefore subliminally instructing your spirit on how to move.
Upon walking in to the Mos Def show I expected less Erykah vibration and more Lupe inanimate “i’m the rapper, your’e the crowd” stage presence. I was extremely off on this one! The 930 Club is one of DC’s most popular concert venues and The Mos Def show was by far one of the most awesome shows I’ve seen where a single rapper is on stage performing. The opening act was “Watch The Duck” which is an eccentric underground trap-step group from Atlanta. They were interesting to say the least, however to have such a unique group open for Mos Def is fitting being that they are at the forefront of their genre. Trap-step is a mix of trap music and dub-step. It is hype party rocking music! I predicted that their explosive energy would be wasted due to Mos Def just being a rapper with two sound engineers/djs accompanying him. However, I was sadly mistaken. Mos Def walked on stage, the crowd when wild and the next hour was full of charisma, echoing voice affects, dancing, and party rocking. Mos Def used the entire stage during his performance. Mos Def also took a break in his performance to show love for J. Dilla by playing several of his tracks. The crowd was unfamiliar but Mos Def was so consumed in the songs that everyone had to rock with it. He consulted his sound/engineers often and they were more of a team than just guys controlling tracks and sound for an artist. By the end of the show his entire shirt was soaked with sweat.
In conclusion, rap, as much as any other popular musical form is currently in a strange place. When live performance matters as much, or more than selling albums or being well-marketed, we must study the art of how the genre is presented live. There’s a market that is always fiending for an artist who tells the humanitarian story of being pissed at the government and standing up against the “system.” Clearly, presenting that live must evolve from Lupe’s conscious, yet lackadaisical performance. Erykah Badu and Mos Def have been in the game over ten years and are still selling out shows, and present a possible blueprint for the future. They are experienced and an experience within themselves. They are sure to say thank you to fans in between songs and you are sure to feel that they are thankful. Lupe gave me music. Erykah and Mos Def gave me a feeling. The difference between the two is easily describable while the actual experience is not. There was just something spiritual about their performance. They are real people that really mean their lyrics therefore there was no need to chastise the hip-hop they don’t like during their show. I was not a fan of Lupe or Mos Def prior to these shows. I walked into the Mos Def show a skeptic due to Lupe’s performance. As rap and all music evolves to understanding how to survive in an era where live performances have increased importance, presentation clearly is of the essence.