It doesn’t take long for the average person to develop a healthy skepticism of rap shows. Aside from the usual live venue problems (guest list confusion, aggro bouncers, expensive drinks), rap has its own special set of bullshit. There are too many opening acts, a rotating list of five local struggle rappers who never graduate to headliner status. There are too many people and it’s always mostly dudes who often feel a way about you breathing their air. The shows run hours behind schedule. If you make it that far, the headliner is often not very good. If they even know all their lyrics, they’re spitting them on top of their own recorded vocals.
It’s that last sin, rappers not really even rapping, that seems to offend the most. And it’s not just dillettante hip-hop fans who complain; it’s something I hear all the time as a reason why my friends don’t want to go see a rapper whose music they love perform their songs in real life. It’s less of a concert and more of a spectacle.
So why does this happen? Why do some rappers seem to phone in their live shows? It’s not like live hip-hop is dead. After all, active showmen like Action Bronson and Danny Brown have clearly benefitted from the work they put into their stage presence. Why don’t all rappers do the same thing? The short answer is you can become a famous rapper without doing very many shows, per se.
The assumed path to success for musicians today involves recording music, booking to play your music and building a fan base that will buy your music and see your shows. Increasingly, convincing brand managers that your music will sell products, but that’s part of the same performance-heavy equation. And this is proven method across genres: rock, country, disco and, yeah, even rap.
But rappers often take an alternate path, one that relies way less on stagework. Instead of recording an album and hustling a live show, they pick one song and push it to as many DJ’s as they can. If the record is good, it gets added to the rotation on the local radio station and in the clubs around the way. And if the record is really good (and if they have good people behind you), it will get added to more stations and played at more clubs, further and further from the local market.
As the single gets momentum and their name gets out there, promoters far and wide will book them to perform at clubs. But this isn’t a full show, it’s a quick set at a club based around a hit record. If the song is really popular, the artist’s presence is just gravy. Everybody will know all the words and the club would have gone off whether or not they were there. Nobody’s worried about the rapper nailing the hook.
A rapper with a big single can make an insane amount of money doing club sets. Rappers are fitting into a nightlife culture that relies on paying a diverse range of celebrities to show up as a way to entice people to come out; they can earn their money just by being in the building. And everything resembling a metropolitan area has a nightlife destination where a rapper might get booked if their record is getting spins. There are way fewer ideal places for full-fledged rap shows, and that number gets smaller after factoring in many venues’ inherent biases against hip-hop events. An artist that can get a stack for a club appearance in, say, Albany, GA is not stressed about their stage presence and breath control.
All this said, should we even expect old school showmanship and rappin-ass rappin from these dudes? If the music makes a mob of excited people jump up and down and yell lyrics at each other, that’s not a bad thing (nor is it a new concept).
But that’s the reason why some successful emcees don’t have great live shows: they never needed one to get where they are.