Volume 16, # 6 – June 15
“All the Way Live”
If you’re reading this, you’re probably deeply interested in hip-hop and so intoxicated by its sounds that you own a lot of the music derived from this wonderful culture that we all love. Especially the classics. I; myself, am such a fanatic that I own several thousand hip-hop albums. And as massive as that is, my collection actually pales in comparison to a few cats in my circle. And professional DJ’s would go insane if they woke up and found themselves in possession of my smattering of sounds.
You can best see what a person is truly committed to by what they spend their money on. And to be sure, an unseemly amount of money (to say nothing of the time) has been spent in accumulating my music collection. But make no mistake, no matter how many CD’s I collect, that -in and of itself- doesn’t make me hip-hop. It makes me a consumer.
I think a lot of times headz believe that owning The Extinction Agenda, as phat as it is, qualifies someone as being of hip-hop culture. Any idiot with money to spend can buy a lot of music. It requires something more than legal tender to truly understand and value the manuscripts that these albums serve as. Acquiring the cultural capital to truly appreciate good hip-hop music requires the listeners to invest their time. And more than that, it requires them to have been forced out of their comfort zone a time or two. Physically and psychologically.
As I’ve stated throughout this series, hip-hop is a living, breathing culture that is meant to be experienced in the flesh. And often times, sharing this experience means experiencing some level of discomfort, something that technology is making it less necessary for us to do. For someone to fully experience hip-hop still requires that they leave their home, and it is hard to find a cultural breeding ground more fruitful than the live show. The live show, unlike the controlled sound of an album or ringtone, involves an organic synthesis between the community and the MC and DJ. And on occasion, even b-girls and graf writers.
Here in my, um, more mature years there are many reasons for me to stop going to hip-hop shows. There are often long lines to be stood in. Upon arriving at the front of the line –sometimes hours later- we are frequently greeted with contempt and disrespect by people who hate our music, skin tone, clothing and belief systems but very much like our money. Once inside, your reward for standing in those long lines is to stand up some more because most any hip-hop show of any real quality isn’t going to have assigned seating. There are few acts that I have yet to see live on stage, so I’m generally content to post up on the wall these days unless any of the limited seats at the bar haven’t been snatched up. But there are still rare times; such as Little Brother’s last ever stop in Chicago as a group, where I had to go down to the pit just in front of the stage. Being in this area requires a level of endurance and aggressiveness rarely seen in polite society. You can expect to catch an inadvertent elbow to your neck or a well-placed knee to your thigh. Your white-on-white kicks are sure to get scuffed many times over. You may get a drink, and sometimes even a human being, spilled on you. But when MC’s like Black Thought, Common or KRS are rocking the mic right, it’s all well worth it. The good vibes gained from a live show better allows me to cope with the madness that exists in the world outside of hip-hop.
It is easy to forget the value in these experiences when you can hear the “Bridge is Over” in perfect pitch and clarity while seated comfortably in your home, where you won’t be aggressively escorted out by security if you want to smoke a little weed. But it’s important for the continued existence and growth of hip-hop culture for all of us who love it to force ourselves into these uncomfortable spaces among familiar strangers every once in a while.
One reason that a live hip-hop show still has value is that too much of our modern society is informed and governed by fear. We view our fellow man as a threat far too often because we only isolate ourselves around people in our everyday lives. Stepping out among some weirdos with tattoos and strange haircuts allows you not only to capture people’s fundamental humanity in a way that the TV never can, it also allows us to better form common ground across communities through a shared passion for hip-hop.
Your presence at live shows also serves a vital function for the MC. And not only because it is touring; and not album sales, that allow many underground rappers to earn a living. But also, they need to have someone be honest with them about how much they’re growing as artists. No one at the label is going to tell them they’re wack. And even if they do, most of those clowns aren’t really qualified to speak to what is and isn’t wack anyway. The rapper’s dick-riding crew who is on the payroll ain’t gonna tell them they’re starting to fall off. His baby moms might, but if he’s treating her right, she can’t be relied on for constructive criticism either. But the energy emitted from the audience at a live show can’t be faked, and will make crystal-clear to any MC exactly where she or he stands with their core audience.
Besides that, many MC’s actually hate the record-making part of the rap business and feel most invested in their craft at the live show. They need fans there to help fuel them, not just the Johnny-come-latelys who are there to hear the catchy song they just heard on the radio last week. If you want Pharoahe Monch to keep making music for you and your struggle, you need to go support his sometimes too.
Again, this is a living and breathing culture of ours. But it is quite easy to think that hip-hop is dead if you’re tuning into BET for some reason. However, when I went to the Curren$y’s show last summer I was reminded that it was very much alive. There, I saw hundreds of kids saying his rhymes word-for-word even though he has produced most of his music without any institutional backing from any majors. Were I only to use Billboard as a reference, I might feel much more disillusioned about the culture and the ability of independent artists to exist in this environment. Nights like that remind me that there’s still a lot of really good hip-hop music being made, and a lot of people who still want to hear it. People who downright crave to hear it; akin to an addict, in the way that I did 20 years ago when me and the music were coming of age at the same time. The way I do now.
As a fan you can also get better exposed to up-and-coming talent through opening acts at live shows. Any real MC isn’t going to have just anybody open up for them.
Our planet is getting dumber. And true hip-hop attracts intelligent people so going to a hip-hop concert can offer a rare opportunity to interact with a lot of smart people.
Though my body is aging a bit too fast sometimes, I make great efforts to keep my mind young. And being in these hip-hop spaces -that will always be dominated by the young- helps to keep me young in mind and spirit. Even if you’re only to step out once or twice a year, I have no doubt it will do the same for you.
And it is important for the young cats finding their way in this culture to be exposed to older heads so that they have a proper understanding of the culture’s norms and mores. Who else, after all, is going to show these young kids just how hopelessly lame their gym shoes and jeans are? If we’re not physically there to set the standards, hip-hop will be associated with even more weird, effeminate shit in the next 20 years as dictated by mainstream media. And it’ll be partially your fault.
The live show is critical for the hip-hop experience because you hear the music in a different way than you do on an album. Sometimes you’ll hear songs that you’ll never actually hear recorded on wax.
And hardcore hip-hop fans’ presence at the live show reinforces the notion that there should be some level of work involved in hip-hop because it is music that demands interaction and shuns passivity. The MC is going to ask you to respond and react, and maybe even rhyme a few bars while he sips some cognac. The show you get will only be as good as the energy you provide.
It’s dope that cats are able to profit from recorded sounds, but that’s not how hip-hop music was created to be experienced. I think that the technology is dope. Growing up in the 80s, there was some music you couldn’t get access to unless you were physically in New York City and sometimes not even then. So the accessibility to the music that we enjoy today is madd fly. But it also makes it where we don’t spend as much time in the collective space of other like-minded heads. And it makes it so that MC’s aren’t forced to master their craft among experts who are far more discriminating than the A&R who plays an electric guitar and is looking for the next Waka Flocka Flame.
The engineers in the studio, the label execs, a dope producer, and brilliant marketer can obscure many artistic blemishes. But at a hip-hop concert it’s just you and the crowd. There is nowhere for a phony rapper to hide.
This level of interaction between an artist and the public is important for most any craft, but this is especially true of hip-hop music because good hip-hop music is rooted in the experiences of common folk. Any artist and fan who does not make every effort to seek out this experience will slowly find themselves drifting away from the value system of hip-hop. And those who have exclusively experienced hip-hop through their vast CD collection, computer or wide-screen TV are not experiencing hip-hop at all. They’re experiencing commodification.
To be sure, the live show has been commodified by Live Nation and Stubhub to the point that many of the hardcore fans find themselves priced out of this experience. But there are many spots that routinely feature local MC’s and DJ’s in every city in the world where you can patronize heads; that are rooted in your community, on the cheap. And experiencing hip-hop collectively does not at all mean that you have to go see someone rap. There are madd b-boy and DJ battles in every major city all across this planet. Check one out, unless you scared of getting a little dirty.
Peace and God bless,