When I first caught the rap bug way back in 1987, it was primarily consumed through TDK tape dubs and the occasional record. Melbourne was only provided a limited trickle of tours from the reigning hip-hop royalty of the day, primarily based on having a song chart here. As a result, we had the usual big names of the day like Ice-T, Public Enemy, Jungle Brothers, Run-DMC and Derek B (?!) roll through town. Since most of these shows were at clubs, I was too young to attend – with the exception of the P.E. show, which was at a concert hall and featured Flavor Flav arriving on stage in an ambulance. I also managed to wander into Del the Funkee Homosapien’s first promo tour without any ID a couple of years later, which proved to be pretty entertaining as he smoked weed onstage and premiered a lot of stuff from the yet-to-be-released second album in between the crowd requesting he play ‘Mistadobalina’ one more time.
It wasn’t until the last decade that many of the great acts of the “golden era” decided to visit our shores, basically because no one back in the US really gives two shits about them anymore and they need a paycheque. Not that I’m complaining – after years of enduring the likes of Swollen Members, Mystic Journeymen and countless Michael Franti tours I was more than happy to welcome the likes of EPMD, M.O.P. and KRS-One to the Australian stage. As it turns out, I quickly discovered that with the exception of the crews who were raised in the often hostile arena of ’80s New York hip-hop clubs – where a half-assed performance might result in boos or a bar stool to the face – most rappers are complete garbage on stage.
This seems to come down to which era they came up in, as veterans such as Big Daddy Kane, Rakim and Lord Finesse are all capable of commanding a crowd with nothing more than a DJ behind them, based on their stage presence, charisma and showmanship. Those who first debuted in the ’90s, however, seemed content with inviting a dozen of their best weed carriers on stage to wander back and forth aimlessly, supplying them with bottled water, waving those white hand towels around and rapping every third line of their lyrics. I call this the Wu-Tang Syndrome. There have been situations where this is useful, especially when the lead MC is too drunk and stoned to remember his rhymes, but for the most part it presents a muddled, uninspiring display to the audience.
The cause for this decline can be attributed to two main factors: weed and the decline of hip-hop dancers. Once smoking heroic quantities of trees before a show became the norm, rapper dudes thought it was all good to just pace back and forth for two hours. This works if you’re Run-DMC or LL Cool J, because they had the larger than life personas and brash arrogance to pull it off. Watching Mobb Deep or Nas do the same thing just doesn’t seem to be as effective – no doubt because they’re too high to move around quickly. As for the back-up dancers? The slowing down of tempos played a big part in killing that off, as did the aforementioned rise of weed heads and the fact that Kid ‘n Play made that shit look corny as fuck after three House Party movies.
It’s always going to be difficult to compete with the visual spectacle of a live band, but rapping over the vocal versions of your songs, resorting to tired crowd call-and-response antics (involving the eternal battle for which half of the audience is better), and asking everyone who is down with “real hip-hop” to put their hands in the air is hardly helping the cause. The solution is obvious: crowds need to be more hostile. Next time a rapper fails to entertain you, instead of trying to get some shitty footage of the show on your phone, I suggest you voice your disdain by either booing loudly, throwing ice cubes with furious anger or just yelling abuse at the stage when they attempt to kill time by inviting all the gals in the place on to the stage for a “sexy dance-off.” As usual, tough love (or a loose bar stool) is the answer.