Death To The Rap Lineup

Bloated bills help assure attendance, but they ruin local hip-hop shows in the process

Illustration by Gabe Eng-Goetz for Super Empty.

“Never do, what they do, what they do, what they do.”

-The Roots, in 1996, probably talking about a rival city outside of Philadelphia where the local rap lineups were too big.

Regular attendees of Triangle hip-hop shows, or local rap shows anywhere, I’d imagine, are likely familiar with the popular method employed in trying to fill them out: the 5, 6, or 7+ rapper lineup.

If you’re the kind of person who makes it beyond the first hour of such events, then you’re familiar with how they go. But in case you’re not, here’s a brief summary: One rapper comes on with his DJ, performs no more than five songs (and sometimes as few as two), then gives way to the next rapper, and so on, for as long as four hours. And no, I’m not counting dancing around on stage to “Big Rings” as performing a song.

The bloated local rap bill is a stop-gap measure for the issue of poor hip-hop show attendance, a case where necessity has definitely been the mother of invention, but the resulting invention kind of sucks. While it may provide the short-term security of guaranteeing enough attendance to book a show, it brings with it a plethora of long-term problems, including but not limited to: performers not getting the chance to develop a fully inviting live experience, instead playing the same abbreviated set show after show; performers not getting as much time as desired on one night prompting the booking of another set just a couple weeks later, removing any urgency on the audience’s part to see said artist whenever they have a show — it’s automatically assumed that there will be another one a few weeks later; fans dipping out of shows once the artist they like has finished, leaving performers on stage to rap for audiences that look like the inverse of swiss cheese; and, in some bizarre cases, shows going so late that the headliner actually plays for fewer people than the openers, because everyone with jobs has gone home.

With so many glaring flaws, it’s a wonder shows are done this way. But ultimately, it’s just a matter of simple math. When seven different people tell all their friends, family, and any fans that aren’t friends or family, that they’re performing their music at a particular venue, that’s a potentially great audience. At least, on paper.

Part of the self-deception that goes on in booking bloated rap shows is the belief that, by performing in front of a coalition of six other rappers’ fans and friends, you’ll turn a number of them into fans of your own. Well, they need to at least see the set, for starters. I’ve seen almost entire audiences flow out of a building when a particular artist was done, and on numerous other occasions have seen young artists spill their hearts out on stage for a crowd of zombies, peering endlessly into the glow of their smartphones while waiting for the appearance of the artist they actually came to see. Sure, those fans’ assumed attendance probably made the whole thing possible, but in the end, was it really worth it?

And this arrangement does little in the way of developing showmanship and an engaging live show for fans and artists alike. With the lack of live instrumentation on stage (in most cases), rap shows are already predisposed to being very linear events. If a performer doesn’t know how to joke and create fan interaction that fills the gaps between songs, and fails to develop that skill because he or she is only getting 15 minutes on stage a time, the proceedings are unlikely to be memorable.

When I talked to Justin from RUNAWAY about this recently, I thought he said it really well:

“Rappers don’t improvise. You can go a rock show and watch them play one of their 3 minute songs for 6–7 because they’re all musicians and can riff off each other. In it’s current form, rap is very structured. If you go to a major show, half the time, the rappers aren’t even rapping the whole time. They’ve got a backing track that plays and they jump in every other word… it keeps a rap show very straight forward.”

Long, bloated lineups have long made local rap shows possible, but now it’s time to cut it back. How can we do it?

Simply put, “higher-tier” artists should stop doing so many performances locally. By the time you’re one of the 10–15 rappers in a given metro area popping up at all these shows, you’re probably not catching too many new eyeballs at any one of them. And if you’re doing it every few weeks, you’re likely not changing too much in between, either. Take that extra time and spend it honing your craft and releasing work on the Internet, the magical digital platform through which Bryson Tiller went RIAA-certified platinum without knowing how to perform live, and through which I’m allowed to tell people I “have a magazine.” After even small write-ups in major publications, when you go to book a local show, people will be way more interested in coming than if the event has been preceded by three in the last few months just like it.

Now, with those “higher-tier” artists performing locally every one or two months as opposed to every two-to-four, space is cleared for lesser-known and newer artists to appear on bills that are still relatively trim. Even with these lesser-known acts, three rappers are enough, I promise. Putting 10 names on a bill can seem tempting when you’re sitting at home adding up all the potential ticket-buying friends and family, but if those people aren’t paying attention, or they leave as soon as a certain artist finishes, the resulting product is worse for everyone.

A lot of rappers are trying to blow up, but it’ll be easier if we first blow up the local 17-rapper rap show. Performers will have time between shows to grow, they’ll have time on stage to expand their live experience, and fans will have time to see a whole show and still get some sleep before work the next day. And, once every couple months, there will be that single show that nobody can miss, because it isn’t happening again for a long time. Personally, I’d rather be stuck in line trying to listen from the doorway, just barely close enough to soak in the energy of an electrifying night of high-quality music, than front row at another so-so night of rapper roulette.

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