Hip hop in the live arena can be a hit or miss affair. Mark Edmundson learns to embrace the good, brush off the bad and avoid the ugly.
I remember as an impressionable young slip of a lad witnessing the abhorrent spectacle of two female rappers destroying their current hit to an unmoved huddle of Top of the Pops teenyboppers. Certainly I was appalled at the sight, and more so the sound. Despite this and other early televisual setbacks I would become a devotee of popular hip hop as my early teens beckoned, but with there being no flood of urban acts pouring through Carlisle’s nightspot, a strongly held belief that hip hop could not be adequately recaptured live would prevail.
Of course I was quite wrong. Hip hop had been born in the live arena of freestyle ciphers and toasting at block parties, but the very things that had drawn me to hip hop so often appeared to be overlooked in its offering of two turntables and a microphone. The lush, thrilling soul and jazz hooks would be lost under the all-pervasive crunched beats that would in turn negate lyrical dexterity in favour of hoarse shout-outs. In time I would get the message: hip hop is very much a direct and immediate art form and should be experienced as such, if you are prepared to tread carefully.
Having conquered the world, hip hop now has an old guard, a host of artists we fans will turn out for simply to be able to say that we saw them live, if a couple of decades after their contribution to the canon. The old school can prove a risky bet, representing as they do a time when just to be seeing hip hop was enough. With their names already made, the likes of Biz Markie and Big Daddy Kane can be content in simply showing up, trotting out a few old favourites between some call and response with the audience, as long as they’re still bringing in the benjamins.
Now that hip hop really is big industry the big players seem to better accept the importance of putting on a show, be it through the razzle-dazzle of Kanye West, the guest-tastic spectacle of Jay-Z or the damnable lunacy of The Beastie Boys. For me the hot ticket still has to be those with something to prove, the local, underground or upcoming acts, or simply those who exude an obvious love of the music; the likes of Ugly Duckling, insistent on starting a party, Edan determined to bring a philosophy and performance or latter day hip hop behemoth The Roots who offer the best of both worlds in Glasgow this fortnight.
The Roots, lest we forget, are in essence a band and as such are well equipped for the live arena. They’re also hugely popular after 17 years and seven albums proper, but whether it’s leading the group through audience to stage as a marching band for a Hurricane Katrina benefit or packing a Radio City Music Hall to the rafters with surprise guests, there is always a theory and thoughtfulness to their music and performance.
And it is this aspect that is key. It is the love of the music and not themselves that ensures a rollicking show. While mainstream hip hop trades on its ego, should you uncover a more self-effacing outfit you just might find something worth telling the grandchildren about.
The Roots, Carling Academy, Glasgow, Sun 17 Dec.
Watch the video for 'Star'