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From an Atmosphere and Brother Ali show in Bristol (Photo via Flickr)
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I think I need a long break from underground hip-hop shows. And it’s all because of a drunk dude in a blue checkered Yankees hat.

Wait, that’s not true. I am tempted to blame everything on this guy, who, without even talking to him, I’m convinced is one of the top ten d-bags I’ve ever seen: shaved head, thin gold chain, slightly oversize T-shirt (I’d be shocked if it wasn’t covering a wife-beater), and a look in his eye that said there was no way he was leaving the venue without getting into at least one physical altercation. (Most likely, it would be with the person who tried to separate him from the vodka tonic that appeared permanently molded to his left hand.) But the truth is, he’s only a representation of a problem that’s been plaguing the genre’s live shows for some time. Let’s call it a lack of restraint.

Concert Overload

If you’ve been to an underground show recently, you probably know what I’m talking about. In my recent experience, they go something like this: The show’s supposed to start at 9pm, so you get there around 10:30 in an attempt to miss at least a few of the five opening acts. But when you arrive, there are still several more opening acts to go, and those are just the ones on the bill. There are bound to be a few other unannounced performances, mainly from people you’ve never heard of (including fashion-blind supporters of certain New York baseball teams). It can seem as if every friend and/or labelmate of the main act has managed to finagle a few minutes on stage. During the downtime, you might get a DJ set to keep you busy, or maybe the long-winded “host” of the evening will come out to make a few bad/inside jokes and do a few songs to promote his new mixtape. Oh, and don’t forget about the inevitable technical difficulties.

By the time the headliner—the act you paid to see, most likely—arrives on stage somewhere around midnight, you’re not only exhausted and full on cheap beer, but you’re also a little fatigued by the music itself. Instead of “warming you up” for the main event, the relentless parade of boom-bap makes you want to leave early. But you stay, of course, because you’ve finally gotten to the moment you came to witness. You’ve passed the endurance test and now you get the reward. Only, it’s almost impossible for the performance to live up to all this anticipation. It’d have to be a legendary set to knock you out of your stupor and leave you with any sense of satisfaction as you file out into the early morning. More likely, you’ll barely make it through, and slip out meekly by the time the a cappella freestyles (which would’ve been a major highlight a couple hours before) begin in earnest.

Now, I know this isn’t everyone’s experience. There are plenty of people who have a great time with this show model—people with more of a tolerance for standing around a dark, sweaty venue with hundreds of others, perhaps, or maybe just people who can keep a good buzz going for several hours. Days after one of these concerts, you’ll find a considerable amount of fans raving about what went on. It’s not hard to see why; the beauty of these events is that they seem more like parties and less like performances. Artists mingle in the crowd between sets, greeting old friends; random rhyme circles break out; there might even be a semi-decent breakdancer or two, if there’s enough space. When everything comes together, it’s a refreshingly organic experience full of appreciation for the music and the culture—and the price is usually right.

But at the risk of sounding incredibly lame—too late, I know—sometimes I wouldn’t mind paying a little more and getting a more predictable concert experience, one in which I could plan to see my favorite artists without taking a nap beforehand. See, right now, these free-for-all shows are like a “cool” parent trying to be your friend, instead of your authority figure. And while it seems like a good situation at first—no curfew, no rules—you realize, eventually, that what it really needs is some structure.

Of course, the alternative can have its drawbacks, too. A well-organized, more controlled show can often feel a little too calculated, and, in some cases, ruin the spirit of what you’re there for: fun. (Parents—sometimes they just don’t understand.) Some element of unpredictability is important, and I’m not talking about random pyrotechnics or over-rehearsed interactions with the crowd. There’s definitely a happy medium between the kind of show I’ve been talking about and a big-ticket arena performance, something with equal parts rebel spirit and old-fashioned event-planning. Unfortunately, I feel like a lot of underground hip-hop performers, or maybe venue bookers, haven’t quite figured out that balance—and that’s why you get overcrowded stages resembling NFL pregame shows and a talented artist handing off his mic to a slurring Jeterface in the middle of the song (why is he still on stage? No one seems to know or care).

The easy answer here is, “If you don’t like it, don’t go.” As I said, I’ll likely be following that advice. But I’m still a fan of the music, and I know I’ll eventually return. When I do, I’ll make sure to arrive as late as possible and pack a flask for the trip. Maybe wear a baby-blue Red Sox hat for good measure. You never know when they’ll need another d-bag on stage.

Ben is a writer, editor and partly reformed music snob living near Boston. He has a website, like everyone else.

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