Hip-hop began as a live art form. The DJ’s original function was to move the crowd at New York City block parties, using the best parts of the hottest records for that reason. The MC was a hype man, to get people pumped up. The two came together in front of crowds; the music as we know it today was born in that coming together. It evolved from there in the studio more than on the stage, so much so that from the early ‘90s to today, I’ve had people talk to me as if it’s a given that hip-hop as a genre is terrible live. This notion stems somewhat from the ways the music has evolved in the studio to be something beyond the capabilities of humans in the moment to reproduce. Replicating the exact sounds of a record isn’t always possible, not to mention replicating and then bettering, which has become the criteria for a high-quality live performance in other genres.
Mostly, the idea of hip-hop’s inferiority as a live medium stems from a misunderstanding of the differences among genres, a transposition of rock qualities onto hip-hop, a forgetting that hip-hop started as a particular type of live-music genre and that any hip-hop performance will bear the trappings of that type. It’s still about building a collective energy, about getting the crowd excited and feeding off that excitement. Many of the best live performances I’ve seen have been by hip-hop musicians.
The live album is another story. That style of live performance is hard to fully capture on album. The first major rappers did not attempt live albums. The earliest came around 1990-1991: 2 Live Crew’s In Concert, Boogie Down Productions’ Live Hardcore Worldwide, and, um, Vanilla Ice’s Extremely Live. Since then there have been a dozen or so notable others, but none that have been or will ever be canonized like live albums in other genres (jazz, rock, country). Some of the most revered hip-hop live albums replicate to some extent the style or structure of rock live albums: the Roots’ Come Alive or Jay-Z’s Unplugged, for example. Still, no one tries to argue that even the best-considered live hip-hop albums rank among the best albums of that genre, or even by that artist. Masta Killa’s Live won’t be, either, but it is an interesting listen.
By intention or circumstance, Masta Killa has taken an unconventional path for a Wu-Tang Clan member. By the time he released his first LP No Said Date (2004), Ghostface Killah was on his fourth album. Masta Killa has released just two solo albums total, both strong enough to stand out among the clutter (I prefer the second, 2006’s Made in Brooklyn, though the debut seemed to have garnered more enthusiasm at its release). Releasing a live album as a third album, early in career-path terms for any genre but especially for hip-hop, is another unexpected move.
What’s most refreshing about Live is its starkness. This is not an attempt to reproduce the studio versions or even a cleaned-up soundboard recording of a show. It’s more a rough snapshot of what it would sound like to be in the crowd. There’s a DJ, not dazzling but just playing back the most elemental parts of the song’s music, and an MC. Or more often several MCs, echoing each other’s words. It sounds grimy and stripped-down, with the focus on the human voice and a rugged rhythm track.
The focus is on Masta Killa, as himself but just as often, as a Wu-Tang representative. Live opens with his verse from Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’s “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’”, and ends with his piece of “Triumph”, form Wu-Tang Forever. Somewhere in the middle is a track from Iron Flag. He’s joined by GZA and Inspectah Deck, to visit songs from Liquid Swords and Only Built for Cuban Linx, albums by his Wu-Tang partners. When he’s joined by others, they’re usually in energy mode, their voices overlapping and the songs being rushed through quickly. The high-energy point on Live is “Duel of the Iron Mice”, a highlight of sheer rhyming force, where hoarseness and interruption are part of the style, not weaknesses.
Mostly, the material on Live comes from No Said Date. When he’s doing those songs, he’s more likely to be on the mic alone, not as likely to be overlapped by the voices of others. There’s a great middle section where he does three of that album’s songs – “School”, “Grab the Mic”, “No Said Date” – in excellent form. Here he stands as his own talent, not just a representation of the Wu-Tang sound.
As Live goes on, the disjointedness, muted crowd, and uneven sound (on “Love Spell”, most notably) wear us down a little. Live will necessarily be seen as a complement to his studio LPs, not on par with them but an interesting side look at Masta Killa’s music. Still, it reminds us of the way hip-hop as a live art form has its own style, the way that the roots of hip-hop live through night after night.