The blockbuster Jay-Z/Mary J. Blige tour shows off hip-hop’s savvy showbiz evolution

[23 April 2008]

By Brian McCollum

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

Hip-hop had a problem.

By the early 1990s, the style born in the Bronx had become a bona fide national phenomenon, a cultural force with the hits to match.

Key moments in the evolution of hip-hop touring Some of the key moments in the evolution of hip-hop touring: Fresh Fest, 1984: Run-D.M.C. led this 27-city outing, rap music’s first major package tour and—for many young concertgoers, black and white—a vital hip-hop primer. “We finally got our own tour,” says Awesome 2’s Teddy Tedd. “You have to understand how important it was to have something like that.” Reflecting the makeup of early hip-hop, it was a New York-heavy bill, with appearances by the Fat Boys, Whodini and Kurtis Blow. The production was meager, but Fresh Fest made nods to upping the production ante, with a colorful stage and break-dance routines showcased between artist sets. Greatest Rap Tour Ever, 1991: This was the year hip-hop asserted its crossover status in a big way. The summer’s inaugural Lollapalooza tour featured Ice T amid a lineup of alternative rockers, followed by a Public Enemy club run in the fall that put it on stages with the bands Anthrax and Primus. The momentum was high as this tour launched in December, featuring Public Enemy with a sprawling array of support acts—A Tribe Called Quest, the Geto Boys, Naughty By Nature, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, MC Breed—that made Chuck D’s title declaration seem more reality than hype. Smokin’ Grooves, 1996-1998: Like a rap Lollapalooza, this traveling festival had an eye for the alternative side of the music slate, enlisting such acts as the Fugees, Outkast, Cypress Hill and Public Enemy during the show’s strong three-year run. Resuscitating hip-hop’s live reputation was the explicit mission for organizers, who played up their bill’s nonviolent, anti-gangbanger image as proof that the music could thrive in a traditional concert format. Their pitch was successful: Smokin’ Grooves was widely booked into the nation’s mainstream amphitheaters, nestled on the schedule alongside typical summer fare such as Jimmy Buffett and Aerosmith. No Way Out Tour, 1997: Jay-Z may have picked up a few tips during this monster road run led by impresario Puff Daddy, which featured a hit parade of hot acts including Lil Kim, Mase, 112, Busta Rhymes, Foxy Brown and Usher. The tour, which came at the peak of Bad Boy Records’ mammoth crossover success, would later be described by Puffy as a benchmark rap moment that “really opened up hip-hop touring back.” Convenient hype, to be sure—but after years of industry cynicism about rap concerts, also not far from the truth. Up in Smoke, 2000: Perfectionist Dr. Dre pulled out all the stops for this groundbreaking tour, linking up with several rock-production veterans to present a polished super-show with all the visual trimmings of a Kiss spectacle. Many critics hailed it as the most advanced hip-hop production to date. For Detroit rapper Eminem—who joined a bill that included Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube—Up in Smoke was an eye-opener for a star who was just hitting career stride. “Sitting back watching it, after I’m done with my set, it’s the most incredible rap show I’ve ever seen,” he told the Free Press. This was also the tour whose Detroit stop made news when city officials banned an onstage video, citing obscenity concerns. Dre later sued the City of Detroit, prompting an apology from Mayor Dennis Archer and reimbursement of $25,000 in legal fees.

But the mammoth success enjoyed by rap music in record stores and on the airwaves wasn’t being equaled in the nation’s concert venues. For the most part, successful live hip-hop was a no-show.

Tours early in the genre’s history had been plagued by problems. Violent incidents created perceptions of dangerous hip-hop crowds. Promoters balked at the high security and insurance costs that resulted. Municipalities banned rap concerts. Critics carped about poor production values, and fans wondered why the tight sounds they heard on disc often failed to translate live.

Hip-hop was booming on record. It just wasn’t working onstage. Even as rappers’ singles came to dominate the best-seller lists, their tours were rarely cracking the top 40 - if they bothered with the road in the first place.

But that was then. This is 2008, and Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige are touring with a blockbuster production sure to go down as one of the year’s box-office triumphs, with strong reviews to ice the cake.

In what critics have described as a full-on spectacle - “grandly presented,” wrote the Baltimore Sun - Jay-Z and Blige each perform with a 12-piece band on a stage bedecked with chandeliers and a video backdrop. It’s a pyrotechnics-heavy affair that arrives with 14 semitrailers and 15 buses. And it draws upon the musical cachet of Blige’s more traditional R&B, much like previous Jay-Z runs that paired him with acts such as R. Kelly.

The Jay-Z/Blige extravaganza is the latest milestone in what has been a steady rise for hip-hop touring - at least on the mega-level where the genre’s established stars operate. For those A-listers, the free-for-all that marked hip-hop’s woolly early days has been streamlined and polished, with cues taken from the showbiz-savvy productions that have long enticed fans of rock, R&B and pop.

Hip-hop touring still hasn’t notched the consistent success of those genres, and perhaps it never will: At heart, the music remains the province of sharp-eared producers and DJs who thrive in the intimate environs of a recording studio. No rap tour made the top 100 box-office rankings last year, according to Pollstar magazine - a list that started with the Police ($133 million) and ended with Christian singer Bill Gaither ($7.5 million).

But with a series of high-end productions the past decade - led by top-shelf draws such as Jay-Z, Eminem and Dr. Dre - hip-hop has found its feet in the arena settings where big-time concerts are put to the test, nailing the visual appeal and pacing sought by fans.

Some industry observers credit an infusion of corporate dollars. Big-time sponsorships - involving companies such as R.J. Reynolds and Courvoisier - allowed production spending to rise while nudging artists to deliver the goods.

“That’s been the great equalizer in hip-hop,” says Scott Guy, a former Def Jam Records staffer who worked on tours with acts such as Method Man and Redman. “When you’re getting a quarter-million dollars in sponsorship money to play around the country, you’re going to make sure you’ve got your stuff together.”

As half of the duo Awesome 2, Teddy Tedd is a veteran of the New York hip-hop scene. He was in the thick of the action in the early 1980s when rap’s breakout artists were learning how to best present themselves onstage. A striking visual look was key, he says, and performers took hints from the bright, over-the-top attire of funk acts like Rick James.

“In those days, you had to have your own thing,” says Tedd, who hosts a rap radio show on the Sirius satellite network. “You really had to have a performance. Now you’ve got guys who have a hit record and don’t even go out on tour.”

Below the big-time arena level, where most of the advancements have been made in recent years, hip-hop tour gigs may still function more as personal appearances than as traditional concerts.

Mike Danner, a longtime production manager of rap shows at Detroit’s St. Andrew’s Hall and the State Theatre, thinks rap in the club and theater sphere is still hit and miss, especially with younger artists who haven’t yet found their stage legs. Unlike genres such as rock and soul, where most musicians hone their craft in front of audiences before ever seeing a studio, hip-hop often molds its stars in the background - then throws them onto the road and hopes for the best.

“The new act with the one huge song, selling a million ringtones, is usually terrible onstage,” he says. Such rappers, lacking the live chops to deliver the musical goods, often resort to the concert equivalent of a pep rally. “They try as hard as they possibly can to get the crowd into it, to get a reaction. And so you get the old, tired `throw your hands in the air’ stuff. But there’s nothing to see. There’s nothing exciting.”

Danner is convinced it’s the experienced artists, the ones armed with a wide repertoire and money to spend, who will continue to raise the bar for hip-hop in concert. He cites acts such as Kanye West, who like Jay-Z has embraced live instrumentalists onstage to provide “more than a DJ and rapper to look at.”

“You need interesting things to look at. You need interesting music that sounds great,” says Danner. “It needs to be an exciting experience.”

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