I don’t remember my first dozen shows. Before I was born, I attended more Grateful Dead concerts in my mother’s womb than most people have days off in a year. My parents were good ol’ fashioned hippies; my childhood punctuated by the chaos and beauty of live music in all shapes and sizes.
By the time I had money in my pockets and my own “tastes” (Mac Dre, Nelly and Eminem, in that order), the concert experience was so integral to my life that I took my exposure and access to live music for granted. My high school circle was hungry for all we could see, the Bay Area was our sonic oyster, and I was lucky to catch dream shows like Andre Nickatina, Talib Kweli, Tech N9ne, Lil B and everything in between without venturing far from my hometown.
All those shows, all those nights outside of venues, all those moments pressed against the stage at the mercy of those sweaty mosh pits that we cherished, it was all about the magic of live music. The experience. Rarely was it about the act; some of the best shows I’ve ever seen, I didn’t know half of the opening bill when I bought my ticket. The first time I saw Kendrick, he was Jay Rock’s hype man, opening for Tech N9ne on tour. I’d never heard his work before that evening, but one verse from young Dot and I was a fan for life.
It took me years of adulthood to realize that my relationship with live music is atypical; outside of industry professionals, groupies and hybrids of the two like yours truly, most people just don’t see that many shows per year. And when the average consumer does shell out for a concert ticket, usually it’s to see an act they’ve already established a listening relationship with.
This isn’t breaking news. The concert as a pathway to music discovery has been dead for a lot longer than streaming playlists have reigned as curation king. But as a music consumer who spent most of my life dipping into unknown catalogs at live shows because I didn’t know any better, I can testify that that’s not a good thing. Buy a ticket and give an act you’ve never heard of a chance, and you could find your next Kendrick Lamar, the next artist that changes your life.
Within the span of a month at the start of this summer, I saw two live shows that reaffirmed this whole-hearted belief in rolling the dice and chasing concert magic.
The first was a Blackalicious show, way off the grid in Northern California’s Wine Country, in an intimate venue that Gift of Gab and friends packed way out. I took a dear friend with me who isn’t a huge hip-hop fan but is huge on live shows and messages of black empowerment—Blackalicious in a nutshell. I didn’t tell her what she was coming with me to see but promised she’d have a good time.
After two hours of her bobbing her head and moving her hips and having one hell of a night, my smile said “I told ya so”; it doesn’t matter if you’re a hip-hop head or a big enough rap nerd for Blackalicious to be a holy name, buy a ticket and you will enjoy yourself. My friend left the show a thankful and surprised new fan, with a fresh Gift of Gab sticker on her water bottle.
My second recent experience was part concert showcase, part MC competition, part rap networking mixer, all hip-hop heaven—TeamBackPack’s annual World Underground weekend. Over the course of two days, I watched 64 MCs battle head to head for a shot at a hefty prize package. Going in I knew none of their music, leaving at the end of the competition I had a handful of mixtapes I was genuinely excited to listen to. (And rarely do the words "unknown rapper," "mixtapes" and excited" go together.)
That TeamBackPack stage is unlike any other but highlights an important fact that’s universal and so obvious it rarely gets considered by typical concertgoers looking to see a star guest performer or hear their favorite single. Live performance, in and of itself and separate from the music being performed, is an incredibly powerful and important art form.
When an emcee is able to deliver a live performance that moves you, physically or otherwise, it’s just about impossible as an audience member not to play along and swim in that moment. Even if you’ve never heard the songs, the experience transcends.
At World Underground, I got the chance to talk to two TeamBackPack veterans, Marlon Craft and Toxsikk, about what they do to prepare for a live performance. Especially a performance like the one they gave at the World Underground showcase, where the majority of the audience isn’t familiar with the music.
“Man, the hardest performance I ever had was opening at a Mobb Deep show,” New York MC Craft chuckles, answering my cookie-cutter question. “The room was super packed, all these old heads, and seeing me, just about none of them knew me. And like the way I look, I felt some resistance right away. But after a few songs, I knew I had 'em.”
“Getting to that moment, winning over a room? It’s all about preparation for me,” Craft continues. “I rap my shit so many times, almost to where it’s impossible for me to mess up, I just enter with that notion that I know exactly what I’m gonna be able to do and from there it’s just playing the songs and rockin' the crowd.”
Las Vegas MC and TeamBackPack Cypher mainstay Toxsikk backs up Craft’s assertions about what makes for a good live show. “Yeah man, lots of practice. I’m just like any other rapper getting started, you know, rapping in my bedroom and pretending the wall is a stadium or some shit,” Toxsikk says, laughing. “That part’s obvious, it’s just gotta be automatic when you get up there.”
“The hard part is really connecting with those people man, people who maybe haven’t ever heard your shit. You gotta really make something special for them, move them. To play into it, get the crowd turnt up, you gotta be able to feel that energy,” adds Toxsikk, reflecting on the crowd at World Underground that he had in the palm of his hand.
That energy isn’t something that every MC is able to tap into, either. On every level, there are performers who just plain suck, who haven’t figured it out yet. And for many concertgoers, that’s where the barrier lies. Why go see someone perform that you’ve never heard of, knowing that there’s a decent chance they will flop on stage and ruin your night out?
For me, that question’s got a straightforward answer. The duds are easy to forget and move past. The truly impactful concerts I’ve seen, the ones where I was introduced to an artist’s music for the first time in a live setting, those experiences will always stay with me. Artists like Wrekonize, Adam Vida, Hieroglyphics—all acts that I chose to see live in concert on a whim with absolutely zero familiarity—have become a huge part of my musical journey.
Buy a ticket to see a show headlined by someone you’ve never really listened to, and there’s a chance you’ll be throwing away a few bucks and a few hours of your time. But there’s also a chance that you’ll get swept away in the grandiose magic that’s the live music experience, broaden your horizons, and walk away with a new favorite artist that you’ll cherish for years.
You have to roll the dice to win big.