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What Makes for a Great Hip-Hop Concert?

Donna and Yoh discuss the best concerts they've seen, and what made them special.

Hip-hop shows can run the gamut of quality. There are shows where artists run around on stage and huff over their own vocals, and then there are shows where artists embody their music and personify joy. There are also shows between these two extremes. There are fine shows and lackluster shows. 

With all this variety, what definitively makes for a great hip-hop concert? We posed the question to DJBooth Managing Editor, Donna-Claire Chesman, and our Senior Writer, Yoh.

Their conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

yoh [10:31 AM]

Hello, Donna. Good morning my dear friend.

donnacwrites [10:32 AM]

Good morning, Yohsipher, how are you?

yoh [10:33 AM]

I'm good. A friend sent me this album called Pure Infinity, by SwaVay. I like it a lot. Starting your morning with enjoyable, new music is a sign of a good day ahead. How are you? 

donnacwrites [10:38 AM]

That's exciting. I started my day with a poetry reading by Tommy Pico.

I'm alright, I had a long night traveling home from Manhattan. I love being in the city and it got me thinking about all the shows I've seen in New York. I'm not much for rankings, but I have a top show: J. Cole's 4 Your Eyez Only World Tour. It was an arena show at the Barclay's and, man, was it special. I remember vividly Cole coming out in his prison jumper and walking past the front row, where I was standing, and fans were reaching out to grab him and that felt wrong to me. I extended my hand for a handshake and we "dapped" quickly as he walked past us and onto the stage. It was an arena show, but Cole made everything feel so intimate. He played classics and new hits. He interacted with the fans and felt so rooted in the moment.

What really made the show special was his energy. Cole knew his power on that stage, knew what he meant to his fans. And yet, he never abused it. The show was as much about us as it was about his music. His everyman persona came to life on that stage. He performed for forever, and his heart was in every syllable spilled. I was in true awe of how someone with so much acclaim could radiate such humility and poise. But, hey, Cole is super regular, so I guess it makes sense.

I was curious to know your favorite show, and why.



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yoh [10:54 AM]

I love your Cole story. I also saw him during the 4 Your Eyez Only World Tour in Atlanta. Thinking back, that entire night was special. I wrote about it, but no word count is large enough to capture the entire experience. That's what the best concerts offer—an experience.

My favorite show has to be Kanye West during the Yeezus Tour in 2013. I'll never forget the silence of walking out of Philips Arena. No one said a word. We just walked out, tightlipped, in a daze of amazement. It was the ultimate concert experience. There was a story that interwove songs from Yeezus with classics in his discography. It was like watching a play. Kanye had a certain level of self-awareness, and everything, from his presence to the stage design, was meant to dazzle us. I don't use this word to describe Kanye much, but the Yeezus tour was the work of genius.

Some weeks after the show, while dining at Steak 'n Shake, I had an argument with our waitress about the album title. She felt Yeezus and the appearance of a faux-Jesus was blasphemous. She was right, but she didn't see the show. She didn't see it! As someone who wasn't big on the album, it surprised me seeing the show made me defend it so vehemently. I left her a tip, despite our argument, lol.

What is it you look for in a great concert experience?

donnacwrites [11:01 AM]

She didn't see it! I love that. Defend the things you cherish, Yoh.

For a good concert, I look for artists who, first, don't perform over their own vocals. I came here to hear from you! If I wanted to listen to your recorded vocals, I would have stayed home. And we all know that Grandma loves being at home. I want the live version to be something special and insular, something only for the fans who had the means to come out to the show. The show should be its own free-flowing thing.

I look for the energy, too, and if you have the chutzpah to move all corners of the crowd. The Internet did this so well. When I saw them at The Fillmore, Syd threw water bottles into the balcony for dehydrated fans. It's not just about making the audience rage, but about making them feel like we are having a wonderful, communal experience. Then, there's the size of the venue. I love The Fillmore in Philly, but my favorite venue is Baby's All Right in New York. 

I saw Noname perform her first NYC show there, and before the concert, I glimpsed her in the window, pacing back and forth, seemingly nervous. When I saw her again in Philly this past year, she was a force. It was incredible to see the growth. I love a small venue because I want to feel close to the artist, but I am not opposed to an arena tour because Gram needs a chance to sit down.

What about you, what do you look for?

yoh [11:17 AM]

Beautiful Noname story! Witnessing artistic progression is one of many rewards that come with seeing the same act multiple times. I agree wholeheartedly with you about the expectation of a live version when arriving to watch a show. Give us what we can't stream or download; remind us why we left the comfort of our homes. 

Many years ago, before Earl was free, I went to an Odd Future popup show at Lennox Mall. I just had nothing to do that day. I met Tyler, but more importantly, I met [former Odd Future manager] Chris Clancy. They had a show that night; I didn't have tickets, and he left me two at will call. This is early, around the time of Goblin, when OF still toured together. Watching them felt like watching the future.

I also look for personality. Not everyone will have the same performance style, but you can make it a unique experience. I saw Earl a few weeks back. He's not the most energetic fellow, but he has a presence. It's like watching a preacher read scriptures while pacing around. We, his congregation, couldn't get enough. The way every word hit, it was like being crushed by a wave of poignant thoughts. 

Playing Earl's music is akin to hearing the Bible; attending his concerts is like going to church.


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