How We Can Fix Live Hip-Hop


By Lucien O’Brien

MCs rapping over their own vocals sucks. Pretty much anyone who’s been to a few rap shows has experienced the disappointment of shelling out their hard earned cash to see an artist they love, only to have that artist show up, plug a laptop into the sound system, yell a few adlibs over an hour’s worth of their tracks, and dip. It’s enough to make one want to abandon live hip-hop altogether. When I attended Snowta, our local EDM/rap/general debauchery New Years celebration last weekend, almost every rapper I saw did this. Post Malone did it. Lil Aaron did it. Maxo Kream did it. Prof did NOT do it, but we’ll get to that later.

Before I get ahead of myself, let me clearly define what it means to rap over your own vocals. Pretty much every hip-hop artist raps over a pre-recorded instrumental during shows (unless they’ve brought along a live band, in which case go them!). However, where it starts to get dicey is when that “backing track” still has their vocals on it. Sometimes these vocals are a little quieter in the mix than on record—a kind of “guide vocal” if you will. Sometimes they’re at full volume. Sometimes they’re so loud that you can barely hear the singer shouting over them. Done right, they’re not a huge deal, but done wrong, the audience is in for more of a listening party hosted by the artist than an actual musical performance.

Some people regard this practice as “lazy”. I disagree. I think the use of backing vocal tracks stems less from laziness and more from this generation of rappers’ complete lack of performance experience. The process via which musicians become popular today is a lot different than it was thirty years ago. Back in the day, it wasn’t just rock bands working their local live circuits. Rappers also had to be able to rock a crowd before they were allowed in the studio, much less on the radio. Now, we’re faced with a bunch of young MCs with substantial fanbases built off of internet fame, who have never been on stage in their lives, performing in front of thousands of people. Furthermore, “opting out” of live performances isn’t really an option, since touring is just about the only way left to make a living in the music industry nowadays (that $0.0038 per stream from Spotify isn’t going to pay the rent).

Here’s the thing—any rapper can be good live! All that’s required is a little practice. A great example of this is Prof. As anyone who follows him on Snapchat knows, Prof puts in a ton of practice for any show that he plays. He’s always rehearsing, and every time I see him perform, the payoff is clear. Before “Church” at Snowta, he told the audience about the days and days of practice it took him to be able to do the opening sixteen bars all in one breath in the studio, let alone live. At the time, I really hoped the other rappers I’d seen that night were watching and taking notes.

Rapping without a pre-recorded vocal track is by no means an instant recipe for a good set. It’s a risk. There are a lot more things that can go wrong. Even though Prof put his all into his set, there were some pretty serious sound problems throughout (vocals too low in the mix, mic cutting in and out) that I suppose wouldn’t have been a problem if he’d been “rapping” over his own vocals. However, in spite of this, I realized something—this was a realer performance than anything else I’d seen the entire night. Unlike everyone else, Prof was actually putting himself out there, and in the end, isn’t that what live music is about?

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