x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Live hip-hop is all about spectacle

Ahead of Snoop Dogg's Yas Island concert this weekend, we look at the changing world of rap and hip-hop.

Snoop Dogg and the Snoopadelics will perform at yas Arena tomorrow night.
Snoop Dogg and the Snoopadelics will perform at yas Arena tomorrow night.

Music lovers are in for a treat tomorrow night when the hip-hop legend Snoop Dogg hits the stage at Yas Arena. Coming along for the ride is Snoop's backing band, The Snoopadelics, bringing to life some of the dense production the rapper employs in his recordings.

The combination of Snoop and The Snoopadelics is a case of pleasing the masses. Those wanting to hear Snoop's dulcet drawl live finally have the chance, while punters demanding something extra from a live performance should be pleased with The Snoopadelics, whose funk workouts are renowned for keeping the crowd moving.

Yet for purists, the essence of the hip-hop performance - the idea of a collective live performance - will have been slowly diminishing long before Snoop puts his paw on the Abu Dhabi stage.

Once viewed as the nucleus of the hip-hop movement, the hip-hop crew has become an endangered species.

It was only 25 years ago that hip-hop groups such as Public Enemy, Run DMC and NWA were ruling the rap game and breaking musical and social barriers with each release. In fact, hip-hop's trajectory from the underground to the mainstream was arguably achieved through hip-hop collectives.

Kurtis Blow may have been the first rapper to sign up to a major record label in 1978, but the genre's first hit single arrived a year later with Rapper's Delight by the Sugar Hill Gang.

It was the sold-out tours of the trio Run DMC that showed hip-hop could be as visceral a live force in an arena as in a club, and that MCs can be equally adept spitting over rock riffs and vinyl cuts.

Public Enemy and NWA, meanwhile, offered the world a warts-and-all glimpse into the plight of the African-American underclass and both offered their own remedies to overcoming the struggle. The former, with their militant aesthetics, preached revolution while the latter demanded survival through brute strength.

Solo artists such as KRS One and Big Daddy Kane also aided hip-hop's progression, but it would be unfathomable for the above leaps to have occurred through solo performances. Public Enemy's MC Chuck D's tough rhetoric would have been unpalatable without the undercutting wit of his partner Flava Flav. Ice Cube, Eazy E and MC Ren's violent depictions of American ghetto life would have made NWA too bleak without the funky backdrops of the producer and sometime MC Dr Dre.

But the financial clout these groups gave the genre is also responsible for the demise of their configuration. The Sugar Hill Gang ironically imploded after a series of litigation battles regarding royalty payments for Rapper's Delight and A Tribe Called Quest cited frustrations with their record company for fast-tracking their disillusion.

Hip-hop's move from underground attitude to a corporate brand, coupled with declining record sales, pushed aspiring rappers to attempt to make it on their own, rather than as groups. In the case of groups such as the 50 Cent-led G-Unit, Puff Daddy's Bad Boy Family and and DMX's Ruff Ryders, they merely form an extension to the star's existing persona and are seen to function primarily as a launch pad for clothing lines.

Vinnie Brown, one of the MCs of Naughty by Nature, who have been touring consistently for more than two decades, says hip-hop crews are no longer a relevant part of the scene due to "selfishness in the industry".

"Everyone wants to be 'The Man' instead of being a team," he explains, ahead of a performance in Paris. "Most solo artists come from groups but internal conflicts, as well as labels' lack of financing, breed solo acts."

Ironically, Brown says it is the tight live market that is forcing solo hip-hop artists to employ backing bands on tour.

"I think solo acts performing with bands are more of an attempt to enhance their stage show and diversify their audience plus increase the number of venues that will book them."

This could be seen as a cynical perspective - perhaps Snoop Dogg really is bringing the Snoopadelics along to preserve what Chuck D deems as integral to hip-hop.

"It is a performance art... Hip-hop started as a crew or a group because not many people could hold it together for a whole performance," Chuck D told the Australian radio station Triple J in January, during the band's staggering 71st tour. "People come to the concert to see you first and hear you second, because they already heard you at your audio best on the recording. So you better give them something to look at."