I held only a little excitement about Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg headlining Coachella. I knew I would catch their set, but with all the Pulp and Radiohead distractions tugging at my mind, I rarely gave myself the time to play their music in the months leading up to the festival. But when the whole event began drawing toward its end, the unlikely duo – with their friends, alive and dead – out-performed everything I saw on Sunday (and plenty acts from other days, too). They were an act where, before they came on, I said, “We’ll just stay and watch some of it,” but it became clear very soon that leaving would be a terrible mistake. Now, having only previously been acquainted with the artists via their popularity during my childhood – where their music was the talk of the playground – I think the computer in my head has finally clicked on its g-funk receptor.
Of course, I’m not entirely new to the world of hip hop, and I’ve even been in the audience for my fair share of hip hop acts: Digable Planets, Jay-Z, Jurassic 5, Kanye West, Pharoahe Monch, The Roots (although, that seemed more like a rock show), and Wu-Tang Clan. Also, earlier that weekend, I saw Kendrick Lamar and Death Grips. Nonetheless, I raise this point as a prelude to my thoughts on what I think constitutes a bad hip hop performance versus a good hip hop performance. I’m somewhat familiar with hip hop in the setting of an alternative music festival, which is where I have seen all of the hip hop acts that I’ve seen, but I do not really know what conventions and amusements that the hip hop community have founded in regards to performance.
Two hip hop sets that I did not enjoy very much have been Kanye West (Coachella 2011) and Wu-Tang Clan (Virgin Mobile Festival 2007). I thought Kanye West showed us some beautiful scenery and pretty choreography, but that he was an otherwise small focal point on a very large stage, doing not much more than rapping over what might as well have been an iPod playing his instrumentals. I’d stop short of saying that I disliked his set, but – for me – it wasn’t nearly as good as Jay-Z’s headlining performance in 2010. As for Wu-Tang Clan, it seemed like a lot of guys interrupting each other for a while until things finally started to run more smoothly. And I might even mention Kendrick Lamar’s Friday set: I did not like how the DJ would cut off all the sound during the many parts where the audience was supposed to sing or shout, because it sounded very jarring, and it actually made it sound like I was listening to a scratched CD. (Kendrick Lamar was very good, though.)
So what was it that made Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s set so successful? I don’t think you need to bring Tupac back from the dead to create a great hip hop show – though, that was very cool – but I think that Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg obviously put a lot in mind about entertaining their audience. That goes against something that Kendrick Lamar did, which was trying to get everybody to memorize Top Dog Entertainment in the midst of a show. I mean, aside from the little video before the performance, we didn’t hear Dr. Dre going, “Everybody shout B.E.A.T.S.B.Y.D.R.E.” every five minutes. They focused on playing their songs, performing them well, and putting on a good show. In other words, I believe that hip hop acts, in addition to being well organized, should impress us – not sell to us – and I don’t think a hip hop act has ever impressed me more than Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg.
(Another thing that I really like, which might have a lot to do with my fondness for rock music, is when hip hop acts have a band to perform the music. I’m not saying that DJs don’t work. I just think it’s better to see musicians recreate the songs.)
(Also also, I feel like I’ve made Kendrick Lamar sound bad, but I actually think he is going to be deservedly HUGE.)