How to Improve Your Live Show

Posted by Justin Boland on Apr 17, 2011 | 0 Comments

“I think acts who put on a great live show and provide an EXPERIENCE in concert are going to be able to find their way to the money, while MCs/artists who are talented on record but can’t hold it down live are going to have a lot of trouble making a living.”DJ Trackstar

The Open Questions Thread is still going, but I’m going to get straight into answering some First up, one of the most common questions was about how to deliver a better live show. Rather than waste your time with my own idiot beliefs, I’ve assembled a roundtable of six actual professional rappers to share their experiences. Dig it.


Jabee: Always consider the audience’s attention span. Remember to perform for them, not you, interaction, and presence are key. Even if the crowd knows who you are, perform as if you are trying to win them over. Also don’t perform and do the same things you see rappers do on TV when they perform, because if you seen them do it, chances are so did someone else and that will make you look corny and look unoriginal.

Jabee: Live at the Opolis from SUBcompact Productions on Vimeo.

Just always remember that people have short attention spans, try to pay attention each person and connect induvidualy. give out what you want back.

Zilla Rocca

Zilla Rocca: Your live show should be an extension of your persona on record. Keep it consistent. Odd Future makes devilishly rowdy rebel music. Their stage show amps that up. The Roots are musical svengalis. Their stage show is 2 hour lesson on musicianship. Watch any clip of Dose One live—he’s a weird guy, and his shows are even weirder and more unforgettable. Don’t diverge or do something stale because it’s a “rap show”. Only present YOUR style, YOUR songs, YOUR interpretation of that on stage.

You’d be amazed at how many average people still love rap music but most emcees don’t give them a reason to drive out somewhere and throw down $15 to see them on stage. Just walking on-stage with your songs and spittin’ hard probably isn’t enough. It’s been beaten into the ground. You need a hook, something that separates you from everyone else. It might be a mask to wear or a live harmonica player onstage with you or you freestyling while in an oxygen deprivation tank.

Whatever it is, you need to do something to capture people’s attention and hold it. If that means disorienting people or confusing them at first, so be it. People want to be puzzled, especially with so much music and competition at every turn. Nothing’s worse than a ho-hum rap performance. If you’re a passionate loud guy, then at the end of your set you should be caked in sweat with a scratchy throat. If you’re a cool ass pimp, you should have your hand in your pocket the whole set while barely raising your voice. I’ve never been to an ICP show, but I’m pretty sure the whole ordeal is, well, insane.

You have to deliver a big payoff at some point, whether it’s a 10 minute off the head cypher, or a firework display at the end, a b-boy routine, a costume change, whatever. In this age of YouTube, blogs, Facebook, and ominous documenting of all that is going on in the world, you need to give people something live that they can’t get anywhere else.

Scroll | from the mic to the MPC

What are the most common mistakes you see cats doing with their live shows?

Scroll: Well as far as mistakes go, I see a bunch of stuff, but again this is only what I think.

There are people who say all press, all promotion is good. I am not of this mind set, but then again, I’ve been doing this for 8+ years and this is the first year I feel like things are really happening (so what do i know?) With live shows, I guess the first thing is, you should not play every show just because “it’s a show.” Try to play events that work for your genre, I can’t even say how many shows I’ve played where, that weird indie hip-hop acts plays and it throws the whole show. Like the room goes from 200 to 15 people…in 20 mins.

I myself have done that at some point, but I’d like to think I figured it out quick. All music is great for what ever it does for people, not saying you have to be good to make music, do what makes you happy. But, before you go out and play a show, think about, do people really want to hear this? After I go out and hear 15 indie hip-hop acts on one bill, all before 11:00 and the headliner is on at 11:30…most of the time I don’t even make it to the act I went to go see.

People need to be able to listen to your music. I don’t even listen to my first 2 releases, its not that I am not proud of what they are, or think they are good on some level….it’s just not everyday listening music. The indie scene knocks a lot of stuff, while there is some horse shit out there, a lot of music is popular because its marketable…for better or worse. I think acts should think about this a bit more. Maybe I’d stay at shows longer, or go to indie bills a bit more.

Big Daddy Kane: Advice from the Master

This is an excerpt from the exceptional book “How to Rap” and the rest of the BDK interview can be found here. It’s solid gold.

Big Daddy Kane: First of all, no lip-syncing, second - general stage movement, like you know how to work the stage. You understand that there is a stage left and a stage right, you understand that you have to interact with the crowd, making eye contact with a chick in the audience, snatch somebody’s hat off, put it on your head, stuff like that where they know that you recognize them, you’re not just performing like, “whatever, let me get up out of here.” You recognize them.

People on the right side don’t feel cheated because you stood on the center of the stage the whole show. You didn’t bring a whole entourage of motherfuckers that’s trying to get shine and they can’t even see the person that’s singing the song. And then also I feel like you have to give somebody something extra, you shouldn’t just come to a show and perform your hit songs and bounce, because if that’s the case then they could have just stayed at home and listened to the album.

Give them something extra, give them a freestyle or two, maybe some dancing if you want to take it there, I don’t know how B-boy you get. Your deejay got a solo where he doing some fancy scratching, whatever the case may be, throwing some t-shirts in the crowd, just something extra other than what they hear on the song all the time. Even if you’re doing a song, you take the last four lines of a verse and switch it to something else, just something extra where there was some type of twist where they felt like they got something different than what they got on the album.


Witness: Build multiple sets. It’s safe to assume that almost no audience or show is going to turn out exactly as you expect and you’re not going to want to drop a high energy set on an audience that wants to vibe out. Be malleable and get the crowd on your wave length before trying to change the level of energy of the room. When possible, write something hand tailored for a high profile show. People dig punchlines, but they dig them even more when they’re uniquely relevant to that show. And stop putting backing vocals on your instrumentals, you fucking baby.


Protoman: Don’t be a dick. There are tons of people I dislike but I stay professional. Make freinds with everyone. Don’t kiss ass, but show mutual respect. If they disrepect you, then fine, be a dick back. You never know who you’ll meet through someone else you brushed with. Most people act as a vehicle towards a bigger person with a bigger opportunity. Get your live show on point. I can’t stress this enough. This is your only real way to making money in this industry. Venues are flooded. Everybody is a booking agent now. Stand out. It’s a show. Not you rapping muffled into a mike with no DJ. Make it big. Bring guests on stage. Rehearse. Throw free shit out. Freestyle about the crowd. Be creative, spontaneous, and non routine. People will come out to see you every time.

Additional Advice from The Management

1. Video footage is solid gold. You need to critique every second of available footage: movement lines, body language, animation and engagement. At the same time, though, video will trick your ears into hearing a better performance than you’ve actually delivered, which is why you should also sit down with audio recordings of your sets. Since you already know your lyrics, your brain will fill in gaps and slurred syllables — but to a crowd hearing your verses for the first time? You done goofed.

2. Fight Rock Star Syndrome at all costs. Spend every second of venue time networking, meeting people, talking and especially listening. Having a pre-show ritual is one thing, but hanging out in the green room until you’re on is a lot of wasted opportunities. Volunteer to help out — in a pathologically selfish bullshit genre like hip hop, offering to work a shift at someone else’s merch table is a surefire way to get noticed and be remembered.

3. Follow up hard. The morning after is not about hangovers and high fives — it’s time to put in serious work following up on every connection you made the night before. Setting the tone and taking the initiative are two awesome concepts that rappers never seem to apply, despite the fact Robert Greene explained them completely in The 48 Laws of Power. This applies to everyone from promoters to new fans…hit up your mailing list, email and call everyone you said you would, post up pics and video, then go collapse in a shivering pile of blankets and bong rips.

4. Always err on the side of over-delivering and Working Too Hard. There are no penalties for wanting it too much.

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Music by Justin Boland