Last night’s memorable Jay-Z show at Madison Square Garden made a few points abundantly clear: Jay has made the most impressive evolution of any MC as a serious, all-around concert figure since his days of lumbering through performances in a bulletproof vest while opening up for Puff Daddy’s No Way Out tour back in 1997. Trey Songz is literally on the verge of superstardom. And never invite a jail-bound rap superstar to your gig unless you want to be upstaged (I still say Lil Wayne’s “accidental” courthouse fire was a complex, ingenious scheme to steal Jigga’s thunder during Young Jeezy’s set. We see you, Baby.)
But more than anything, the Blueprint 3 Tour displayed overwhelming proof that hip hop has grown mightily as a live art form from the days when rappers spent most of the show screaming, “Yo, turn my mic up!” Still, over the years, there have been a few rap acts that have excelled on the concert stage—from Doug E. Fresh, LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, and De La Soul to MC Hammer, Black Moon, Lauryn Hill and Eminem. But the Top-5 all-time live hip hop acts? Well…
5. Kanye West
Show me a more earnest, leave-it-all-on-the-stage live performer in hip hop than the self-proclaimed “international asshole.” While you attempt to do just that, here’s something to consider. West’s 2008 critically-acclaimed, $30 million grossing Glow In The Dark tour was a brave collision of Broadway showmanship, avant-garde vision and over-the-top hubris. Sure there were mammoth LED screens, spacey desert landscapes, a wired female alien figure and futuristic meteor showers. But at the heart of it all was West, who is just as comfortable in a hole in a wall club in Chicago than he is opening up for the Rolling Stones.
The Blastmaster doesn’t need much to rock a crowd. Just give him a mic and get the hell out the way. Seriously, there is only one other MC that possesses more unearthly breath control than KRS-One and he’s ahead on this list. Twenty plus years in the game, Kris is still among the genre’s most gifted live rhyme free-stylists. Besides, “The Bridge Is Over” still knocks live.
At this point, Jigga is re-writing the book on just how big a hip hop tour can be. The man has been consistently headlining sold-out shows since 1998’s Hard Knock Life gigs and now he has found that rare perfect mix of a live band (his three-piece horn section soars on the new Blueprint 3 material) and the traditional DJ. When he’s onstage, Jay-Z’s charisma fills up an entire arena like no other MC. He’s literally Jim Jones without the Kool-Aid. How consistent of a concert draw has he become? Jay now headlines alternative rock festivals like Glastonbury and Coachella when he’s not on his own sold-out treks. Live Nation, didn’t sign him up to a multi-million dollar deal for nothing.
2. The Roots
To paraphrase a hot line, Philadelphia’s own are truly rap’s Grateful Dead. Drummer/bandleader Questlove and crew have been known to play a grueling 220 dates a year. And while there have been various changes to the lineup since their Do You Want More days in the mid ‘90s (yes, that’s a tuba player rocking it out during one of their infamous three-hour marathon shows) there is one constant: the ridiculously underrated Black Thought, whose breath control is unparallel. If you’ve never been to a Root’s show, check out their annual Picnic festival in Philly on June 5 to see what all the hype is about.
1. Run DMC
The first hip hop act to headline a national arena tour. The first hip hop act to sellout the Garden. The first hip hop act to make rap a respectable live draw. Quite simply the greatest live hip hop act to ever do it. Jay-Z stands on the shoulders of Run, DMC, and the late Jam Master Jay. The onstage chemistry between Run and D was a thing of beauty and impeccable timing. And never has a set of turntables sounded so…big. The video of the Kings of Queens taking over Live Aid in 1985 says it all. —Keith Murphy
With all apologies due to Mick Jagger, Keith “Murph” Murphy may not be a man of immense wealth, but he does have taste. For over a decade, the Chicago-born journalist has sparred with brazen hip hop moguls (Jay-Z); Hollywood royalty (Quentin Tarantino); political powerbrokers (Rev. Al Shaprton); redemption-seeking pugilists (Mike Tyson); R&B divas (Mary J. Blige); and lyrically great white hopes (Eminem). His work has appeared in such publications and sites as VIBE, Essence, The Root, and KING, and he is a frequent commentator on CNN, Fox News, VH1, and A&E Biography.