Those who were birthed in the 90s and later come from an era when hip-hop concerts were extended house parties with your favorite artists. This was the era when rappers used to pile on stage with posses of about eleven other dudes that would hover in a clump at the back end of the platform. While most of them would wave their hands in the air and frantically lean in with the intent to amp up the artist, at least one guy would hop on an additional mic, adding ad-libs and vocals while running from one end of the stage to the other.
My first concert was Bow Wow’s Scream Tour 3 with B2K and Marques Houston, to name a few. Although as a pre-teen, my main goal was to nab J-Boog’s attention, I vividly remember the overpopulation of bodies on the stage and the excitement they collectively ignited in the audience of 100,000 plus raging fans. At that time, Bow Wow was the sh*t and didn’t have to pull stupid stunts to command the spotlight. But in addition to his medley of hits, it was members of the So So Def crew and other secondary performers that jolted fan interaction. While I may have been catching the later end of hip-hop, the term “hype man” was still murmured universally. You often didn’t know their name, but you definitely recognized their voice and energy.
The omnipresence of the hype man in 80s and 90s rap was a crucial and monumental element to any good show. It was the “everybody get out your seats and scream,” or the “when I say this, you say that,” that ultimately caused a crowd reaction and made them legends in their own right. The art of the unsung profession has been lost over the years, but its impact on the culture still echoes in the ears of every true rap fanatic.
While the origins and evolution of the hype man cannot be pinpointed to an exact timeline, its need probably stemmed from house party culture. The mission was to get people dancing and keep the energy alive, but the original MC was occupied with his lyricism and flow. The hype man complemented an artist in his ability to add volume to his live performances and essentially face-palm the audience with his message. “The hype man gives [an artist] a certain emphasis and actually makes his show a little bit better,” legendary hip-hop pioneer Kidd Creole of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five said via phone. “A person can have a hype man and still have a bad show, but [the hype man] adds to the artist.”
Many say the hype man’s rise to worldwide stardom could date back to Flavor Flav of Public Enemy, whose exhilarated energy on records and the main stage, along with his tricked-out style, became an instantly iconic image in the culture. It’s hard to say that Flav is just a hype man, though, because he’s ticked multiple boxes off on the MC qualification checklist. But Flav has never been bothered by the title. “It’s the truth [and] the truth doesn’t hurt me,” Flavor Flav says.
The name hasn’t always been embraced, however, and has often come with various conditions. Spliff Star, Busta Rhymes’ righthand man, is fully welcoming of the title, as long as he is known as the “best hype man to ever do it.” Of course, everyone wants to be the best, but in Spliff’s case, he’s earned the prefix due to over a decade of providing vitality and toughness to every Busta show. “If I was going to be the hype man, I was going to be the best hype man,” Star says during a lengthy phone conversation. “I wanted them to remember my name. Spliff Star never dropped a solo album, and I’m still a household [brand]. When the books close on hip-hop, I hope I’m on one of the pages, even if it’s on the last page.”
Lupe Fiasco’s main guy, Bishop G, on the other hand, isn’t keen on the nickname. “They used to have [Lupe’s name] on there and sometimes they’d put hype man [next to mine]. I used to go to them and be like, take this sh*t off. I never liked the name at all. Hype is bad in my ear,” Bishop G says. Instead, he’s comfortable with “backup performer.” “I figured for when you got Whitney Houston on stage and people singing with her, you called it backup singers. Or you got Ron Isley singing and his brothers playing the guitar. You don’t call them n***as hype men,” he explains. “So why when it comes down to rap, they call that n***a a hype man? It [degrades] what I consider myself doing.”
The job is no easy feat. Being hype men goes beyond the “yeahs” frequently thrown out on stage. It takes fluidity with the main artist. If the artist is out of breath, they jump in; if the crowd seems dull, they maximize the energy levels. They are always three steps ahead of the main act. Spliff Starr, who started performing with Busta in the early 90s, is well-versed in being in sync with an artist without even having to rehearse. It doesn’t hurt that the two have known each other since they were young boys growing up in the streets of Brooklyn. But their shows were even tighter because of Spliff’s golden rule: treat every show like it’s yours. “When you get on stage, you’re supposed to give the people a performance. I’m passionate about mine. I always wanted my own turn so much that I treat Busta’s show like it’s mine,” he says. “When we go to a Busta Rhymes’ show, it don’t say ‘Busta Rhymes with Spliff Star.’ My name is not being branded like that. So if I get my little 30 minutes to an hour onstage, I want you to remember me. Even if you don’t remember my name, I want you to be like, ‘Yo, that light skinned n***a was whyling.’ I want to bring you that energy, so when you see me, you know what it is. And if you see Busta performing by himself, you know it can’t be the same if I ain’t there.” Admittedly, no one can throw down like when Busta and Spliff take off during a live set, but the Brooklyn native did acknowledge Eminem’s previous side man, Proof (he was shot and killed in Detroit in April 2006) as one of the only other cats to adopt the golden rule.
Bishop G says practice makes perfect. “Even when it’s not a show, [you have to] listen to the music and rap it in the house or in the car and think about when you get on stage. Like, oh I’m going to do this sh*t next time and knowing every part, every word. [It’s] paying attention to the show. You got to pick your spots and do a lot of studying before. So when I used to get on stage, it was just to have fun because I already knew what to do.”
Somewhere down the line, the hype man vanished. Their disappearance was most likely triggered by the influx of single acts that started popping up in the 2000s. Everyone wanted to be a single act, and even those who were once considered hype men, started transitioning into recognizable MCs. JAY-Z, who had previously lived in the shadow of Big Daddy Kane, skyrocketed to icon status after the release of his debut album, Reasonable Doubt, in 1996. Even Puff Daddy, who was known as the record label executive who charismatically danced around adding his two cents on stage during Notorious B.I.G.’s early concerts, became a breakout talent. “You knew he wasn’t a rapper, but then you go, why can’t he rap,” Nas said about Diddy, in the documentary, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop.
Jermaine Dupri, while an award-winning artist and producer of top acts like Usher, Mariah Carey, and Alicia Keys, was sometimes noted for his ad-libs during shows for Bow Wow and Da Brat. Dupri claims the hype man’s downfall came with the rise of the “super MC.” “The hype man left because these guys wanted to be super MCs. MC-ing went into a zone of, ‘I got this myself. I can rock my own show. I memorized my own lyrics.’ It definitely became the thing to be like, ‘I’m a lyrical miracle.’ Being able to do it became the challenge. You can’t do this? You ain’t nothing,” he explains to VIBE during an impromptu chat at our Manhattan headquarters.
Dupri and Bishop G agree that the ascent of artists like Drake and Kanye transcended the industry into a new era of showmanship. “Kanye started doing that sh*t on the Glow in the Dark tour. He used to have people on stage with him, but then he got to a point where he was like, I want to be on this whole stage by my f**king self. He put the choir, the background singers, everybody on the floor where you couldn’t see them.” Then followed other artists like T.I. and Lil Wayne. “You don’t care about a hype man if you have the confidence that you can go out there alone with your DJ or band and people can say at the end of the show, ‘Oh wow, he rocked,’” Kidd Creole says. “Some of it might be arrogance because certain elements of generation X think that they can do everything.” Even Nicki Minaj shed her hype man Safaree right around the same time she deaded her romantic ties to him. For the femcee, it may have been important for her to ditch the stigma of needing a male counterpart to co-sign her act, but her shows and music undoubtedly took a much different approach after The Pinkprint.
You don’t care about a hype man if you have the confidence that you can go out there alone with your DJ or band, and people can say at the end of the show, ‘Oh wow, he rocked.’ —The Kidd Creole
Everyone wants to be a super MC, but no one knows how to conduct a super show. Dupri said it best while comparing the art of being the G.O.A.T. to boxing. You have to know how to control your own breath, memorize your own lines and keep the crowd energized. Lil Wayne never had problems memorizing his lines, primarily because his mega fans did it for him, but the theatrics have gotten trickier as rap has evolved. “Rap music has changed so much to where it’s more laid back now. It’s not really that hype anymore,” Flavor Flav says. “When you come to a Public Enemy show, you see a show. A lot of rappers today are just walking around holding the mic.”
Not to mention, lackluster penmanship ultimately gave more opportunity for artists to focus on generating crowd participation on their own. Arguably, the era of mumble rappers such as Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Yachty have bridged the gap between the hype man and the single act as they prioritize creating Instagram moments rather than boasting their excellence as a premier talent. Many people remember Lil Uzi Vert’s cannon ball into a sea of fans during the Rolling Loud Festival in Miami, but very few probably can recount his actual stage performance. “Certain people don’t need hype men because their music ain’t sh*t but some bullsh*t hype man music itself. What he’s doing on stage is what the hype man would be doing for somebody with real music,” Bishop G says.
In today’s rap, the hype man is essentially dead. Odd Future’s Jasper Dolphin did a remarkable job, carrying the hypeness on his back way into the later 2000s, but as OF broke off into solo acts, even he couldn’t fully revive the lost art. During Coachella 2017, Kendrick Lamar performed an entire set by himself. And while his performance consisted of stellar live renditions of tracks off his latest album DAMN.—in other words, content far greater than his mumble-rapping counterparts—his solo presence on the giant stage, if not felt, was seen. “When I saw Kendrick doing some sh*t, I saw him up there, big giant a** stage and this 4-foot-3 n***a up there by himself, dancing around. You too little to be up there by yourself. Everybody be up there by themselves and it’s like okay, it’s you, n***a. Where is your friends?”
Hype man culture may be dead, but it hasn’t been forgotten. Throwback interviews with Schoolboy Q still loom on the Internet, in which the TDE artist reflects on his early days playing a backseat to Kendrick. Even DJ Khaled keeps the hype man essence alive as he amps up himself and featured guests during live shows. But will the hype man ever come back? Spliff Starr isn’t sure the new age of artists really need one. “Listen, we got rappers and we got artists. Rappers do not last long,” he says, pulling out a few good apples he thinks are “special,” including Kendrick, Migos, and Young Thug. “[The rest of these] guys don’t need a hype man, because they’re rapping over their records.”
That may just be the way of the new generation of hip-hop, but the culture will definitely be missing something meaningful. “The hype man to rap music is like a leg to a body,” Flavor Flav says. “So if music was a body, the hype man would be a leg. You get rid of the hype man, then you get rid of a leg. And how important is a leg to a body?” Very.