I hate to admit it, but there’s something often lacking from rap concerts. I often get more excited about my favorite rapper coming to town than my favorite rock band—I like the vibe of the room more—but then I remember that most rap shows end up feeling like karaoke. A guy just stands up there and aggressively rap into a mic while a prerecorded track plays over the PA. Sometimes he dances. Not only is the immediacy and connection of the music gone, so too are the intricacies of the rapper’s flow, replaced by shortness of breath and the high volume necessary to be picked up by the mic.
There are of course rap shows I’ve loved. But thinking of the best one I’ve ever seen only highlights the difficulty involved in getting it right. Most rappers can’t afford to put a physical mountain up on stage with them, at least when they’re charging $12 a ticket.
One solution we sometimes see is a live band playing with a rapper, which seems like it should work. But it usually doesn’t as much as it should, because now we have this rapper and a group of musicians that have, at best, only really played this music in a few recording sessions before coming on tour, trying to manage stage presence that doesn’t help anyone. The backing band becomes unmistakably a backing band, and not even one that is having fun, since they’re playing repetitive hip hop loops onstage. Seeing a rock band live can remind you of the beauty that comes when a group of disparate parts come together to make one piece of art. But seeing a rapper backed up by a group of players he barely knows, imitating the beats made by ProTools and a sampler, can feel like Diana Ross if she were being backed by The Pips (or perhaps, Axl Rose fronting AC/DC. We shall see…)
All of this is a roundabout way of pointing to what Lushlife and CSLSX (pronounced “casual sex”) did so so right. Because CSLSX (a band of three hip looking dudes who meandered their way around a bunch of pedals, keyboards, and guitars, and also a guy on the drums who was suitably in his own world*) is most certainly NOT Lushlife’s backing band.
In concert, Lushlife is the frontman to CSLSX, the same way that Mick Jagger is the frontman to the Rolling Stones, the same way that any frontman who isn’t a complete jerk should be first among equals in performance with a group of musicians that actually make music together. The rapper and the band proved this on their excellent February release, Ritualize (via Western Vinyl). Lushlife’s performance onstage is not karaoke. It barely even feels like rap, even as the Philly native spits fast and sharp, with an old-school flow that sounds like if Nas spit like Ghostface Killah.
Lushlife dances, flails, and performs his heart out on stage. But he still stands in a remarkably shared spotlight. When he’s not rapping, he grabs sticks and mercilessly beats a drum next to him. The rest of the band runs a tight if somewhat ethereal ship around him, singing dreamily into the microphone as they envelope the room in spacey sound. What Lushlife brings to the sound is the raw relentless energy of a sprinting rapper that bolsters the sound of the band, instead of overpowering it. Together, it’s the sound that makes you decide to raise up your hands, and clap along to the beat, when the man on the microphone tells you to.
Lushlife and CSLSX together were awesome. I turned out to be one of the very few people at the show who knew who they were beforehand, but that clearly didn’t matter because people were so into it. I was standing up front, and the guy next to me was going crazy the way you’re supposed to at the front, to the point that CSLSX’s guitarist actually thanked him (and me) after their set was done. After that I asked him if he knew Lushlife before the show, and he said no, but that he was planning on checking him out.
I imagine he wasn’t alone. It was that kind of show. It reminded me that despite all the ways that the music industry has changed in the past few decades, the main fundamentals of it have maintained. A good artist can play in a room full of skeptics and turn them into apostles. Putting a well-matched opener in front of someone with an established fanbase can make new fans. Just like it’s supposed to.
I’m worried that I have found myself in this piece extolling the virtues of rap-rock, which is something I try to never do.** Or I’m perhaps I’m just saying that every rap group should be The Roots, which is a position I’m slightly more comfortable with. But that’s not it either.
I often get annoyed at Alt-Rap, or rather, get annoyed at myself for liking Alt-Rap. At its worst, it’s a type of hip-hop that people who don’t really care for hip-hop can listen to and not feel close-minded in their tastes, pointing to their love of Immortal Technique’s nuance-less political activism as an example of what rap “should” be, even if rap has never been that.
But at its best, it’s this. It’s hip-hop taking in elements that are foreign to it and assimilating them, making something that can transcend the genre. Lushlife and CSLSX didn’t bump into any of the problems that can plague rap shows. They overcame them, by playing an excellent rock show.
Listen: “Ritualize” – Lushlife + CSLSX (select tracks from the album)
When discussing the best and worst parts of Alt-Rap, there are few rappers that exemplify them as much as the show’s headliner, Open Mike Eagle. I’ve written before about how Open Mike’s raps can be a little too easy in their un-pretentious directness. Rapping about Netflix shows can draw you in just like the streaming service itself, but both of them can end up leaving you feel a little empty after a binge. His frills-free delivery is fun, but sometimes I can be left wanting something a little more fancy.
In concert, Open Mike exemplifies his un-fancy persona. He seems to deliberately ignore concepts like “stage presence” or “preparation” in favor of just, for lack of a better term, being himself. He acts more like a stand-up comedian than a rapper, selling his own worldview and thought process more than any sort of musical showmanship.
He stands up there and raps into the mic like it’s just some friend he thought he’d chat with today. He holds a mono sampler that he fiddles around with periodically, not quite live-mixing his songs outright, but clearly screwing with the track as his whims dictate. Maybe he’ll put on a phaser for a few seconds, or repeat this loop a few times. Then he’ll from time to time cut the track out completely to rap a capella for a few bars, or even just to stop rapping completely and switch to chatting with the audience if it’s more his speed. At one point, he decided to play some Lenny Kravitz in between songs (“Fuck it I’m playing some Lenny Kravitz”), just because he felt solidarity for the rock star’s pants-ripping incident.
Each song is preceded by a spoken intro. Nothing fancy, just a bit of wayward banter—”Well this song is something I wrote when I was…” or “I don’t really like performing this one because it makes me feel self conscious…” (as he did before “Smiling (Quirky Race Doc)” off his new album, and true to his word, he gave up in the middle and paused the track in the middle on his mono, and didn’t unpause because he felt a little “too truthful” in his complaints about racism).
At first, this felt a little grating. Eagle seemed like he wasn’t even sure if he was performing at a concert, like he might have just wandered in from an open mic night that he had only wandered into in the first place on a whim. But it grows on you as an audience member, because by dissolving any sense of his own self-importance, the performer onstage also dissolves the feeling of distance that pervades at even a concert this small.
Listen: “I Went Outside Today (feat. Aesop Rock)” – Open Mike Eagle & Paul White
At one point, he paused the music to announce that it was time for “The Advice Show,” and sought questions from the crowd. A kid up front asked what to do about a long distance relationship with not enough trust.
“Move closer to her,” he said, and that section of the show was done. He went on to cue up a new track on his laptop, manipulate it with his handheld mono, and spit his near deadpan flow into the mic.
By the end of the show, Open Mike had confidently destroyed the barriers between showman and audience, between concert and simple conversation. With ten minutes left before he had to leave, he announced that he had finished with all the stuff that he had come to the concert hall to do. He asked if anyone had anything they wanted from him, to which someone thankfully (if not unexpectedly) yelled out a request for “Accepting the Endorphin Addiction,” the first song (both in the tracklist and in my heart) off his most recent album. Then he rapped that and asked what was next.
“Give us your opinions on the most recent several episodes of Adventure Time!” I said, yelling from just in front of the stage at him.
He pointed at me and said, “Hey, you’re funny,” before not doing that at all and just playing another song. I can’t really complain. I was laughing too hard at that point.
Between Lushlife/CSLSX and Open Mike Eagle, PopGun Presents put together a pretty fantastic night of rap music. They did it by mostly ignoring what a rap show is supposed to be. Lushlife and CSLSX played an excellent alt-rock show, and Open Mike Eagle made a great stand-up comic.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable night, but it never felt like a rap concert. I guess thats what makes it “alternative.”
*I have discovered that my roommate once made out with the drummer at a party! Go her!
**Yeah yeah Rage Against The Machine is great I’m not a complete hater…