Yeezy Taught Me: How Kanye & The Roots Make Live Hip Hop Work

It’s the early ‘70s and you’re at a house party at 1520 Sedgwick Ave. in the Bronx. Early b-boys and b-girls lead the dancing, but it’s what they’re dancing to that’s brought everyone here. This is one of DJ Kool Herc’s parties, and Herc spins records in a whole new way.

Like the disco DJs that run the mainstream late-night circuit, Kool Herc used a double turntable set-up—but Herc used two copies of the same record to elongate the drum breaks, and he played hard funk records, not disco. Those extra-long, extra-funky drum breaks became break-beats, the building blocks of hip hop.

Kool Herc’s parties were the first performances of hip hop: simple, underground, without live instruments or anything to really look at other than a charismatic DJ and his backup dancers, and as far as hip hop performance goes, not much has changed since then.

A traditional hip hop performance consists of three ingredients: the DJ, the Artist, and the Hype-Men. The DJ operates from the shelter of the turntables; the Artist marauds about the stage, reciting his or her lyrics and relying almost entirely on charisma and showmanship to keep the audience involved; and the Hype-Men follow the Artist around, tasked with making the Artist look good. Think about a rock show: there are Townshend-esque windmills, the blur of drumstick pine and flash of the cymbals. The mere existence of instruments on stage gives rock and roll an unfair advantage–the audience has something to look at other than the artist. Hip hop, unlike rock and roll, rhythm and blues, or jazz was not born out of instruments, but technology. Bob Dylan had a guitar, Elton John had a piano, but early hip hop artists had only pre-recorded sound. Unless you’re a vinyl junkie, there’s not much to look at during a hip hop performance. You can watch passively from the back row of a rock show and still have a good experience. Do the same at a hip hop show and you’ll be looking at your watch by the third song.

Sometimes that traditional hip hop performance is eschewed for something a bit more orchestrated. The use of live instruments in hip hop performance has become more and more common. Drake performs many of his songs with a live band during his mega tours, Jay Z is known to do the same. The Roots have made a career of performing hip hop with live instruments. But hip hop with live instruments is a musical minefield. It can work terrifically, lending songs a new timbre, making them more vibrant, more organic, and most importantly, more fun to watch. Or, it can make a decent track unbearable. Sometimes the translation from electronic to acoustic, or synthesizer to saxophone robs a song of its authenticity. If the texture of the instruments doesn’t match the song, what we get is an unconvincing, inauthentic performance. For example, recent hip hop is often built around a powerful pulse from a chest shaking and bass heavy 808, but a conventional kick drum simply cannot reproduce the sheer physicality of a synthesized 808. A substitution of one for the other would compromise the foundation of a track giving any performance a tinny, empty quality. When that happens, it can come off like a rip-off of the original, or a poor mimicry of the recording.

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When Eminem dropped by Saturday Night Live last November, we got a great example of what not to do. Eminem performed two songs from his new album The Marshall Mathers LP 2, “Berzerk” and “Survival.” The performances were so bad NBC pulled them from the Internet.

At the start of Eminem’s first performance, Rick Rubin, the legendary producer and extremely bearded founder of the record label Def Jam stands over a simple turntable set up. The opening lines of Billy Squier’s “The Stroke” creep out of his turntable and a few beats later Eminem takes the stage, full of angst and frenetic, white-rapper vigor. At this moment, everything is going okay; Rick Rubin and Eminem are the only two figures on stage, and we’re all set for a traditional hip hop performance. There’s nothing wrong with that. Say what you want about Eminem’s subject matter and image—the man is a talented MC. Charisma, stage presence, intricate rhymes and a cadence that’s well suited for a live setting; he’s got all the necessary skills to make a traditional hip hop show stand out.

But after Eminem spits a few lines, a curtain behind Rubin falls away to reveal a full band. There are two drummers, two different keyboard players, a hype-man, a guitarist, a bassist and another turntable and DJ. All in all, there are eight people on stage. The guitar is overly distorted. The guitarist plays like he’s in a metal cover band; cheesy metal riffs and power chords crowd the soundscape. The bassist’s work is far too elaborate. In short, there is entirely too much going on, not only on stage, but in the acoustic make-up of the performance. Eminem’s live vocals are so hopelessly lost in the mix that he plays with a backup vocal track, making it seem as though he’s lip-synching.

The live instrumentation was not only too much, its aesthetic didn’t match that of the song. In many ways “Berzerk” is a Beastie Boys track in disguise; its driving force is a sample from “The New Style” and “Fight For Your Right” (as well as Squier’s “The Stroke”), and the beat is driven by mechanical electronic crunches. Yet Eminem plays with a big R&B band, more suited to recreating the smooth sounds of soul, than the churning energy of “Berzerk.” Admittedly, the instruments made Eminem’s performance more fun to watch, but in the same way that flames make it fun to watch a burning building.

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Hip hop in a live setting doesn’t have to be that way. If the texture and aura of the recorded song are correctly matched with a timbre and style of live instrumentation, the performance can take on a completely new life. The Roots prove this every night on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. As the in-house band, they usually provide backing for artists that come through to perform. When they took the stage with Kanye West in September, Kanye and The Roots gave a masterclass in live-instrumented, hip hop performance.

Kanye performed “Bound 2,” a song designed around a sample from an old soul track by Ponderosa Twins Plus One. The album version of “Bound 2” is very simple. It begins with a short sample, only seven seconds, which loops repeatedly underneath Kanye’s verses. Occasionally, Charlie Wilson interrupts the sample with a synthesizer-driven break, complete with an anthemic chorus. On the album version, the sample has very little low-end, making the recording sound almost one-dimensional. But the performance on Fallon is anything but one-dimensional.

The Roots painstakingly reproduce that seven-second sample. Bassist Mark Kelley earnestly recreates the baseline while Cap’n Kirk mimics the simple guitar work. Two keyboards provide padding, and a turntable and sampler recreate the vocal grunts and “uhs” sampled in the original. All the while Kanye prances about the stage rapping matter-of-factly about just how inferior the rest of the world is compared to his Yeezus-ness.

Then there’s the Charlie Wilson factor. It’s not often that we get to see Charlie do his thing live, with quality backing. The Fallon performance gives us exactly that, and Charlie is the consummate professional. Auto-Tune can go to hell; Charlie Wilson has the pipes of a concert organ. The man could make the alphabet sound magnificently grandiose. There’s more to Charlie Wilson than terrific ad-libs like “Shabba dabba dwee twee twee.” The melody he sings, borrowed from Wee’s “Aeroplane (Reprise),” is anthemic, and in the album version, Charlie’s voice takes “Bound 2” to another level of intensity. But in the Fallon performance, the roles are reversed. The same melody, next to the raw energy and bounce of The Roots, is restrained and allows the song to breathe while giving needed pause and a stark contrast.

The Charlie Wilson solo is one of three changes from the recorded version that shape the live performance. A children’s choir sings the choral line of “Bound to falling in love,” transforming “Bound 2” from a chopped up soul ballad into a gospel revival. The texture provided by the choir sets the tone for the entire performance. Questlove tops it all off with the addition of a simple breakbeat. Although the album version contains a very subtle drum track, Questlove’s drums give the performance palpable groove in a live setting. Yeezus, the album from which “Bound 2” is taken, is filled with coarse industrial beats and inflammatory rhymes and is in no way “feel good” music. “Bound 2,” the album’s final chapter, is a reserved, calm, soulful track. Performed live, however, Kanye and The Roots breathe new life into it. The live version is not simply a reconstruction or imitation of the original—it’s an entirely new take.

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When watching a live performance on TV, participation isn’t really an option. The disconnect between performer and audience is huge; it takes visual stimulation to keep the viewer’s attention. The challenge is to engage listeners in the audience and at home on the couch. Quite often, the miracle elixir is live-instrumentation. But there are some important rules for this medium. Form must match function, you can’t just toss in as many musicians as you can afford to hire. Eminem fell into this trap, but he’s not the only one. Miguel’s April SNL performance of “How Many Drinks” employs a pseudo-metal band playing with no regard for the R&B stylings that make Miguel stand out. You can try to recreate the album version, but that can be treacherous if you cannot find the correct balance. Drake managed to pull this off on Fallon, performing “Too Much” almost exactly as recorded, but that track couldn’t exist in any other form. Kanye showed us, with his Fallon performance, that it is perhaps a better idea to find a balance between recreation and new inspiration. The live version of “Bound 2” feels like a natural evolution of the track that appears on Yeezus. Rather than obstruct the music, the instruments guide the song to a new place, one more fitting for a live performance.

About Sam Behrens

Sam Behrens is a master’s candidate at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, with a concentration in Cultural Reporting and Criticism. He hails from Kansas City, and used to be a classically trained violinist. He’s still a poorly trained guitarist and an untrained bassist. He’s a soccer geek, he supports Tottenham Hotspur. He’s prone to the occasional nerd-out when a new album leaks and his iTunes library is a magical place where rappers rule the world and lyrics flow freely. Follow him on twitter @samknowswords if you believe in America.
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