So how do artists plant their music in your mind and grab you by the heart and resonate you all the way to the point of purchasing their album and raving about their music? One way is to win you over with their live show. Discovering new and emerging music and having that moment of finding an artist that completely draws you in is what music fans live for. And these days the biggest stage for emerging artists (and rebounding veterans) is the SXSW media and music festival in Austin, TX. During four days thousands of artists play several gigs in hopes of connecting with you, the audience, in such a way that creates a buzz in your brain that sends you back home with a new favorite band running through your mind. I would have loved to be there but this year I had to settle for watching UK rapper Dizzee Rascal as he attempted to create a stateside stir for his forthcoming album Maths + English during his televised set at the Bat Bar.
As the set began, I leaned closer to the TV, inching to the edge of the couch in excitement and anticipation. But as the set progressed, my head sank deeper with disappointment and I started to ask myself why the performance was turning quickly into a letdown.
I found some of my answers in the book This Is Your Brain On Music by pop music producer turned neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Levitin who writes that “In understanding the neurobehavioral basis of musical expertise and why some people become better performers than others, we need to consider that musical expertise takes many forms, sometimes technical (involving dexterity) and sometime emotional. The ability to draw us into a performance so that we forget about everything else is also a special kind of ability.”
We’ve all gone through a disappointing show before and I wondered what was it specifically about Rascal’s performance that didn’t draw me in and failed to ingite the SXSW audience I was watching?
Well, for starters, before Rascal went on he had a two label mates perform and both failed to captivate with their blend of UK dub, reggae and American southern-gangsta rap and when the camera panned the crowd, I could see that I wasn’t the only one not feeling the groove or vibe. Once Rascal began performing, I was confused because the Rascal I was watching was not the same Rascal I heard on mixtapes or on his previous two albums.
One reason is that playing live is like playing naked. Without a studio or a gifted producer to hide behind, the artist is forced to showcase their ability to convey the emotion of the song with their body in a live setting, and as Levitin writes, citing recent studies of his colleagues, that “…By watching a musical performance with the sound turned off, and attending to things like the musician’s arm, shoulder and torso movements, ordinary listeners can detect a great deal of expressive intentions of the music.” I didn’t fiddle with the volume level. I didn’t need to because just by watching Rascal’s performance, I saw that he was struggling to emotionally and physically to connect with the audience. He was pacing the stage but didn’t do any of the crucial charismatic nuances that seasoned emcee or a charismatic hip hop artist might do like use his arms or weave his hands to match the lyrical flow or show off a deft tongue by changing speeds or mixing in a freestyle.
Offering another explaination for Rascal’s sub-par set, Levitin writes that “It doesn’t have to do so much with the notes they’re singing or playing…but rather it’s what makes me forget about everything else around me.” Creating the type of environment Levitin describes and conveying emotion in a live performance is no easy task, especially with hip hop, which relies heavily on a clear understanding between the artist and the listener regarding lyrics. And if the lyric is not audibly hooky or pleasing to the ear, then the beats had better be banging something fresh and exciting or be somewhat familiar to the sonic pallet of the audience. And if that doesn’t happen then the artist is in serious trouble. And if an emcee leans to heavy on his DJ and reverts to just pacing the stage and trading lines with his two sidekicks (which Rascal did) then the show drags and there’s no emotional connection at all, which is why most people don’t like live hip hop. But when an emcee has honed the ability to captivate an audience, he is usually in control, as Levitin explains, of his vocal, lyrical and physical dexterity and has successfully fused his expertise with groove the DJ and/or backing band, giving the audience no choice but to be instantly drawn in.
Yes, because of his previous albums I had high expectations and part of me did expect him to have at least the same live impact as another UK rapper I saw. Rascal isn’t the first UK hip hop artist to try and cross over to a US audience as many have tried and failed.
Watching his set I thought back to a sold out show I saw by one of his contemporary UK grimers Lady Sovereign at the Metro in 2006, who, like Rascal in 2008, was trying to promote her debut album Public Warning on the eve of its US release. Sovereign darted around the stage speeding up and slowing down her flow like a finely tuned and possessed racecar, delivering far beyond the expected and driving further into her blend of punk rock and hip hop. Lady Sovereign hasn’t had the impact everyone expected her to have in the US but her show had me completely captivated forcing me to “forget about everything around me.”
In contrast, I watched as the SXSW audience barely moved a hip or wiggled a booty with only a few scattered hands were raised to beat-slice the air. The audience looked how I felt; bored, disengaged and thoroughly disappointed. Rascal struggled to overcome the difficult language barrier as he mixed several confusing between-song comments in a thick English-accented drawl. But it wasn’t the language that held Rascal back. It was the absence of the emotion he communicates lyrically on record, spitting scorching rhymes, changing speeds on dime and mixing in unique verbal nuances on record. And what sealed the disappointment was Rascal’s backing DJ (and I used that term loosely here because he barely did anything besides occasionally twist a few knobs and rub his fingers across the top of a pair of Panasonic CD turntables). He didn’t provide the organic live beats and rhythms needed to move hips and shake booties. It was as if the DJ was relying solely on studio tracks burned to a CD, expecting studio tracks to send the crowd into a frenzy and lift Rascal’s US career off the ground. Instead the set remained on the SXSW stage tarmac and well below the emotional horizon of expectation I hoped to soar to.
I was expecting a different Rascal. I knew he had collaborated with UGK for the forthcoming album but I wish I would’ve heard less of the dirty-south crunk and more of the gritty, rock-based Rascal during the set, the furious style and sound that’s been buzzing in the UK over these few years.
It’s early in the touring game and Rascal has time to hone the live skills as he crisscrosses the US, and hopefully, by the time he gets to Chicago, all those live emcee essentials will be more developed and will have coalesced into an explosive “forget everything else around you” show he’s capable off doing.