The Business of Live Bands in Hip-Hop: Rappers Should ‘Take It Live ASAP’

“Where’s my snare?”

No, we’re not talking about the lyrics Eminem utters before “cleanin’ out his closet.” We’re talking about snare drums from live bands during hip-hop concerts. Hip-hop is such an impactful genre, and right now it’s arguably the biggest in the world. Along with the influx of hip-hop songs are the live performances that follow their releases. At concerts, the DJ warms up the crowd with local or regional hits right before the show’s headliner comes out to perform. Not to say that DJs need help getting the party poppin’, but to take it to another level, more artists are incorporating live bands.

It’s a beautiful thing when a rapper can add instruments to highlight his or her artistry and give something new to fans. Artists like Chance the Rapper, Jay-Z, J. Cole, The Roots, Childish Gambino, Noname and Mick Jenkins use live bands. Compton crusader Kendrick Lamar has a lot of funk incorporated into his music, and the illustrious bass player Thundercat brings a funkadelic daze to life on Lamar’s “Wesley’s Theory.”

A band can embody a narrative of its own with each instrument. Imagine one instrument emphasizing a note in a song that you may have missed otherwise. The deep tones of a bass or a certain chord of a violin can put a proverbial finishing touch on your favorite song and even make the audience view it in a different light.

No matter big or small, live bands are something that, if the budget is there, should be considered. After all, who wouldn’t like to hear Nas’s “N.Y. State of Mind” live with a real double bass? I know what you’re thinking: If bands are so great, why doesn’t every rapper use them? Well, that’s simple: Cost.

You can’t just snap your fingers and have a drummer or piano player at your disposal. Traveling with a band and their equipment is an extra cost, which labels or independent rappers might not have the finances for. Sending a DJ and a laptop has proved to be much cheaper. Even so, we’ve seen a resurgence of live bands in the hip-hop culture. A recent example was the orchestra accompanying Nas for his “Live From the Kennedy Center: Classical Hip-Hop” performance on PBS. The addition brought a different emotional element.

A live band has the ability to take a show to the next level just from presence alone, and musically it just adds another layer that you don’t get from the original record

- David Myers Jr., 6lack’s drummer

“A live band has the ability to take a show to the next level just from presence alone, and musically it just adds another layer that you don’t get from the original record,” David Myers Jr., the drummer for East Atlanta rapper 6lack, told The Rap Hippies and ONE37pm. “Then when you have a DJ on top of that, you have a show like no other…We are one big family, and that bond we have offstage translates onstage."

Before Myers took his sticks around the world, his journey started at age 2 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where he would use pens as drumsticks to bang on pots and pans. As a lot of musicians do, Myers honed his skills playing in church. Eventually, in 2012, he earned a spot in Frank Ocean’s live band.

“Honestly, I’ve been praying for this my whole my life, so I felt it was my time, but that’s not to say I wasn’t nervous,” he said. This big break as a drummer led to more gigs with Raury, Lemaitre, Zayn Malik, Jhené Aiko, 2 Chainz and The Arsenio Hall Show.

david myers jr in article
Courtesy of David Myers Jr.

What’s his advice for rappers interested in incorporating a live band?

“Take it live ASAP,” he said. “Even if it’s just adding a drummer to start. Live drums add so much to a show that everybody should have a drummer for at least a few shows.”

Aside from concerts, artists are using live bands in more intimate settings, like during NPR’s “Tiny Desk” performance series. Artists like Anderson .Paak, Saba, Big Boi and even the late great Mac Miller have graced the tiny stage with short live performances accompanied by musicians.

In short, all artists should consider performing with a live band. More rappers have done it to bring life to their projects and to paint a sonic canvas right before their fans’ eyes.

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