You’re an artist. You need to perform. Nothing is more important.
This is probably the first lesson I would drill into any potential artist. Sure, your words are important. But your presence, your personality, the way people feel about you when they see you on (or off) stage is far more important. Performances create fans.
Performing will greatly influence the way you write music. Before I started performing, my lyrics used to be very wordy. That’s fine when you’re in a studio and can punch in whenever you need to. But on stage, there’s no punching. Maybe there’s a hype man, maybe there’s a performance track with backup vocals – but maybe there’s not. Maybe it’s just you, the beat, the mic and the audience.
By the way, having someone on stage to back you up is great. But I urge all artists to learn how to perform on their own. Let the hype man be an added value. And if you do use one, go with someone good. Someone who really works that crowd, knows the music and compliments you. Practice with them so they know exactly where to come in.
After I started performing regularly, I quickly learned that there’s no reason to use 14 words in a line when what you are trying to say could just as effectively be said in 10. My earlier stuff, before my albums, were all wordy. Wordy and whispery. My late mentor, Mateo Mulcare (R.I.P.), changed my entire perspective. I was passing by a bunch of guys ciphering by the Coliseum in Jamaica, Queens, so I decided to jump in and give it a go. Well, my verses were very well received, but they were stories. Wordy stories that I recited with my eyes squinted or shut, while rapping in a raspy voice.
Mateo then jumped in and spit what felt like the most amazing verse I had ever heard. In retrospect, the lyrics themselves were solid, but it was his delivery. It was his presence. He created a moment. It was simple to understand, yet still lyrical. He had well placed spaces in between his words so he was able to say every line with conviction and never lost his breath. He looked at me, looked all of us, in the eye when he recited his words. He was telling us a story. He kept us engaged with his eyes and hands. He touched me on the shoulder when explaining a line, using his fingers to make gestures.
“Jet one block? My bullets there to meet ya.
Get two blocks? My bullets will still reach ya.
Make it to three? Pull out the street sweeper.
Try to turn the corner, my bullets are heat seekers.”
It was his delivery. The words were good, but the fact that he had his hand on my shoulder, looking at me, using his fingers to display the number of blocks was what made it special. The way he kept making eye contact with the rest of the cipher before turning his attention back to me – it was intoxicating. He was spitting gangster rhymes, but with a hint of humor and a ton of personality. I had never seen anything like that before. Not in person. It was because of that cipher that I changed my entire way of writing and reciting.
What good are your words if you can’t properly deliver them?
It isn’t just your message. It’s how you deliver that message to the people.
Here’s a tip. Sometimes, taking small, non-essential words out of a line can make it easier to recite live.
You need to be constantly improving your stage presence. And not just reciting the actual verses. Working the crowd while rapping is one thing, but what are you going to do during the intro? Or during the hook, if it isn’t a hook that you perform yourself? How do you end it? What do you do to keep the crowd engaged?
See, you need to write your song with the performance in mind. If you ever watched the Jay-Z documentary about the Black Album, you’ll see Kanye West in the studio playing the Encore beat for Jay. After the second verse, when the break came, he was telling him how he could have the crowd yelling “HOVA, HOVA”.
As an aspiring artist, you’ll never make more of an impact with your music than you will when you’re in front of a crowd on stage. It’s where connections are made and lasting relationships are built. Somebody might love your music online, but they’ll love you on if you have a strong performance.
My number one piece of advice for any artist, specifically in hip-hop, is go to spoken word showcases. Recite your verses. Nothing exposes flaws better than separating the protective shield of a beat from your words. This will give you an entirely new appreciation for lyricism. There’s no beat, there’s no hype man. It’s just you and your words. Your words are naked. A filler line can’t be hidden behind an 808. It’s a silent room, everyone focusing on the words you recite and how you deliver them. Rappers talk so much about lyrics. Well, this is hip-hop in it’s purest form. You’ll see artists who can completely capture your attention and captivate you without using any beat, hook or melody.
I wrote Footprints because of spoken word. I used to recite every song at a spoken word showcase before recording it to make sure that it translated well live.
Matter of fact, every verse I write, I say out loud to someone. I don’t rap it. I just say it. If there are any lines I feel funny saying or that I’m rushing through, I’ll re-write it. Spoken word or reciting your lyrics aloud is the most effective way expose flawed lines.
Find every open mic in your city. Joell Ortiz built his entire career by doing open mics around NY, especially at SOBs. It is NOT a waste of time and you are NOT above doing open mics. There is a ton of energy when you’re in a room with people who share the same passion. Take time and meet the people in the crowd who are there, but not performing. These people are looking for new music, new artists. These are perfect people to network with. They’ll help fill your clubs and buy your merchandise. And if you’re impressing them, you’ll be able to sell or give away CDs and T-Shirts. Always have a business card with you so you can exchange information.
Network with other artists at the showcases and maybe collaborate on a record. Just something you can perform together so you can introduce their fans to your music. If you book a club gig and the song is good enough, invite them to perform it at your gig if they can get their fans to attend as well. At the very least, it might get you on stage a second time during the open mic if he asks you to perform the song with him.
Watch other performers. Videotape them. Decide who really catches your attention and figure out why, then determine if it’s something you can incorporate into your performance. Pay close attention to those who don’t hold your attention too, so you can learn what not to do.
Once you have your stage show working and you have some good music to perform, you can start looking at booking gigs. You’re not going to get paid, not right away. You’re not doing the club a favor. They’re providing you a stage and an audience, they could always find more rappers.
Be prepared to perform at a small bar on a Tuesday night. Might only have ten people there, but that’s where you start. Leave them so impressed that they’re requesting you. Walk around your city and visit all the bars and clubs, specifically those that cater to your genre. Like I said in DJ Hero, start collecting fliers from all the urban shops. Find which clubs have independent or local artists performing. Visit places to see who has a stage. If you’re friends with local DJs, they can sometimes set up performances for you or at least put you in touch with promoters and club managers.
When you approach a club, do it from their point of view. You aren’t bringing anything of value to them by saying you’re going to rap .Tell them why it’s beneficial to them to let you perform. Create a guest list and guarantee them a certain number of people who will attend. But make sure you hit your target – or better yet, exceed your target! This is important. If you under deliver, there is a good chance you’ll be shut out of that club and anywhere else that manager and promoters are affiliated with. It’s a small industry and if you get a reputation for not delivering what you promise, you’ll quickly be shut out.
By the way – depending on where you are in your “career”, if you can’t bring a nice crowd of people out to support your performances, then you’re probably terribly overestimating yourself. You want to convince a label to invest millions of dollars in you, yet you can’t get thirty people into a club to watch you perform on a Thursday night? Besides your friends and people in your neighborhood, social media has left us with NO excuse to not pack a crowd, regardless of where you’re located.
Booking clubs is a whole other beast. We can learn about that later too. For now, I’m focusing on the foundation.
If there are no open mics that night and you aren’t booking shows, find a karaoke bar. I’m 100% serious about that. No, you won’t be performing your music, but it’ll get you comfortable being on stage. If you’re not confident enough to rap in front of a room full of people who are singing Paula Abdul songs horribly, then you probably don’t have what it takes to be an artist.
Pick a song. Work on your introduction. What you say to the crowd before the song starts. Get them clapping. Connect with them, make them anticipate what you’re about to perform. Practice what to do or say during the intros and bridges. Practice eye contact. You can really refine your delivery doing karaoke.
Get a video camera or use your smartphone and record yourself performing. See exactly how you look to other people. Line up your sister’s (or your) stuffed animals on the couch and practice rapping and making eye contact with them.
Rhyme in the mirror with a brush.
Get a few of your friends or family to come over and perform in front of them. If you’re too shy to practice in front of the people you call friends, then you either don’t have what it takes to be an artist – which relies so heavily on live music – or you don’t have the right friends and family. Or maybe your music isn’t good enough.
Either way – A.B.P. – Always Be Performing.
As a hip-hop artist, this is where your money is going to be made. You aren’t making money off record sales. You need to sell CDs and merchandise.
You’ll never be so good at performing that you don’t need to work at it. There’ll always be new songs, new crowds.