So you watched Verzuz and think you don’t need backing vocals, huh? Chances are you’re right. But the most important part of this is knowing your setlist.
When Matt and I first took to the stage 16 years ago, I think we got 3 songs each? We each picked three songs we wanted to perform and took the stage. We didn’t think about how these songs would sound on stage, the venue, etc. Let alone the fact it was our first live crowd.
I watched the video back not that long ago and you know what happened? I was out of breath by the second verse of my first song. I had all the instrumentals for my songs but I had no idea how difficult it was to actually perform live. So if I was tired then, imagine how I sounded on my second and third songs. Exhausted.
Would I have been better off rapping over my lyrics? No! Do the lyrics fill in the blanks for moments you have to pause? Sure. Do the lyrics help me remember my next lyrics because I can hear them? Nope. All the lyrics ever do is distract me honestly. Maybe for some, backing vocals can be a crutch; I honestly just get more lost.
Memorization is where I’m weakest as an MC. I could spend an hour recording 1 verse and not be able to remember 1 bar from it a few minutes later. That’s not how I’m built. But I can tell you I’ve never had a bad performance because I didn’t remember my lyrics. Well, there was one time and let me tell you, looking into a crowd as the beat plays and you have nothing is not a good feeling.
When I did have bad performances, it was because I wasn’t prepared in more ways than just not remembering lyrics. You may think that you’ve made incredible songs and you can’t wait to deliver them to a crowd. But guess what? The crowd doesn’t care about you. They don’t know you. Even if your name is on the marquee, nine times out of ten, they’re at your show for a myriad of reasons and none of them are you.
Your job on that stage is not to please yourself. You’re there to entertain and impress the crowd. Your 10 song setlist isn’t going to compare to having a tight 10 minute set. Vocals on your music or not.
When you expose your music to new people, you want to try to keep their attention for as long as possible. I’ve gotten better feedback on my live performances in the last five years than I did in the years prior because I focused on trying to do memorable short sets. I’ve spent weeks prior to shows trying to not only memorize lyrics but to also remember what I want to say to the crowd in different places on tracks and during transitions on songs. That preparation was the difference between being another slot on the show and being a highlight on the show.
E tried to tell me a shorter set was better than doing as many songs as possible for years but my ego wouldn’t let me hear it. What do you mean they don’t want to hear me rap all three verses of all these songs? These songs are so great that they’ll have to listen!
So back to Verzuz. The Lox rapped over mostly instrumentals while Dipset performed over their actual songs. The Lox have been universally acknowledged as the winner of the battle. But the difference wasn’t instrumentals. It was about… you guessed it! Preparation!
The Lox rehearsed several times before they touched the stage at Madison Square Garden. They looked at every angle. They made last minute freestyle substitutions. They made Dipset aware they were gonna get chippy. The Lox were ready for their performance.
Dipset were there to collect a check and entertain the fans and it was obvious. The Lox did the same thing but did it better. None of that had to do with what they were rapping over.
When you first perform, you have to work with what you have. Maybe you don’t have your instrumentals, perhaps your mix is too loud. None of that matters. Your preparation for your performance does.
You know how many times I’ve gotten bored rapping my whole song? Too many to count. So imagine how a crowd feels when they don’t know who I am and I’m insisting they listen to the third verse of this album cut I’m really attached to.
I could go on but I’m just going to make a list.
- You should know your lyrics enough where you’re not trying to rap and listen to the track at the same time so you know what’s next. I can’t do it; if you can, kudos.
- REHEARSE. Do this by constructing a flexible setlist that you think a crowd will like. Rehearse this set as often as possible until you step on stage. I was doing this on my lunch break so you don’t have excuses
- Interact with the crowd. Call and response keeps people invested when done right. When a track doesn’t call for it or you want the crowd to really hear your lyrics, go a cappella for some of the verse if needed.
- Unless you have a DJ who really knows your music, you better have your set ready for them. Don’t get burned because the DJ forgot to stop the beat at the right place when you only told them 5 minutes ago.
- You don’t need a hype man. They’re great when you’re in sync together but they won’t make or break your performance. That’s on you.
- It’s okay to breathe. So what, you miss a lyric or two. A crowd will forgive you if your entire set comes off as well as you hoped. They won’t forgive you or pay attention if you start losing your voice or fall off the beat because you’re trying to mimic your record perfectly. I’m getting anxiety right now just thinking of how many takes I did on certain verses. The idea of trying to recreate that live? No thank you.
It doesn’t make you less of an MC if you rap with backing vocals, instrumentals, or over tracks that still have ad-libs and hooks (my preferred way). It’s all about your overall performance and the impression you make. When you get a following and people are coming to see you perform songs they know, you damn well better know your lyrics. But when you’re just starting out and you’re trying to build a fanbase, do what works best for you and perfect it. Doing that is what makes you an MC.
What happened at MSG with Jadakiss and the Lox happened because they were a well-oiled unit before they touched the stage. The attention Jada’s getting isn’t because he outshined his bandmates or rapped over instrumentals. He was a team player who was able to elevate when it was his turn on the mic. But he never forgot about Styles or Sheek for one moment. The Lox saw an opportunity and they seized it.
Don’t let their achievement or naysayers stop you from bettering yourself as a performer. That way, maybe you could be ready if a similar opportunity like the Lox just had comes your way.
Inspired by this tweet: https://twitter.com/TheCamSteady/status/1424091271421829122?s=19