The live rap album

There are a few, and Mr. Lif has one of the best
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  December 5, 2007

December is the time of year when the new album well dries up and gives way to a deluge of novelty releases: boxed sets; collector’s editions; concert DVDs; Mannheim Steamroller; and the ultimate Completists Only trinket, the live album. While there will always be unearthed Bob Dylan documents and Miles Davis sessions to give mom and pops, and Phish bootlegs for your New England college-student sibling or spawn, the live album hasn’t really caught on with popular music’s more innovative genres.

The paucity of indie-rock concert albums isn’t much of a surprise, given the field’s lack of financial backing and allergy to consumerism (one notable exception: French dance-rock overlords Daft Punk have a new, acclaimed live album, Alive 2007, on Virgin); more curious is the obscurity of the live hip-hop album. Here’s a commercially successful, personality-driven, market-savvy genre that has yet to capitalize on one of popular music’s most reliable myth-making products. What gives?

Plenty of things. For one, rap shows live and die by their crowds. Call-and-response, dancing, bouncing, pot smoke, and camaraderie are all necessary pieces of the dope hip-hop gig puzzle, and none of them translate well (if at all) to a recording. Moreover, the demands on an MC in a live setting necessitate tough decisions: a smooth performance vs. a great party; speed vs. cadence; enthusiasm vs. clarity. For most rappers, it’s more effective to leave the polish for the studio, blast those subwoofers, and dedicate your live gigs to energy and stamina.

Boston’s Mr. Lif, a member of the formidable Definitive Jux label who headlines a show at the Asylum December 15, resolved all of these conundrums in 2002 with his release, Live at the Middle East (Ozone). Recorded at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, club, the album was a bold experiment for many reasons, not only its unique concept but also because his show consisted of almost exclusively new material. Rather than frustrate fans out for familiar beats and rhymes, though, Lif captivated them with guest DJs and MCs, lengthy spontaneous freestyles, intelligent stories, and political incitement. The feat was so successful that Lif will be recording a December 14 gig at the Middle East for another upcoming album. It’s also proof that hip-hop isn’t necessarily a studio-exclusive medium.

In that spirit, here are a few more live rap albums that might be worth stocking-stuffing over the holidays:

Boogie Down Productions, Live Hardcore Worldwide (1991, Jive)
Generally considered the best rap album ever, and blazing, soulful proof that KRS-One was an even better rapper on stage than in the studio.

The Roots, The Roots Come Alive (1999, Mca)
Culled from a few different performances, this one places sound quality at the forefront; that's not surprising, considering the group’s live performances are some of hip-hop’s most dynamic.

Cypress Hill, Live at the Fillmore (2000, Sony)
Probably a fans-only purchase, but a sensible release for a band that helped popularize rap-rock fusion.

Jay-Z, Unplugged (2001, Roc-A-Fella)
Recorded for the acoustic MTV concert show, the album lacks the improv of a true live gig, but Jigga’s slick take on The Blueprint’s “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)” is worth the price alone. With members of the Roots as backup band, natch.

Mf Doom, Live From Planet X (2005, Nature Sounds)
The album loses points for being put out as one 40-minute track, but earns them back through minimal crowd sound and Doom’s weird beats and stunning, breathless delivery.

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