Lyrics Born keeps live music from dying
Music, as an industry, has found a consistent audience in young people for decades. But what music means to them is changing. Popular songs today often have less to do with singers than they do with the artistry of sound engineers (consider the production work on the new number one song in America: “I Wanna Go” by Britney Spears).
With sound editing programs, digital suites, and auto-tune at their disposal, the concept of live performances can seem like an afterthought. But a few artists, like Bay Area rapper Lyrics Born, are working hard to keep live music, well, alive. KALW’s Jayme Catsouphes has the story.
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JAYME CATSOUPHES: When you think about it, the whole notion of going to see live music is a bit twisted. I mean, you don’t go to the Louvre and listen to the “Mona Lisa.”
But traditionally speaking, music is performance art. It lives. It breathes. And recordings are just archives ... snap shots ... the postcard you pick up as you exit through the gift shop.
Music is supposed to be perceived through all five senses.
June 25, 1972: third row at the LA Forum. Music looked like tight pants, big hair, a wall of speakers. It smelled like an ashtray ... tasted like a beer ... felt like the deep rumbling bass of John Bonham’s kick drum.
But some details just don’t quite make it onto the recording.
And that’s why every summer, music fans travel across the country to attend big music festivals to see their favorite artists live and in person.
But putting on a jaw-dropping live show is complicated. Especially when you’re a musician who uses a lot of electronics. In hip-hop for example, it’s not uncommon for an album to be recorded, cut, and sold, all without anyone playing a single instrument.
How do you turn that into a live show?
Bay Area rapper Lyrics Born says that it takes a lot of work.
LYRICS BORN: Interpreting hip-hop live, it’s always been an interesting thing to watch, with people that do it well. People cna listen to your music at car, or at home, or on the computer ... you don't necessarily pay to see somebody perform to get the same experience. You want it to be exciting. You want to walk away from it feeling like, “Oh wow. More dimension has just been added to what I’ve previously been listening to.”
Which is one of the reasons why this seasoned producer chooses to perform with a live band.
LYRICS BORN: For me, I find myself frequently taking the original recording and wanting to provide a departure, for both the listener and also myself. Maybe you want to extend it or change certain things about the recording or the tempo, the groove. I mean, you just have a lot of flexibility when you play with a band.
And adding live musicians makes the show more exciting for the audience. Fans get to look at the players, see their instruments, visually connect that with the sound...
GONZALO CASTRO: And I was happily surprised by how much more went into the production.
Gonzalo Castro first saw Lyrics Born at San Francisco’s Outside Lands music festival.
CASTRO: There was a horn section, two drummers, a bongo section, backup singers, a full live band, guitar, bass, so I was kind of surprised at the production of it all. It just had a different feel to it, the music, because it wasn’t studio-based.
For some fans, that’s a good thing. But Lyrics Born says there’s a flip side.
LYRICS BORN: A lot of people come to the shows and they wanna see, or hear, the music be different – but not that different. You don’t want to stray too far from the original feeling.
With a genre like hip-hop that’s both rhythmic and poetic, playing a live show in front of thousands of fans requires making a few artistic concessions.
GEORGE ELLETT: Sometimes the lyrics go over your head because it is live. And if they have a live band, you’re kind of distracted.
George Ellett Smith is a longtime Lyrics Born fan.
ELLETT: But it’s always cool to see how the emcee … his mannerisms and the way he carries his flows. So that way, when you’re actually listening, I think it gives you a better picture of how he’s presenting the words, like as you’re driving and listening to their CD. So definitely, I think, hip-hop in general benefits from listening on a CD.
For any venue and any genre, there will be limitations. Arena rock would be a tough sell in a coffee shop. And Lyrics Born knows a big music festival probably isn’t the best venue for a poetry slam. So when he plays a big event like Outside Lands he beefs up the rhythm side of things and taps into his skills as a showman. And for Gonzalo Castro, it worked.
CASTRO: I thought he did a great job of being very involved with the crowd and making sure everybody was dancing and having a good time and doing a lot of call-and-chant back and forth with the crowd. There was a lot of production to it, a lot of performance, and a lot of interactions, so you know, it was just a lot of fun, at the end of the day.
Hip-hop artists will use different techniques to stimulate the audience. Some use dancers … some fancy light shows. But at the end of the day, people want to see live music.
LYRICS BORN: I’ve gone to some shows where it’s just one guy on stage and he looks like he’s just checking his email.
Lyrics Born says that’s not a fun show.
LYRICS BORN: I mean when you say it’s a live show, it should be exactly that, it should be live. And it should be a show.
For Crosscurrents, I’m Jayme Catsouphes.