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How Damon Dash Brought Rap Concerts Back
The Hard Knock Life Tour proved to America that rappers can tour without any issues
Damon Dash (via Shutterstock)
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After Run-DMC’s aptly named Raising Hell Tour in 1986, hip-hop concerts were cast with a cloud of fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Live performances were “poorly managed”, “not lucrative”, and “incited violence and gang activity”. Other genres of music faced similar challenges, but hip-hop was under the magnifying glass. Perception became reality, and hip-hop had to prove that its artists can tour, make money, and run an efficient program without problems.
Puff Daddy and The Family’s No Way Out Tour in 1998 was successful, but the line up—112, Lil’ Kim, Usher, Ma$e, and Faith Evans—was more of an R&B cocktail infused with pop-rap. Rap still needed a breakthrough.
When the Hard Knock Life Tour came to fruition, media outlets were skeptical. The headliners—Jay Z, DMX, Method Man, and Redman—made promoters fearful of the violence and drama that could ensue. Much to the surprise of its critics, the 54-day tour ran smoothly without any major issues. The tour grossed $18 million—more than any other hip-hop tour at the time. These artists proved that rappers can perform in arenas across the country without causing turmoil.
Damon Dash, former CEO and co-founder of Roc-a-Fella Records and the architect behind the tour, took several of steps to make the concert successful. His adamant approach was overbearing for some, but his decisions paid off. Each performer’s career continued to flourish and future rap concerts benefitted from the doors that were opened.
"The [Hard Knock Life] tour is a blessing. It opens the door for other tours. We needed somebody to go out there, test the waters, and show that hip-hop is positive, not violent."
- Snoop Dogg, 1999
Controlling the narrative
Dash’s leadership style frustrated his colleagues (including Jay Z), but this tour needed his brash personality. When concert promoters initially urged Jay Z to tour alongside an R&B group to soften his image, Dash—once a club promoter himself— and John Meneilly, Jay Z’s former “consiglieri, weren’t having it. Dash wanted hardcore rap in the spotlight, but was aware of the risks. “There might not be another hip-hop tour for another ten years if there’s any violence,” said Dash.
The Roc-a-Fella CEO declared early and often that they intended to run a problem-free tour. To pull that off, they needed to increase security costs. “Concert promoters and the venues were driving prices so high for rap concerts that by the time you finished paying for all of that, you couldn’t put on a decent show,” said Jay Z. In addition to traditional CSC security, they hired members of the Nation of Islam to stand around the concert stage and establish a presence.
The tour’s managers took further steps to dispelled negative stereotypes by media training each person on the tour. A reporter interviewed Ty Ty, Jay Z’s longtime friend, and asked why they weren’t watching gangster movies. “We just watched Good Will Hunting and that’s not a gangster flick. We got As Good As It Gets, we got Braveheart.” said Ty Ty.
Knowing how particular Dash was about minor details, him intentionally stocking the tour bus with crowd-pleasing films is believable. Sure, Ty Ty might have genuinely liked these movies, but they knew the message that would send. It’s a move straight from the Johnnie Cochran playbook, but it helped portray the desired image.
The tour stopped in Denver shortly after the shooting at Columbine High School. Instead of cancelling the show, they donated the proceeds to the victim’s families. This strengthened the sentiment that the rappers were against violence and wanted to maintain a positive tour.
In a 54-city event, a violence-free tour is impressive—regardless of music genre. The heightened security measures deserve some credit, but Dash’s media and public relations tactics deserve more credit. He reminded the press that there no incidents occured before, during, and after the tour. Even if a minor incident happened, Dash controlled the narrative to a fault, which made it harder for unfair criticism to stick.
While the media was overly concerned about the Hard Knock Life Tour, they should have been more concerned about another music event that year—Woodstock ‘99. The three-day rock festival was one of the most poorly-run and problematic events in the history of live music (yes, worse than Ja Rule’s Fyre Festival). Woodstock ‘99 was everything that critics expected the Hard Knock Life Tour to be. The concert was a cesspool for myriad issues: rape, sexual assault, riots, overcrowding, and limited water and facilities.
The Hard Knock Life Tour team was aware of the differences in how different concerts were perceived. Here’s a quote from DJ Twinz 2, Rodman’s DJ on the tour:
“I just found out it’s normal to have moshpits at rock shows. People jump in and they lose fingers, break arms and legs, hit the floor, they come out muddy. The paramedics are there, the stretcher is there. They wheel you out it’s ok, they have insurance. At a hip-hop show, if that was to happen, they would shut it down.”
Dash knew he had to overcome this bias, and took the necessary steps to get it done.
Paving the way
Looking back, the Hard Knock Life Tour was hip-hop’s PayPal Mafia. Each rapper’s success—even the guest performers—skyrocketed in the following years:
Jay Z: Rocawear took off; put Roc-a-Fella artists and producers, including Kanye West and Just Blaze, on the map; released “Big Pimpin’” and The Blueprint.
DMX: Released …And Then There Was X, put the Ruff Ryders on; starred in Romeo Must Die, Exit Wounds, and Cradle 2 The Grave.
Method Man and Redman: Released Blackout! and “Da Rockwilder”, starred in How High and their own sitcom Method & Red; landed endorsement deals.
Ja Rule: Released Venni, Vetti, Vecci, Rule 3:36, and Pain is Love; put Murder Inc. on the map, was in The Fast & The Furious.
Beanie Sigel: Released The Truth; starred in State Property.
Even Ty Ty became co-founder and head of A&R for Roc Nation
This tour influenced other grand-scale hip-hop concerts too. In 2000, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and Ice Cube headlined the Up In Smoke Tour. The 44-city arena tour brought in $22 million. Earning an average of $500,000 per show, 50% more than the Hard Knock Life Tour, it broke ground that was previously reserved for U2, Rolling Stones, and major rock bands.
Had Jay Z and DMX not paved the way, Up In Smoke—an even “riskier” package at the time— would have been subject to smaller amphitheaters and pavilions, usually holding 60% less capacity than arenas. Additionally, the east coast/west coast hip-hop beef was still fresh in promoters’ minds. Venues in the northeast may not have risked the former Death Row Records artists visiting and potentially inciting violence. Without the Hard Knock Life Tour, Up in Smoke could have easily been a 30-city tour earning $200,000 per show—just enough to cover additional security fees.
While Up In Smoke would have been downsized, the Ruff Ryders/Cash Money Tour in 2000 would have never happened. Ruff Ryders/Cash Money leveraged DMX’s recent tour success and yielded $15 million across 30 cities. Juvenile, Lil’ Wayne, and the Hot Boyz were becoming more popular, but might have struggled on their own to earn that much without the Hard Knock Life opening the doors for them.
Unfortunately, both the Up in Smoke Tour and Ruff Ryders/Cash Money had violent incidents. But since those concerts were after the Hard Knock Life Tour, they did not impact the viability of the big concerts that followed. The Roc the Mic Tour (2003) and the Anger Management Tour (2005) were still successful record-breaking rap concerts.
Damon Dash still had his flaws (a topic for a future Trapital newsletter), but like many founders at early-stage companies, he was the person Roc-a-Fella needed at the time.
Rap shows are generally safer today, but still subject to an unfair level of scrutiny. The conversation around hip-hop concerts is more nuanced than it was twenty years ago. It might be time for another hardcore rap tour to break new ground and defy the odds.
It’s harder to control narratives in today’s social media age, but it’s probably easier to start streaming Good Will Hunting in front of a reporter.