Last week, A$AP Rocky and Tyler, the Creator headlined a show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre with Danny Brown and Vince Staples. By the time the main 2015 season ends, with the Mac Miller and Action Bronson show on Halloween, Red Rocks will have been the host to 130 shows — the most in its history. Five of those will have been hip-hop concerts. In the 2014 season, there were 121 shows in the same period, and four of them focused on hip-hop. These are not huge numbers for what is one of the most popular forms of music in the world.
What last week’s show represented, though, was the fact that alternative or underground hip-hop has earned a large enough audience to command a venue the size of Red Rocks, which holds close to 10,000 people. Tyler, the Creator essentially said as much when he mentioned that he’s not accustomed to playing places where he can’t reach everyone and see them directly.
In 2014, the hip-hop shows were spread throughout the season, and the only real alternative figure opened for Nas and Schoolboy Q: Flying Lotus, who straddles the worlds of hip-hop and experimental electronic music. Otherwise, the season brought Drake, Lil Wayne, Wiz Khalifa (twice) and Snoop Dogg to Red Rocks.
The makeup of the 2015 hip-hop shows was decidedly different. Pop radio stars J. Cole and Big Sean made a stop at Red Rocks this past summer. But the other four hip-hop shows were a step or more from the mainstream. Atmosphere and Dilated Peoples might enjoy some commercial popularity these days, but Atmosphere spent several years in the alternative hip-hop world. The Mad Decent Block Party at the end of August blurred the line between EDM and hip-hop, with Major Lazer and 2 Chainz on the bill. And, as noted above, the final two shows featured artists who have a decidedly strange approach. Whether that speaks to a shift in the genre or a shift in the Red Rocks schedule is open to debate. Certainly, A$AP Rocky and Tyler, the Creator came with elaborate sets, light shows and personalities big enough to take over the huge space.
Tyler’s stage was made up to look like a child’s playroom, with painted wooden blocks, a bevy of blow-up figures and a life-sized action-figure box that the rapper stood in for a song. The environment transformed what could have been merely a concert (albeit an engaging one, given Tyler and his cohorts’ manic energy) into something like a strange kids’ television show soundtracked by surrealistic hip-hop.
A$AP Rocky’s set was even more physically ambitious, with three levels and a back wall on which was projected a dizzying flow of images and colors. In that setting, Rocky contemplated the past and present and articulated real-life experiences in gritty detail over unusual beats.
He may have taken some inspiration from the likes of Clouddead or Cannibal Ox or early Atmosphere. But he blends those expansive sounds and sonic moods into a tone of pervasive hopefulness, easily switching back and forth between rapping and singing.
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All of the artists featured at that show come from the experimental side of hip-hop, but each performed as if it were a big-budget production, signaling the commercial viability of artists operating outside the standard musical framework. In such an environment, not only can artists like A$AP (and others who graced the Red Rocks stage this summer) challenge their own creativity, but their music can reach a bigger, more diverse audience than ever before.