Image of my APC-40 before going on Craigslist

Like a good many people, I’m on iTunes. Well not me per-say, but my buddy Tyree Harris.  Together we produced two albums, Realmatic and Financial Aid The Trials and Tribulations of the 21st Century College Student. It took a lot of time and energy but we did it. Tyree even opened for RDJ2 and has some fantastic photos to show for it. I do not.

Performing Hip Hop live is a craft like any other music. I make instrumentals, I never thought I’d be on stage, at least not as a DJ. When we walked on stage in front of 4000+ people, I plugged in my MacBook, and hit my spacebar and walked off. Not cool.

For the next 2 years I started experimenting with live Hip Hop. I’ve seen a lot of hip hop acts live, just to name a few: Common, Talib Kweli, Little Brother, The Roots, Nas, Atmosphere, Cunninglynguists, Macklemore (back when he was opening for Blue Scholars), and many many more. I’ve seen some great sets and a lot of bad ones. 

Hip hop DJing brings a nice element of “liveness” but its not exactly a show stopper. Most of the time you’re just cueing tracks and fading in but it gives you some flexibility and the ability to manipulate the performance, even if fractionally. Its much more exciting than a MacBook with iTunes.

That said, the best live acts usually incorporate more. The Roots rock a full on Band. Macklemore came on stage with a Violinist, Atmosphere had a keyboard, bassist, guitarist, vocalist and of course DJ. Tyree and I didn’t have that luxery, we were just a two man show.

When I saw Kidz in the Hall, Double O put in work:  vocoder, rapping, turn tables, drum pads… you name it and he was on it. Budo (DJing for Grieves), played the guitar and trumpet in addition to his DJ duties. Both were the classic two man show.

I decided I liked what I saw and what I heard, problem is I make instrumentals. I fumble around on a keyboard and play (With some skill) the drum pads for sample triggering. 

Ableton Live

Ableton has wowed me for years, its fast and easy to use. Its not part of my work flow but really spiffy. I decided it was time to try my hand at Ableton for live shows.

I chopped up several songs into loops and added additional loops for breaks and remixes. It was very cool and very awesome. I was performing (at least in my mind) live. My friends who saw it were impressed, although it always started with a conversation explaining what I had done which should have been the red flag.

On a whim purchase, I scored a set of Numark NS7s, which I had pined over for about two years. Suddenly I had a dilemma: Serato or Ableton.

I transitioned my set to have two pieces, the classic hip hop combo: DJ + MC and a post show Ableton performance.

Night of the concert went well and Tyree and I performed, it was our first set and the show went exceptionally well even if the turn out was a little thin. 

Post show I fired up Ableton. I realized quickly no one really cared. Why should they? There’s no context for triggering loops, or FX. What was I doing to manipulate the sound? Did that nob twist actually tweak the sound or was it part of the track?

I quickly decided to break down the set after 15 minutes and let the party commence. I wasn’t miffed or upset but I got far more compliments about the music I played BEFORE the show than the music after.

Ableton Live isn’t inferior, nor is it wrong but it isn’t the right software to make the impression. Instruments have immediate results. A guitar chord is heard as the strum happens, a horn blares when it is blown, a cymbal crashes as its hit, even a turn table scratches when the record slips. Everyone thing has a direct result.

Twisting a knob is a lot more innocuous. Pressing a glowing button is the same. Triggering loops can be impressive with the right audience but there has to be a dialog or understanding before. The “risk” of error isn’t communicated, a loop could easily be triggered at the wrong time, creating dissonance but what good is the risk if it can’t be interpreted? You could make a full 16 bar loop or four 4-bar loops, would the audience even know?

Even if someone has never seen an MPC, tapping the pads is pretty easy to understand. Sadly, tapping an Ableton surface doesn’t have an analog that’s easily decipherable. Even watching Ableton performances, I’m not always exactly sure which elements are user controlled.

What finally killed Ableton for me was the lack of support for Serato Itch or DJ and that Serato DJ added in Midi support for external controllers. I can trigger sounds with my drum pad AND man the turn tables. Audiences dig it, much more than flashing LED lights. Why? Because the one to one results are easily seen and heard.