Why Doesn't Milwaukee Book More Hip-Hop?

May. 20, 2011
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RadioMilwaukee DJ Tarik Moody asks a question today on the station's Soundboard blog that most Milwaukee hip-hop fans have asked before: Why doesn't the city book more hip-hop?�
Last night on air, I talked about the Mos Def and MF Doom show in Chicago, and how I was upset that it seems Milwaukee rarely brings any national hip hop artists such as Mos Def, Talib Kweli (which seems only to come to Summerfest), Zion I, Wale, etc. Don't get me wrong Kid Cudi was here. It is rare. Even artists such as Erykah Badu will probably never grace a stage here (I hope I'm wrong) ... So what is it about Hip Hop in Milwaukee? Is it fear? Milwaukee just doesn't like hip hop? Is it a race thing?

I've noticed the same trend, and the dearth of touring hip-hop shows seem to have become particularly egregious over the past year or two. You'd expect a city of Milwaukee's size to host way more hip-hop shows than it actually does.

I don't have any concrete answers for why that is, but I do see a few contributing factors:

Venues aren't interested in hip-hop. The city's smaller venues are afraid of attracting the wrong reputation—and city scrutiny—by hosting hip-hop. Meanwhile, for reasons we can only speculate about, the city's biggest venue conglomerate—the Pabst Theater, Riverside Theater and Turner Hall Ballroom—rarely if ever books the genre. Outside of the Rave, which still books hip-hop shows (if not in the numbers it once did), those are the only venues large enough to host some of the more popular hip-hop touring acts. If those three venues didn't book indie-rock, we'd be complaining about the lack of indie-rock shows in the city, too.

Small promoters don't want to take a financial gamble on it. Promoters who have tried to book niche hip-hop shows at willing venues like the Stonefly Brewery have been burned by low turnout. Horror stories of infamously under-attended shows by Elzhi and Ed O G aren't encouraging new promoters to take a gamble.

Milwaukee isn't perceived as a college town. Though Milwaukee actually has one of the highest per capita student populations in North America, it doesn't have a reputation as a college town. As a result, some of the smaller touring artists Moody mentioned skip over the city on their tours, preferring areas with more concentrated populations. (Many hip-hop acts prefer to play colleges, since they're some of the highest paid, most reliable gigs).

Rap shows are poorly promoted. While the number of hip-hop shows in Milwaukee leaves something to be desired, the city does book more actual popular rap acts than it's given credit forbut some of the shows are so shoddily promoted that unless you live on the north side you'll never know about them. Did you know T.I. played the U.S. Cellular Arena a couple years ago? Yeah, nobody else did either: That's why the venue was 75% empty.

It's not worth the bad press. In 2007, Summerfest booked decidedly not-gangsta rapper Ludacris at the Marcus Amphitheater, but the reaction from right-wing talk radio hosts (and sensationalist TV news outlets) was so intense you'd have thought they booked Ice Cube during the L.A. riots. With those outlets attacking Summerfest where it matters—its pocketbook, by encouraging patrons to stay away from the festival that day—--it's hard to blame Summerfest for not booking another major rap act the next year.

There are more politics at play here, of course, but those are the major issues as I see them. In short, though, it just comes down to a lack of heroes. There's nothing completely prohibitive preventing the city from booking more hip-hop; it's just a matter of a couple promoters and a couple venues stepping up and doing it.


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