Every night on Kanye West‘s Glow in the Dark Tour, an alien comes down from the sky and declares the rapper “the biggest star in the universe.” That may or may not be true, but this spring, West and his one-time mentor Jay-Z have achieved something almost as unlikely: They’ve turned hip-hop into a blockbuster touring business. Jay-Z’s tour with Mary J. Blige, which ended in early May, grossed more than $23 million, including sold-out dates at Madison Square Garden and the Hollywood Bowl. West’s tour with Rihanna, N.E.R.D. and Lupe Fiasco, which ends June 13th, is on course to make more than $21 million. Both grosses, as estimated by Pollstar, are strong showings in a genre with a mixed box-office reputation. “Hip-hop is starting to mature,” says Live Nation exec Faisel Durrani. “At some point we will reflect back at how important these tours were in the growth of the [hip-hop concert] business.”
From 2003 to 2007 only one hip-hop tour made Pollstar’s Top 20 list of North American tours: Eminem and 50 Cent‘s Anger Management, which grossed $21.6 million three years ago. During that period, artists from T.I. to the Game routinely sold millions of CDs but failed to do well on the road. “A lot of times, hip-hop shows haven’t translated live,” says Adam Friedman, chief executive of L.A. concert-promotion company Nederlander.
Jay-Z and West have transcended this issue by broadening their shows from the “two turntables and a microphone” concept to large live bands, big sound, pyrotechnics and showmanship. West, for example – who audaciously spends most of his time onstage alone (with the band in an orchestra pit below) – is the star of a space opera complete with crashed spaceships, vast video-screen galaxies and a spot-on cover of Journey‘s “Don’t Stop Believing.” And Jay-Z spent two weeks in Miami rehearsals working on sonics and pacing with his 12-piece band. “Jay-Z’s whole philosophy is, 180 seconds cannot go by without some sort of event,” says Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, musical director for Jay-Z’s tour and informal creative consultant for West’s.
Also, both rappers have smartly paired up with R&B stars – Jay-Z with co-headliner Blige, and West with opening singer Rihanna. “You have to water down rap tours by mixing them up with R&B,” says John Smith, a veteran Nashville promoter who has worked with artists from Tupac to Chris Brown. “You want it to be for everybody, and you want to portray your show as fan-friendly.” Smith adds that hip-hop’s reputation as “thugged-out” means artists and promoters often have to pay more than twice as much for insurance as rock or country acts in the same venues.
But that may be changing, thanks to the Jay-Z and West tours. For one thing, artists have recently realized that with CD sales plunging, they have to sharpen their live shows to make money. “This is the first time in history that someone from hip-hop reaches for the levels of the Rolling Stones,” says ?uestlove. “Jay-Z and Kanye are saying, ‘Bono and Jagger are our peers.'”
This is a story from the June 12th, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.