I've been fortunate enough to DJ for a LOT of rappers and rap shows. Between open mics across the East Coast and sharing the stage with some really good rap buddies, I've been at the helm spinning for hundreds of sets. With that comes a lot of fun, and a lot of reality checks. I felt it was important to share some game with the next class of DJs looking to perform with rappers for the first time. If you're a rapper yourself, pass this on to your DJ if they aren't doing this stuff already.
Learn the Verses
In a perfect scenario, you and your rapper will spend plenty of time rehearsing the set prior to performing together. If so, by the time of the show you should know the verses pretty well. But even if that isn't an option, you'll earn a ton of respect and execute a much better show by studying the lyrics on your own time. I spent a considerable amount of time DJing for Mr. MFN eXquire before moving to California. We were comfortable on stage because he knew I'd take the time to learn the lyrics and help out where needed. If this feels daunting, you should at least try to learn the rhyming words of each bar. This way, if the rapper is running out of breath at the end of the line, you can assist on the last word. There were points in almost every song where I learned " ok, this is where eX needs to breathe, so this is where I'll adlib every time to help out". To this day when I listen to old eX tracks, I instinctively adlib those parts. You don't have to be this meticulous, but put some effort into learning the bars.
Run the Real Set
Once again, rehearsing ahead of time is highly recommended. Ahead of the show date, run through the set in practice exactly as you would on stage. If you have trouble committing, rent a rehearsal space and invite a few friends to watch. But the important thing is to practice the set from front to back as if you were on stage. This will help you truly gauge the timing of the set, what to say during the transitions, where you're MC needs to rest, and how everything flows. A setlist on paper is a playlist. It becomes a setlist when you've ran through it and know exactly how the show pans out. Don't listen to Iverson, practice.
Streamline Your Setup
Ideally, you've verified the equipment of the venue ahead of time and can comfortably rely on it. That said, you're often going to be bringing your own setup for certain gigs, especially coming up. If this is the case, bring gear that can be setup and broken down quickly. Shows run late, and the last thing you want is your time slot getting further shortened because it takes you 10 minutes to move the in house gear and setup your controller. Do whatever you can to shave time off of setup. Learn Traktor, Serato, and CDJs if possible so you can use most built in setups. If you have to bring your own gear, plug in as much ahead of time as possible. I was notorious for sitting in the greenroom of Santos Party House plugging in Traktor and hard drives BEFORE I was told to bring my gear on stage. It ensured there were a few less things to do during the switchover.
Pack a Get Out of Jail Card
SFX? Yes and yes
Sound effects are great for hooks or to add emphasis to things an MC says in between songs. It's pretty typical to hear a massive explosion or 302 gunshots at the end of a track too. That said, don't be afraid to think out of the box with sound effects. Ask the rapper you're working with for some ideas, and make it a part of the brand. I loved DJing for Lakutis, because he gave me free reign to use Street Fighter sounds and the "Yeaaaa baby" from Austin Powers. I mapped them to pads on a controller and we had a grand old time cracking the crowd up.
Hide the H20
I don't like to generalize, but I've noticed something about most excited rappers. They often forget to bring water on stage. When they do remember, they usually throw at least some, if not all of their water in the crowd or on the ground at some point. Two songs later, they're parched and asking the crowd for a water. It's a pretty funny cycle actually. If you're a great DJ, you have a few bottles under or on the table already, and the crowd is motioning to your rapper to turn around because you're waving one in the air. This DJ game is part quarterback, part coach, part equipment manager, and part waterboy/girl. Be ready.
Ride the Faders
Not all live sound technicians are created equal. Furthermore, a lot of them just flat out don't respect rap shows. It sucks, but it happens. If I had a lazy engineer and noticed the vocals weren't as loud as they could be, I tried to solve it from the stage. I'd slightly lower the beat's volume or EQ a bit of mids out so the vocals had more room. Between tracks, I respectfully would ask for the mic to get turned up, but this workaround has saved me many times. You'd be shocked how often the beat is completely drowning a rapper out at shows.
DJing for a rapper can be a lot of fun, and a fantastic career opportunity. Hopefully the advice above gets you thinking a bit more about the real work done behind the scenes. If you have a show coming up and have questions, don't hesitate to reach out. And if you need help setting up a Traktor or Ableton Template for your show, contact me at email@example.com.