Fly Union returns to Swarthmore for LSE “appetizer”

Fly Union (Left to Right): Jerreau, Iye, and Jay Swifa.
(Courtesy of gcmag.org.)

It doesn’t take a lot to have a fun rap concert.

Besides a venue with an elevated stage and some space for an audience, all that’s required for a successful performance is a basic level of competency from the rappers. This means that rappers don’t have to showcase a distinct lyrical style or engage the audience with interesting themes. To put on a satisfying show, rappers need only to present a recognizably “hip-hop” product.

Fly Union, the rap group that performed at Olde Club on Jan. 27, did just that. The trio from Ohio composed of Iye Ball, Jay Swif and Jerreau Smith performed into existence a ghostly apparition of hip hop, shared and enjoyed by all the students who attended the concert that evening. By manipulating particular circumstances inherent to the nature of performance, the group rendered both the form and appearance of hip-hop, but without any of the substance.

This emulation of rap, in terms of verbal content, derives from a general grasp of mainstream hip-hop’s ideas on rhyme, cadence, delivery and other formal elements of rap. Most people in America have a vague, unconscious familiarity with these conventions simply due to the extent to which hip-hop has entered into the popular culture.

Most of what rappers say at their concerts isn’t audible anyway; in order to pull off a successful show, the performers simply have to sound like they’re rapping. Since subject matter has long since become a formalized part of hip hop, it would probably work in a rapper’s favor if he or she performed a love song featuring queasy, over the top imagery, or just dropped synonyms for marijuana and cash on every drum note.

This was an integral aspect of Fly Union’s performance at Olde Club. Over the rhythmic din of instrumental music, most of their songs’ verbal content was wasted on the audience, and the occasional exception of predictably emphasized end rhyme served to reinforce their “rapper” status and bolster the image of hip hop they were inflating.

Conveying this familiar hip-hop vibe also requires an adherence to production or “beatmaking” trends. Innovative approaches to making beats periodically take the rap world by storm, with Kanye West’s brand of chipmunk soul and Lex Luger’s trademarked combo of sweeping operatic vocals and frenetic drums serving as chief examples of how these sounds can define taste for years. Since the members of Fly Union produce their own beats as opposed to paying for the production talents of professionals, as most other rappers do, they are uniquely positioned to appeal to the sensibilities of listeners.

The beats Fly Union rapped over in their concert lay within the parameters of the public’s cultivated tastes, and as a result, they could get away with not really rapping and still be seen as hip hop artists — people who provide cultural products comparable to those of Nas, RZA or any other eminent artists in rap’s history. Fly Union’s concert at Olde Club could’ve been billed as a three person DJ set and not a hip-hop concert if it wasn’t for Fly Union’s unmistakable appearance that informed their rap credentials. Three young black men, all dressed in the idealized urbanwear of todays “new rap,” walked onto Olde Club’s stage last Friday night, proceeded to jump, talk, sweat, rhyme and smoke whilst bass-heavy instrumentals looped and college students danced.

People who attended the concert or were considering attending the concert seemed to have made note of this distinction between actual rap music and a fun hip-hop performance.

“They [Fly Union] put on a great performance, it felt like a party,” Amelia Kucic ’15 said.

Steve McFarland ’15 was hesitant to attend the Fly Union concert at first. “I wasn’t planning on going because I didn’t like their [Fly Union] music, but I ended up just going because I thought it’d be fun,” McFarland said.Mcfarland’s ambivalence towards the show was echoed in the conversations of students on campus in the days leading up to the concert. This was because of the Large Scale Events committee’s long-publicized efforts to secure a popularly chosen recording artist to perform after winter break.

To many, Fly Union’s concert, which was advertised as an “appetizer” for the performance of some more famous artist at later date, actually appeared as a gesture of appeasement from the LSE for not booking artists that they initially said they would bring to Swarthmore. However, LSE Chair Shane Ogunnaike ’12 said that Fly Union’s show is actually representative of a difficult and convoluted booking process. “The bookings we were working towards fell through in a matter of days,” Ogunnaike said. “We were able to easily book Fly Union because of our previous relationship,” Ogunnaike said referring to Fly Union’s performance at the 2010 Worthstock. The hubbub and disgruntled sentiments surrounding Fly Union’s concert dissipated at the actual event. The members of the rap group were a dynamic bunch, able to cajole typically languid Swarthmore concert goers into a rowdy, dancing, and all around jubilant crowd. The LSE brought a fun party to Olde Club, but when judged as a hip-hop show, Fly Union’s performance fell short of showcasing an individual artistic identity within the rap genre, which in a perfect world, should serve as the sole criterion for designating a show as a rap concert.

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