It’s been an awesome 5+ years running this blog and reviewing as many concerts as I can possibly go to. I’m celebrating my 30th birthday this week, and it’s been over a decade since I went to my first rap concert and fell in love with live Hip-Hop shows, and that feeling of seeing one of your favourite artists perform just a few feet in front of you. To mark the occasion, I felt like reflecting on the years of concert-going, and just for kicks made an attempt to rank all of the concerts I’ve been to and narrow them down to the top 30 most memorable. With almost 150 concerts attended over the past decade, it’s a tough task picking just 30 of the most memorable to write about, but this is my attempt to paint a picture and remember some of the best shows I’ve been blessed to attend.
Here is Part 2 of the Top 30 Countdown, #20 – 11:
*All concerts were in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, unless otherwise noted*
20. Hopsin at The Kool Haus/Guvernment Nightclub
(May 16, 2014)
2014 was the year you could say Hopsin was arguably in his prime. Representing a generation of emcees who grew up making bedroom or basement studios with their laptops and putting their art online independently, Hopsin took that to the epitome while still maintaining a dedication to lyrical craftsmanship. With millions of fans gained through his online presence, Hopsin had one of the hottest independent rap labels around with his Funk Volume brand, and was able to tour the world straight from his home studio. He was fresh off of releasing his long awaited, highly anticipated second album on Funk Volume, Knock Madness, and was ready to take the underground by storm with this tour in 2014.
With the hunger of a young emcee at the top of his game, Hopsin made sure this was an unforgettable show for his fans. While lining up to get into the Kool Haus (which has since been shut down and turned into condos), you could see Hop in the parking lot skateboarding with some of his younger fans, and he got even more hands-on when he eventually hit the stage later in the evening. He’d crowd-surf over the mosh pit multiple times, bring fans on stage with him to dance or rap, and took a few fan requests while performing songs deep in his underground catalogue. With only two albums of material, along with a string of YouTube singles, Hopsin made sure to spit every verse to nearly every song he released since founding Funk Volume, and humbly gave the fans everything he had while on this tour.
19. Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals at Echo Beach
(September 17, 2016 & June 1, 2019)
In a blend of Funk, Soul, Hip-Hop and RnB, Anderson .Paak has released some of the grooviest albums in the last five years, and with his band The Free Nationals, he puts on one of the funnest live shows you can go to. Whether it was his headlining performance at the 2016 Manifesto Festival or his most recent Best Teef In The Game Tour this past spring, Anderson .Paak proved to be the perfect artist to perform at Echo Beach (each of his albums are named after California beaches after all). In 2016 I went in with zero expectations and came out a new fan, as he surprised the crowd with an appearance during Kaytranada’s opening set, crowd surfed while singing during his own set, and performed at least two encores!
His most recent 2019 tour saw him take that empecable showmanship to new heights, as he came back with a bigger budget, bigger band, and more extravagant stage lighting & effects to go with his two new albums of material to perform. He moves seamlessly from his drum set at the back/top of the stage to being the frontman near the crowd, and isn’t afraid to jump down onto the beach itself to dance with his fans. While the 2019 show is still fresh in mind, Anderson’s stage presence and showmanship is undeniable, and he’s shaping up to be one of the best live performers in music history.
18. Hip-Hop Shows at Rockpile East (Tie)
(March 2014 – November 2014)
I’m trying to avoid ties in this countdown, but I have to mention all three shows I went to at Rockpile East during the venue’s short life. The Rockpile is a beloved little dive-bar type of venue out in Etobicoke, and for about one year they had expanded with this second location over in Scarborough. While the expansion didn’t last long, the East location’s appeal was their ability to bring big name artists to what felt like an even smaller, more intimate venue. The three shows I saw were Redman in March, Tech N9ne in September, and the last Hip-Hop show before the venue closed its doors, Ghostface Killah in November. All three are used to rocking massive crowds, but here we got a more interactive performance with a smaller show.
The Redman show may go down as the most intoxicated I’ve been at a concert, and he made that crowd rowdy with the energy and stage presence that only the all-time greats can pull off. He would smoke joints with fans in the crowd, and still somehow pulled off his crowd-surfing routine even in such a small room. Tech N9ne & Krizz Kaliko expertly shared the stage and had the crowd in a mosh pit like it was any other concert of theirs, regardless of size. Rockpile East would go out with a bang too, as Ghostface Killah surprised the crowd by bringing Cappadonna with him, and would interact with the crowd by bringing fans on stage to rap with him, including a rare performance of “Verbal Intercourse.” Rockpile East effectively had that rugged, underground appeal to it with spilled beer and weed smoke at every show, and they booked some of the best artists to complement that vibe, while also giving local Toronto artists a platform to open at these shows.
17. The Carters at New Era Field in Buffalo, NY, USA
(August 18, 2018)
While the On The Run II Tour didn’t stop in Toronto, we made a road trip out of this and had a great experience. When it comes to large stadium/arena concerts, Jay-Z & Beyonce know how to do it right, both individually and as a couple. They brought their own sound system to make it sound right, had the extravagant screens, lighting, and fireworks that you’d expect of them, and used every inch of their intricate stage design to the fullest. This was a memorable snapshot in time, as their first full-length album together, Everything Is Love, had dropped while they were on this tour, with some of the new songs being performed for the first time.
The expectations for this show were high from the first On The Run Tour getting its own HBO special, and Hov & Bey lived up to the hype. Between their extensive solo discographies, they arranged a beautifully executed set list that took the fans on a journey, using their music to take us through the very public highs and lows of their marriage. They went through all the emotions, starting off with excitement and going to joy, anger, sadness, then transitioning back to power, happiness and triumph. They picked out all the perfect songs to transition between all the moods, and executed them with class. Jay-Z & Beyonce both literally and figuratively made a movie out of this tour, and this concert will always be remembered as epic.
16. Kanye West – The Yeezus Tour at The Air Canada Center
(December 23, 2013)
Kanye West is always pushing the envelope with his unique stage designs, giving each of his concert tours their own look and feel to them. Many might argue that Yeezus was the start of his downfall into mediocrity musically, but his concerts have only gotten better over the years, as he’s consistently brought something new to the table that hasn’t been done before. With The Yeezus Tour, he had a huge artificial mountain as his stage, and in different segments of his show he would go from performing at the bottom of it, to climbing it, performing at the top, breaking through it, and also had the stage in front of it that would rise to form a cliff. There were dancers dressed as angels and demons with their choreography down to a T, pyrotechnics, and uniquely placed screens that gave fans a different set of visuals depending on where you were in the arena.
This tour also had Kendrick Lamar as the opener, still in his rising star phase at the time with only his good kid, m.A.A.d city album and a few guest verses to perform (he sadly ignored his Section.80 album). Kendrick performed humbly in front of a half-full arena with fans still coming in, and the excitement built as we eventually saw what that stage underneath him would do once Kanye got on. Kanye did spend about 20 minutes of his 2+ hours on stage doing one of those “rants” that got him a lot of publicity while on this tour, but he more than made up for it with the execution and showmanship of his actual performance. Plus as a bonus, with this being the last show of the tour, he brought out Drake and performed their song “Forever” for the first and possibly only time together.
15. Nas at The Queen Elizabeth Theatre
(October 8, 2014)
For an artist who’s known to headline festivals with massive crowds, this was a special experience seeing them in a smaller theatre. Nas was making his rounds on tour premiering his documentary film Time Is Illmatic, which reflects on and looks at the making of his classic 1994 debut album, Illmatic, all as part of the album’s 20th anniversary. For The Time Is Illmatic Tour, fans would get to watch a screening of the film, and it would immediately be followed by Nas himself performing his classic album in its entirety. Nas packed the theatre for two back-to-back screenings and performances in the same night, and at the first of those two shows, Nas gave the most intimate performance I have ever seen him do. He interacted with the fans, rapping directly into some of their phones, and autographed some vinyl records during his performance – something that doesn’t happen at the typical larger venues he performs in.
Having seen Nas perform several times over the years, he can sometimes come off like he’s just doing a routine and going through the movements, but with this concert being much smaller, he seemed a lot more engaged with the ability to interact with individual fans. He had a lot more energy and genuinely looked like he was enjoying his celebration of the 20-year milestone. Not only did he perform the entire Illmatic album front to back, but he also rocked a few of his later classics like “Hate Me Now” and “Made You Look.” You could make the argument that Nas had some of the best performances of his career during his Time Is Illmatic Tour.
14. The 2011 Rock The Bells Festival at Governor’s Island in NYC, USA
(September 3, 2011)
Some might say 2011 was the beginning of the end of one of the most beloved annual Hip-Hop music festivals ever. This is the year Rock The Bells had expanded from two outdoor stages to four, and over the next couple years they would go on to expand into multiple days, getting more mainstream artists thus losing their focus on classic and underground Hip-Hop, and would eventually stop hosting the multi-city event after 2013. 2011 was still a great year though, as the festival continued its classic albums theme from the previous year, getting artists to perform songs off of the albums they’re most known for. This would include the aforementioned Nas headlining the festival with a performance of Illmatic (plus several of his later classics), featuring appearances by DJ Premier, Pete Rock, AZ, Large Professor, Lauryn Hill, and even 2x NBA MVP Steve Nash coming out to breakdance during the song “Nasty.”
With four stages going on at the same time, I got to catch glimpses of iconic artists performing classic albums at this festival, including Mos Def & Talib Kweli performing their Black Star album in its entirety, Cypress Hill performing songs off of Black Sunday, GZA (with RZA & Killah Priest) performing songs off Liquid Swords, Raekwon & Ghostface Killah with songs off Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, and Mobb Deep (R.I.P. Prodigy) with The Infamous. What made this festival really special though were the lower-card artists they chose, as every year they would have some lesser known artists who would go on to blow up years later. This 2011 festival had a pre-fame Mac Miller and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, although the only one of these rising stars I got to see myself was a young Childish Gambino opening for Rae & Ghost (imagine seeing him perform “Lights Turned On” with a live band!). That’s one downfall to this festival, was that with four stages going on at the same time, fans had to choose which artists they were willing to miss in order to see others. It was one hell of an experience though, seeing so many legends of the past, present and future all being celebrated for the love of Hip-Hop. Rock The Bells was for the culture!
13. The Roots at Nathan Phillips Square
(August 8, 2015)
In the summer of 2015, the Pan Am Games were hosted by Toronto, and while this caused so much traffic congestion and headaches over several weeks, one of the bright spots besides the games themselves was the PANAMANIA series of free concerts held at Nathan Phillips Square almost every night. They had one night in the whole series dedicated to Hip-Hop, coincidentally the same day that Sean Price passed away (R.I.P.), and they represented in style with The Legendary Roots Crew. The Roots are known to be among the all-time greatest live performers in all of music, and they drew a massive crowd in the square, although not quite the same size as our recent Raptors Championship Parade. With perfect synergy between every band member on stage, including the new addition of Jeremy Ellis on MPC, The Roots put on an epic performance as expected.
This was my third time seeing The Roots perform, and for this show they leaned a bit more heavily on their songs from the 1990’s, especially their classic album Things Fall Apart. They performed their hit songs throughout the years like “Proceed,” “What They Do,” “The Next Movement,” and “The Seed 2.0,” but also had a good amount of deep album cuts like “Without A Doubt” and “Dynamite.” The band members also each individually shined with their solos, including James Poyser on keys doing his “thank you card” music from The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Jeremy Ellis doing a J Dilla tribute on MPC, and of course Captain Kirk’s epic 10-minute guitar solo placed in the middle of their Grammy award-winning classic “You Got Me.” Between The Roots putting on another epic performance, the show being free, and PANAMANIA capping everything off with fireworks, this was definitely a night to remember.
12. The Wu-Tang Clan at The Kool Haus/Guvernment Nightclub
(November 28, 2013)
We started this countdown off with a tie between all the Wu-Tang solo concerts in 2012-2013, but those individual concerts were just a build up to the Wu-Tang Clan reuniting for their 20th anniversary show. There were several problems with this show, as the building felt overpacked, the Clan ran late getting to the stage (as we’ve come to expect), and then only 6 out of the 9 living members showed up. Once this concert got started though, it was an epic shit-show in the best way. All the members who had previously performed in Toronto within the last year were together on the stage at the same time, giving that family reunion feeling, and the crowd was completely energized with an aggressive mosh pit in effect.
While RZA, Masta Killa, and Cappadonna didn’t make the show, you had all the remaining core members giving an epic two-hour performance. This was as close to the stage as I’ve been at a Wu-Tang Clan show, and the energy was constantly high as the crew ran through years of their classics. They had the unpredictable factor going, as the Clan members entered one by one for their verses on “Bring Da Ruckus,” U-God joined them for the next song “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin’,” but then Method Man didn’t grace the stage until a couple songs later, surprising the crowd with his third verse on “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin’ Ta F Wit!” I’ll also never forget the end of the concert, walking to the Loblaws parking lot behind the club and on the way running into Method Man and Ghostface Killah on the street, surrounded by women as they were getting ready to hop in the cars to the hotel. My homie gave Mef a smoke and we respectfully kept it moving to avoid cock-blocking.
11. Eminem & Jay-Z at Comerica Park in Detroit, USA
(September 2, 2010)
This was an epic road trip for what may still be the largest concert I’ve been to. The Home & Home Tour was a short but epic concert tour that had Eminem & Jay-Z performing two shows in each of their respective home cities, with Jay-Z opening for Eminem in Detroit’s Comerica Park, and Eminem opening for Jay-Z in New York City’s Yankee Stadium. This was the first of two shows in Detroit to kick off the entire tour, and was reportedly the very first concert Eminem performed since becoming sober. This was my first time seeing either of these two artists, and is still the only time I’ve been able to see Eminem perform live. The show was also STACKED with surprise guest appearances, including Young Jeezy coming out during Jay’s set, and Eminem’s set including appearances by D12, Dr. Dre, 50 Cent, G-Unit, Drake, B.O.B., Trick Trick, and of course Jay-Z for a performance of their song “Renegades.”
The Home & Home Tour may be amongst the last times Jay-Z shared the stage with Memphis Bleek, who was consistently there as his hypeman for years on end. After opening with the only time I’ve seen “The Dynasty Intro” performed live, Jay performed all the hits with Bleek backing him, while leaning heavily towards his newest album at the time, The Blueprint 3. Eminem’s set was absolutely epic though, as he took us through all the years of his classics, with great balance between the radio hits and the deep album cuts. He was fresh off of releasing his Recovery album, performing plenty of songs off of it, while also digging back to The Eminem Show and The Marshall Mathers LP, as well as his collaborations with all the surprise guests. Even though we were sitting far from the stage in the 100-level of the stadium, the universal connection the fans had to these songs made it an enjoyable experience for everyone. Eminem had a chip on his shoulder going into this show, having been away from the stage for several years, but he was able to come back in a huge way and has never looked back since.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of the countdown dropping at noon tomorrow!
(UPDATE: Click here to go on to Part 3 of the countdown!)
Remember to check out the SYpherSights Youtube channel for more concert videos.