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 the final part of the Top 30 Countdown, #10-1:
*All concerts were in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, unless otherwise noted*
10. Method Man & Redman at Toronto’s 2017 Festival of Beer
(July 28, 2017)
Toronto’s Festival of Beer has become my favourite annual music festival in the city. Every year the festival lands on the weekend after my birthday, and includes hundreds of beers from around the world to sample in the beautiful summer weather at Bandshell Park. They also always book all-time great Hip-Hop artists to headline the music side of the festival on the Friday night. In past years I’ve seen the festival headlined by Naughty By Nature and Ludacris, but my favourite year (so far) has to be 2017, when the iconic duo of Method Man & Redman headlined.
2017 was the first year I was granted a media pass to attend the festival, and I got to be around some Toronto Hip-Hop royalty. Rolling with Stacee Brizzle and her squad, we got to run into Organik just enjoying the festival as a spectator, and got to meet Choclair before he would later make a surprise appearance on stage during Saukrates’ opening set. Choc & Bigg Soxx made it a wicked celebration of classic Toronto Hip-Hop before Red & Mef came out and tore the place down! Since many of us had beer sampling mugs in our hands, the mosh pit wasn’t as hectic as previous times I’ve seen the duo perform, and while they didn’t even do their stage-diving routine to keep things safe, they still performed with empecable execution, stage presence and showmanship. After they shut the stage down, a humbled Redman took an extra half hour of his time to stick around and sign autographs, returning all the love the Toronto crowd gave him and Method Man.
9. Kanye West – The Saint Pablo Tour at The Air Canada Center
(August 31, 2016)
As usual, Kanye West was getting a lot of publicity with the media controversy surrounding him during this tour. You had the mixed reception to his latest album at the time, The Life Of Pablo, along with media headlines about more of those “rants” on stage, before he eventually canceled the tail end of the tour due to mental breakdown. This particular show had none of that negativity though, and could be described as a pre-Trump-supporting Kanye West giving his best performance. There were no rants or buzzkills, and from the time Kanye hit the stage on this second of two back to back nights in Toronto, he gave the fans nothing but hit after hit after hit until he left the stage. He had the fans into it 100%, singing along to every song that he dropped, even the new joints with some cringe-worthy lyrics.
As previously mentioned, each of Kanye’s tours have their own look and feel to them with his unique stage designs, and The Saint Pablo Tour was no different. With no opening performers, dancers, or stage props, Kanye performed with just himself and a microphone on a levitated stage that hung from the rafters and floated above the crowd throughout the show. With no escape off of the floating platform, all eyes were on Kanye West, and he thrived in the spotlight as he took us through years of his hit songs. He also had a wicked light show, with lights shooting out from both the ceiling and the platform he stood on. It was a work of art seeing the potential of every seat in the arena being filled, plus the entire floor space filled with moshing fans. Time will tell where Kanye will go from here, when he eventually gets back to touring.
8. The 2017 Made In America Festival in Philadelphia, USA
(September 2-3, 2017)
In another epic road trip south of the border, my first time visiting Philly was an awesome experience. The sixth annual Made In America Festival itself had a few buzzkills, like the constant rain making the ground all muddy during day one, and DMX being removed from the lineup due to his tax evasion charges, but overall it became a wicked experience with a ton of memories. The festival would be co-headlined by J. Cole on day one of the festival, performing pretty much his same set from his 4 Your Eyez Only Tour, and by the festival founder and curator himself, Jay-Z on day two. Every artist who performed was handpicked by Hova himself, and with 6 stages set up along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway with constant performances, there was never a dull moment in the entire weekend. Even if you weren’t into the EDM or the mumble-rap, you could always hop over to another stage and find some music you did enjoy.
Day one of the festival included a mid-day performance by Cardi B, who was still a few months away from blowing up into the star she is today, and a show-stealing performance by J.I.D. and EARTHGANG, who had newly signed to J. Cole’s Dreamville Records at the time. A highlight was seeing J.I.D. perform the first half of “Never” up in a tree, and then him crowd-surfing his way back to the stage while rapping the second half of the song. Day two included a pre-Daytona Pusha T performance, a very hype Run The Jewels set, and an epic Jay-Z performance that would be his first in North America since releasing his 4:44 album.
This was my favourite setlist I’ve seen Jay-Z perform, as he leaned heavily on my favourite album of his, The Black Album, and also pulled off all kinds of surprises, including bringing out Damian Marley at the very beginning of his set, and later during “99 Problems” switching the beat midway through to the Linkin Park version. His best surprise though was the end of his set, when he appeared on another stage at the opposite end of the park performing an encore with strictly B-sides like “Pump It Up Remix,” “Hola Hovito” and “Allure,” with Just Blaze as his DJ and Meek Mill as a surprise guest.
7. Run The Jewels at The Hoxton
(July 11, 2013)
Run The Jewels have become known to put on one of the most energetic concerts you can go to, and this very first tour as a group is where that reputation got established. The team up between Killer Mike & El-P was still a proof of concept of what was to come, as they’ve been able to maintain their formula of releasing their albums for free and making the bulk of their dough with touring and merch. Their very first concert in Toronto as a duo was at the tiny Hoxton Nightclub, where they packed the house with fans hungry to get their hands on some of the flyest merch in game, and to rage out to their new self-titled album at the time. They’ve only gotten bigger and better over the years, but this concert was special for the way it was executed.
After some dope opening performances by Kool A.D. and Despot, Killer Mike & El-P had a treat in store for the intimate crowd. Killer Mike came out first and performed a solo set as his own opener, including songs off of the album that birthed his collaboration with El-P in the first place, R.A.P. Music. El-P made an appearance during Mike’s set to perform their song “Butane” together, before Mike would give up the stage for El to perform his own solo set. El-P would perform songs off of his underground masterpieces I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead and Cancer 4 Cure, which included him bringing back out Mike & Despot for a hype performance of “Tougher, Colder Killer.” This is all before Mike & El-P finally graced the stage as a duo for the first time in Toronto and performed damn near all of that first Run The Jewels album. I’d go on to see RTJ perform plenty more times over the years, but will remember this as the last time Mike or El-P would perform their solo work, and the one time I got to meet El-P after the show.
6. Run The Jewels at The Danforth Music Hall
(November 26, 2014 & February 19, 2017)
Yep, Run The Jewels continued to get bigger and better over the years. They’ve performed in Toronto a few other times, but the times they rocked The Danforth Music Hall were perfection. One of the best concert venues in Toronto, The Danforth has a sloped open dance floor that gives everyone a good view of the stage while still having the freedom to rage and mosh, which RTJ brought plenty of. The crowds at these RTJ concerts had the best energy, as the mosh pits were hype and there was even crowd surfing, but there was also a sense of unity with everyone looking out for each other and maintaining the safety. The Run The Jewels pistol-and-fist hand symbol has become comparable to the Wu-Tang “W” in terms of the way it brings people together at these concerts and creates that sense of unity and inclusiveness.
In 2014 they were coming off of releasing their sophomore album, RTJ2, which I still consider one of the best rap albums of the decade, and their 2017 concert was just two months after dropping the even bigger and better RTJ3 album. Coming with new material and different guests everytime (including sharing the stage with Gangsta Boo in 2017), Killer Mike & El-P have kept things fresh and always brought the right energy to the stage, with the music to cause mosh pits but the maturity to keep everything safe and fun. They’ve sold out The Danforth both times they performed here, with second-hand tickets typically going for triple the face value, and so it feels humbling having been lucky enough to experience at least one of these concerts. It’s been a wild ride seeing Killer Mike & El-P’s rise to fame, and it’s probably safe to say they will continue to climb going forward, having struck lightening with their synergy, branding, execution, and combination of talents.
5. The 2010 Rock The Bells Festival at Governor’s Island in NYC, USA
(August 28, 2010)
The 2010 Rock The Bells Festival was the first year they started doing their classic albums theme. It was an epic lineup of all-time greats on the main stage, with the headliner being Snoop Dogg performing his entire Doggystyle album, but so epic that we felt we got our money’s worth and left before Snoop even hit the stage (one regret I still have). With two stages going on at the same time on the grassy Governor‘s Island, we started at the small stage for the only time to this day I’ve seen a full Jedi Mind Tricks roster that included Vinnie Paz, Jus Allah, and DJ Kwestion, along with Crypt the Warchild as their hypeman and a surprise appearance by Reef the Lost Cauze. It would only get more epic from there.
Over at the main stage, we saw KRS-One performing songs off of Criminal Minded, as well as some off-the-top freestyles with MC Supernatural, but also had to deal with a cluttered Lauryn Hill set that was rushed due to her starting late (something she‘s developed a reputation for over the years). The most epic moments would come next though, as it would be my only time ever seeing A Tribe Called Quest (R.I.P. Phife Dawg), as they performed their Midnight Marauders album plus more, Q-Tip boldly but confidently saying “we have 2 or 3 classic albums.” They had surprise appearances by Large Professor and Busta Rhymes to make it a classic moment, and would be followed by my first time seeing The Wu-Tang Clan, all 9 living members on stage celebrating their Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) album. Between Tribe and Wu-Tang, we were drained from all the energy they brought to the stage, completely satisfied enough to catch an early ferry back to the mainland.
4. The 2009 Rock The Bells Festival in San Bernardino, CA, USA
(August 8, 2009)
The very first rap concert I went to will always be special to me. 2009 was a simpler time for the Rock The Bells Festival, as it was just a one-day event with two stages, and while they did tour and bring the festival to multiple cities including Toronto, they had something special in store for the city where the festival was first founded back in 2004: San Bernardino, California. The headliner for the entire tour was Nas & Damian Marley, performing together less than a year ahead of releasing their collaborative Distant Relatives album, but select cities had special hometown headliners performing after them. With San Bernardino being close to Los Angeles, this particular Rock The Bells Fest would be headlined by the legendary Ice Cube, who would be joined by WC as they ran through all his classics, capping the night off with a hype performance of “Gangsta Nation.” To this day it’s still the only time I’ve been able to see Ice Cube perform live, and the same remains true for a few other artists I saw at this festival.
Not knowing anything about set times and how to plan my way around a music festival back then, I mostly stayed at the main stage at the San Manuel Amphitheater, only checking out the small stage in an attempt to see Slaughterhouse, but missing their set since this happened to be the night Joe Budden infamously got into a fight with Raekwon’s entourage backstage. This festival was my introduction to Tech N9ne, who I’d become a big fan of over the next few years, and was also as close as I’ve ever been to seeing an OutKast show, as Big Boi performed their hits solo, about one year before he’d start releasing his solo albums. It was also the first of many times I’d see Talib Kweli, who performed with Hi-Tek about a year ahead of releasing their second Reflection Eternal album together, and also The Roots, who were mind-blowing to see for the first time. Besides the main headliners, the biggest highlight of the festival may have been Busta Rhymes’ set, as he had the most energy out of anyone on stage and also brought out surprise guests Raekwon and M.O.P. to perform with him – just picture them doing “Ante Up Remix” in front of that massive festival crowd!
3. The Wu-Tang Clan at Rebel Nightclub
(September 30, 2018)
The Wu-Tang Clan on their 25th anniversary tour gave a much more refined performance than any of the last several times I’ve seen them. Toronto has had plenty of Wu-Tang concerts over the years, but this was the first time in history all 9 living members were on the same stage at the same time in our city. With the letdown of unexpected no-shows at previous concerts (including Method Man being absent at the Kitchener tour date a couple months earlier), The Wu-Tang Clan made sure to do it right for their 25-year milestone, giving a free show to the fans with everyone showing up, plus two of the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s sons to perform their father’s verses. Everything about this show was perfection, as The Wu-Tang Clan executed their setlist with the sharpness and precision that 25 years of experience gets you, and the fans gathered as a unified community there to celebrate the legacy; footage from this show would be used for a short YouTube documentary.
It was the small things that made this show great, like how they performed every verse to almost every song rather than cutting them short after the first one or two verses to cover more material. I’ve also seen shows dedicated to their 36 Chambers album before, but this was the first time I saw them literally performed the entire album in track listing order, from beginning to end, without ever deviating. On top of the entire 36 Chambers album, they went in with plenty of deep album cuts from the rest of their catalogue afterwards, pulling out some songs they rarely perform live and even mixing things up with verses rapped over alternative beats. Wu-Tang gave the fans everything, with all the epic moments like Method Man stage-diving during “Da Rockwilder,” and Young Dirty Bastard’s perfected portrayal of his late father on stage, bringing all the energy and hype to songs like “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” “Brooklyn Zoo,” and “Protect Ya Neck.” The last piece that made this show great was the crowd, as Toronto in all its diversity definitely showed up as a unified force to celebrate Wu-Tang, and brought all the right energy to bring out an epic 2-hour performance by the Clan.
2. The Roots at The 2014 Luminato Festival at David Pecaut Square
(June 7, 2014)
There was a time when the annual Luminato Arts Festival included Hip-Hop concerts in their week-long program, but after The Legendary Roots Crew put on one of the best Hip-Hop shows Toronto has seen, the festival has never attempted to top themselves again in that area. Out of all the times I’ve seen The Roots perform live, this has to be my favourite setlist of theirs, as they leaned a lot more heavily towards their songs post-2000 as opposed to focusing on the 90’s. When The Roots start performing, it’s a constant stream of energy on stage as they fluidly transition from song to song, incorporating short covers and solos to keep things fresh, and as the festival headliners they kept that energy going for almost two hours consistently. Each band member got to shine with a solo on their instrument, while Black Thought especially killed it, displaying arguably the most impeccable breath control and vocal sharpness on stage out of any emcee.
Having just released their latest album at the time, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, The Roots started off with some brand new songs before taking us through the years, focusing on the most recent decade. They performed all my favourites of theirs from the mid-2000’s, including “Don’t Say Nuthin’,” “In The Music,” “Here I Come,” and “Thought @ Work,” all of which I haven’t seen them perform again since this concert. It goes to show how deep their catalogue stretches, as they almost completely ignored some of their most iconic albums from the 90’s and still put on this epic performance. Leaving it all on the stage, The Roots lived up to their legacy as one of the best live performers in music, and to top it all off, some of the band members like Captain Kirk and Tuba Gooding Jr stuck around to sign autographs after tearing up the stage – I even got my Phrenology CD cover signed!
1. The Roots Picnic at Bryant Park in NYC, USA
(October 1-2, 2016)
The Roots have one of the deepest networks of friends and collaborators in the music industry, and so they’re naturally able to pull off some of the most epic moments on stage for their own annual music festival. Usually hosted in their hometown of Philly, 2016 was the only year they expanded the festival to do an ode to their second home, New York City. As they always do at their Picnic, The Roots themselves co-headlined both days of the festival, and they would back up and share the stage with their other headliners, including The Wu-Tang Clan. It was this once in a lifetime collaboration on stage between two of my top two favourite Hip-Hop groups of all time that made me fly back to New York for this, and with all the other surprises The Roots pulled off during this festival, I got more than my money’s worth.
With two stages set up at opposite ends of Bryant Park in the middle of Manhattan, this proved to be one of the most well executed and organized music festivals I’ve been to, as the music never overlapped between the two stages and you had the opportunity to see every single artist on the lineup. There were so many crazy moments at this festival besides seeing two of my favourite groups share the stage together, as The Roots Picnic had a stacked lineup on its own, but then also had several unadvertised surprise appearances in store for the fans. It was an epic, diverse lineup that included hardcore Hip-Hop from The Wu-Tang Clan (minus Ghostface Killah), five decades of Disco classics by Nile Rodgers & members of Chic (including a wicked cover of their Pharrell collaboration “Get Lucky” for the young people), classic Neo-Soul by D’Angelo, Soft-Rock by John Mayer, and even some New Orleans Jazz by Trombone Shorty (my first time experiencing his music). On top of the heavy lineup, the surprise appearances included Redman during the Wu-Tang set, Common during The Roots’ set, Alicia Keys opening for Wu-Tang, comedy by Dave Chappelle & Amy Schumer, The Sugar Hill Gang during Nile Rodgers’ set, Mystikal during Trombone Shorty’s set, and not to mention the absolutely epic, historic and insane “Black Thought’s Live Mixtape,” which happened to also be on Tariq’s 45th birthday.
This was hands down the best music festival I’ve been to, and the surprises and bucket list item’s checked off in terms of legendary artists needed to see perform live made it all that more memorable.
Thank you to everyone who’s followed the blog and has ever read any of my reviews. I’m looking forward to more years of concert-going, and will continue to review as many as I can on the blog!
Remember to check out the SYpherSights Youtube channel for more concert videos.