Most superstar producers also end up taking a few shots at seizing the limelight for themselves, with occasionally great (Kanye West, Pharrell) and occasionally middling (Timbaland) results. It is that shared ambition that formed the only real logic behind the ten-or-so date joint tour featuring both The-Dream and Hudson Mohawke, which concluded last night (Nov. 18) at New York’s Webster Hall. Probably one of the year’s more unlikely live pairings, the duo actually share some musical DNA, including common collaborators Pusha T, Kanye, and Drake. As live performers, though, they couldn’t be more different.
Hudson Mohawke (whose given name is Ross Birchard) is an Scottish producer and DJ whose synth-heavy beats first attracted IDM fans, and eventually earned hip-hop cred as producer behind G.O.O.D. Music smash “Mercy.” In stark contrast, The-Dream (also known as Terius Nash) favors a style of determinedly sultry R&B that resists the easy choruses (Bieber’s “Baby” and Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” among many others) that earned him the nickname “Radio Killa,” in favor of floating melodies distinguished by the slightest of hairline fractures — smoothness, after all, makes it that much easier to set the mood. His most successful work has a sustained, teasing intensity that brings to mind the title of his most recent studio album ‘IV Play.’
Live, it’s easy for the such a delicate style — one whose most important rhythmic divisions are snaps — to get lost. And it did, a little. Nash’s vocals, soft and conversational, were occasionally overwhelmed by the venue’s clunky bass. But for the most part, his talents as an old-school showman far outweighed the mild technical glitches. Coming onstage to crowd-pleaser “Shawty Is The Shit,” Nash basked in the inevitable sing-a-long, sunglass-clad and stoic except for some subtle shoulder pops and air-keyboard-playing. Right from the start, he struck the impossible balance of seeming completely vulnerable, while remaining in control enough manipulate the crowd at will — he appeared to leave it all on the stage (given the sweat visible through his black t-shirt, a reasonable conclusion) without a hint of sloppiness.
A Kanye-esque set of backing visuals (religious imagery, naked women, lots of symbolic white paint, and even some not-so-softcore porn) kept the empty stage (he had the opening set) from feeling barren. His DJ faded into the background as he ran through an assortment of songs from throughout his career — not missing the hits, but hardly subservient to them (his most recent charting single, “That’s My Shit,” was left off the set list). For an artist who prides himself languid, artsy R&B ill-suited to radio, his set was snappy, moving fluidly from one two-step anthem to the next. Nash played to the crowd, adding in a capella renditions of his biggest songs — rarely has the refrain, “Grind it” (off “Falsetto”), been more evocative.
In contrast to Nash’s confessional, intimate tack, HudMo took to the stage barricaded into a veritable fortress of light poles alongside a drummer and keyboardist. His broad, taut, drop-driven sound was a sensory shock, but immediately resonated with the crowd, who were clearly there to turn up. Ominous synths crescendoed to huge peaks, EDM with an intellectual bent. Reigning his onstage kingdom, the producer showcased his omnivorous taste while never veering too far from his dance-friendly center — hints of industrial, rock, and soul fleshed out his set.
In the end, both producers showed off their enviable talents before appreciative crowds — the latter just sought full-body catharsis, where the former was content with the rock of a hip.