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Tour Tales | Omar Edwards explains JAY-Z and Kanye West’s live show genius

Omar Edwards has been a keyboardist and/or musical director for monumental tours such as both “On The Run Tours,” the “Watch The Throne Tour” — just too many to name.

Omar Edwards Ravie B.

Musicians are barely getting a slice of music industry revenue, largely eating off of live performances instead. For ’Tour Tales,’ we dig into the rider requests, delayed shows, diligent preparation, and future of touring by talking with the multitude of people that move behind the scenes. Record executives, photographers, tour managers, artists, and more all break down what goes into touring and why it’s still so vital to the livelihood of your favorite artists. What happens on tour stays on ‘Tour Tales.’

Omar Edwards has been a keyboardist and/or musical director for monumental tours such as both “On The Run Tours,” the “Watch The Throne Tour” — just too many to name. As a result, over the course of 20 years, he’s seen it all.

“It could be Chris Martin, Bono, Oprah. For ‘On The Run II,’ the Obamas were there when we were in Paris. Michelle Obama was walking backstage. Everyone’s going to be there at some point,” Edwards told REVOLT.

In this installment of “Tour Tales,” Edwards remembers Kanye West live show speeches, why JAY-Z and Kanye West performed “Niggas in Paris” 10 plus times in a row, and much more. Read below.

What was your first major tour?

My first major tour was my first tour period. It came in 1999 when I played with The Roots on the Okayplayer Tour in 2000. It was The Roots, Guru from Gangstarr, Talib Kweli, Slum Village, Jaguar Wright and all these amazing artists. I was playing keyboard. So, The Roots would open the show and Questlove had me and Anthony Tidd be additions to The Roots and play for everyone else. I was a sponge and was just following Quest around. We went record shopping. Quest would give me albums to listen to. I remember we went to Tower Records in Seattle and he would show me what to buy. It was musicology in the flesh. It was music school everyday.

In 2005, you played keys on Kanye West’s “Touch The Sky Tour.” What was it like putting that together?

It was really Kanye and DJ A-Trak putting it together. But, it was really all ‘Ye. A-Trak would give ideas and would execute it because everything was coming from his turntables. The band was me, Karriem Riggins, string section with my homegirl Nikki Garcia, and we were in boxes. It was Kanye being a genius. Every choice on that tour was him. The songs, how long we’re doing the songs, the transitions, and all of that. He was hands-on with everything. He was hands-on with wardrobe, lights, sonically. Whatever he’s done, you’ve seen that’s who he is.

How did you add to his live show?

That album (Late Registration) is really sample-based. We would just recreate the sample. There were moments where he would have me break it down and play what the original sample was. It was really about honoring what the original samples were. Maybe one of the parts in the sample that didn’t make the song we’ll revisit, break it down, and then go into the part he sampled. Side note; This tour was supposed to be Common and Kanye. This was when Common got his first movie role on Smoking Aces, so Common had to pull out of the tour, so Kanye was like, “Let me keep Omar and Kareem.” What else I wanted to do on Ye’s tour after being around The Roots and Common is play a Fender Rhodes. That’s the main instrument I played on with Common and The Roots.

Were there any classic Kanye speeches?

A thousand percent. One [that] comes to mind right away was when MTV was doing “Life and Rhymes.” His mom was there. I don’t think this was planned, but I remember him starting off the show laying on his back with headphones on and played “’93 Till Infinity” while talking through his story of how he loved hip hop, and how it started. When we were doing “Hey Mama” on that same show, you can see he’s a genius. It comes off the dome.

The “Heart of the City Tour” with Mary J. Blige and JAY-Z was the first time you were music director for Hov. What did you learn?

One of the things I pulled from was my experience watching Quest. Once JAY comes into rehearsal, we just create and come up with the concept and ideas. Also, going back to the original samples of his songs and pulling cool gems from those to add to the live show. JAY is so cool that he gives you the space to do you; to do your job. If it’s cool to him, you’re done. It’s refreshing. He doesn’t micromanage.

You and JAY seem to have a close relationship. Has the road affected that?

It’s a work relationship, but there are personal moments within that. For me, I feel it’s really important to make sure the lines don’t get blurred. I don’t want to be that guy who’s overzealous. I just do my job. When he says, “Let’s hang out,” then we hang out. I don’t force my way into that space. It has to happen organically. Besides that, he’s a really good human being. He’s a decent man. With anything, the more time you spend with people and get to see who they are and build trust with them, the relationship is going to evolve and grow, and there’ll be more opportunities where you’re having dinner and building relationships.

As music director, what are some fires you had to put out on tour with Hov?

Let’s say a computer goes down, we’ll still have to continue playing live, but the lights might not match the song, so sometimes you have to just go with it. There have been times when the power goes off. JAY knows how to talk his way out of that. I remember in 2008-2011, we were touring with the Roc Boys, which were 10 of us, and that’s a bunch of different personalities you have to manage. There are things you have to do behind the scenes to keep everyone’s temper at an even place. There are times where he fucked up and we may have to break it down, follow JAY acoustically, and then go back into the track. We did a show in Abu Dhabi in 2013 and the power went out (laughs). He stood there for a few seconds and then walked off.

On the “Magna Carter Tour” in 2013, we were in Manchester. JAY would do the first part of the show, go away, then Timbaland would do a section, and then JAY would come back for the next part of the show. For this show, specifically, when JAY came back out, he started talking. He was talking like it was the last song, so I triggered the last song, but we weren’t even halfway through the show. We had to finish “Encore” and then go back up to the top. We laughed about it later, but I don’t think people knew what was happening behind the scenes. I’m always talking to JAY in his ear, so if something’s going down, I let him know, and he’s still rapping while I’m talking.

You also played in the Grammys performance of “Swagger Like Us.” How did that come together?

Adam [Blackstone] was MDing (musical directing) and Jeff Bhasker was there. Kanye is so hands on and clear in what he wants, you’re pretty much executing at that point. That’s what it was. It’s sort of a Ye production. When we got off stage, we were screaming because you felt it was a moment for hip hop, Black music, and women with M.I.A. performing pregnant.

You worked on the “Watch The Throne Tour.” What was the challenge bringing that grandiose album to the stage?

First off, that tour is a top three favorite of mine. I wouldn’t say it was a challenge. The November prior to “Watch The Throne Tour,” JAY toured with U2 with the same Roc Boys band. After the last show in Australia, JAY played us some music from Watch The Throne and he was like, “We’re about to do this. It’s going to be crazy.” We’re getting excited to do the tour, but when the tour happens, there’s no band. It was a dynamic shift for me to go from band to no band.

They would perform “Niggas In Paris” 10 plus times in a row. Was that planned?

No, it was not planned. There was supposed to be an ending section after “Niggas in Paris” with “Encore” and other songs. Then, one night the song went off so crazy we did it again, and then again. I think we first started doing it three times and still continued on with the show. At some point, it went from three to five to seven to nine. All those moments were organic. Based on how the city responds is how many times we were going to do it. There are certain cities where the energy made us do it nine times. I think in Vancouver, we did it 13 times.

Was there a cue they’d give so you’d know they wanted to repeat it?

We would always stop at Ye’s verse when he would say “Huh?” If the energy wasn’t right, he would turn around like, “Keep going, don’t stop,” and we’d know it was the last one. There was a computer off stage, but DJ Mano was triggering everything from his station. We knew when to stop. The cue to start again was…we just knew. They would say something or JAY would make niggas spread out on the floor. After doing it so many times, you knew.

What are some fun things you all did?

One night, we were in maybe Oslo and we hung out on the rooftop bar of the hotel. Cudi was there. Ye was there. JAY was there. It was maybe a Saturday afternoon.

Who were some mind-blowing special guests to appear backstage?

I’ve seen them all. It could be Chris Martin, Bono, Oprah. For “On The Run II [Tour],” the Obamas were there when we were in Paris. Michelle Obama was walking backstage. Everyone’s going to be there at some point.

What were the difference between the two “On The Run Tours”?

Beyonce had her own MD, Derek Dixie, and I was JAY’s. JAY is super clear on his direction. Beyonce is next level and you’ve never seen anyone that detailed. They give you a blueprint and it’s up to us to execute. There’s musical synergy between their music, so you can find places to transition in those songs. There’s a love story there. It’s really them two telling a story and us making it make sense musically. For “On The Run II [Tour],” JAY had put out 4:44 and Beyonce put out Lemonade. There was stuff happening during “On The Run I” that people weren’t really aware of, but they could maybe feel. “On The Run II” was more of “This is what it is.” So, you use these songs to tell this story.

How did they balance parenting on those tours?

It’s two different worlds. They have limitless access to help, so their version of touring with their family is different than mine. My family is home; their family is out with them. So, they’ll do a show and then go be with their family. They do that in their own space. We don’t share a space with JAY and Bey. They move totally different from us. If I need to, I have access to him. When they’re off the stage, they’re literally on a cart to a jet and they’re out. My family, I may see them when I have a few days off and I fly them out for a week.

To that point, what big moments as a father have you missed?

Last year, I think I missed my son’s 10th birthday. I may have been out with Nicki Minaj in Europe. That was the first birthday I missed of my two youngest kids.

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