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.’
From Rick James in the ‘80s to JAY-Z in the ‘90s to The Game in the 2000s to Kendrick Lamar in 2010s and the dozens in between, Ron Byrd has worked with them all and created lasting memories along the way.
“I used to have the title of ‘The Minister of Fun.’ That’s what I do for artists. On the ‘Hard Knock Life Tour,’ we rented out a movie theater so everybody could see The Matrix. The tour buses pulled up on the backdoor. I rented out a movie theater for us, privately, with unlimited popcorn and soda,” Byrd told REVOLT.
In this installment of “Tour Tales,” the 40-year touring vet explains Kendrick Lamar’s Puff Daddy-like perfectionism, how he helped make sure the ‘Hard Knock Life Tour’ didn’t have any incidents, and DMX’s power on stage.
The first tour you went on was Prince’s “Dirty Mind Tour” in 1981, which was also his first. How’d you get on that?
Yeah, but I was with Teena Marie. I was about 24 years old. I came into the business with Teena Marie because I was working security for Motown Records. I had a law enforcement background, which a lot of people don’t know about. So, I was able to carry firearms. When Motown moved to L.A. they all came to the church I went to, which was Mt. Zion and from there I started working security for Motown. I met all of the artists and eventually, Teena said, “Do you want to go on the road?” I told her, “I don’t know what the road is, but I’m with it.”
As security, what is an issue you had to step in to solve?
Not really on that tour. I was really doing everything on that tour. I was security, road manager, setting up gear for the band. There were no issues. Fans only wanted autographs and to take pictures. I never really ran into any security issues until later on when we got into the hip hop genre. I have a martial artists background. I’ve trained for 30 years in Japanese karate. I always have a security mindset no matter what I’m doing. My first job after working with Teena Marie was setting up equipment for Rick James. Teena took me to Rick on a tour we were on. She was going back to L.A. to record and was like, “Do you still want to work?” I was like, “Yeah.” And she said, “I’ll see if Rick needs anybody.”
How was it working with Rick James?
I set up drums and percussions for Rick James. I was a roadie. We’ve all been fired by Rick James. I was fired about five or six times by Rick James. When he fires you, it ain’t funny. He fires you in an embarrassing way. He cusses at you, but he calls you back the next day. Every time I was fired, he’d call me back like, “Get your ass over here. We got shit to do.”
What were those crowds like for Rick?
It was the most amazing thing for me because we were doing football stadiums. I came up in the hip hop generation as well, as far as working. I worked with Run-DMC, Eric B & Rakim, and all of the original Def Jam acts, so I know the hip hop world. But, the only way these guys play stadiums now is at Summer Jam, Birthday Bash, or something with about 20 acts on the show. We were doing those same football stadiums with just Rick James, Parliament & The Funkadelic, Bootsy Collins, and a few opening acts. Rick probably did every football stadium across the country. The crowds were unbelievable. Seeing a mass of people moving to the music is what got me into this. Being on tour and doing live music heals the soul. A concert is three hours of people forgetting about what’s going on in their lives. You can laugh, sing, cry, or faint. When I worked for New Edition, the girls would faint because they were in love with them. I still get goosebumps when I think about Rick James playing, ‘Bustin’ Out’ at the Los Angeles Coliseum and the entire stadium going wild.
I’ll tell you a perfect story about Rick James’ crowds and how I got into hip hop. We did a sold-out show at the Richmond Coliseum with about 18,000 people. On the show was Grandmaster Flash and a group called Newcleus who had a song called “Wikki Wikki.” When Grandmaster Flash and them got on stage with turntables and started scratching the turntables, I remember all of the bands on the show looking at that thinking, “What the fuck is going on? They have no instruments and they’re trying to make music?” Everybody thought it was crazy and that it wouldn’t last. I was looking at the audience and I watched their reaction. I immediately knew this wasn’t going anywhere. I realized this was going to be a new genre coming up that competes with R&B and the bands.
You were the tour manager on the “Hard Knock Life Tour,” which was the most successful hip hop tour at the time.
Yeah, and I’m in the movie. I’ll be going through an airport and people would be like, “I know you from somewhere. I saw you last night. You were in that movie.” That’s when I realized Showtime was showing Backstage a lot. I’m in the film a lot.
Besides it being successful financially, it was also one of the first hip hop tours that big to not have any incidents. How did you ensure that?
Back in the days, acts like Run-DMC drove the audience into a frenzy every night. There were fights every night. That was just part of the show. People in the audience were just going crazy, having fun, and fights were breaking out. But, then hip hop got banned from arenas. A lot of that was political too because the buildings didn’t understand it. They were used to Earth, Wind & Fire; The Isley Brothers, and Luther Vandross. Then, all of a sudden, you have these urban young brothers with these different energies and it scared the promoters and the people who owned the buildings.
The “Hard Knock Life Tour” was the first tour coming back in the arenas as a tour. So, when I sat in the meetings with Lyor Cohen, the one thing he emphasized is we had to have an incident-free tour and everyone went home with a great experience. That was the goal from day one. We hired security and FOI (Fruit of Islam) because we wanted people who respected the artist but still searched them. They knew how to search people quickly and efficiently. They also gave people their respect and knew who JAY-Z, DMX, and all of the acts were. I always wanted hip hop acts to be treated like The Rolling Stones.
DMX’s performances are still talked about for his unbridled energy.
It wasn’t just that tour. I’ve worked with DMX on a few tours. X was a one-man show. He didn’t need any dancers, hype man, or anything. He just needed him, his DJ, and a mic. X’s show was unbelievable. There was no other performer like DMX. He was one of the greatest. He took everyone on a roller coaster ride of emotions. He took you to the heights, the lows, the darkness, and then he said a prayer to you from his heart. He was a special guy touring. It was a marvel to sit on the side of the stage and see that man perform. Those are the memories I’ll have for the rest of my life.
What were some extracurricular activities you engaged in on tour?
I used to have the title of “The Minister of Fun.” That’s what I do for artists. On the “Hard Knock Life Tour,” we rented out a movie theater so everybody could see The Matrix. The tour buses pulled up on the backdoor. I rented out a movie theater for us, privately, with unlimited popcorn and soda. They served you. Not long ago, Lil Yachty took a chartered jet with his friends down to Universal Disney in Orlando. I take them on a behind-the-scenes VIP experience. People don’t know a lot of places have VIP programs. They cost a lot of money, but that’s how a Michael Jackson, Madonna, or Jennifer Lopez go. They don’t walk through the main gate and buy tickets. I’ve rented yachts for artists. We’ll be in London and they’ll be like, “Yo, Ron, what are you going to do?” I’ll be like, “I’m going to the British Museum to see all the statues from Egypt and Africa they got in the museum.” So, everyone gets up with me the next morning, and the next thing I know I have eight or nine people going to the British Museum.
You also worked with Travis Scott on the “Rodeo Tour.” He’s grown into one of the premier hip hop performers. How did you see his growth?
One thing I can tell you about Travis is he understood production. From day 1, he wanted to do his own production even if he had to spin money out of his own pocket. He did that on the “Rodeo Tour” with just him and Young Thug. That’s why he is who he is today. All of that comes in a rider. When you see some of these big shows that allow you to bring production, we have to submit a rider that details everything. The rider is a valuable part of an artist’s touring operation.
How did you connect with Kendrick Lamar to be his tour manager?
I was working for Fabolous years ago and The Game used to always be around Fabolous. Game used to always tell me, “Yo, I’m going to be big one day. I’m going to be doing my thing too. When it happens, I’ll want you to come work with me.” When he dropped his records, started blowing up, and was ready to go on tour, I got a phone call from James Rosemond saying, “We need you on a plane to L.A. The Game keeps asking for you. We hired somebody already, but The Game doesn’t want to work with them. He wants you.” I got on a plane, flew to L.A., and worked with The Game on every tour he did around the world numerous times. We did two Snoop [Dogg] tours. Kendrick and TDE guys used to be around. Actually, it was more Jay Rock than Kendrick. We had security with Game who were from the same neighborhood Kendrick was coming out of. I got in good with Top Dawg and his people, so when it was time for Kendrick to go on the “Yeezus Tour,” they called me. I came in there and told them I’d make sure I groomed everybody. I’d give them the knowledge and paperwork they needed. Kendrick killed it on that tour.
What did you notice about Kendrick’s stage show?
He rehearsed. A lot of these hip hop people don’t rehearse. When we tour, there are cues, pyro, special effects, and spots artists have to hit at a certain time so the lighting effects will work. That only happens through full rehearsal. We rehearsed at what was the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena for Yeezus. One thing Kendrick did was rehearse his show, put the show together, and then had a perfect show every night. He was a hard worker. He was a perfectionist just like Puff Daddy. Bill Reeves was Puffy’s production manager for the “No Way Out Tour” and he brought me in as the tour manager. Every night, I had a case that had televisions, Betamax, VHS, and every type of system you could think of built-in.
Every night, the lighting director, front-of-house engineer, monitor engineer, production people, and a bunch of us had to go into Puff’s suite and review the show. We had to take critical notes and make changes. Bill didn’t like that because some of the crew needed to be there for load-outs and it might’ve cost Puff some money with delays. Puff didn’t care. He wanted to make sure his show was tight. Every night we reviewed the show in full. He and Kendrick are two people who took their shows very seriously with rehearsal. On the “Hard Knock Life Tour,” I set up rehearsals for everybody for a week outside of Atlanta, and nobody showed up for rehearsals until the last day. Everybody showed up, looked at the stuff, ran around the stage for a bit and that was it. We had maybe one day of rehearsals and the rest was us putting it together as the tour was going on.
For someone who’s been a touring professional for more than 40 years, what do you see for the future of touring?
A lot will evolve and change, especially with the COVID protocols they have in place now at a lot of venues. Some tours are canceling because they don’t want people to have vaccination cards and all of that. As far as touring, it’s been the same and it’s not going to change. Touring is taking a group or artist who has a hot record, putting their name on the marquee, putting asses in the seats, putting on a good show, and doing it all over again in the next city. Ticket prices have changed. There will always be special effects but instead of having full-blown pyro, now we have cold spark so you don’t need flame licenses and fire inspections. You don’t need as many lighting instruments as you used to. But, touring is still about putting asses in the seats and the audience experiencing their favorite artists on stage.