Two more dead rappers were resurrected this weekend: N.W.A.’s Eazy-E (died of AIDS complications in 1995) and Wu-Tang’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard (OD’d in 2004). Using the same technology that brought Tupac Shakur to the Coachella stage last year, both late MCs reappeared as simulated holograms to perform alongside their surviving cohorts at the L.A. stop of the Rock the Bells hip-hop tour.
The performances were about as exciting as second-place showings usually are. Even though this technique — an old theater illusion updated with digital technology to make 2-D video projections seem sort of like unmediated 3-D holograms — has been around for a while, allowing Gorillaz to perform with Madonna and Elvis to duet with Celine, last year’s 2.0Pac still caused a genuine stir since it was a sizable audience seeing the effect for the first time with naked eyes. This weekend’s raising of the dead suffered from something of an also-ran aura, and the tech looks to have had mixed results.
No doubt smartphones aren’t best-equipped to capture this effect well, but the few videos emerging from the events thus far show two different virtual performances. Eazy-E’s appearance Saturday night with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony (video below) lacked both candlepower (dude’s dim) and kinetic energy. Never a boisterous fellow, Eazy paces lazily back and forth in his field of view. (The LA Times actually wrote it off to age: “… his hologram had the sort of swagger you’d expect from an agile, but probably retired, emcee who threw in the towel on gangster wrap, long before his age would have determined he was possibly past his prime.”) His voice and body motion were digitally captured from his kids. Sunday’s ODB gig alongside some living Wu-Tangers (video above) was brighter and more exciting, despite the ODB illusion being projected on a riser slightly further back on the stage.
Rappers are easy pickings for holo-designers because of a peculiarity of their craft. Lip-syncing mouths are difficult to animate; thus, performers who keep a mic pressed up against their lips through an entire performance are perfect. Hair’s not easy, either — thank you, bald Tupac — though considerable attention seems to have been given to ODB’s braids. 2.0Pac’s creator discussed a lot of this earlier this year at SXSW.
Intriguing that the holo-events are set up as the headlining performances each night of the two-night festival. That kind of top billing is either a boon for the developing technology or a sad comment on the status and cachet of living MCs.
The holograms are set to appear three more times, at Rock the Bells stops in San Francisco (this weekend), Washington, D.C. (Sept. 28-29), and Rutherford, N.J. (Oct. 4-5).
I'm THOMAS CONNER, communication researcher and culture journalist.