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.'
Thirty-year-old Ron Spraggins has been on the road since 2011, but began helping Noname launch her touring career with her 'Telefone Tour' in 2017. Since then, he's watched her perform after learning of the death of a close friend, watch Smino's live show maturation, and has grown a bond with SZA.
“[SZA] doesn’t like a lot of new people around her and I understand that. Some artists have a high turnover rate, they’re like a restaurant,” Spraggins told REVOLT TV. “They’ll have this new front of house engineer, this new tour manager. With her, once you’re in, you’re in, as long as you don’t fuck up.”
For this installment of Tour Tales, Spraggins explains how Noname's seminal NPR "Tiny Desk" performance almost never happened, how serious SZA takes her shows, and more.
You were a tour manager for Noname during her 'Telefone Tour' in spring 2017. Was that your first official hip hop and R&B tour with that title?
Yes, by far. That was me learning how to tour manage a major artist.
How was it working with Noname to put together her first tour?
She’s an amazing musician and a magnificent artist. Telefone is such a great album. So, to be able to see that every night and follow through with that, and help her out on her first tour was great. I learned a lot from her, overall, on how to carry myself. You're a representation of that artist, no matter if you like it or not.
What were those rehearsals like?
The rehearsal sessions were beautiful. I remember, for the Chicago show, it was the first time we started using background singers. They took it to a whole other level. That was a crazy time, too, because that was around the time Saba’s cousin John Walker died. We started off the tour in Chicago and we had two shows. Everyone from Pivot Gang -- Saba and all of them -- Smino, Zero Fatigue, were supposed to come out. The first night, John died and everybody heard about it. By the second night, the city was in pain almost. We were able to come out and do that show, persevere and everyone still came out. It was like this sad, but, almost poetically beautiful time for everyone in the city. That’s how we started the 'Telefone Tour' off.
Noname's songs like ‘Casket Pretty’ are really emotionally driven.
That’s the first thing I think about. We were on the road, she’s doing ‘Casket Pretty’ in her set and that’s a sad song. But, you see all these white kids happy about it and it’s like, ‘Nah, G. That’s not what that song is about.’
There’s a disconnect at times. Did she do ‘Casket Pretty’ at the Chicago show you mentioned?
Yeah, she was very emotional. We had it in the set and I definitely know she stopped halfway through, was sort of choking up, and finished it as a G. It was hard for everyone. It was hard for Saba to do his feature on ‘Shadow Man.’ It was crazy.
You mentioned the disconnect between the white fans and some of Noname's songs. Have you seen her react to that?
She’s one to call out her fans. She doesn’t take any bullshit at all. She’d call out her fans if she thinks someone is acting inappropriately. I remember this one time we were in Boston and she was either doing ‘Casket Pretty’ or another song, but, I remember her being like, ‘Yo, y’all need to understand that black death and the black plight isn’t something to be happy about.’ I commend her for that because she, as a black woman that grew up on the south side [of Chicago], she has to hold onto a lot of pain. Her lyrics are very evident of that. Sometimes you can’t get too wrapped up in your fans because they’re just having a good time and are just there for entertainment. But, sometimes when you’re that vulnerable with your lyrics, other people’s happiness will make you go, ‘What the fuck are y’all happy about? I’m sad’ (laughs).
What was on her rider?
Two years ago? I remember we always had a bottle of wine, a bottle of Maker’s Mark and Kit Kats. It’s been a while and I’ve done so many revised riders that I can’t remember it all (laughs).
What is the most memorable show besides the Chicago tours?
What sticks out the most in my mind during that tour is doing [NPR’s] 'Tiny Desk.' We were halfway through the tour, we did two nights in the Midwest and came to D.C. on a 12-hour drive. We woke up the next morning and everyone was kind of sick. We almost didn’t do 'Tiny Desk.' We ended up pulling through. We got some tea, woke up, did 'Tiny desk,' crushed it, and we did two shows at U Street [Music Hall] in D.C. For some reason, the energy in D.C. is always wild. I don’t care if you’re playing at The Fillmore in Silver Springs, 930 Club or Joy Club, the energy is always buzzing.
Not too long after that tour, SZA announces the 'CTRL Tour.'
Yeah, that’s when Smino grabbed me for that. I had listened to blkswn and went to the listening party at [Classick Studios] in Chicago before it came out. I had been a fan of Smino. So, when the 'CTRL Tour' happened and Smi was opening up, I was like, ‘Bro, I got to be a part of that.’ He swooped me up and I haven’t left since (laughs). That’s how I got in with SZA. They saw me working and was like, ‘Who’s this dude?’ Then, they swooped me up. Smi is who got me into that whole thing. He’s a great dude. Shout out to his manager [Chris] Classick.
How did you transition to SZA from Smino?
SZA had a great tour manager who did everything. Unfortunately, he had some personal things going on and he had to take some time off. [SZA’s manager] Punch actually reached out to me and was like, ‘Yo, we need you to come on for two weeks.’ He had rescheduled some shows from the beginning of the tour that she canceled because she kinda got sick at the beginning of the tour and there was a lot going on... That two weeks turned into a year and a half (laughs).
Ron (right), SZA (left)
The tour manager and the artist have to have a close relationship built on trust for touring to run smoothly. How are you and SZA?
The biggest thing for her is her in-ear mixes. I think over this last couple of months, we got the closest. I wasn’t there for a couple of shows in the spring and she was like, ‘Everything was wrong. I need you there’ (laughs). I think it was either Dreamville Festival or Something In The Water. I missed both of those, but, I can’t remember which one she hit me up after. She was not happy about her set at one of those two.
I was still on tour with Smi and she was like, ‘Where are you at?’ For her, it’s a comfort thing. She doesn’t like a lot of new people around her and I understand that. Some artists have a high turnover rate, they’re like a restaurant. They’ll have this new house engineer, this new tour manager. With her, once you’re in, you’re in, as long as you don’t fuck up. That was the biggest thing. It’s all about comfort when it comes to working with artists, especially with Solána (SZA's real name).
So, you were with her for 'The Championship Tour,' as well?
Yeah, we started 'The Championship Tour' and then, she fell off because of her vocals. She just needed to rest.
That was a big thing. Did her vocals progressively get worse until y’all decided to shut her down for a few dates?
Everyone inside of the camp saw it. You have to imagine, when CTRL dropped, she had just done a three-week Europe tour, [the] 'CTRL Tour' went from August 2017 - December 2017. Then, she went to Europe again and did shows with Bryson Tiller. Came back, finished the 'CTRL Tour' and then was doing nothing but one-offs. In those nine months, she went from doing maybe three to 10 shows a month to playing almost 21 or 22. It’s a lot physically and if you’re out there straining your voice every night, it wears on you. I don’t think she was taking the best care of her voice in the beginning. She obviously had to figure that out ASAP. Her stopping on 'The Championship Tour' was a good thing because her voice would’ve given out.
What was the most memorable show on that tour?
This wasn’t on the tour, it was a stop in between. It was this one-off at Hangout Festival in [May 2018], when Kendrick had the white girl come onstage to rap (laughs). SZA played earlier in the day and then Kendrick played. It was me, SZA, her personal assistant and her band ready to rage to Kendrick at the front of house. We’re out there, it gets halfway through, he brings the white girl up and she drops the N-bomb at least three or four times and we were rolling (laughs). Kendrick got on the floor of the stage cracking up like, ‘You have to chill.’
What's something about a SZA show that fans may not notice, but you think is impressive?
Her rehearsals are so serious. We just had these rehearsals in New York. I saw this drive in her that people don’t get to see. She wants her fans to be happy with her show. Especially, now that CTRL is two years old. I feel like a lot of people are like, ‘Where’s the new music?’ While that’s cooking, she’s still thinking of ways to change her set.
We had something crazy planned for Governors ball. Unfortunately, we got rained [on], but, she came in and was like, ‘Yo, I want to pay tribute to New Jersey, New York style music.’ It sucks no one got to see the set because she worked her ass off for it. People also don’t see her doing vocal warmups before the show. She’s there an hour beforehand warming up, getting ready, going through the motions. She’s very dedicated to it. I think her live show is just as important to her as her studio work.
What's on SZA's rider now?
We got a good rider with her (laughs). She always has fresh candles and flowers. She’s very much about vibe and ambiance. She has a humidifier for her voice. The band and I kinda get away with putting a couple of bottles of champagne and Hennessy in there. She's not a big drinker. It’s not too bad, man.
What song consistently got the biggest reactions at her shows during the 'CTRL Tour'?
‘The Weekend.’ Everyone knew ‘The Weekend’ was hot, but, I didn’t expect it to go the way it went. ‘Go Gina’ is a banger. The songs I thought people loved, but didn’t get enough shine, were songs like ‘Wavy.’ They had this mashup of old songs from [SZA’s EP] Z. I think it was ‘Child’s Play’ into ‘Wavy’ into something else off of CTRL that people loved live. I think we were in New York, at little, small 500-person Irving Plaza and Chance [the Rapper] came out for ‘Child’s Play.’ It was crazy.
Who was the biggest guest that came out at a SZA show?
[Kendrick Lamar] is always the biggest guest. We did Coachella and DOt coming out for ‘Doves in the Wind’ was mayhem. Dot moves fast. He comes in, gets out and then leaves the ground. Dot doesn’t hang around. Actually, one time we were at Staples [Center] and he was in the photo pit during our first three songs taking pictures. I’m like, ‘Yo, this is wild’ (laughs). Dot is amazing. He has enough time to pick up photography, my nigga (laughs).
What was something y’all did on tour together that was cool?
One of the coolest things we did was we all took a big hike in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia [before the Good Vibes festival in July 2018]. We went on the side of a mountain. It had monkeys and waterfalls coming around. We were all black Americans, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, hiking up a side of a mountain looking at a waterfall with her (SZA's) mom. It was a very beautiful, serene situation. It was one of the coolest experiences I had with her. This past June, for Governors Ball, it was my birthday weekend and we all went out for dinner and drinks.
What’s going with you for the rest of 2019?
Myself and a buddy from Chicago just started a company called No Guest List. It’s going to be an artist management/tour management/production company. I have an artist in Chicago named Elton Aura going out in September. I’m also doing a few dates with SZA and Smino, just one-off dates.
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