The 20 greatest hip-hop tours of all time Our ranking, inspired by all the great rap acts on the road this summer, is 100% correct

Look around and it might feel like we’re in a golden age of rap tours.

Rhyme greats De La Soul recently finished a European tour billed The Gods of Rap with the legendary Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan and Gang Starr’s DJ Premier. And the summer concert season is set to feature even more high-profile hip-hop shows.

West Coast giant Snoop Dogg is headlining the Masters of Ceremony tour with such heavyweights as 50 Cent, DMX, Ludacris and The Lox. Lil Wayne is doing a string of solo gigs and will launch a 38-city tour with pop punk heroes blink-182 starting June 27. Stoner rap fave Wiz Khalifa will headline a 29-city trek on July 9. The reunited Wu-Tang Clan continue their well-received 36 Chambers 25th Anniversary Celebration Tour, and Cardi B will be barnstorming through the beginning of August.

With all this rap talent on the road, The Undefeated decided to take a crack at ranking the 20 greatest hip-hop tours of all time.

Our list was compiled using several rules: First and foremost, the headliners for every tour must be from the hip-hop/rap genre. That means huge record-breaking, co-headlining live runs such as Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s On the Run II Tour were not included, given Queen Bey’s rhythm and blues/pop leanings. We also took into account the cultural and historical impact of each tour. Several artists, ranging from Run-DMC and Salt-N-Pepa to MC Hammer and Nicki Minaj, were included because they broke new ground, beyond how much their tours grossed. For years, hip-hop has battled the perception that it doesn’t translate well to live performance. This list challenges such myopic ideas.

With only 20 spots, some of rap’s most storied live gigs had to be left off the list. Many were casualties of overlap, such as Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys’ memorable 1987 Together Forever Tour and the Sizzling Summer Tour ’90, which featured Public Enemy, Heavy D & the Boyz, Kid ’n Play, Digital Underground and Queen Latifah. The 12-date Lyricist Lounge Tour, a 1998 showcase that featured Big Punisher, The Roots, De La Soul, Black Star, Common, Black Moon’s Buckshot and Fat Joe, also just missed the cut.

You may notice that Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. are missing from the list. But this was no momentary lapse of sanity. ’Pac’s and Biggie’s brief runs took place when rap shows were beginning to become a rarity, leaving most of their memorable stage moments to one-off shows. Dirty South royalty Outkast’s strongest live outing, when Big Boi and Andre 3000 reunited in 2014, was not included because it was less of a tour and more of a savvy festival run.

There are other honorable mentions: Def Jam Survival of the Illest Tour (1998), which featured DMX, the Def Squad, Foxy Brown, Onyx and Cormega; the Ruff Ryders/Cash Money Tour (2000); Anger Management 3 Tour with Eminem and 50 Cent (2005); J. Cole’s Dollar & A Dream Tour (2013); and Drake’s Aubrey & The Three Migos LIVE! tour (2018).

With that said, on with the show!

20. Pinkprint Tour (2015)

Nicki Minaj, featuring Meek Mill, Rae Sremmurd, Tinashe and Dej Loaf

The most lucrative hip-hop trek headlined by a woman also served as the coronation of Nicki Minaj as hip-hop’s newest queen. What made The Pinkprint Tour such a gloriously over-the-top affair was its seamless balance of dramatic Broadway-like theater, silly high jinks and a flex of artistic ferocity. One moment Minaj was in a black lace dress covering her eyes while mourning the loss of a turbulent union during “The Crying Game.” The next, she was backing up her memorable appearance on Kanye West’s “Monster” as the most wig-snatching guest verse of that decade. And the Barbz went wild.

Gross: $22 million from 38 shows

Kendrick Lamar performs during the Festival d’ete de Quebec on Friday, July 7, 2017, in Quebec City, Canada.

Amy Harris/Invision/AP

19. The Damn. Tour (2017-18)

Kendrick Lamar, featuring Travis Scott, DRAM and YG

When you have dropped two of the most critically lauded albums of your era in Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2012) and To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), there’s already an embarrassment of riches to pull from for any live setting. But Kendrick Lamar understood that to live up to his bold “greatest rapper alive” proclamation he also needed populist anthems to turn on the masses. The Damn. album and world tour presented just that, as he led his followers each night in an elevating rap-along. It kicked off with a martial arts film, a cheeky nod to Lamar’s Kung Fu Kenny alter ego, before launching into the chest-beating “DNA.”

Gross: More than $62.7 million from 62 shows

Drake and Future performing on stage during The Summer Sixteen Tour at AmericanAirlines Arena on Aug. 30, 2016 in Miami.

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18. Summer Sixteen Tour (2016)

Drake and Future

This mammoth, co-headlining tour was a no-brainer: Drake, the hit-making heartthrob, Canada’s clap-back native son and part-time goofy Toronto Raptors superfan. And Future, the self-anointed Atlanta Trap King, gleeful nihilist and producer, whose slapping, codeine-addled bars made him a controversial figure on and off record. The magic of this yin/yang pairing shined brightest when they teamed up to perform such tracks as “Jumpman” and “Big Rings” off their industry-shaking 2015 mixtape What a Time to Be Alive. When the smoke settled, Drake and Future walked away with the highest-earning hip-hop tour of all time.

Gross: $84.3 million from 54 shows

From left to right, Sandra ‘Pepa’ Denton, DJ Spinderella and Cheryl ‘Salt’ James perform on stage.

17. Salt-N-Pepa Tour (1988)

Featuring Keith Sweat, Heavy D & the Boyz, EU, Johnny Kemp, Full Force, Kid ’n Play and Rob Base

It may seem preposterous in this outspoken, girl-power age of Cardi B, Lizzo, Megan Thee Stallion, Kash Doll, Young M.A, Tierra Whack and City Girls, but back in the early ’80s, the thought of a “female” rhyme group anchoring a massive tour seemed out of reach. That was before the 1986 debut of Salt-N-Pepa, the pioneering group who’s racked up a plethora of groundbreaking moments and sold more than 15 million albums. The first female rap act to go platinum (Hot, Cool & Vicious) and score a Top 20 hit on the Billboard 200 (“Push It”), Salt-N-Pepa led a diverse, arena-hopping showcase that gave the middle finger to any misogynistic notions. And Salt, Pepa and DJ Spinderella continue to be road warriors. They’re currently on New Kids on the Block’s arena-packing Mixtape Tour.

Encore: Opening-act standouts Heavy D & the Boyz would co-headline their own tour the following year off the platinum success of their 1989 masterpiece Big Tyme.

16. Glow in the Dark Tour (2008)

Kanye West, featuring Rihanna, N.E.R.D, Nas, Lupe Fiasco and Santigold

Yes, Kanye West has had more ambitious showings (2013-14’s button-pushing Yeezus Tour) and more aesthetically adventurous gigs (the 2016 Saint Pablo Tour featured a floating stage, which hovered above the audience). But never has the Chicago-born visionary sounded so hungry, focused and optimistic than he did on his first big solo excursion, the Glow in the Dark Tour.

Before the Kardashian reality-show level freak-outs and MAGA hat obsessing, West was just a kid who wanted to share his spacey sci-fi dreamscape with the public, complete with a talking computerized spaceship named Jane. Even the rotating opening acts — topped off by the coolest pop star on the planet, Rihanna — were ridiculously talented.

Gross: $30.8 million from 49 shows

15. I Am Music Tour (2008-09)

Lil Wayne, featuring T-Pain and Keyshia Cole

Between 2002 and 2007, Young Money general Lil Wayne was hip-hop’s hardest-working force of nature, releasing an astounding 16 mixtapes. Then Weezy broke from the pack with the massively successful I Am Music Tour. The bulk of Lil Wayne’s 90-minute set was propelled by his career-defining 2008 album Tha Carter III, which by the show’s second leg had already sold 2 million copies. By the time T-Pain joined the New Orleans spitter for a playful battle of the featured acts, Lil Wayne’s takeover was complete.

Gross: $42 million from 78 shows

MC Hammer, performing on stage in 1990, had a large entourage for his Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em Tour.

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14. Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em Tour (1990-91)

MC Hammer, featuring En Vogue and Vanilla Ice

With 15 background dancers, 12 singers, seven musicians, two DJs, eight security men, three valets and a private Boeing 727 plane, MC Hammer’s world tour was eye-popping. Rap fans had never seen anything of the magnitude of the Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em stadium gigs, which recalled Parliament-Funkadelic’s army-size traveling heyday in the 1970s.

Each night the Oakland, California, dancing machine, born Stanley Burrell, left pools of sweat onstage as if he was the second coming of James Brown. If the sight of more than 30 folks onstage doing the Running Man, with MC Hammer breaking into his signature typewriter dance during “U Can’t Touch This,” didn’t make you get up, you should have checked your pulse.

Gross: $26.3 million from 138 shows

13. Things Fall Apart! Tour (1999)

The Roots

Each gig was a revelation. This was no surprise given that Philadelphia hip-hop collective The Roots, formed by longtime friends drummer Questlove and lead lyricist Black Thought, had a reputation for being unpredictable. Still, it’s ironic that a group known for being the ultimate road warriors — they were known for touring 45 weeks a year before becoming the house band on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2014 — is represented on this list by one of their shortest tours.

But the brilliant Things Fall Apart club and hall sprint, which took place throughout March 1999, proved to be an epic blitz fueled by the band’s most commercially lauded material to date, Questlove’s steady percussive heart and the inhuman breath control of Black Thought.

Encore: Neo soul diva Jill Scott, who co-wrote The Roots’ breakout single “You Got Me,” gave fans an early taste of her artistry as she joined the band onstage for some serious vocal workouts.

12. House of Blues’ Smokin’ Grooves Tour (1996)

The Fugees, Cypress Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, Ziggy Marley and Spearhead

While gangsta rap was topping the charts, the hip-hop industry faced a bleak situation on the touring front. Concert promoters were scared to book “urban” acts in large venues. Enter the House of Blues’ Kevin Morrow and Cara Lewis, the booking agent who achieved mythic status when she received a shout-out on Eric B. & Rakim’s 1987 anthem “Paid in Full.” The pair envisioned a Lollapalooza-like tour heavy on hip-hop and good vibes. The first ’96 incarnation came out of the gate with Haitian-American rap trio The Fugees, multiplatinum weed ambassadors Cypress Hill, A Tribe Called Quest and Busta Rhymes.

Encore: The series, which has also featured Outkast, The Roots, Lauryn Hill, Gang Starr, The Pharcyde, Foxy Brown and Public Enemy, is credited with opening the door for a return to more straight-ahead hip-hop tours led by Jay-Z, DMX and Dr. Dre.

Kanye West (left) and Jay-Z (right) perform in concert during the Watch The Throne Tour, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011, in East Rutherford, N.J.

AP Photo

11. Watch the Throne Tour (2011-12)

Jay-Z and Kanye West

In better times, Jay-Z and Kanye West exhibited lofty friendship goals we could all aspire to, with their bromance popping on the platinum album Watch the Throne. Before their much-publicized fallout, Jay-Z and West took their act on the road for the mother of all double-bill spectacles.

Two of hip-hop’s greatest traded classics such as the ominous “Where I’m From” (Jay-Z) and soaring “Jesus Walks” (West) from separate stages on opposite sides of the venue. Those lucky enough to catch the tour can still recall the dream tag team launching into their encore of “N—as in Paris” amid roars from thousands of revelers.

Gross: $75.6 million from 63 shows

10. The Miseducation Tour (1999)

Lauryn Hill, featuring Outkast

In 1998, Lauryn Hill wasn’t just the best woman emcee or the best emcee alive and kicking. The former standout Fugees member was briefly the voice of her generation as she rode the multiplatinum, multi-Grammy success of her solo debut The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. By February 1999, it was time to take the show on the road. Hill and her 10-piece band went beyond the hype, especially when they tore through a blistering take of the heartbreaking “Ex-Factor.”

Encore: Outkast (Atlantans Andre 3000 and Big Boi) rocked the house backed by some conspicuous props, including two front grilles of a Cadillac and a throwback Ford truck, kicked off their own headlining Stanklove theater tour in early 2001.

9. No Way Out Tour (1997-98)

Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, Lil’ Kim, Ma$e, Busta Rhymes, Foxy Brown, 112, The Lox, Usher, Kid Capri, Lil’ Cease and Jay-Z

The Los Angeles Times headline spoke volumes: “Combs to Headline Rare Rap Tour.” Combs, of course, is Sean “Diddy” Combs, the music, fashion, television and liquor mogul who Forbes estimates now has a net worth of $820 million. But back then, the hustler formerly known as Puff Daddy was struggling to keep his Bad Boy Records afloat after the March 9, 1997, murder of Brooklyn, New York, rhyme king The Notorious B.I.G.

But out of unspeakable tragedy rose Combs’ chart-dominating No Way Out album and an emotional all-star tour. Despite suggestions that large-scale rap shows were too much of a financial gamble, Puffy rallied the Bad Boy troops and a few close friends and proved the naysayers wrong. The No Way Out Tour was both a cathartic exercise and a joyous celebration of life. “It’s All About the Benjamins” shook the foundation of every building as Combs, The Lox and a show-stealing Lil’ Kim made monetary excess look regal. And the heartfelt Biggie tribute “I’ll Be Missing You,” which was performed live at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, had audiences in tears.

Gross: $16 million

Rap stars, from left, Redman, foreground, DMX, Method Man and Jay-Z join host DJ Clue, background left, in a photo session on Jan. 26, 1999, in New York, after announcing their 40-city Hard Knock Life Tour beginning Feb. 27, in Charlotte, N.C.

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

8. Hard Knock Life Tour (1999)

Jay-Z, featuring DMX, Redman and Method Man

Jay-Z stands now as hip-hop’s most bankable live draw. In 2017, the newly minted billionaire’s 4:44 Live Nation production pulled in $44.7 million, becoming America’s all-time highest-grossing solo rap jaunt. It’s a long way from the days of Jay-Z lumbering through performances in a bulletproof vest when he was last off the bench on Puff Daddy’s No Way Out Tour.

Surely the seeds of Jay-Z’s evolution as a concert staple were first planted on his Hard Knock Life Tour, which was documented in the 2000 film Backstage. This was a confident, full-throated Shawn Carter, and he would need every ounce of charisma, with Ruff Ryders lead dog DMX enrapturing fans as if he were a Baptist preacher at a tent revival and the duo of Redman and Method Man rapping and swinging over crowds from ropes attached to moving cranes. What a gig.

Gross: $18 million

Flavor Flav (left) and Chuck D (right) of the rap group Public Enemy perform onstage in New York in August 1988.

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7. Bring the Noise Tour (1988)

Public Enemy and Ice-T, featuring Eazy-E & N.W.A. and EPMD

There has always been a controlled chaos to a Public Enemy live show. Lead orator Chuck D jolted the crowd with a ferocity over the intricate, combustible production of the Bomb Squad while clock-rocking Flavor Flav, the prototypical hype man, jumped and zigzagged across the stage.

DJ Terminator X cut records like a cyborg and never smiled. And Professor Griff and the S1Ws exuded an intimidating, paramilitary presence. Armed with their 1988 watershed black nationalist work, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, an album many music historians consider to be the pinnacle hip-hop statement, Public Enemy spearheaded arguably the most exciting rap tour ever conceived.

Encore: Along for the wild ride was the godfather of West Coast rap, Ice-T, who was putting on the rest of the country to Los Angeles’ violent Crips and Bloods gang wars with the too-real “Colors.” N.W.A. was just about to set the world on fire with their opus Straight Outta Compton. Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren and DJ Yella unleashed a profanity-laced declaration of street knowledge that was instantly slapped with parental advisory stickers. And Erick and Parrish were making dollars with their rough and raw EPMD joint Strictly Business.

6. Nitro World Tour (1989-90)

LL Cool J, featuring Public Enemy, Eazy E & N.W.A., Big Daddy Kane, Too $hort, EPMD, Slick Rick, De La Soul and Special Ed

In early ’85, LL Cool J was a 16-year-old rhyme fanatic living in his grandparents’ Queens, New York, home. Three years later, the kid who became Def Jam Records’ signature artist with his iconic B-boy manifesto Radio was the most successful solo emcee on the planet with more than 4 million albums sold and counting. LL Cool J was also headlining some of the hottest events of rap’s golden era. And he was at his cockiest love-me-or-hate-me peak during the Nitro Tour.

But not even LL Cool J was ready for the monster that was N.W.A. The self-proclaimed World’s Most Dangerous Group completely hijacked the spotlight when N.W.A. was warned by officials not to perform their controversial track “F— the Police” at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena. A minute into the song, cops stormed the stage and shut down Eazy-E and crew’s volatile set, a wild scene that was later re-created in the 2015 N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton.

Encore: A few months before the Detroit gig, N.W.A. was booed during a Run-DMC show at New York’s Apollo Theater. “We all had watched Showtime at the Apollo, so we all knew if it went bad what was gonna happen,” Ice Cube explained on the Complex story series What Had Happened Was … “We hit the stage, and as soon as they saw the Jheri curls, all you heard was ‘Boo!’ I mean, before we even got a line out, they was booin’. I guess they just wasn’t feeling the Jheri curls.”

Rappers Christopher “Kid” Reid and Christopher “Play” Nolan of Kid ‘n Play perform onstage during “The World’s Greatest Rap Show Ever” on Jan. 3, 1992 at Madison Square Garden in New York.

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5. The World’s Greatest Rap Show Ever (1991-92)

Public Enemy, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Geto Boys, Kid ’n Play, Naughty by Nature, A Tribe Called Quest, Leaders of the New School and Oaktown’s 3.5.7.

Props to the promoter who put together this awesome collection of hip-hop firepower for a tour that at least aimed to live up to its tagline. What stands out the most was the early acknowledgment of rap’s reach beyond the East and West coasts. The significance of including Houston’s Geto Boys, for instance, cannot be overstated.

Scarface, Willie D and Bushwick Bill carried the flag for Southern hip-hop, winning over skeptical concertgoers with their raw dissection of ’hood paranoia, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” which had become a favorite on Yo! MTV Raps. Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince proved they could still rock the house with PG-rated material. (It helped that Will Smith had just begun the first season of NBC’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.) Queen Latifah busted through the testosterone with the empowering “Ladies First.” And Naughty by Nature frequently knocked out the most crowd-pleasing set of the night with their promiscuous anthem “O.P.P.”

Encore: The World’s Greatest Rap Show Ever made its Jan. 3, 1992, stop at New York’s Madison Square Garden less than a week after nine people were fatally crushed at a hip-hop charity basketball game at City College of New York. Before Public Enemy’s powerful message of black self-determination, Heavy D, an organizer of the doomed event, made a plea for unity. Fans were certainly listening. The gig was a resounding, peaceful triumph.

LL Cool J performs at the Genesis Center in Gary, Indiana in December 1987.

Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

4. Def Jam Tour (1987)

LL Cool J, Whodini, Eric B. & Rakim, Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew, and Public Enemy

From 1986 to 1992, New York’s Def Jam Records was the premier hip-hop label. Its roster of artists, which included Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, EPMD and Slick Rick, was unparalleled in range and cultural dominance. So when it came time for partners Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin to spread the Def Jam gospel on its first international tour, the imprint’s biggest star, LL Cool J, was chosen to lead the way. And he didn’t disappoint.

James Todd Smith strutted out of a giant neon boombox sporting a Kangol hat, dookie rope gold chain and Adidas jacket. Of course, that jacket would soon be thrown to the floor as a shirtless Ladies Love Cool James tore through his ’85 single “Rock the Bells” as if it were the last song he would get to perform.

For many overseas, their first taste of American rap also included DJ Eric B. & Rakim, who were killing the streets with their 1987 masterpiece Paid In Full. Almost overnight in Germany, France, Norway and the Netherlands, hip-hop became the new religion.

Encore: This was the first proper world tour for Public Enemy, who had just dropped their 12-inch single “Rebel Without a Pause.” Although they were the opening act, Chuck D and his posse stole the show, establishing their standing as global behemoths. The now-legendary show at London’s Hammersmith Odeon can be heard throughout It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

The Up In Smoke Tour in 2000 was a dream team bill, headed by producer Dr. Dre and featuring Eminem, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and more.

Photo by Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

3. Up In Smoke (2000)

Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Eminem, Tha Dogg Pound, Warren G and Nate Dogg, and Xzibit

As over-the-top, profane spectacles go, the Up In Smoke Tour has few rivals. Detroit’s Eminem stormed the stage wearing a red jumpsuit with “County Jail” stitched on the back. Ice Cube, before being joined by his Westside Connection cohorts, Mack 10 and WC, emerged from a cryogenic chamber. Hennessy-sipping and weed-toking Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg rode out in a hydraulically juiced lowrider. There was a 15-foot talking skull!

The multimillion-dollar stage design put the concert industry on notice that not only could rap shows attain the lavish production values of the best rock shows, they could surpass them. It was also an emphatic statement that the largely West Coast rap dignitaries knew how to throw a party. And there still isn’t another hip-hop song that matches the first 20 seconds of Dre’s “Next Episode” in concert.

Gross: $22.2 million from 44 shows

2. Raising Hell Tour (1986)

Run-DMC, featuring LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys and Whodini

There’s a reason Run-DMC is hailed as the greatest live hip-hop act of its era. They understood that less is always more. Because of their stripped-down beats and rhymes, the group amplified the genius of every aspect of their concert presentation up to 11. Jam Master Jay’s scratching was more thunderous than the other DJs on the 1s and 2s. Run’s pay-me stage presence commanded respect. And D had the throat-grabbing voice of God. They wore Godfather hats, black jeans and shoelace-less Adidas sneakers. The Hollis, Queens, crew was the personification of cool.

LL Cool J was just 18 during the Raising Hell Tour, but he was coming after Run-DMC’s crown every night. The hotel-wrecking Beastie Boys co-piloted rap’s bum-rush into Middle America, scaring parents wherever they landed. And Whodini brilliantly straddled the line between electro funkateers and around-the-way dudes representing BK to the fullest.

As “Walk This Way,” Run-DMC’s genre-shifting Aerosmith collaboration, exploded on the pop charts, vaulting the Raising Hell album to 3 million copies sold (the first hip-hop album to go triple platinum), ticket sales followed. The 45-city tour affirmed hip-hop’s cultural takeover.

Encore: The image of Joseph Simmons commanding 20,000-plus fans to hold up their sneakers during a performance of “My Adidas” at a New York show is still a surreal sight.

1. Fresh Fest (1984)

Kurtis Blow, Run-DMC, Whodini, The Fat Boys, Newcleus & the Dynamic Breakers, New York City Breakers, Turbo and Ozone

Ricky Walker had an idea: The concert promoter wanted to put together the first national rap music and break-dancing tour. In 1984, hip-hop had moved on from its underground beginnings in the Bronx. Run-DMC had just dropped their self-titled debut, and their “Rock Box” became the first rap video to received play on MTV. Breakin’, the first break dancing movie to hit the big screen, pulled in nearly $40 million at the box office on a minuscule $1.2 million budget. Walker saw the future.

He called New York impresario Simmons to tap some of his Rush Productions talent, which included heartthrob Brooklyn trio Whodini, rap’s first solo superstar Kurtis Blow, the comedic Fat Boys and, of course, the hottest hip-hop act in the country, Run-DMC. But when it came time to promote the first show, billed as the Swatch Watch NYC Fresh Fest Festival, in Greensboro, North Carolina, Walker was laughed out of the room by a radio ad man.

Rap was still viewed by many record industry power brokers as a passing fad. In a 1985 interview with Billboard magazine, Walker recalled the salesperson pleading with him. “You’re a friend of mine,” he said. “Can’t I talk you out of doing this show?”

Walker’s instincts, however, proved to be dead-on. Fresh Fest moved 7,500 tickets in four hours. The tour, which also featured some of the best street dancers on the planet, such as Breakin’ stars Boogaloo Shrimp and Shabba Doo, as well as the synth funk-rap group Newcleus, not only did brisk business at mid-level venues but also sold out 20,000-seat arenas in Chicago and Philadelphia. Like the pioneering rock ‘n’ roll shows of the ’50s conceived by Cleveland radio DJ Alan Freed, the Fresh Fest proved that rap could be a serious and profitable art form. The rest is hip-hop history.

Gross: $3.5 million

LeBron James’ official DJ talks LBJ’s influence on music, the Midwest and more Steph Floss is the unofficial mayor of Cleveland

Cleveland native DJ Steph Floss texts me Wednesday morning that he’s outside my downtown hotel. Steph is a voice of the city, a longtime resident mixshow DJ on Z 107.9 who holds the dual distinction of being the official DJ of both his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers and the team’s biggest star, LeBron James. His portfolio includes having spun at events for Jay-Z, Barack Obama, NIKE, Beats by Dre and a who’s who of A-list clientele with residences in cities all across the United States and into Canada. And from 2009-14, he was named Ohio’s Best Club DJ.

It’s hours before the Cavs’ heartbreaking Game 3 loss. A defeat that makes Friday night’s Game 4, a potential closeout game for the Golden State Warriors, all the more sobering. No one knows what to expect this offseason with James’ future with the Cavaliers — not even Floss, one of James’ closest friends. Or if he does, he’s not breaking his poker face.

Floss agreed to show me around his city for the day. It’s game day, so the first stop might just be the most important: the barbershop. En route to Supreme Barber and Salon in Cleveland Heights, Floss opens up about his love of travel. Perspective, he says, is key to developing a true appreciation for the world around you. He’s traveled the world for work, DJ’ing at clubs and stadiums around the world, and for pleasure. The opportunity is a testament to both his own work ethic and the blessings in his life.

“‘Bron’s authenticity comes from the fact he really knows and loves music. It’s not fake.”

It’s been 15 years since his life as a DJ began on the campus of The Ohio State University on a marketing and operations scholarship. But music and the joy of entertaining crowds are seeds that had been planted far earlier. He credits the movie Juice, both for the late Tupac Shakur’s presence and, in particular, Omar Epps’ role as Q. “He was a young, fly dude. He’s DJ’ing. He got the nice little older babe,” Floss laughs while looking for parking. “He commanding the crowd. He’s cool and he’s out here. I’m like man, you know, I love music as well. Maybe that’s something I could do, but my mother would never buy me the equipment. She was like, ‘You not ’bout to have all that and be loud up in my house!’ ”

We pause that conversation and head into the barbershop. As is the case for most black men, it’s a safe space for Floss. He knows everyone. Everyone knows him. Demaris cuts his hair. Swiss lines me up. The conversations range from the upcoming Cleveland Browns season and the uncanny but fitting buzz in the city about the team and his overhaul of talent this offseason. Then there’s a completely random and hilarious homage to former New York Knicks and Houston Rockets head coach and current NBA commentator Jeff Van Gundy. “Jeff wanted all the smoke!” said a patron while discussing Van Gundy’s willingness to throw himself into NBA brawls.

After about an hour, Floss and I leave. The conversation picks back up where we really dive into his come up, how the Cleveland Cavaliers came calling and his kinship with LeBron James.

So how did this Steph Floss story ultimately begin? Where do the roots begin?

When I was in high school, a group of friends of mine, we used to throw parties. We were like 15 years old throwing parties and making good money. We would call ourselves all kinds of stuff, like Platinum Plus. But, you know, we had other people that was part of the collective as well. I wasn’t DJing at the time, but we used to throw the craziest little high school parties. (Floss attended Benedictine High School.) We’d have thousands of people there. It was insane. Me and Rich [Paul, founder of Klutch Sports and LeBron James’ agent], went to the same high school together. That’s how we met each other.

“One of the first times I’ve ever DJ’d in the Q was a Cavs playoff game. It was like an Eastern Conference finals game. It was some wild game! I held it down.”

I love school. I still love learning and I still love education. When I was in school, I was out here. I was in the nightlife and kicking it and partying. Hanging out and having fun. But I was also really into my books as well. Once I went to Ohio State, I said I have this scholarship and I don’t really wanna mess this scholarship so I’m gonna focus on my studies. But I needed to make some money.

I don’t have to pay for school, but I wanna make some money. And I don’t want to work a ‘job’ because I don’t want that to take away from my classes and sleep. I said, you know what? I always wanted to DJ. We had been throwing parties. So I’m just finally teaching myself how to DJ. I get the [equipment] and get busy. I’ve been wanting to DJ since I was like 8 years old.

Floss used money from the refund checks he received while at OSU to buy equipment. For Floss it was all about believing the part so others would too. The easiest way to do that? Release a mixtape. While on summer vacation after his freshman year, Floss built a makeshift studio in his mom’s basement. He set it up like a karaoke bar. The mic hung from the pipes in the ceiling and, as one would expect, the sound quality left much to be desired. “It was one of the best mixtapes I’ve ever done,” he says with a smile.

It was the closest Floss felt, at the time, to being like the DJ Clues, DJ Absoluts and the Funkmaster Flexes of the world, all of whom he cited as inspirations. But his first big moment came on campus after that summer. After his showing at a cookout at OSU’s Hale Black Cultural Center, the ladies of Delta Sigma asked him to DJ their big campus party known as the “Icebreaker.”

“They were like, ‘How much do you charge?’ I was like, ‘Uh, $150?’ ” says Floss. He didn’t know how much to charge because prior to them he had never been paid. “The first party I ever DJ’d was the biggest party at Ohio State. I think I did a decent job despite my equipment kept cutting off because it was overheating. I had my dudes with me. I had them fanning the amp while I’m DJ’ing for the rest of the night. I eventually got everything rolling, and the rest is kinda history.”

We’re pulling up at Beachwood Mall, an upscale shopping center in suburban Cleveland, when we transition to life after Ohio State.

How did the Cavs and LeBron come into the picture?

I was still living in Columbus. I would travel back and forth [to Cleveland] because we had a nightclub called The View that started popping up here. That was one of the dopest nightclubs ever. We had a crew called 8081 that we started doing the parties under. My guy Kelton, my guy Smallz, Meel, Mo, myself, Rich. They hit me up like we got this party Sunday night that we’re about to start doing. I would travel back and forth from Columbus to Cleveland and do the party. The first couple of nights it wasn’t making no money, but I saw something in it and I liked being home. I stuck with it. It ended up being one of the best decisions that I’ve made. Everybody that started off, right now we’re all brothers. Only thing that could make us closer is blood.

So I was doing that party and at the time my guy Mick Boogie was DJ’ing for the Cavs. I was part of his DJ crew, the League Crew. Mick didn’t talk on the mic, but I would talk on the mic when I was DJ’ing so I could host as well. Mick knew that, and he asked me to come host a party for him because his host was MIA or something. I was like, ‘Cool, yeah, I’ll come do that.’ I hosted the party and I kept doing it. As a result, me and Mick got closer and closer and I became part of the League Crew. It was me, Mick, Terry Urban and DJ Fresh.

Mick would do the Cavs games, so some games he’d just take me with him. I just noticed how he would be DJ’ing the games. The kinda music he’d be playing early in the games as opposed to late in the games as opposed to pregame.

It got to a point where these are Cavs games and they’re popping. I was basically coming to these games for free. What I started doing is I started getting to the games early to solidify I’m gonna get there and I would hook Mick’s equipment up. He’d come in and basically just be able to plug and play. I was very familiar with everything. Then Mick decided he wanted to move to New York. During this time, my relationship with ‘Bron became stronger and stronger. The whole crew, really. All of our relationships became stronger. Around this time, we had went to the Finals in 2007. At that point, we had all been around each other for some time. It’s crazy. Mick decided he wanted to move to N.Y. during the playoffs. He was outta there because he had a gig in N.Y. The Cavs needed a DJ for one of the playoff games, and Mick was just like, ‘Can you do it?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah I can do it!’

One of the first times I’ve ever DJ’d in the Q was a Cavs playoff game. It was like an Eastern Conference finals game. It was some wild game! I held it down. It’s crazy because I was never nervous or anything like that. The time came for the new season, and it made the most sense [to hire me]. It was a real process to interview and all that.

Obviously, you’re working with the Cavs. LeBron’s LeBron. But how did you all grow to become so close?

Aight, so I met ‘Bron via Rich, but of course if you’re from northeastern Ohio you knew who LeBron James was. But we also had other mutual friends, and I remember they came down [to OSU]. ‘Bron was real cool with Maurice Clarett at the time, and that was my guy at Ohio State. Him and ‘Bron were seen as the next two superstar athlete friends that were gonna [dominate the NFL and NBA]. We met via all of these different channels and became cool. Then everybody just started advancing in their careers.

A lot of times people think since ‘Bron is like my brother, they think he’d be like, ‘That’s my guy, he’s gonna be DJ’ing.’ Nah, it didn’t work like that. ‘Bron is my guy, but I worked my way into it. I don’t get it anywhere near as much now, but at first it was like, ‘You just got that because of ‘Bron.’ I’m like, actually, I was going to Quicken Loans Arena setting up equipment early just to make sure I was in the arena so I could watch the game.

You’ve been doing this for 10 seasons?

This is how I count my years. Well, I was here for two years with ‘Bron. Then ‘Bron was gone four years and I was still here. Now he’s been back four years. So that’s 10. Then I sit back and think like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy. It’s been 10 years.’ It’s been a roller coaster. Some super highs and some lows, but we still here and it’s been beautiful.

It’s in and out in Beachwood for Floss. We’re roughly six hours away from tipoff, and he still has to run by his office downtown at Spaces and Co., drop off some used clothes at the Goodwill, get a run in (he’s an avid runner) and grab a bite to eat. But you can’t have a name like ‘Floss’ and not be fresh. He runs into Next, a trendy apparel store with a hilarious sales expert named Trice who, as she dubs it, is “serving looks” all day.

After shopping and talking for nearly an hour, Steph ultimately decided on a deep pink champion hoodie and orange Carrots T-shirt. Trice jokes about pulling up the game tonight and Steph’s after-party at Lago, which overlooks Lake Erie. As we make our way back to Steph’s car, the topic of LeBron comes up. As with James, a notoriously caring person for those he considers his closest friends, Floss speaks highly of the four-time MVP.

He’s achieved success without LeBron. He’s made a name for himself without LeBron. But make no mistake about it, Floss’ appreciation for James’ friendship and the opportunities he’s helped make happen just through remaining true to each other is limitless.

“‘Bron’s put everyone in his crew to be successful without him,” Floss says while throwing his recently purchased items in the trunk. “That’s the best thing about him.”

Is it fair to call you “LeBron James’ official DJ?”

It was at a point when ‘Bron was in Miami. We’d go down to Miami and ‘Bron would be like, ‘You know how crazy it is that you’re the Cavs’ official DJ and my official DJ still?’ We would be joking and laughing about it, but as I’ve gotten older with nightclubs and everything [putting that] on publications and flyers — it’s in my bio and all of that stuff — they’ll send me over a flyer and it’ll be like ‘DJ Steph Floss—official DJ of LeBron James.’ I tell them you gotta take that man’s name off. You gotta put “Cleveland Cavaliers” because that man is the biggest entity in sports. Flat out. A lot of people try to finesse. Regardless how good I am or whatever, people are gonna try to finesse more people to the club or finesse a LeBron James situation at their event via that tagline.

You’re gonna try to make other people believe ‘Bron is coming out when he is not coming out. I’m the one that’s spinning! There’s been times where I popped up in a city and the Cavs have had a game and I had a gig. ‘Bron didn’t even know, and he’ll hit me up like, ‘What spot you at tonight?’ He’ll be like, ‘Cool, I’ll fall through.’ Or he might be like, ‘I’ma just chill.’ The club owner and the promoter’s mentality for a lot of spots are trying to capitalize and put some butts in the seats.

It gives people a false hope that everywhere you are LeBron is gonna be there.

That’s not fair to you. That’s not fair to him. That’s not fair to me. I’m not giving you that false hope! Like I said, in my younger years, yeah you can put that on there. That’s cool. But now I’m like nah, you gotta pay for that. You gots to pay for that!

What makes it so unique about LeBron that he’s so effortlessly entrenched in hip-hop culture?

The fact he’s from northeastern Ohio, as we all are, we’ve always had to pull from different coasts and different eras from music. I honestly think, and no disrespect to anybody else, Midwest DJs, and especially Cleveland DJs, are some of the best in the country. It’s because we’ve never really had a run for real. We’ve had Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, but it’s a lot of areas with DJs who’ve had runs. Like Atlanta. They’ve had a crazy run, so their DJs could just play all Atlanta music during the set and they’ll be fine. West Coast, always have a run! New York had a run! Chicago, they’re Midwest, but Chicago had a run. Texas, they’ve had runs. New Orleans too! But we always had to know music from everywhere! If you hear a set from me or another Cleveland DJ, you’re gonna be like, ‘Yo, how do they know this?’ It’s because we have to. We couldn’t rely on just playing Bone all night! Or Ray Cash. You just can’t rely on playing our artists’ music because we never had a run of that magnitude.

Like with ‘Bron, we grew up listening to a lot of West Coast music. Especially those guys in Akron. They had ties with The Bay area, like E-40, Yukmouth, Too Short and people like that. Around here, man, we listen to a lot of West Coast music growing up. I was like the biggest Spice 1 and MC Eiht fan. We used to love that. We also have a huge connection with Texas with our music and their music. Their culture is kinda like us, and we’re kinda like them with the old-school cars and a lot of slang. Then, of course, we’re not far from the East Coast. You’d love the Biggies, the Jay-Zs. I grew up loving Mobb Deep. You would’ve thought I was from Queensbridge: Mobb Deep, Nas, AZ. I listened to everything!

So ‘Bron’s authenticity comes from the fact he really knows and loves music. It’s not fake. It’s not like I’m just gonna put this song on my IG because this is what’s poppin’. This is what I like. You may like it or you may not, but this is what I’m listening to and this is what I think is poppin’. I think the artists understand that. He really knows his music.

His IG stories are basically the new listening sessions.

It’s an A&R-type situation! You’d be surprised how many people have asked me, ‘Can you get big homie this joint?’ I’m like, ‘That’s awkward, man!’ (laughs) Like I understand it, but it’s like I’ll tell him to listen to it and if he likes it he does what he does with it. It’s been times I’ve told LeBron such and such sent me the album early and I’ll send it over to you. He’ll listen to it and he actually liked the album, but he didn’t put anything up on his story. You can’t use him though. I’m letting you know the man liked the album. It is what it is. That’s what is authentic about him. And he has a good ear.

After a quick bite and a few more errands, we part ways until it’s time to link back up at Quicken Loans Arena for Game 3. As if the crowd needs any more reason for creating a raucous environment, Steph runs through a litany of high-energy hits: Ayo & Teo’s “Rolex,” Jeezy’s “Win,” Diddy’s “Victory,” Lil’ Reese, Rick Ross and Drake’s “Us (Remix)” and the modern-day holy grail of hip-hop motivational sermons in Meek Mill’s “Dreams & Nightmares (Intro).”

Unfortunately, all the energy in the world, yet another LeBron triple-double and a breakout performance from Rodney Hood wasn’t enough, as Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors inched one step closer to defeating the Cavs for the third time in the past four seasons. With the game ending closer to midnight, Steph lamented the moments missed in the game that could’ve turned Friday night’s Game 4 into a potentially series-tying contest. The night might have been over closer to midnight when the game ended. But for Floss, his night is only halfway done. He’s leaving work to go back to work for an after-party about a mile away.

It’s a grind he’s dedicated his life to since the days of poor-quality mixtapes at Ohio State. Just like LeBron, in his 15th season as well, Floss doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.