Welcome to the wasteland: A night of drill rap in Overture Hall

Moral quandaries, broken phones, and too many openers at an oddly executed Lil Durk and Famous Dex show.

Famous Dex wanders the audience in a mostly empty Overture Hall. Photo by Michael Penn II.

Famous Dex wanders the audience in a mostly empty Overture Hall. Photo by Michael Penn II.

On November 18, Lil Durk and Famous Dex came to Overture Hall—the biggest room in the Overture Center, with a capacity of 2,255—for a stop on the Twisted Wasteland tour, bringing different shades of Chicago to arguably the most overwhelmingly white space you can find in downtown Madison. It was difficult not to guesstimate how many squad cars were on site—one with some dog locked away in the backseat. But it was easier to guess why the Overture Center's staffers—white folks young and old, from the box office to the ushers to the backstage crew—were generally confused. A bartender told me the heavy security presence was a relatively new policy Overture implemented months before the prospect of a drill show, and that Twisted Wasteland was the first-ever rap show in that hall. Despite my fantasy of hundreds of Black bodies in single-file outside the Overture, disrupting the downtown bubble that cradles the other Madison to rest, the security vastly outnumbered the attendees.

When the 8 p.m. showtime rolled around, there were no more than 300 or so bodies in the 2,255-seat theatre, with ticket prices matching the ambience quite handsomely, ranging from $25 in the top row to $150 on the ground. A DJ kicked off the show with a purple stage light beaming into the dark abyss, and started spinning the expected assortment of club hits and Internet gems. By the end of the show, everyone was in the pit together, meaning a cheap nosebleed ticket nearly guaranteed an upgrade down into the abyss anyway.

As if the dark comedy of hearing Lil Yachty in a room intended for a run of The Lion King weren’t enough, the first two of 15 scheduled acts didn’t show—the first symptoms of what would prove to be a long evening of dissonance.

OK, Dexter

After a few early fights and a security mishaps requiring everyone with wristbands to trade for a tour lanyard, I secured an impromptu interview with Famous Dex, a rising 23-year-old Chicago native who’s growing his clout via the proven virality of a zany, quickstrike flavor of trap that’s relentless and infectious. He’s faced intense backlash over a leaked tape of him beating his ex-girlfriend in a rental property owned by Bronx artist Tish Hyman, but nothing seemed to loom over his energy that night: In our conversation, he was soft-spoken, personable, and kept thanking God for his blessings while considering his path to success as an alternative to the trappings of the Chicago he came from. Draped in Bape (granting himself the nickname BapeSter,) Dex spoke on the presidency, on being a role model to children, and staying consistent in the digital age (video by Devan Marz):

It was undeniably surreal to watch a small cluster of Black women meet Dex center stage to fight over a T-shirt he threw into the crowd. Later in the set, Dex stepped down into the crowd, commanding that no one look at him, and proceeded to turn up in an aisle, causing a frenzy of cameras and phones alike. Whoever was here for him, he set on giving them the turn up they paid for. Dex gyrated and leaned in front of the cameras, and even his DJ surpassed the hype level at times.

But Dex's show begged the question of how one balances their celebrity with the pitfalls of their humanity. While Dex—like most rappers caught in a scandal surrounding abuse-—has managed to maintain his trajectory, can he truly become a role model one day by overcoming the toxicity of his upbringing and changing his ways after amending his mistakes? Furthermore, by not asking him about the tape during our interview, did I become a complicit cog in the filthy machine of the industry I knew all too well?

Ballad of the broken phone

Lil Durk arrived with about 25 people in his entourage—all pulling up in Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Vans—and turned the wings of the stage into a star-studded mess, where performers and fans alike gathered with their phones. Durk blended into his entourage, commanding everyone to clear the stage or he wouldn’t perform. This pushback was short-lived, as during his set there were over 50 people on stage at any given time, trying to get as close as they could.

Somewhere in the 30-minute set—which spanned hits like “Who Is This” and “Dis Ain’t What U Want”—a member of Durk’s entourage tossed a random phone several rows out into the audience, causing Durk to turn around and chastise him in a near-fight position before finishing his set.

The phone in question belonged to a taller teenage boy, around 15 or so, who scoured the aisles with his cousins to find it, though it was long gone the moment the random man threw it for no reason. “Has anybody seen my phone?” he said, dejected. The kid and his friends ended up backstage by the grace of a security guard who promised to do what she could to get them to meet Durk and ask about replacing it. As the young man’s tears welled up, a member of Durk’s team placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder and calmly consoled him as they waited in a scuffle of random VIP meet-and-greet guests. After four minutes inside, lingering guests overheard that Durk gave the boy $400 out-of-pocket to get a replacement and took pictures with him and his cousins.

Overload

There’s a massive, yet quiet irony in hearing drill music bellowing in the depths of a cavernous theater: It's a soundtrack of the street, amplified across a porcelain hall sealed away in its own darkness. Low turnout aside, the surreal energy of hearing someone rap about catchin’ an opp lackin’ on the same stage as The Book Of Mormon is still fucking incredible to fathom.

As Madison continues to grapple with its past suppression of its own bubbling local rap scene, outlier events like this one simply make no sense—they need to be seen to be believed. It was like living in a 3.5-hour episode of Atlanta. Almost every rap-show trope was present and accounted for in the context of a historically white space in the middle of Wisconsin. I witness so many of said tropes, in fact, that they’re best described in bullet-point form:

  • Hypebeast kids jockeying for pictures and chances to smoke with their favorite rappers.
  • Six people crowding the DJ booth.
  • A woman taking her heels off mid-Durk performance but leaving one on before a song ends.
  • Lil Durk doing a mannequin challenge, during which I held my notepad on-stage like a fucking nerd.
  • Too many openers, some of whom didn’t even show.
    • A woman argued with a man—whose jersey didn’t come all the way down past his belly—before hitting the man’s friend, who later retaliated by mushing her violently into the ground.
    • After she hit the other man, I stumbled in the way of the portly jersey-donning man in an effort to get the fuck out the way and not get hit unnecessarily.
  • A rapper played between Dex and Durk to no crowd response.

The whole evening ended just as strangely and indecisively as it began. Another rapper who entered the building at the same time I did—with a few hundred dollars in one hand and a bottle of Luc Belaire Rare Rose in the other—performed after Durk ended, with the house lights on and only the four people he came with in the audience. Visibly annoyed, he called out to the room (which sounded like calling out to God): “Man, where my bottle of Rose at, man?”