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Graham: Drake, Eminem and the economy of concert cameos

Eminem’s guest appearance at Drake’s concert this week proved the power of superstar concert cameos

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Within seconds of Eminem stepping on stage with Drake at Joe Louis Arena this week, news of his appearance had gone global.

The cameo was ready-made to rock the internet: Not only did it involve two of rap’s biggest superstars, but it put to bed speculation that the two were embroiled in a feud, chatter about which had lit up discussion in the hip-hop world for several weeks.

Eminem and Drake performed "Forever" to a surprised, sold-out crowd at Joe Louis Arena Tuesday night.

It also cashed in on the currency of surprise guests at live concerts, which in recent years has become its own economy.

Concert fans love a good surprise appearance: They can say they were there the night so-and-so brought out Artist X (and document it on social media, thereby giving them bragging rights over their friends).

It’s also a huge win for the artists involved. In the Drake and Em case, Drake can flex and say he came to Detroit and brought out the city’s biggest figure. (He’s been making a habit of bringing out massive hometown heroes of late, including Kanye West in Chicago and LeBron James in Cleveland.)

For Eminem — whose public appearances are few and far between — it’s an endorsement of Drake, a way of saying, “look, I don’t do this often, but this is worthy of my time.” It’s also a way to get his name out there during an otherwise low-key period; the fact that there was a storyline behind the appearance only added to the explosiveness of it all.

Eminem’s last local concert appearance was when he appeared with Big Sean during Sean’s November 2015 concert at Joe Louis Arena — a feather in the cap of Sean, who was able to say he’s ascended to the level where he can bring out Em at his show.

Kid Rock, left, is backstage with Lionel Richie at DTE Energy Music Theatre in Clarkston in 2014.

Guest spots are often more casual. When Kid Rock came out at Kenny Chesney’s Ford Field concert last weekend, it made a big party even bigger. Kid Rock is the local king of live cameos: Over the years, he’s done pop-ups at shows by Hank Williams Jr., Tim McGraw, Big & Rich, Bob Seger, Lynyrd Skynyrd, J. Geils Band, Zac Brown Band, Martina McBride, Black Eyes Peas, Sheryl Crow, Steve Miller Band, Lionel Richie and more. (If you haven’t been to a concert Kid Rock has shown up at, you’re not trying hard enough.)

Artists have been popping up at each other’s shows for ages, like when Bob Seger lent Bruce Springsteen a hand during “Thunder Road” at Crisler Arena in 1980, but those instances weren’t commonplace. That started to change when rappers made guest appearances a staple at live shows, with Jay-Z forever upping the ante when he brought Michael Jackson on stage with him at New York’s Summer Jam concert in 2001. Now it’s almost a letdown when a major act doesn’t bring anyone out with them; even Gwen Stefani had Blake Shelton join her when she performed at DTE Energy Music Theatre last month.

Singer-songwriters Taylor Swift, left, and Mary J. Blige perform onstage during Taylor Swift The 1989 World Tour Live in Los Angeles.

The real vanguard was Taylor Swift, who turned artist cameos into a cottage industry on last year’s “1989” World Tour. Each stop on the tour featured a surprise special guest, from Pitbull in Miami to Justin Timberlake in Los Angeles to Mick Jagger (!) in Nashville. (In Detroit, we got Dan Reynolds from Imagine Dragons — does Swift not like us?)

Those guests helped Swift’s tour make news every single night. A local tour stop doesn’t make news outside of that market unless something unusual or newsworthy happens; special guests are newsworthy, and Swift found a way to make waves on social media and in the news every time she put on a concert.

And that’s the key: Get people talking. Eminem and Drake could have issued a joint press release saying they had no qualms with each other and been done with it. But by appearing together in concert, they created a moment that benefits them and those in the audience, while fans worldwide take notice and hope their concert is the next one to shake the globe.

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Twitter: @grahamorama