Tour Tales | Ronnie Stephenson talks working with Ne-Yo, JAY-Z, TLC, Cardi B and more
In this installment of “Tour Tales,” the tour manager discusses his duties on the “Best of Both Worlds Tour,” helping Cardi B reveal her pregnancy to the world, working with Ne-Yo and more.
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.’
Ronnie Stephenson has been a part of some of the biggest tours over the last 17 years. He’s done it all — from wrangling guests to join JAY-Z onstage, and making sure Usher’s suit was dry cleaned.
“TLC was my client for 10 years and everybody knows T-Boz has suffered from sickle cell, and had a brain tumor. So, we required oxygen because she would need oxygen after every show,” Stephenson shared with REVOLT. “It was the most important rider I’ve ever worked on.”
In this installment of “Tour Tales,” Stephenson discusses the infamous “Best of Both Worlds Tour” stop at Madison Square Garden, Cardi B revealing her pregnancy to the world, working with Ne-Yo and more.
How did you first link up with Ne-Yo?
I met Ne-Yo in 2006 with JAY-Z did his “Global Express Tour.” I was on that tour with JAY. I was a junior person on that tour, more of an assistant role. Ne-Yo opened up for JAY in Australia. That was the first time I met him. Then, I reconnected with him later that year on the “Screw Tour.” I was one of the promoter reps for that tour. From there, we started to work in an official capacity in the beginning of 2007 as he started the Because of You album.
What was the first tour you did with him?
The first tour was the “House of Blues Tour” for the Because of You album. Trey Songz was the supporting act and Drake was on the tour as a friend to Trey. At the time, we didn’t know Drake would become Drake. We just knew he was a friend of Trey. Once we saw his face again, we went, “Hold up. He was the one on the tour with us.” That was in 2007.
What Ne-Yo songs had the biggest reactions live?
It was always a different energy throughout the show. He would have his more sexier moment in the show where he would perform “Mirror” and “Say It.” Then, he would have the energetic portion of his show where he’d perform “Because of You,” “Sexy Love,” “Stay,” “Can We Chill,” and “Ain’t Thinking About You.” He had [an] act he was working with, at the time, and he would perform the song he wrote with Jennifer Hudson on the Because of You album. I think Jennifer came to one show and performed it with him.
How dedicated is Ne-Yo to his live vocals?
He doesn’t want anything that isn’t true and authentic to his voice. So, he wouldn’t want any sort of autotune or anything like that on his vocals. He’d rather not sound good than for autotune to make him something that he isn’t, vocally. He’s one of those old school artists where he doesn’t want too much help with his vocals live.
You offered special services on tour, as well.
I had a company that started called Stage Matters, which…was the First Nationwide network of laundromats and dry cleaners at the time in 2003. That company provided towels… and we ended up servicing Usher’s “Confessions Tour.” We serviced the “Best of Both World Tour” with JAY-Z and R. Kelly. We serviced a lot of the “Scream Tour.” It’s still around today, but we no longer do tours or the laundry and dry cleaning services because there was a bunch of liability with that such as quality control issues we had in certain markets.
How did it work?
We would work with the crew and provide a nationwide rate for the crew. So, at the time, it was $1 per pound. We would give each person on the tour a laundry bag, and then we would collect the laundry from them… For Usher on the “Confessions Tour,” he wore this white Georgio Armani suit and whenever they needed it dry cleaned, they would use our services and we would send it out to be dry cleaned. The same thing on the “Best of Both Worlds [Tour].” We would work with JAY and R. Kelly’s wardrobe people, so when they had their wardrobe that needed to be cleaned, they’d use our services.
I met his (Ne-Yo’s) people through me providing my company and my services. I met Kanye [West] and John Legend on the “Confessions Tour.” John Legend was on that tour as the piano player for Kanye. When Kanye did his first headlining tour for Late Registration, I went out on that tour with Stage Matters.
What was that “Global Access Tour” like with JAY?
We went all over Europe. We went to eight countries in Africa. That’s when he did the Water For Life [campaign]. It was only 20 of us for that and we flew in [a] private plane from Africa to Asia. Then, he ended the tour in Australia. Beyonce was on the whole tour and this was before they were married. Rihanna opened up in South Africa and was the supporting act in Australia. So, in Australia, Ne-Yo and Rihanna was there because this was the time when JAY was president of Def Jam. So, he was looking out for the acts he put on. That’s how I met Ne-Yo.
How dedicated is Hov to his show?
He cares about all the details. Lenny S was on the whole run with us. Lenny would help JAY put together the setlist of the music. Memphis Bleek was there. Green Lantern was his DJ at the time. JAY was involved in the video content, the lighting, the setlist. Nothing was happening that he wasn’t involved in. He’s a true artist and true businessman.
You’ve been in the touring world for decades. What shows did you have to save behind the scenes?
Oh yeah, that’s an easy one. In 2011, when they had the major earthquakes in Japan and they had the problem with the nuclear plant, and radiation levels spiked like crazy in Tokyo. Ne-Yo, who is so big in Japan, had shows scheduled within a week or two after that earthquake happened. Similar to now, everything in Japan was shut down. Ne-Yo said he wanted to go. He was like, “If there’s anyway I can go, and spread some light and love to these people.” When we went over there, I had to learn how to read radiation in order to make sure all of our people were not in any harm’s way.
We didn’t go to Tokyo because everything was shut down. But, we did a show in Yokohama and it was about 20-30 minutes outside of Tokyo. Every hour on the hour, I had the promoter send me a picture of the radiation levels. We traveled on the bullet train from Osaka, loaded in the show, Ne-Yo and the band members did a soundcheck, and did the show. The way we scheduled the shows was we never stayed overnight. We jumped right back on the bullet train and shot right back out of town.
Black professionals have a long history in the touring world and you’re also a part of Roadies of Color United, which highlights that. How has that been?
We did our first Roadies of Colors United conference this past February. It was basically a celebration of roadies of color. It was top black tour managers and people of color in all different areas of touring from so many different genres. We came together at the Evergreen Marriott, just outside of Atlanta, and we had panels. I sat on a tour manager panel alongside Bill Reeves, who was the production manager for Prince’s “Purple Rain Tour.” He’s production and tour manager right now for Anthony Hamilton. Bill is one of them cats. David Norman was one of the last tour managers for Prince before he passed, and he was on the panel. We had panels about production, audio, and even on active shooters, and how to respond if you’re at a show and you have an active shooter.
Lil Jon plays unreleased Usher track with himself and Ludacris in IG Live battle with T-Pain — Listen here
What are some of the most interesting riders you’ve seen?
I wouldn’t say this was the most interesting rider, but it was the most important rider. TLC was my client for 10 years and everybody knows T-Boz has suffered from sickle cell, and had a brain tumor. So, we required oxygen because she would need oxygen after every show. It was very specific medical equipment that we would require just to make sure she was good. Her manager was like, “We must have it for every show.” It was the most important rider I’ve ever worked on.
How’d you link with TLC?
The woman who I did the Ne-Yo shows with in Japan was friends with T-Boz. She booked them. Their first major show after Lisa [“Left Eye” Lopes] passed was in Japan. They didn’t have any sort of team or infrastructure. When they were putting it together, the booker who worked with the promoter in Japan, Tamayu, was like, “You know what? You have to meet Ronnie. He’s the best. He’ll take care of y’all.” So, I flew to Atlanta and we had a meeting at the W Hotel in midtown — me, T-Boz and Chilli. They told me what they wanted and how they wanted to come back. Then, I rocked with them for almost 10 years. That was an amazing journey seeing them rock concerts again because no one thought they could do it, just them two.
The show where people finally got it was when they did the Super Bowl Blitz show at the Beacon Theatre. VH1 was doing this concert series when the Super Bowl was in New Jersey…and they brought out Misty Copeland. That show was an amazing look.
What is the most memorable show you’ve ever been a part of?
The show that sticks out the most was the “Best of Both Worlds” [one] at Madison Square Garden when R. Kelly said they basically have the gun on me. JAY continued on with the show. All the people that came up, Usher, Mariah [Carey], Mary [J. Blige], we started bringing them from the audience backstage. That show was a three-hour show, and JAY and R. Kelly split the time. Lenny S was on the instant replay downloading music and loading it on the instant replay for everybody, and they put it together. It was crazy. I’ve been in the building for so many incredible moments.
I remember being in my hotel room that night and they were like, “Yo, JAY is on Hot 97 with Angie [Martinez] right now.” So, I turned on the radio and Jay was…telling her the whole story. After JAY finished, 45 minutes later, someone hit me like, “R. Kelly is about to be interviewed by Angie on Hot 97 right now.” I turned on the radio…I remember we didn’t know what was going to happen because they had four sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden and this was the first one. That’s when it became “JAY-Z & Friends.” R. Kelly didn’t do anymore of the shows.
How has the recent Coronavirus pandemic affected you?
Everything is shut down, so we have nothing. We may end up doing some online platforms… You’re starting to see artists doing these living room shows and stuff like that. So, I’m in conversations to produce some of those type of shows. The last three years, I’ve been spending most of my time with Cardi B. My company has been running Cardi’s touring and production… The last year, I was on the road with Cardi.
She didn’t really have a tour last year. How was it working on those shows?
They were amazing. She’s amazing. She cares about everything. She’s learned so much. Marsha St. Hubert (Atlantic Records’ vice president of urban marketing), Mike Kyser (Atlantic Records’ president of urban music), Julie Greenwald (Atlantic Records’ chief operating officer), and that team over there brought me on to run the production. They also brought Tanisha Scott on to be the creative director, and she’s amazing. We started with her as “Bodak Yellow” was climbing.
So, you were involved with her Global Citizens Festival show in September 2018?
Yep. That was her first show back after she had Kulture. She always gave attention and cares about everything. That’s why she’s a superstar.
How have you seen Cardi’s performances improve since you started working with her?
She learned. I’ve never seen it happen so fast for an artist. The first show Tanisha and I did for her was the 2017 BET Hip Hop Awards when she did “Bodak Yellow” She was learning. She was brand new to TV performances at that level. Then, we did the 2018 iHeartRadio Music Awards where she opened the whole thing with a medley and brought out G-Eazy with her. She’s grown so much. She didn’t know how to articulate everything she likes in terms of what type of pyro and lighting. Now, she knows how to articulate it. That’s been part of the growth. Her looks and wardrobe are always on point. She always makes sure her dancers are on point. She wants the dancers to be on the same scale as her in terms of how they look and how their wardrobe is. A lot of artists don’t take pride in that.
One of my highlights with her was “Saturday Night Live” in 2018 when she revealed her pregnancy. She cultivated that moment. She wanted to reveal her pregnancy a certain way. She did it her way. She has that thing about her that people gravitate to. Everything she does is covered by CNN and news networks. The rehearsals were short (laughs). The thing about “Saturday Night Live” is the stage is really, really, really small. So, you don’t really have a lot of space and time because the performances are short. It’s a different type of beats versus a Grammy performance when you’re on a huge stage. “SNL” was also the first time she performed with a live band, so we had to work through getting her comfortable with the live band. That was a special moment.