The live summer blockbuster Rock the Bells has lasted nearly 10 years by catering to the notion that "classic" and indie rap acts keep the flame of real hip-hop alive. It's clearly a fantasy, but the fault lines remain Southern rapper David Banner left the 2007 tour after the audience greeted him with boos on a few dates. For better or worse, it's still known as the old-school festival.
Still, no other event -- save smaller packages like Atlanta's A3C Festival (which assembles a better range of regional styles) and L.A.'s indie-leaning Paid Dues Festival -- offers a comparable experience. Unfortunately, stereotypes persist that rappers show up late (or not at all) to concerts, put on uninspired performances and often incite gang violence. Acclaimed headlining sets by Eminem at Lollapalooza and Kanye West at Coachella are just two recent examples that disprove this misconception. But there's enough random evidence, including Big Boi's guileless recent cancellation at San Francisco's Outside Lands fest despite Tweeting pics of himself backstage, to fuel the perception. Perhaps that's why people embrace Rock the Bells with such irrepressible enthusiasm: it's a chance for artists without the selling power of Eminem or Kanye to get their festival moment, too.
During last weekend's San Francisco Bay Area date at Mountain View's Shoreline Amphitheatre (on Saturday, August 27, one of four tour stops this year), the dividing line between performer and fan was deliciously narrow. Blu sold advance CD-Rs of his forthcoming Warner Bros. album, NoYork, and snapped pictures with groups of admirers. I saw Kosha Dillz and VerBs hawking CDs, too, while K-the-I??, 2Mex, Luckyiam and Planet Asia negotiated for backstage access. One dude wore a massive gold chain with a self-made Rock the Bells pendant; when I asked to take a picture, he posed while flipping me a middle finger. I took it as a sign of an endearment -- roughneck behavior is definitely welcome at Rock the Bells (within reason, of course).
The festival was sprawled across the main stage, the pavilion surrounding it, and the parking lot adjacent to the amphitheater. The pavilion itself was crammed with vendors hawking T-shirts and other swag, plus the Grind Time Now stage. (The culinary fare was a grisly mix of hot dogs and burgers -- no gourmet lobster dogs here.)
Worst of all, the Paid Dues stage (hosted by Murs, who cofounded the Paid Dues Festival with Rock the Bells promoter Guerilla Union) and the 36 Chambers stage (hosted by the RZA) were within 10 feet of each other in the parking lot. Imagine looking at two people standing side-by-side and yelling at you, and you can see how disastrous this arrangement was. Not only that, but many of the artists on these stages were scheduled at the same time. Slaughterhouse performed on Paid Dues while Black Moon tried to re-enact Enta Da Stage over at 36 Chambers; GZA was forced to re-enact Liquid Swords while Childish Gambino (an acclaimed blog-rap project from actor and comedian Donald Glover) blared away. This led to some hilariously poignant moments. "They're turning up their sound!" GZA yelled to his sound man. "We have to turn it up louder!"
With so much to choose from, I consumed Rock the Bells like a buffet menu, sampling a few tracks from each artist. Black Star and Common reprising "Respiration" was a highlight, as was Cypress Hill's "How I Could Just Kill a Man." When Big K.R.I.T. took the stage, the blunt smoke from the crowd was so thick that it wafted onto him like a smoke machine. Nas and DJ Premier's performance of "New York State of Mind" got me so pumped up that I could barely focus on shooting it. (I freely admit that I'm not much of a photographer.) Fashawn and Exile gave a surprisingly muscular performance of the former's Boy Meets World album, thanks to a full backing band.
The only full performance I saw was Ms. Lauryn Hill, who took the main stage only 30 minutes late. When she finally appeared, she looked beautiful in a frilly white blouse and long black skirt; her voice was ragged and choppy, and she clutched a black handkerchief throughout her set as if it were a security blanket. As she sang energetically, the band sounded trebly and loud: my left ear is still recovering from the unmodulated noise. They could barely keep up with her as she blew through The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. By the time she finished with an encore set heavy on Fugees classics like "Fugee-La" and "Ready or Not," the audience had dwindled down to a few hundred devotees. "She's the queen!" shouted Nas as they reunited for "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)." Lauryn, we still love you.