This year marks the 10th anniversary of Rock the Bells. The hip-hop festival made its name by organizing the final performance of Wu-Tang Clan's nine members before Ol' Dirty Bastard died at the end of 2003. Since then, it has gone through many changes, from briefly expanding to a national tour spread across a dozen or so cities, to bringing on Nas as an investor. Critics have long complained that it's a "true school" showcase dependent on classic hip-hop, and not reflective of current trends. They'll have a tough time making a similar argument this year.
This year's edition, spread across Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C., features an astounding 70+ acts. (Most will perform at all four events, though some are exclusive to a particular city, like Wale in D.C.) There are old-school heroes like KRS-One and Rakim; '90s superstars like E-40, Too Short and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony; and current chart-toppers like Kid Cudi, A$AP Rocky, J Cole and Kendrick Lamar. All regions are represented, including the Dirty South (Juicy J), the Midwest (Common), the East Coast (Action Bronson and Joey Bada$$) and the West Coast (Odd Future's Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt). There are backpack rappers (Brother Ali) and street rappers (Chief Keef). There's even a little R&B via Jhené Aiko and The Internet, and electronic music with mashup king Girl Talk and drum 'n' bass duo Chase & Status. It appears that every modern variant of hip-hop culture is represented.
How this inclusiveness works out in practice remains to be seen. With the L.A. performances already complete, it seems like the Wu-Tang Clan's partial reunion at the top of the bill is questionable. Raekwon and Ghostface Killah didn't show up in Los Angeles, and it's unclear if they'll be on the rest of the tour. And will the fans who want to see the Clan have patience for YG's ratchet anthems? But what's Rock the Bells without a little controversy? Besides, there's plenty of quality hip-hop on the rest of the bill, as this exhaustive, four-hour playlist proves.