Rock the Bells
San Manuel Amphitheater
Better than ... your CD collection.
Earlier this week, rap's resident genius weirdo/"wackest rapper alive" Lil B performed at Hollywood's Freak City. Depending on who you ask, the venue/store either got swagged the fuck out, or earned its name. Fair bet most Rock the Bells' attendees would give you the side eye as they sniffed their agreement with the latter opinion.
The 8-year-old festival, which kicked off its four-city tour yesterday, hit upon an idea last year that made devoted golden-age hip-hop heads gaga: Recruit now-famous, edging-out-of-the-game rappers to perform their classic albums in their entireties. So Snoop Dogg did Doggystyle; A Tribe Called Quest,
The Low End Theory Midnight Marauders. This year, Nas performs Illmatic, Raekwon and Ghostface do Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, and Lauryn Hill takes on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
Inspired idea. How many times have you gone to a concert of your all-time, number-one favorite artist, excited to hear live the songs you know by heart, only to have them play a measly medley of those in favor of testing out all their "new shit"? With Rock the Bells the past two years, you've gotten precisely what you paid for.
If you're gonna sweat--and you are, it's San Bernardino in August--the San Manuel Amphitheater is a much lovelier setting than last year's NOS Events Center. Standing in the pit of the main stage at 1:30PM waiting for Black Star to perform still felt like baking on a pizza stone, but at least the view was pleasant.
There was plenty of time to stare off into the distance, because the hills were not alive with music. When Black Star, set to begin at 1:30, hadn't appeared onstage twenty minutes later, the crowd began to stir. "Come ON!" someone shouted, and a chorus of boos seconded the sentiment. By 2:30, it was obvious the duo was either gonna take it wayyy back and make this a real hip-hop show (set times? What are those?), or just plain not gonna show.
They didn't, although they arrived later and were squeezed in between Cypress Hill and Erykah Badu's slots, but their tardiness set a precedent. Surprising, considering the past couple of years, both Rock the Bells and Paid Dues, Guerilla Union's spring hip-hop fest, were to-the-minute prompt.
You just can't see everybody at Rock the Bells, so here are our highlights. And yes, we were in the minority who chose to stay for Lauryn Hill instead of joining the mass exodus to watch The Chef cook up Cuban Linx with the ever-entertaining Ghostface, but guess what? We don't regret it.
Unlike his fellow "conscious" rapper (remember when it was cool to claim you preferred those?) Mos Def, Common's charisma onstage hasn't quite translated to the big screen, though he's trying his best. Understandable--to quote David Banner, "This rap money's ok, but you should see these movie checks." And rappers eventually retire, right?
Shame, because live, Common is one of the most likable MCs we've ever seen. With a perma-smile, he jumped into "Go" and referenced his old beef with Ice Cube in a typically good freestyle.
Though he was scheduled to do Be, the 2005 record produced primarily by Kanye West, he snuck in a few oldies. Diehard Dilla fans' hearts thumped with "Thelonious," a track off another of Common's classics, Like Water for Chocolate; and everybody's head was bobbing during "I Used to Love H.E.R.," the song that sparked both the beef with Cube, and Common's career.
It wasn't a completely old-school party, even if Mississippi's Big K.R.I.T. (King Remembered in Time) wore a shirt that seemed to sum up the festival's mantra: "If it doesn't touch my soul, I can't listen to it."
The rapper/producer released his album K.R.I.T. Wuz Here in May 2010 and pretty much sealed the allegiance of purists with a line from his single "Children of the World": "They ain't after K.R.I.T/I guess I didn't swag enough/stupid Fruity Pebble chain Louis bag enough."
They are now, though. Yesterday, he showed why. With the smell of BBQ appropriately overwhelming the weed, K.R.I.T.'s molasses-thick accent charmed the crowd into "fuckin' with their country cousin, mayne." He's right--the sun was beatin' down just like it does in the Deep South, and SoCal's car culture can get with K.R.I.T.'s candy car ode, "Rotation." Ain't that much difference between Cali and the Dirty, y'all.
You don't have to be a smoker to enjoy NOLA rapper Curren$y. In fact, watching him sober means you might enjoy him more. The prolific Hot Spitta continues to defy the notion that stoners are lazy by popping out an album or mixtape every couple of days (barely hyperbolic). He's also more comfortable and animated onstage every time we see him.
He amble-danced his way through a whole mess of songs, including "Elevator Music," "Michael Knight," "#jetsgo," "Bout It," "King Kong," and "Lemon Kush," performing them all in his signature "start a song, then cut to finish the verse a cappella" style.
But Spitta's adlibs are the best. A sampling of yesterday's:
"Anytime you don't wanna clap, just light a joint--it's the same thing."
"They really spent some money on the sound system!"
"I would appreciate a water--I speaketh, and it appeareth."
"Put one up 'cause Trademark, Roddy and I are dressed like Easter."
[We just found out that when Curren$y hopped offstage into the crowd to greet fans after his performance--another signature--he broke his foot. Smoke it off, Spitta.]
Does Nas age? Sauntering onstage, which was styled with backdrops of the Queensbridge Houses, wearing baggy black cargo pants, a black t-shirt, chain, and sunglasses, he still looked like the 19-year-old who recorded Illmatic. No need to discuss nor debate the status of that album. Nas spoke, and it was good.
If any show felt like a true throwback, it was his. With DJ Premier hyping the crowd, AZ and Pete Rock joining Nasty onstage, Ron Artest suddenly appearing, brandishing a bottle of Grey Goose, and a throng of his (admittedly famous) posse lining the stage, it was the feel-good set of the festival.
Though she shared top billing with Nas and Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill held the final time slot of the night. Likely, the festival figured they'd alleviate the traffic crush by placing Nas before Hill, whose reputation as a live performer keeps getting mud slung at it. But maybe performing one of the best, most important albums of all time, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, would wipe a little of that off.
Last year, she appeared at Rock the Bells as a "special guest," and, though we defended her, we also noted that her voice was occasionally ragged. Much of our assessment stands, though in thigh-high boots, a flippy black skirt, and silky blouse, last night she looked great, classy. Tearing into "Lost Ones" viciously, she started strong. She wasn't holding the mic, and kept flinging glances back at her band and backup singers. Her hands were wild birds. But it felt, at first, like an old Tina Turner performance, albeit one in fast forward.
I wanted her to win. Midway through "Ex-Factor," I realized I was clutching my heart. She sounded good, when her head wasn't whiplashing backwards or offstage and away from the microphone, but something was off energetically. If only she would hold the mic, just so her hands would stop for a second.
"Come on, come on, come ON!" she prodded her band before "Forgive Them Father." The frantic nature of her performance finally worked as she chanted, "I want more, more, more," before jumping, literally, into The Fugees' "Fu-Gee-La." She continued with "Ready or Not" and "Killing Me Softly," but only when she called Nas out for "If I Ruled the World" did people start to bound towards the stage.
And the best show we saw? No contest:
Erykah Badu walked onstage looking like, as a friend said, "Abraham Lincoln" ... well, if Lincoln had donned a gold chain headdress adorned with furry blue pom poms under his top hat and glued on gold talons for fingernails. A pied piper floated around the stage playing a long flute. Ledisi was singing backup. That's how bad this set was.
If there's a singer more comfortable onstage than Badu, we'd love to see it. A serene smile on her face, she teased the crowd with a "thank you, good night" after a couple of songs. She looked sweet as a schoolgirl, but then she'd turn sultry, switching her hips. And she was always a little sassy. "The Roots sent me this song. I don't know who I was talkin' about. Andre, probably," she tossed off before launching into "Sometimes,"
poking fun of her reputation as a rapper muse and referencing her affair with Outkast's Andre 3000.
To say much more would be gushing. "This is crazy as hell, runnin' this whole Baduizm like this," she said. Now that's our kinda crazy.
Like all the other hip-hop heads, we left reciting lyrics we memorized in high school, high off the trip down memory lane, tired but happy.
But walking to our car, we suddenly heard the paranoiac pulsing of Tyler the Creator's "Yonkers." Looking back towards the amphitheater, we saw the source--a few kids in a pitch-black parking lot, car windows open, bodies hunched over and convulsing.
It was the most exciting song we heard all day.
Personal bias: Shit, we could do this every weekend. Aight?
Overheard in the crowd: "Yo, check out my cd."
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Random notebook dump: Airhorns in Lauryn Hill's set--heads are gonna roll. Ron Artest hahahahahahaaa. ERYKAH. Is this the first gold chain Spitta's worn since his Cash Money days??
Hey, just go read them off the CD jackets.
[See more photos in our slideshow "Rock the Bells @ San Manuel Amphitheater"]