Our Rock the Bells road trip began promisingly: left for San Bernardino early, avoided traffic. We'd maintained a cool objectivity all week, but now were free to exclaim over the lineup, a mix of ones-to-watch (Yelawolf, Wiz Khalifa) and ones-to-worship (Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang Clan). It was a good day.
And then, less than half a mile away from home base, NOS Event Center, we wrecked into a police motorcycle.
The cops (seven cruisers, a fully-staffed firetruck, and a crime-scene photographer showed up for what was, fortunately, a barely damaged bike) were actually cool. We left with a cosmetically-damaged car, but no citations. Jokingly, I said, "Hey, we just fucked the police!"
Somewhere, the ghost of Daryl Gates laughed. You should not, as it turns out, even joke about fucking the police.
The car started smoking, and the engine died. By the time we got off the freeway, had the car towed back to L.A., and got to the festival, it was 5 PM.
What else could go wrong? Driving home, we got a speeding ticket. Hip-hop lesson? Cop karma ain't nuthing ta fuck wit.
After too much ado, the highs (besides the herbal contact ones) and lows of Rock the Bells:Lowlights
• The mirage-making heat. Can they move this thing up, or back, a month? New York and D.C. aren't picnic-weather months in August, either.
• The trash-talking that commenced immediately after Lauryn Hill's performance. We aren't receptive to change, especially not in our idols. But very few things are more detrimental to an artist than stagnancy; regression is even preferable as it at least indicates movement. Ms. Hill is a gifted artist, and has been the recipient of its blessing as well as victim of its curse. Give her a break-- it's immature and unrealistic to expect the L Boogie of 1998 to appear in the same form twelve years later.
• The late Ol' Dirty Bastard's son Boy Jones' hairstyle. We understand you wanted to make sure people knew who you were, but replicating ODB's signature crazy dreads was a bit much.
• The video skits in Snoop's performance. Unless you happened to be in front of the stage, these were just dead air time. If the crowd waited twelve hours in desert-like conditions for a surprise Dr. Dre appearance, it better be live, not on a screen.
• Lauryn Hill was not that bad. Contrary to some recent reviews, she wasn't late, and she actually sang songs the audience wanted to hear, notably "X-Factor," "To Zion," and "Fu-Gee-La." In a sequined black caftan, thick ropes glittering around her neck, she was an enthusiastic performer, physically matching her band's energy. Unfortunately, the band often overwhelmed her vocally, though that might be intentional. Given the rugged, rumbly quality of her voice over ten years ago, it's now occasionally ragged. She repeatedly punched notes, letting the reverb, as opposed to vocal power, carry them. When in mid-range, though, as on the hook of "Ready or Not," she sang with ease.
• "We could do three classic albums," Q-Tip declared at the top of A Tribe Called Quest's set, "but we are going to do this one." But Tip loves the stage, so they didn't just do Midnight Marauders. They leapt forward to their last album, The Love Movement, with the J Dilla'ed "Find a Way," and backwards to their first, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, with the audio dope of "Bonita Applebaum." Busta Rhymes and Jarobi joined Phife, Tip, and Shaheed onstage, and when Shaheed dropped the beat and the horns announced "Check the Rhime," Tribe suddenly became just the boys kicking' routines from back in the days on the boulevard of Linden.
• When the entire Wu-Tang Clan swarms the front of the stage, RZA's beats drone, weed smoke swirls, and a crowd of 25, 000 presses in on you, you feel as if you might be inside a beehive. Proving they take to heart RZA's insistence that "hip hop should be fun," the crew just looked like they were having a good time. Laughing, dancing, and spitting such insane verses you have to hold your own head steady, Wu-Tang put on the show of the night.
• Snoop Dogg's come a long way from the terrified-looking kid in the video for 1993's "Nuthin' But a G Thang": He's now a veritable showman. The headliner strolled onstage to "Gin and Juice," outfitted in the same Pittsburgh jersey he wore in the video (he soon ditched the jersey, revealing Cali regalia, a full khaki suit), with his hair in throwback pigtails. He's in practice, so he sounds almost the same as he did nearly 20 years ago. The Doggfather was on home turf, and he brought out lots of friends-- Daz Dillinger, Lady of Rage, the wildly underrated Kurupt, RBX, and Warren G. In quick succession, a fan was carried out, another collapsed, and a third crumpled, but Snoop, the grand marshal of this blazed and dazed parade, just smiled benevolently and danced.