Rock the Bells Hip-Hop Festival

San Manuel Amphitheater

9/7/13 – 9/8/13

This weekend was the 10th anniversary of hip-hop festival Rock the Bells. Anticipated for its reunions, game changing new artists, and ODB and Eazy-E holograms, it was two days for hip-hop fans and artists to connect. Still, we wish things had gone better.

Even aside from the (unavoidable) blazing heat and clouds of dust following everyone around like Pig-Pen, it was poorly run…

Event staff was often unable to answer our questions, and security continually changed their minds about whether or not our press credentials were valid in certain areas. Set times were changed without notice.

Attendees weren't notified when Action Bronson was switched out in favor of Fashawn, and there were many, highly noticeable technical difficulties during the biggest sets. To top off, it took over an hour to get out of the parking lot Sunday night.

Still, there were a number of performances that stood out, and here are reviews of five of those sets.

Bone Thugs-N-Harmony / Eazy-E; Credit: Max Bell

Bone Thugs-N-Harmony / Eazy-E; Credit: Max Bell

Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Eazy-E hologram

Saturday marked the 20th Anniversary of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, a group from Cleveland that became became gigantic, particularly in L.A. Bone Thugs' popularity on the West Coast is no doubt partially due to their initial deal with Ruthless Records, co-founded by the late Eazy-E, who would've been celebrating his 50th birthday on Saturday.

Though they have nearly two decades of material, Bone Thugs knew the audience wanted to hear the hits. “1st of Tha Month” and “Days of Our Livez” followed “Thuggish Ruggish Bone,” and the chronically-sated crowd exhaled plumes of enthusiasm. Still, anticipation mounted for the billed Eazy-E hologram.

After “Resurrection (Paper, Paper)” — three quarters of the way through the set — Bone Thugs brought out former N.W.A. DJ/producer DJ Yella. That's when hologram Eazy beamed down to the sound of “Real Muthaphuckkin G's,” pacing between the quintet members. In his trademark Compton hat and khaki pants, with his digital jerri curl dripping pixels, hologram Eazy performed his verse on “Straight Outta Compton” and part of “Boyz-n-the-Hood.”

The hologram Eazy also rhymed on the Bone Thugs classic “Foe the Love of $,” but vanished immediately after his verse. Bone Thugs essentially closed their fantastic set with their Eazy-E tribute, “Tha Crossroads.” From the voices singing along in the audience, it was clear everyone felt the hologram, much like the long deceased Wright, was gone too soon.

Danny Brown

With his DJ/producer Skywlkr behind the turntables, Detroit's Danny Brown took the stage in the sweltering heat of the mid-afternoon, looking cool in his all-black designer threads, from neck to boots. Brown wasted no time launching into “Molly Ringwald,” one of the hardest hitting odes to redheads in recent memory, and bouncing as though there were tightly coiled springs in his boots.

From beginning to end, the sweat-drenched Brown had the crowd near riotous: jumping, pushing, and shoving. Innumerable water bottles shot off like geysers. While the Adderall Admiral spit rhymes in his perfected high-pitched inflection, several people crowd surfed their way to the base of the stage.

Rock the Bells; Credit: Timothy Norris

Rock the Bells; Credit: Timothy Norris

As Brown continued to propel his Gumby-like figure around, his Muppet mane flopping back and forth, it became clear how much his music resonates with people. There was the XXX smokers-anthem “Blunt After Blunt and, for the harder drug users ,there was the Darq E Freaker produced “Blueberry (Pills & Cocaine).” The twerkers had “Express Yourself.”

Really, Brown's music might be the near perfect synthesis of rap, trap, and EDM. It's playful and fun, yet has the potential to be menacing and dangerous. It's the peak of your high when a bad trip is still a possibility.

Curren$y; Credit: Max Bell

Curren$y; Credit: Max Bell


We'll say it: Curren$y's set was intoxicating, appropriate for a man who prefers the highest quality medicinal strains, and throughout the set, blunts burned to our left and blunts burned to our right. There were joints in front of us and joints in back of us, and even a few pipes making the rounds.

For some reason, Curren$y seemed possessed by the spirit of Chris Tucker's character Smokey, from Friday. His mannerisms and his delivery shuttled between self-aware comedy and the impassioned voice of a neighborhood insider. And whether it was a track from his last solo mixtape New Jet City, his Ski Beatz produced album Pilot Talk I, or even the track “Elevator Music,” Curren$y seemed to be saying one thing: “I'm going to get you high today.”

Given the mellow and unassuming nature of Curren$y's music, we initially thought his set would be laid-back. Yet Curren$y brought incalculable energy, and the New Orleans native ranked among the best Rock the Bells performers on Saturday night.

Juicy J; Credit: Timothy Norris

Juicy J; Credit: Timothy Norris

Juicy J

After E-40 and Too $hort left the stage folks started chanting: “Juicy J, Juicy J, Juicy J.” Then, before he took the stage, he picked up the mic to tell the audience to “light [their] weed up.” It was the calm before the ratchet rapture.

Juicy opened with tracks from his latest solo album Stay Trippy, which Jeff Weiss has called the “ratchet Thriller.” Then he decided to give those who've only recently started listening to his music a “history lesson,” dropping Three 6 Mafia tracks like “Stay Fly” and “Poppin' My Collar.”

After that it was back to anthemic cuts like “Bounce It” from Stay Trippy and “Riley” from Juicy's 2011 mixtape Blue Dream and Lean. As we watched the set, we couldn't help but notice how many audience members were rapping every lyric. We're fairly sure no one missed a word of his platinum selling-single “Bandz A Make Her Dance.”

Unfortunately, half way through the set the sound was temporarily cut. He then rapped a cappella and clapped the beat with the audience until the sound was fixed. At times Juicy whispered lines he normally shouts. It was as though his brand of trap rap had become the calming campfire song to keep the restless scouts in line.

With the sound back, the crowd got turnt up again. Though he brought out A$AP Rocky for “Scholarship,” Juicy crushed his set solo. He was a one-man party: spirit animal for some, ratchet scholar and shaman for others, and trippy scout leader for all.

Wu-Tang Clan; Credit: Timothy Norris

Wu-Tang Clan; Credit: Timothy Norris

Wu-Tang Clan with ODB hologram

It was supposed to be the best of all reunions, all swordsmen back on stage to bring the slums of Shaolin to San Bernardino. But as much as we love the Wu, their set was a disaster.

Going on 20 minutes late, when they finally showed Ghostface Killah and Raekwon were absent, and there was noticeable feedback on multiple mics. Then, after those Wu members who were on stage made it through classics like “Da Mystery of Chessboxin'” and “Tearz,” the music cut off entirely.

Method Man did his best to keep the crowd with them by freestyling, but ultimately gave up, shouting, “This shit don't happen at rock concerts.” Then RZA got on the mic to attempt to explain away the technical difficulties.

After he stalled for a few minutes, he led the crowd in an Ol Dirty Bastard chant. Before long the hologram all were waiting for appeared. Hologram ODB rapped his verse on “Shame on a Nigga” and then performed his anthem “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” alongside his son Young Dirty Bastard.

All things considered, the hologram was solid. The movements were much more fluid than the 2Pac hologram at Coachella, and appeared to cover more of the stage than Eazy-E's the night before. It was also hilarious to see the hologram Dirty stumble on stage.

Unfortunately, after the digital ODB disintegrated, so did the crowd. People were literally running for the exits. It was as if everyone cared more for the “magic trick” than the magicians. And as we made our way to the car, we saw countless downcast faces of those with Wu logos on their shirts. Given all of the technical difficulties, it appears that there's one way Wu-Tang can definitely be fucked with.

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