Everything moves in cycles. We knew this in the abstract, but we’d forgotten. Who could blame us? Shit got practically medieval between 2003 and 2006, when advocating for quaint, antiquated notions like coherence, depth and skill was apt to leave you feeling like you were a heretic ready for roasting at the auto-da-fé. Rap was an ad-lib packed jumble of “movin’ bricks” and “still tippin’,” and if you weren’t shaking it like a salt shaker, then maaaaan, you were just a hater. It was bullshit and we knew it. Hip-hop had been the soundtrack to all of our parties. But was it too much to ask for some J.B. drums or an Isleys or Funkadelic loop?
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Kid Sister: Will her
fans show up?
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Pining for the golden age: Chicago's Cool Kids
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Blues Scholars: Discussing politics, not Bentleys
No one needed Nas to tell us that hip-hop was dead. Anyone with a pulse and a copy of Illmatic had considered the possibility. Or at least those who got in before Puff Daddy and Master P made it big business, the ones who vaguely remembered those twin paroxysms of genius that occurred between the Rakim/Kane/Public Enemy–led axis of ’87-’89 and the Nas/B.I.G./Wu wave of ’92-’96. It wasn’t a Southern thing or a “New York fell off” thing, it was a malaise worthy of Jimmy Carter in a pastel cardigan. Kids you remembered waiting in line at midnight to cop Wu-Tang Forever at the now-shuttered Tower on Sunset had grown up, grown beards and a taste for the Arcade Fire. Meanwhile, when presented with no new idols to call their own, their younger siblings who would’ve been pulled into hip-hop’s vortex a half-generation prior had migrated to the skinny-jeaned asymmetry of indie rock. And let’s not even talk about emo.
Of course, quality material surfaced sporadically, mostly in the Stones Throw/Def Jux–led underground, and occasionally a Kanye or a Ghostface slipped through. But mostly, it was the proverbial heap of broken images. Jay-Z retired. Scarface retired. Or maybe your favorite rapper wanted to be an actor. That is, if he hadn’t disappeared, or died. Downloading accelerated the descent. The majors got shook, fired A&R agents and stopped taking chances. With 50 Cent as its prototype, the genre grew so swollen that even the producers were on ’roids. Maybe it was rap’s hair-metal phase, with even Paris Hilton releasing an album produced by Scott Storch, featuring guest spots from Fat Joe and Jadakiss.
But some small shift happened not all that long ago. If you listen to the faint hum through the stethoscope, you can hear a different cardiac rhythm. Granted, the economy might remain in tatters and ABC might actually be airing a show called Wipe Out, featuring an obstacle-course challenge called “Dirty Balls.” But signs that this gruesome epoch is in decline are everywhere. The crude nativism of the post-9/11 climate has yielded to one tolerant enough to allow the presidential frontrunner to be a “Dirt off Your Shoulder” dancing dude named Barack Hussein Obama. The summer’s two premier popcorn flicks, The Dark Knight and Wall-E, offer complex, self-reflective glimpses into the human psyche. Hell, even rap’s pre-eminent coke-pushing caricature, Rick Ross, got melvined when the Smoking Gun illuminated his past as a corrections officer.
Rock the Bells is a manifestation of this new order, evidence of rap’s slow, tenuous healing. It’s more than just the names that catch your eye: a reunited Tribe Called Quest, the Pharcyde, De La Soul; the instant adrenaline rush of Ghostface and Raekwon or Method Man and Redman; or even the living-legend factor of Rakim and Afrika Bambaataa. Indeed, the acts in smaller print are equally compelling, with Wale, Jay Electronica, B.O.B., Kidz in the Hall and the Cool Kids among the most promising products of rap’s fifth generation. Of course, not everyone’s great. I’d rather watch Blankman than listen to Amanda Blank. But the sense of that fresh, wild style looms, with the rising talents’ indie-rock-infused fashion and sonics jarring enough to engender silly “hipster rap” labels from a calcified old guard whose memories are too short to recall that the cover of Grandmaster Flash’s The Message album is a closer stylistic kin to the Village People than to Wu Wear.
The renaissance hasn’t arrived yet, and maybe it never will. The download-devastated major labels continue to peddle pablum like Ace Hood and Blood Raw, the second-string protégés of DJ Khaled and Young Jeezy, respectively. Yet with the ascendancy of champion eccentrics like Kanye West and Lil Wayne and the potential flashed by the new class, the environment seems more receptive to innovation than it has at any point in the past decade. Coupled with the thriving mixtape culture, the Internet’s ease of transmission and the emergence of prominent blogs like Nah Right and the Rap Up, the stage is set for another golden era. You can come back, guys, it’s okay to like rap music again. That is, unless you’re a hater.
Following is our historical-generational guide to the artists appearing at Rock the Bells 2008, which happens Saturday, August 9, at San Manuel Amphitheatre (formerly Glen Helen Pavilion) in San Bernardino.
The Microphone Fiends
Rakim: The technically flawless God MC has influenced more rappers than the Game could ever hope to name-check. Rakim ushered in the modern era of lyricism, and saved fat gold chains from being just a “Mr. T thing.” Hip-hop can be categorized into Before Rakim and After Rakim. Once rumored to be releasing a Dr. Dre–produced record on Aftermath, the 18th Letter is tentatively slated to drop the long-awaited The 7th Seal this fall on his own Ra Records.
Nas: Anointed the second coming of Rakim even before instant classic Illmatic (to use his own words), Nas has had a career with as many ups and downs as a bulimic on a seesaw. But there’s little argument that the Queens MC carried on Rakim’s supreme lyricism arguably better than any other rapper of his generation with incisive, internally packed rhymes and guillotine-sharp lyrics. His deep discography even includes the tribute track, “U.B.R. (Unauthorized Biography of Rakim).”
Jay Electronica: Despite nomenclature more fitting for a late-’90s Vengaboys-loving Las Vegas trance DJ, Jay Electronica has gotten the blogs bleating by rhyming over unreleased J Dilla beats and the score of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Bearing a complex, polysyllabic flow heavily indebted to Rakim and Nas, the mysterious Crescent City native has largely eschewed interviews, even opting to briefly delete his MySpace page, an extreme anomaly for a genre in which most new jacks would gold-plate their HTML if they could. Nas recently described the producer-rapper as “the total package.” In return, Electronica recorded “My World,” his own salute to his Queensbridge elder..
Politics as Unusual
Public Enemy: Opting to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back by sticking to the Don’t Look Backcircuit, Public Enemy might not be rocking the bells this year, but consider it a tribute to their legacy that no discussion of the heirs of political hip-hop can occur without invoking their name.
Immortal Technique: The sulfurous sermons from the Peruvian-descended, Harlem-reared Immortal Technique — the hip-hop equivalent of A.N.S.W.E.R. — make that much more sense in this Zeppelin crash of a decade. Plus, there’s always something slightly cathartic about hearing Dick Cheney called a “fucking leech.” Immortal’s Revolutionary, Vol. 2 is regarded as a minor masterpiece among subterranean stans and recent mixtape offerings, and The 3rd World has been received favorably.
Sage Francis: A bald, vegetarian former spoken-word poet from Providence, Sage Francis has a fan base that is predictably confined to college-town coffee-shoppers, but 2002’s Personal Journals remains one of the decade’s better underground hip-hop records, and there’s no denying the self-described “personal journalist’s” skills, honed on the Scribble Jam circuit.
Blue Scholars: Last year’s Rawkus-released Bayani broke the Seattle duo of Geologic and Sabzi nationally, with the former’s politically minded lyrics tackling a wide range of subjects, from the 1999 WTO protests to his Filipino ancestry.
The Left-Hand Path
De La Soul & A Tribe Called Quest: Two-thirds of the Native Tongues Holy Trinity (with Jungle Brothers), De La and Tribe essentially invented what was then known as “alternative hip-hop.” On anyone’s short list of the greatest rap groups of all time, the Trinity, with its eclectic sampling, fluorescent flair and playful profundity, helped to define the Daisy Age and, in the process, influence nearly every rapper who ever veered left of center.
The Pharcyde: Stylistic kinsmen with Tribe and De La, The Pharcyde are probably N.W.A.’s fiercest competition for Best L.A. Rap Group. Their classic debut, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde,spawned “Passing Me By” and “Ya Mama,” two of the most iconic singles in hip-hop history. And while its darker follow-up, the partially Dilla-produced Labcabincalifornia,was initially considered a flop, the album’s timelessness grows with each year. They are fully reunited for the first time in over a decade, and their performance before the hometown crowd figures to be one of the festival’s most anticipated.
MF Doom: With Vaudeville Villain and Madvillainy,the metal-faced MC created two of the decade’s most seminal subterranean records. Devoting entire albums to food and Adult Swim characters, the mercurial Doom has largely dropped off the earth of late, leaving a fan base patiently waiting on Madvillainy 2 and a rumored Ghostface collaboration. Mos Def: Possibly more of an actor than a rapper at this point, Mos Def has produced recent output that has lacked the focus of the brilliant Black on Both Sides and the Blackstar debut with Talib Kweli. But at recent Rock the Bells performances, Mos has unveiled promising new cuts, with beats from, among others, Madlib and Chad Hugo.
Little Brother: Favorites of the Okayplayer set, Little Brother are often chided for their retro-grade neo–Native Tongues nostalgia and occasionally shrill antimainstream stance, but Phonte and Big Pooh remain one of the finest new duos to emerge in the 2000s, and two of hip-hop’s most skilled live performers.
Murs: By the time he turned 30 this year, Mid-City, L.A.–raised Murs’ resume already read like a map of the underground, with stints in the Living Legends, Def Jux and three collaborations with 9th Wonder. While it raised eyebrows when the other Nick Carter signed with Warner Brothers and released a hyphy-tinged first single, “Dreadlocks,” Murs’ sets are always kinetic.
Kidz in the Hall: For their sophomore album, The In Crowd,Duck Down Records’ latest signees Kidz in the Hall ditched the Ivy League rap shtick in favor of Golden Age revivalism, or so-called “hipster rap,” as some of their detractors have alleged. Lead single “Drivin’ Down the Block” bragged about their “Low End Theory” tape, nicking Masta Ace’s “Born to Roll” in the process. Meanwhile, its remix EP spawned three of the year’s best songs, including an El-P version and a West Coast G-Funk edition. Wale: Consider Wale the platonic ideal between the Rawkus/Okayplayer school and the swag and aesthetic splendor shining from the decade’s most influential album, Jay-Z’s The Blueprint. It’s reductive to ascribe labels to the Nigerian-descended, D.C.-raised Wale; he’s versatile enough to rhyme over everything from Camp Lo to go-go beats to Justice. His Seinfeld-themed The Mixtape About Nothing not only ranks as the year’s finest, it single-handedly raises the bar for the mixtape subgenre.
The Wu Coming Through
Method Man and Redman, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah: One third of the Wu, plus honorary member Reggie Noble (Redman): Look for both pairings to skew heavily toward their unfuckwithable ’90s catalog, capable of redeeming a dozen awful FOX sitcoms. Look for a potential guest appearance from Rock the Bells co-host B Real, who will presumably be in the area to partake in the inevitable blunt fest that transpires whenever Meth and Red are in the same area code.
Afrika Bambaataa (DJ Set): The founding father of electro hip-hop. A DJ set from Afrika Bambaataa can quash myopic cries from anyone decrying the younger generation’s predilection for lean jeans and even leaner electro-funk. Bambaataa is that rare living legend in an era when the term has become increasingly meaningless.
Kid Sister/Flosstradamus: Chicago dance-rap and DJ sets for the Vice/Cobrasnake kids. If they show up.
The Cool Kids: With their 808 fetishization, Follow the Leader fashion sense and claims of being “the new black Beastie Boys,” the precocious Chicago duo of Mikey Rocks and Chuck Inglish pine for a Golden Age they encountered through Soulseek folders and Flickr albums. Unfairly saddled with the “hipster rap” label, the Cool Kids remain true to their alias, with an upbeat stage presence and basement-ready party raps.
Spank Rock: 2 Live Crew–aping, Baltimore-club-influenced electro-rap, loved by kids in American Apparel everywhere. What happens when headbands and backpacks collide?