Cream of Elite

Sporting perhaps the greatest hip-hop bill ever, Rock the Bells enshrines rap's history—and foreshadows its future

In their documentary Rock the Bells,directors Denis Henry Hennelly and Casey Suchan focus the camera on the weary, slouched figure of Chang Weisberg as he attempts to reunite the Wu-Tang Clan in 2004 after sparkplug/court jester Ol' Dirty Bastard's two years of incarceration. In a move certain to be celebrated in the Concert Promoter Hall of Fame, Chang surreptitiously books all nine MCs of the venerated Staten Island group (Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, the GZA, the RZA and ODB) as solo acts. He then attempts to get the group to, as they put it, "form like Voltron" and headline the inaugural Rock the Bells concert in San Bernardino.

It seemed simple enough. But the film (now out on DVD) shows Chang beleaguered by an intractable City Hall, a suddenly shook venue, technical mishaps, an overwhelmed production team, an undermanned security staff, a crowd on the verge of riot, plus an ODB in a state of crack-induced catatonia, unable (or unwilling) to leave his hotel room. "I wanted to do something I could control," Chang explains, but his tired eyes, throbbing forehead veins and exhausted voice underscore the tenuousness of his grip.

Luckily for us, Chang and his crew survived that turbulent first year and have been putting on Rock the Bells concerts ever since. Not content to assemble a Who's Who of both early-'90s and 21st-century underground hip-hop artists, Rock the Bells took its acts on the road this year, hitting New York, Dallas, Atlanta and San Diego before swinging back to Southern California with their living history of hip-hop.

Headlined by recently resuscitated rap rock act Rage Against the Machine and the venerable Wu-Tang Clan, the tour will feature a bewildering array of artists, including Public Enemy, Cypress Hill, the Roots, Nas, Mos Def, EPMD, Talib Kweli, Pharoahe Monch, Immortal Technique and David Banner on the main stage.

The two Paid Dues stages will feature MF Doom, the Coup, Sage Francis, Jedi Mind Tricks, Felt, Living Legends, Brother Ali, Cage, Mr. Lif, Grouch & Eligh, Cage, Hangar 18, Blueprint, and Lucky I Am. If mere recital of these acts leaves you breathless, note the event is emceed by both Rahzel (who has beatboxed alongside the Roots, Mike Patton and Björk) and Supernatural (who is attempting to set the Guinness World Record for longest rap, which now stands at eight hours, 45 minutes). Add to that yet another stage on which b-boys, MCs and turntablists can duke it out, and you have the most ambitious hip-hop festival of mainstream and underground talent ever assembled.

And yet, the Rock the Bells documentary suggests this three-ring circus almost folded its tent before the first go-round. In the mid-'90s, Weisberg was a rabid fan of the Wu and the mythology (part Marvel Comics, part kung-fu flick, part street gang) they turned into the most exciting thing to happen to hip-hop since Run-D.M.C. When the Wu announced an American tour with the similarly volatile Rage Against the Machine in the summer of 1997, Weisberg counted the days until it pulled through California, only to learn it had disintegrated almost from the outset. But Weisberg eventually helped bring that dream back to life.

This year, it's Rage who are reunited. As politically outspoken as the band was throughout the '90s, it was odd to have the voice of front man Zack de la Rocha silenced with Rage's breakup in 2000 at the outset of the Bush presidency. Instead of a de la Rocha solo album (either with DJ Shadow or El-P, which never materialized), we got such atrocities as hanging chads, Guantanamo Bay, and, uh . . . Audioslave. Rest assured, Rage are comfortable stepping back into the arena (and controversy). When de la Rocha spoke during the band's first reunion show at Coachella this spring about having the entire administration shot and hanged, Fox News puppets Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter kicked their indignation into overdrive.

Rage aren't the only group to reunite this year, though. EPMD (an acronym for Erick [Sermon] and Parrish [Smith] Making Dollars) were mainstays on then-nascent Yo! MTV Raps, bringing their steely-eyed gaze and monotone delivery. And don't forget the return of Public Enemy, with Chuck D once again sharing the stage with reality-TV star Flavor Flav. It's a shame that while Sonic Youth tout their 1988 Daydream Nation around the world, Public Enemy aren't doing the same for their own '88 classic, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back—which was recorded in the studio next door and remains that era's apex of hip-hop.

While such reformations hog the spotlight, it also behooves you to catch two of the festival's most relevant acts: gritty Mississippi growler David Banner, holding down the otherwise neglected Dirty South, and MF Doom. A founding member of Long Island rap group KMD (which flourished from 1989 to 1993), Doom disappeared far underground for most of the '90s, incubating a weird comic-book style that continues to resound with the Adult Swim demographic. Releasing solo and collaborative albums as DangerDoom, Madvillain, Viktor Vaughn and King Geedorah, Doom tops the Paid Dues stage, although it's uncertain which of his word-twisting personalities will be manifested.

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