Rock The Bells
August 20, 2011
San Manuel Amphitheatre
Rock the Bells is somewhat developmentally arrested--though not necessarily in a negative way. Since its inception in 2004, Rock the Bells has gathered prolific acts that've earned a place among the hip-hop elite--Nas, Lauryn Hill, Common, Black Star (all on this year's line-up)--a rather antiquated practice that results in a collection of artists that's better described as "classics" rather than "current hitmakers."
The effect is twofold. For the purposes of the tour, it's a blessing in disguise--hip-hop acts, rather notoriously known in the biz for having a "buffer of inefficient and somewhat useless industry people surrounding them at all times" are difficult to nail down, and even more difficult to get to commit to performing a set at a certain hour. With a docket of (predominately) seasoned vets, the tour is not only guaranteed a certain level of professionalism on stage and off, but the crowd is far more likely to be forgiving of an old pro than a babe new to the game.
It's also a commentary on the bastardization of hip-hop due to popular culture. Rock the Bells, which has turned into one of the largest (if not the largest) U.S. hip-hop tours, repeatedly recycles its bigger acts (who are more known for pensive lyrics and restrained production), at a time where Kanye's lyrics about fish filet and his grandiose beats earn him Grammys and a headlining slot at this past 2011 Coachella Music Festival.
It's not that one type is any more "right" than another. But rather, in a time where hip-hop is being pushed to evolve and accept new forms of musical influences from genres previously unexplored by rappers, Rock the Bells acts as a haven for hip-hop purists--young and old, all seemingly dressed in the same baggy jeans and oversized tees (heat is no deterrent), come to San Bernadino from the far reaches of various Southern California locales for a reminder that, sometimes, an emcee is best when armed with nothing but a beat and a mic.
Not that the makers of Rock the Bells are unaware of this phenomena. Rather than hide its intentions, this year the tour has adopted a "Classics" theme. In keeping with theme, acts were expected to perform their classic albums in their entirety--tried and true arena gold, powerhouse pieces that render descriptions superfluous. When Nas performed number "It Ain't Hard to Tell" off his 1994 debut, Illmatic, underneath a giant illuminated photo of the album's cover, the ground and seats beneath the audience reverberated with the force of the song's bass, hundreds of hands shot into the air, moving back and forth in time with the minimalistic beat (and in the case of one gangly white boy in front of me, erratically to the melody).
Before him, Erykah Badu got deep into her 1997 Baduizm, sultry pimp mama in her black top hat, while shirt, tight black pants and masses of gold chains, crooning to slow hip-shakers "Rimshot", "Afro", "Certainly" and "Drama"--the latter of which, she dedicated to the late Michael Jackson.
Headliner Ms. Lauryn Hill, decked out in what appeared to be a white button-up and black schoolgirl-esque skirt, followed suit--performing the haunting pieces off The Miseducation of Miss Lauryn Hill, surrounded by a stage made to look like a classroom, complete with books, a map of Africa and a chalk board with hastily scribbled math problems. Here, Hill was at her best. She pushed her powerful, earthy vocals in "To Zion," filling the arena with her sound, her controversial album and person finally given the proper respect and grandeur they deserve, after a near-insulting 6 p.m. start time and minimally outfitted stage at Coachella, just months beforehand.
The artists also performed newer numbers--Nas rapped recently released '90s-esque Common-collab "Ghetto Dreams." The song is technically Common's, though it was difficult to tell if the rapper joined Nas on stage (he did). San Manuel Amphitheatre, for all its positives (which included a set of bathrooms that were miraculously outfitted with toilet paper), is not an intimate performance venue, which often made it near impossible to recognize performers on the main stage. The audience members closest to the stage stood in the pit, and behind them was a set of seats, and then another set of seats called the Lodge (where my friend and I sat squinting at the stage) and then, finally, were the poor assholes standing on a wide expanse of grass literally teeming in people, all pressed up against a fence in hopes of catching a flicker of Badu's gold chains.
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Other areas faired no better. During Curren$y's performance on the Paid Dues stage (the second of three stages, the other was 36 chambers), heat rose off of the crowd in suffocating weed-imbued columns of smoke. Lines for the over-priced subpar grub ($8 for nachos slathered in processed cheese) snaked around the grass, full of people forced to shell out for unsatisfactory slop after the entry pat-down--which was akin to a body check at the TSA-- left them empty-handed.
Though the packed, unorganized way that Rock the Bells was constructed was often the root of annoyance, it also was the source of some humor. At some point (prior to Curren$y's set) I'd been separated from my friend, and we'd decided to meet back in the parking lot at our cars (there was zero cell reception). As I stood beside a fidgety, sallow-skinned woman, who was charged with checking in cars to the press area (a job that was one of the shittiest they could give a tiny, unintimidating girl) a long black limo pulled up, and the driver told the girl that the car had RZA, of the Wu Tang Clan, inside. An argument then took place (apparently RZA was supposed to go to the artist check-in) where I watched the skinny woman acquiesce, and Rock the Bells host, RZA (who briefly rolled down the window to speak to the woman), rolled into VIP unhindered and uncaring, the epitome of old school hip-hop-- above the cuff of even it's own self-imposed rules.