Rock the Bells (Day 1)
San Manuel Amphitheater
It's been ten years since Chang Weisberg and his team created the now-venerable Rock the Bells festival series, and since its inception, it's become an institution for those who keep their eyes and ears on what's going on in hip-hop. On their tenth anniversary — they promised us all holograms, rap legends-in-the-making, and free Monster energy drinks.
Over the weekend, we combined our love of heat and hip-hop and drove on out to the San Manuel Amphitheater in San Bernardino in search of this year's hip-hop holy grail in live form, and here's what caught our attention the most on day one.
Not Every Act Needs A Live Band
During this year's festivities, many of the acts playing had a live band as their backing squad, as opposed to the usual DJ/hypeman/keyboard setup. While this may work for some, for others it didn't. Though witnessing the phenomena that is Riff Raff perform is entertainment at its finest (kind of), the live band performing with him just felt awkward. We don't go to see performers like Riff Raff for any sort of technicality or intense musicality.
For others, such as New York's Flatbush Zombies, implementing a playback of guitar-and-drum driven music and using that to transition to another track worked out far better. The Zombies used Nirvana's “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — like they do at many shows — as a sort of intro to their monstrous crowd detonator “S.C.O.S.A.” In this live environment, that small bit of crashing guitars and thundering drums worked was far more effective as a music file on some soundperson/DJ's setup being played than an actual in-the-flesh rendition.
Pusha T Had The Most Intense Acapella Of The Night
Opinions on coke-rap veteran Pusha T's post-Clipse career are varied, but on Saturday Pusha T put on one of the best sets of the show. Tearing through a slew of songs that ranged from his work with Kanye on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, to his recent release Wrath of Caine, to verses from Clipse classics such as Grindin' and Popular Demand (Popeyes), Pusha fashioned himself as a workhorse delivering his crowd a thorough retrospective. He gave people a reason to bake and burn in triple-digit heat in order to see him.
One of his shining moments though came when he burst out into an unexpected acapella of his verse from Atlanta rapper Alley Boy's Your Favorite Rapper, and used that as a lead-in to his seething Lil Wayne diss 23:1. We all understand how hip-hop beef can come off like pages from a comic book, but during this moment it felt rather real to us. The intensity of Pusha T's stage presence coupled with the vitriolic barbs from verses on both tracks gave us something just as fiery as the heat to hear.
The Love of Dance Music Just Wasn't There
Though it appears as though 98% of everything else involving music and live shows has become impacted by the “EDM bubble,” apparently the Rock the Bells audience doesn't really factor in. Electronic heavyweights A-Trak and Chase N Status can bring in thousands of people at events and have even collaborated with rappers who have played RTB before. Whether at headlining shows or all-night massives, fans will come in huge flocks to watch both acts. At Rock The Bells though, their crowds numbered in the dozens, and we're sure no matter who was put in competing time-slots, they would have easily pulled in more. Maybe next year, everybody.
The Holograms, Day One: Eazy-E
Let's cut to the chase. Midwesterners Bone Thugs-N-Harmony are all legends, have made a lot of timeless music, and seem to always have it in them to be on the road. But, you can see them pout on a solid performance at least once or year or so (or twelve if you live in California). You cannot, however, say you can see Eazy-E anymore. Therefore, we'll basically just revolve Bone Thugs' whole performance around the Eazy-E hologram event their RTB headlining slot was centered on.
Alongside DJ Yella, “Eazy-E” performed a swift medley of parts of “Straight Outta Compton,” “Boyz-n-the-hood,” and “Foe tha Love of $” before being zapped away from the living world to the digital one. As expected, it was intriguing to see a deceased person “perform,” and teetered on the brink of “Well, this is kind of cool, right?” and “Okay, this is too much.” We're happy to know one of the forefathers of gangsta rap will have a legacy that will endure trends and outlast less deserving acts, but come on — are holographic performances really necessary?
Performer of the Night: Earl Sweatshirt
Fresh off the release of his long-awaited and acclaimed album Doris, 19 year-old Odd Future alumni Earl Sweatshirt took the stage mid-day Saturday to perform to a packed crowd that appeared high and hellbent on seeing on the LA rapper.
Earl promised everyone “forty-five minutes of fucked up shit,” and delivered — in a good way. With fellow OF crewmember Hodgy Beats as the perfectly-picked hypeman, Earl performed lyrically-dense, verbally-acrobatic songs such as “Centurion” and “Hive,” and appeared the most comfortable we've ever seen him on a stage. He joked around a bit, constantly flashed smiles, and genuinely seemed to be enjoying performing. Hodgy Beats definitely had the best stage-dive of the night as well. All those times playing punk venues has paid off for him.
Though he currently lacks the tenure of many of the artists he shared this weekend's bill with, Earl's talent more than makes up for it. Though the OF affiliation is an essential part of who he currently is and makes for some fun times at shows, he can hold his own solo. And, despite the more introverted nature of his songs and his not-so-hulking stature, he literally raps so well he can command an entire audience.
Random Notebook Dump: Is it really necessary to make people basically pay to be in the main stage pit? How is that even considered a “privilege” of the VIP package?
Critic's Bias: Flatbush Zombies performed a set that was incredibly similar to their Paid Dues performance, but they're such a good live act it doesn't really matter.
The Crowd: A healthy mix. Guerilla Union crowds definitely seem to bring out some of the most diverse crowds in the country.