Here’s my Rock the Bells preview from the LA Times.
Here’s my live blog of the festival from yesterday.

And here are my “day after” thoughts…

First off, I haven’t been to an all-day rap festival since 1993.1 It seemed strangely appropriate to attend this year’s Rock the Bells since this its line-up is incredibly “93”-centric with the Souls of Mischief performing 93 ’til Infinity, Black Moon doing Enta Da Stage, and Cypress Hill revisiting Black Sunday. Even though many of the albums being performed were 17, 19, 19 years old, they didn’t feel old to me even though, when I think about it, I was about 19/20 or so when those albums came out and I’ve since lived another 19/20 years since then. Whoa.

Highlights: This is completely personal and had almost nothing to do with the festival per se but it did happen there. Basically, Murs had beef with me dating back to 2003 or so, and thanks to Thes One, who was my +1 for the festival, it all got squashed with plenty of good cheer.2 So much so that when Murs took the stage to introduce Mac Miller (Murs was the host of the “Paid Dues” stage at RTB), he gave me a shout-out from stage, joking about us having a “peace treaty” here. It was surreal and awesome. I’ll break down the back story for y’all another time, promise.

DJ Premier vs. Pete Rock: During Nas’s uneven Illmatic set, Preem and Pete had a mini beat battle involving their best known tracks. For five rounds, each of them played some of their best known tracks (the live blog breaks those down) and it was the perfect interlude – long enough to get the crowd hyped but not so much to overstay its welcome.

I describe Nas’s set as uneven because, 1) he didn’t bother to perform Illmatic in its entirety even though it’s one of the shortest rap albums in history. He did every song, but one 3-4, he stopped after the first verse was done. That wouldn’t be so bad if not for the fact that Nas then followed that up with songs that deflated the energy of the crowd, including “One Mic” and worst of all, “Hate Me Now.” What redeemed things was having a QB love fest on stage with Ron Artest and Mobb Deep showing up. It was just a very cool moment, especially since Nas and Mobb Deep haven’t always gotten along and any time Ron Artest can make a cameo, that’s not a bad thing. World Peace!

Props for the fact that the set opened with a video clip of this scene from Wildstyle.

Souls of Mischief: Their performance of 93 ’til Infinity was like the album itself: fun and energetic. It’s a shame the festival put it so early in the day – 2pm! – but the crowd that gathered was appreciative and so was the group. They genuinely seemed to be having a great time and they still sound fantastic at performing those songs, 18 years later. “That’s When Ya Lost” was the most meaningful to me personally but the song that sounded fucking amazing at full volume was “A Name I Call Myself.” Del murdered that beat.

Bonus points for A-Plus spending a few seconds to talk about finding this loop in the dollar bin.

Going to The Donut Man. ‘Nuff said.

Low Lights: Black Star didn’t perform. According to Kweli’s twitter feed, there was some kind of emergency that prevented them from performing on time but no one came to tell the crowd – who waited an hour in vain – what had happened. Complete breakdown in communication and I don’t know if Black Star or RTB is to blame, but it was a shitty way to kick off the festival. Apparently, Erykah Badu was gracious enough to give up 15 minutes of her set to let them perform but I missed that.

The only redeeming part was when Supernatural came on stage, backed by DJ J-Rocc, to give the crowd a little freestyle snack. Supernat’s been killing it for 20 years and still hasn’t lost his touch. Wildly entertaining, especially when he started impersonating Biggie, up in heaven, talking about rapping with ‘Pac and Pun.

Black Moon performing Enta Da Stage: It wasn’t, by any means, a bad performance, it just wasn’t as good as you’d think/hope but there’s a few reasons for that. The biggest is that Enta Da Stage simply wasn’t recorded/engineered for an outdoor musical festival. Basement club? Sure. Your bedroom or car? Absolutely. But the murkiness of Da Beatminerz’s production – which is partially why the album sounds so good in other spaces – really doesn’t translate into the open air. There’s very little musical “hook” to it that helps build energy. It also didn’t help that Buckshot and 5 Ft. decided to dress in all-black…for a stage that was all-black. They’re not big dudes and not the most energetic of performers anyway so they were literally disappearing on stage at times.

Redeeming points: Performing the remix versions of “I Gotcha Opin” and “Buck ‘Em Down”.

Lauryn Hill: At this point, Lauryn Hill’s performances have become legendary for their trainwreck-iness and last night was no exception. Provided, I left after 3-4 songs (long enough to hear “Doo Wop” get destroyed in a bad way) but it was awkward and sad and alarming to watch just the first 15 minutes. Her and the band were absolutely out of sorts with one another…not only was the tempo jacked up about 30% faster than the original songs but Lauryn kept frantically gesticulating at both the musicians and her back-up singers throughout, like an angry hummingbird waving at them to “keep up” or do something (it wasn’t clear what). At times, she’d turn her head – away from the mic while singing – to glare at her back-up singers and everything – the tempo, the pitch, the singing – was plainly off. The songs were, in my opinion, unintelligible. It was fascinating and bewildering to watch on stage and Thes was convinced she was jacked up on something and I could only glumly nod in agreement. Bizarre doesn’t even begin to describe it.

San Bernardino in mid-August: ‘Nuff said.

Mid Lights: the whole “classic album performance thing.” As I wrote yesterday, the problem with the format is that it largely evacuates any spontaneity from the performance if you know exactly what song is coming up. Not every artist stuck to that program which was refreshing when it happened.3 And certainly, there’s a pleasure to be had in hearing your favorite songs being performed by your favorite artists but not necessary 12-15 songs in a row. Performing an album live will never sound as good as hearing it in the car or in your headphones (as when you originally heard them). You go to a show hoping to hear some classic tracks but a properly sequenced album? It’s out of context and I couldn’t have known that until I heard it happening and realized, “wow, I’m finding myself slightly bored listening to artists performing an album I otherwise adore.” I suspect others felt differently about this but for me, it’s a liability with the format. Better to find a way to break from the flow on occasion and hit the audience with some surprises, before returning on target.

Would I go again? If I were covering the show…maybe. But I felt bad for anyone who paid $140 for orchestra seats, let alone those who shelled out for VIP passes that didn’t really earn them that much extra (unless you call being able to buy $14 beer in a half-hearted VIP area a “bonus”). The line-up was great but the very structure of the day made it impossible for most people to see all the acts they wanted without having to make some hard choices. I left the Souls’ set early to catch the rest of Common’s and ended up missing Souls doing “Cabfare”! Likewise, we left Mobb Deep early to go hear Nas, only to realize Nas’ set was running late anyway. And so forth. The venue wasn’t wholly devoid of shade but as I was saying, August in San Bernardino is punishing and the fairgrounds are not that well shaded and the fact that vendors took advantage with $4.50 Dasani (read: glorified tap) water and $6 lemonades was egregious.

That all said, I still enjoyed myself.

  1. Hip-Hop In the Park, in Oakland. I went there to see The Coup and Souls of Mischief and it was not a smooth show. Dumb hot and I looked like a dork to boot. This followed on having gone to KMEL’s 1992 Summer Jam at the Shoreline, another way-too-long day. Between the two of those, that more or less deaded my interest in outdoor festivals though I did attend Coachella in 1999 in order to interview Kid Koala.
  2. The fact that Thes brokered the peace is what makes this all the more awesome since, as some of you may remember, PUTS dissed me back on 2002’s The Outrage.
  3. For example, after AZ and Nas performed “Life’s a Bitch,” they briefly did The Firm’s “Phone Tap” which was a nice, unexpected deviation.