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I. On Hip Hop: Rock the Bells 2011 Diary

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author Ion the Prize and may not representative of all of UC Berkeley Students for Hip Hop

While the present state of hip-hop may right now be divided into many different regional tastes, styles, sub-genres and sub-sub-genres, there is still heaping amounts of nostalgia for the sounds of early- to mid-90s golden age and 2000s forward-thinking hip-hop, which could be seen in this year’s lineup at the Rock the Bells festival, which for the second year in a row highlighted the classic-albums-performed-in-their-entirety  sets.  This past Saturday, albums such as Illmatic, Black Star, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Be, Black Sunday and others got their on-stage treatment.  Speaking of stages, there were THREE at the Shoreline Ampitheatre this year (not counting the Grindtime battles stage) with the addition of a 36 Chambers stage promoting various parts of the Wu culture of course.  I along with some friends was there, toasting in the sun, basking in the plumes of smoke and bass, and scrambling through the festival grounds for 10 hours to see as much of what I was hoping to see as possible.  My lookback is not complete as I was physically unable to see everything (my bad, Cypress Hill, but I did already see you once) but here were some of my observations:

Hiero ‘Til Infinity

So me and a couple friends got to Mountain View through the Shoreline gates around noon, a bit too late to see Freddie Gibbs open up the main stage, but we caught most of Souls of Mischief’s set.  They were performing all of the 1993 debut album 93 ’til Infinity, and from the lawn it seemed most people only recognized the title track, but the performance was definitely electric and a swell homecoming, especially when the rest of the Hieroglyphic crew came on for a quick number.  I really would like to see more Bay Area representation at Rock the Bells in future years (Life Is…Too $hort perhaps?).  You could really feel Hiero’s presence outside the shell as well with many people at the festival donning the three-eyed face shirts.  If the Hieroglyphics merch booth wasn’t the best selling non-edible booth at the festival, it was definitely still doing great business.

Common’s Performance Was One-of-a-Kind

Definitely one of the highlights of the festival for me, Common performed the album Be with a purpose as if literally trying to shake off the recent lameness that was the Universal Mind Control album and return to the rugged and raw Chicago emcee that had inspired/been inspired by Erykah Badu.  Instead of sticking strictly to performing the aforementioned album in order, he moved tracks around to fit the up and downs of the set and crafted wonderful transitions with the help of his live band + DJ.  Speaking of the DJ, DJ Dummy, he seemed to truly have magic fingers when it came to doing his solo scratch session, breaking down “Ten Crack Commandments” with the number-agility of an idiot savant.  Definitely try to see that DJ perform live if you can (or just look up DJ Dummy on youtube, you’ll find something worthwhile).  In addition, Common let loose by moving around aplenty on the huge stage, spitting an epic freestyle, and giving shoutouts to the Bay Area and its local landmarks, all while sporting a Brian Wilson-worthy beard no less.  We could tell Common was back (his new album The Dreamer the Believer drops later this fall) and meant more business than a Gap ad.

Keep the Black Star Shining

So thanks to me forgetting the updated schedule, I missed the first half-hour of Black Star’s set, during which I saw some of Roc Marciano on the Paid Dues stage, which wasn’t bad as it included an appearance from Sean P but yes I do find opening your set with a Scarface voiceover in the year 2011 a bit cliche.  Anyway, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, though I was watching from way back in the lawn area, definitely were keeping the crowd into it and delivered a soulful performance (helped by Mos Def’s crooning along with a final curtain call of “Umi Says”).  The highlight for me was, to no surprise, when Common joined the two emcees on “Respiration”, making for one great stage photo I bet (please if you have one let me know, I already bought a frame!)

Dirty Science Is A Winning Formula

After Black Star, I went back to the Paid Dues stage in time to see Fresno-based rapper Fashawn entertain with a few just-right-for-a-sunny-day songs, featuring a drop-in from local rapper Nio tha Gift, a fantastic back-and-forth between Fashawn’s live drummer and Exile on the MPC, and a great performance alongside Blu and Planet Asia.  Blu then stayed on to do some of best songs from his and Exile’s flabbergastingly-good album Below the Heavens, giving the Cali crowd a great show and something to keep West Coast hip hop’s future looking mighty bright.

Big K.R.I.T., Lots of Grit and Teriyaki Tacos

After seeing Fashawn/Blu/Exile, I caught some of Black Moon’s set as the performed from their album Enta da Stage. The 36 Chambers, after opening with Killah Priest and Masta Ace, was definitely the place to be if you wanted that NYC gritty boom-bap of the 90s, but sometimes those sounds can also run together when listening from the crowd.  At this point it was near 5 and I decided to get some food at an asian taco/burrito truck.  With the spicy pork and sriracha taco I got, I guess you can say it really was a Hip Hop BBQ (how about that, Fox News?)  Just in time I was about to devour the hot sauce, appropriately enough, Big K.R.I.T. with his country-boy swagger came on to rock the stage.  Not only were his bass, beats and lyrics lighting up the crowd (and getting them to light up), but seeing how this hip-hop star had made it from humble beginnings in Mississippi really had me rooting for him all the way, enough to look past some of the more derogatory lines in his songs and jump along to the beat.

Don’t Stand In-Between For Sanity’s Sake!

After Big K.R.I.T., the Paid Dues and adjacent 36 Chambers stage had Slaughterhouse and Mobb Deep scheduled respectively around the same time.  I wanted to go back and forth to see both performances but the fact that the stages were only 100 ft apart and oriented at a 30 degree angle with respect to each other made standing in the center impossible to handle noisewise, especially since both stages seemed to be pushing 11 on the soundsystems.  Once I migrated to the far side of either stage, there wasn’t much of an interference issue, but I’m sure many others walking into the parking-lot-turned-festival-grounds were confused what they were hearing from where.  Regardless, both groups put on exciting shows which I liked because I hadn’t seen either MD or SH before.  If I had to choose, I’d favor the Slaughterhouse performance because the Paid Dues stage felt more intimate and each emcee was capable of dropping lyrical firebombs at a moment’s notice.

The World Is Yours (And Hip Hop Giants of the World Collide)

I didn’t want to get too attached though because at 6:45 pm I realized Nas’ set, the one I was anticipating the most, was already starting.  From the lawn I could still make out Nas and AZ trotting in front of a NYC streets-themed set with DJ Premier and Pete Rock taking their places above a LED display of the original Illmatic cover.  I found it to be a fantastic performance based on Nas’ energy alone, plus we got to see a preview of the upcoming Primo vs Pete Rock collaboration via a mini beat-battle!  Include a cameo by Mobb Deep members Havoc and Prodigy and a couple later Nas songs (“One Mic” with live bongos, “Made You Look”) for good measure, and it felt like hip-hop history just being there.

A Genius, A Gambino, A Supernatural and Some Killa Bees

When Nas set ended around 8 pm, many people started to either file out (I guess they wanted nothing to do with Lauryn Hill), or flew over to the other two stages to see more clever rhymage.  I entered the parking lot and once again, soundclash!  To the right was GZA finishing up his mighty-fine Liquid Swords set, while to the left was up-and-comer rapper/TV actor Childish Gambino, pulling out all the stops with a rockin’ live band.  CG definitely had the crown jumpin’ and displayed an almost-unhealthy amount of energy onstage, but some of the cheesy lines (e.g. “Kiss my ass, Human Centipede…”) turned me away after a while.  I anticipated the Raekwon/Ghostface set to go on around 9 pm and was wonderfully surprised to see MC Supernatural do a couple opening routines (and by routines I mean some of the most immaculate time-killing freestyles ever, because he is the undisputed freestyle champion IMO). It was one of those you-had-to-be-there moments seeing Supernatural freestyle about whatever props the first row of fans handed to him, and in another bit, resurrect the flow of Notorious B.I.G. to freaky precision.  The mood was then ripe for Ghostface and Raekwon to take the stage, leaving no regret in my mind to choose seeing them over perennial class-act Immortal Technique.

To Be or Not To Be Miseducated

After her performance last year which I found did not to justice to her recordings in the 90s, Lauryn Hill was the biggest question mark for me going into Rock the Bells.  Would she step up to the spotlight and not leave us worrying about her state of mind?  From the few songs I checked out from her set (“To Zion”, “Doo Wop (That Thing”, and “Light My Fire”), I would say somewhat yes, but I still felt the songs were unnecessarily sped up 30%, blurring her rap verses.  In addition, Hill was very conscientious of how she looked and sounded and the band was many times out of sync.  Hopefully her inconsistent performance doesn’t define this year’s Rock the Bells for everyone when they look back on it. From what I heard though, some people enjoyed her hyperactive set (and encore), and considering the emotional rollercoasters she’s been on, plus recently having a sixth child, I felt like giving her the benefit of the doubt. There was much to feel good about from the day as my friends and I walked back to the parking lot around 10:30, stepping over empty beer cups and slaloming past flyer jockeys.

What’s Next?

Well, In n’ Out of course.  What’s better to get after a long day of music, not spending much money on food, and heading back up the 880?  I thoroughly enjoyed this year’s Rock the Bells.  Even if not everything was clicking, there were enough great (perhaps monumental) performances for one outing.  But the festival should think about expanding to include artists that represent different hip hop regions (maybe Outkast, some of the Rhymesayers cats again, British hip hop, etc).  Also, the only female on the bill I could find (since Erykah Badu wasn’t performing at this stop) was Lauryn Hill; why not have more female emcees? Because honestly these hip-hop festival can seem so overtly pro-male.  In the wake of a mixed outing from Lauryn Hill, this time in the headliner spot, where to find someone worthy of closing the show?  Will some artists (Eminem, Jay-Z, Kanye West) be just too big for this festival?  For now, I can find solace in many of the great things this festival has been able to put on throughout the years and hope it will keep coming back to the Bay Area for many more.

Here are a couple more reviews of this past weekend’s show for you recapitualtion fiends:

http://www.mercurynews.com/entertainment/ci_18775450

http://blogs.sfweekly.com/shookdown/2011/08/lauryn_hill_delivers_the_encor.php

If you also went, let me know what you thought of it in the comments below!

-Ion the Prize

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