Days prior to the 8th installment of the Rock the Bells series kicking off in San Bernardino, California, the set times were announced. Upon seeing that Mobb Deep’s performance of Infamous would be at the same time as Nas performing Illmatic, fans vented their frustrations on the Rock the Bells Facebook page. Guerilla Union listened, and they adjusted the lineup.
Right around this time, MF DOOM announced that he would not be able to perform. Guerilla Union again heard the frustrations and had Murs fill in for him. While the days leading up to the festival may have had a few bumps, thankfully, the nearly 12 hour show was virtually absent of any other incidents—although when the show began it did not look as though that would be the case.
Around 1 p.m., fans anxiously gathered to see Black Star perform their highly influential Rawkus classic. After waiting for close to an hour for the duo to hit the stage, fans began to grow impatient from standing in the unbearable heat and began to boo. Shortly after the fans began booing, word quickly spread that Black Star would not be coming to the stage but instead Common would be performing Be.
Rock the Bells, like most festivals, is all about time management and making a commitment to who you are going to see and being OK with who you are missing out on. Those who waited for Black Star to perform their lone albumhad already missed out on seeing Killa Priest and Masta Killa. However, Common’s set, which featured material ranging from Be to his 1994 classic Resurrection, greatly helped to diminish the frustrations. From “I Used To Love H.E.R.” to “Ghetto Dreams,” Common’s set demonstrated his longevity and growth as an artist. Always the consummate performer, Common showed his appreciation for the Left Coast by rhyming over the Deep Cover instrumental and shouting out his love for Cube during the course of his set.
Along with Common, the rest of the line-up were all announced to carry on the tradition of performing full albums that started at last year’s festival. These included Souls of Mischief (’93 Til Infinity), Cypress Hill (Black Sunday), Black Moon (Enter The Stage), Masta Killa (No Said Date), Gza (Liquid Swords), Lauryn Hill (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill), Nas (Illmatic), Erykah Badu (Baduizm), Raekwon & Ghostface (Only Built For Cuban Linx) Mobb Deep (The Infamous), Black Star(Black Star), and Killah Priest (Heavy Metal). Unfortunately, not performer delivered what was advertised. Black Star provided a truncated set, featuring Common on “Respiration,” which lasted roughly 15 minutes. A performance that would have easily been regarded as the day’s highlight was missed by many who did not anticipate that they would end up performing at all.
While Black Star’s set reflected an issue with missing time, the headliners of the 36 Chambers Stage—Raekwon & Ghostface (along with Cappadonna)—performance of Cuban Linx reflected the issue of missing pieces. There are so many classic verses from other members of the Wu that to truly do this album justice would require nearly all of the members to be present. And strangely, even Wu members who were present (such as Rza) didn’t appear during the performance.
But RTB had other unconventional treats for the serious hip-hop heads who filled the venue. Just prior to the Cuban Linx perforamce, Rza spoke about when they were working on the album. He stated that for a year they just stayed in the basement to work on it. He stressed that people thought that after 36 Chambers and Tical he didn’t have anything left as a producer. Listening to the famed producer discuss the time and dedication that went into the project revealed a universal quality of all of the albums performed that day. Each represented the culmination of overcoming obstacles (whether they are social or artistic). They are landmark albums because of their triumph, and we still eagerly flock to watch them being performed because it suggests that this triumph isn’t a temporary experience, but can be relived over and over again.
Watching Black Moon perform “Who Got Da Props” and hearing Buckshot talk about his love of jazz or seeing The Infamous Mobb Deep perform such street anthems as “Survival of the Fittest,” “Eye for an Eye,” “Shook Ones Part II” reveals this timeless feeling that is experienced each and every time they perform this material. While these songs immediately took listeners back to a purer time for the genre, artists such as Childish Gambino, equipped with Busta Rhymes like energy and incredible punch-lines, or Fashawn, who is one of the best word-for-word lyricists in the game right now, are looking to leave their own imprints on an over saturated genre that often forgets artists before they ever really get to know them.
On a day filled with so many great moments, the two that completely transported the audience to another time and place were Erykah Badu and Nas. Badu was by far the most captivating artist to perform at the festival. It was impossible not to get lost in every note this queen of soul and seduction sang. Wearing a top hat and outfit that resembled vintage circus conductor garb, there was not a second that Badu was not in control of her music. This was made clear during “\”The Healer\”as fans fell into a calm trance, which served as a nice change of pace from the rest of the music being performed that day.
While fans were lost in Badu’s presence, the stage production for Nas’ set transported the audience to the Houses of Queensbridge. Along with AZ, DJ Premier and Pete Rock, the performance of Illmatic was worth the price of admission alone. 17 years since arguably the greatest hip-hop album of all time came out, it is incredible to see how truly ahead of his time Nas’ rhymes and style were. The only detours from the album were AZ and Nas performing “Phone Tap” and Pete Rock and Preemo having a “battle” by going back and forth and dropping some of the classic material that they produced throughout their illustrious careers for artists such as Gangstarr, Run-DMC, and CL Smooth. Everyone was able to reminisce before getting back to the regularly scheduled illmatic program. At one point during the performance, Preemo yelled to Nas, “This is fucking with my memory,” which might be a statement echoed by everyone leaving the festival.
After he finished the album, Nas performed “One Mic,” “Hate Me Now” and “Made You Look,” which brought Ron Artist, Mobb Deep, and Erykah Badu to the stage. It was a celebration that had everyone up and prompted Nas to give a heartfelt shout out to his cohorts: “We made it.” With the Queensbridge backdrop and videos from the juice crew era playing in the back, this will be one of those “where you there when” moments that will be talked about for years to come.
With a set as explosive as Nas’, many people decided that he would be their headliner, even if there were artists still performing. Those who stayed to see Lauryn Hill witnessed an artist who often seemed at odds with the very band that she was performing with. Not nearly as relaxed as Badu, Hill seemed tight during her set and her now infamous decision to rework her music so that it is in double time continues to be puzzling. While it would be nice to see her just let go and really enjoy herself, there were moments throughout her set that reminded listeners of how truly talented she is. As her set came to a close, she made her way into tracks off the Fugees The Score, and Nas rejoined her on stage for “If I Ruled The World(Imagine That)” As the song finished, Nas bowed to Hill, calling her the queen.
Shortly after the festival came to an end, fans had already flooded Facebook with their wish list for who should headline and perform at next year’s Rock the Bells. From Outkast performing ATliens to the Beastie Boys headlining, fans are already making their voices heard, and thankfully for all of us, Guerrilla Union will be listening and will put on another festival that will continue to raise the bar higher.