Saturday, Gavroche and myself got out for SanDisk‘s Rock the Bells tour at Shoreline. If you’re in Denver on 8/23 or Washington on 9/6, don’t miss this show. Rock the Bells continues to set the standard in terms of large scale festivals bringing together a fantastic line-up that often doesn’t happen with hip-hop. Whereas some tours or shows will have one or two big names with a bunch of unheard of artists (not that they’re bad!), Rock the Bells this year features one of the most star-studded hip-hop line-ups I’ve ever seen. Even if you’re not a huge fan of hip-hop, this show features enough classics that it can serve as a tasty introduction to some music you haven’t heard and might enjoy.
Furthermore, one of the major plagues of festival shows, the lengthy and crowd-angering set changes between acts, was completely eradicated by the crew of this show. Utilizing a simple stage set up with a DJ above a large black screen with the name of the act, it took very little to get in and out of sets, and towards the end of the show it was 10-15 minutes between every performer. When you look at the Kanye fiasco (no matter who’s fault that was) at Bonnaroo and some of the problems that always come with numerous acts, the artists and the crew of this show have a lot to be proud of in their speedy set changes.
The event started with SanDisk’s royal treatment in their VIP lounge. They had an open bar and food served all day, as well as scheduling meet and greets with Supernatural, Dead Prez, Murs and De La Soul. The event is sponsored by them along with their new product, the Mobile Ultra Mini SD card, which gives your phone 2 gigs of memory. Seems to me the type of thing anyone with a love of music or movies needs. All I can say is that I hope the fans appreciate what SanDisk did in compiling this artist line-up and sponsoring the show.
The show kicked off around 11 with a short set from Wale, who is gearing up to release an album off Interscope. He was followed by MURS, who, despite being a kick-ass rapper, somehow got stuck with a mostly empty amphitheatre. But he brought energy to the stage in his quest to promote not only the free internet release of Sweet Lord, but also his upcoming Murs for President. With shorts, a concert promoted t-shirt and his signature dreads, MURS carried with him less pretension and more of a laidback aura than you might expect from a rapper of his caliber, but he’s truly about the music and the fans. At the meet and greet after his set, he not only posed for pictures with fans, but I even saw him take a girl’s cell phone and talk to her friend to convince the friend that this girl was actually backstage with him. Seeing him chat it up with some girl’s friend on the cell phone, just to help her verify she was there was one of those fan friendly moments that most artists will never get involved in. Murs seemed happy to.
Following Murs, it was a surprise to see Blackalicious released so early in the show. Between Chief XCel and Gift of Gab, they’re one of the truly gifted hip-hop groups that can take difficult songs straight off the album and reproduce them flawlessly live. More than that though, Gift of Gab is just plain fast. When you hear a song like “Alphabet Aerobics,” you don’t think there’s any way it could be performed live. It’s just too fast with too many tongue twisters. Gift of Gab makes it sound easy. At one point in the set, he did a fantastic mixmatch, using an old Puff Daddy beat to rap “To Know You” from 4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up. To close the set, they freestyled at a frenetic pace, just to prove it wasn’t all just a stage show.
After Blackalicious, Dead Prez took the stage and put together a set that got the steadily growing crowd energized. They played about 6 songs, finishing with “Bigger Than Hip-Hop” which pumped life into the stage just as they were leaving it. One of the great things about Dead Prez was that they, like Murs, were extremely accessible to the fans backstage. M-1 set up shop on a couch with a bottle of Patron and stic.man spent most of his time talking to people. They’d pose for anyone that came up with a camera for them. Very friendly.
Immortal Technique followed Dead Prez with a set that I think pleased every Tech fan in the crowd, and shocked everyone else. I’ll start with a thank you to Immortal Technique and his crew over at Public Wizard as they set up the interview with Tech and put us in touch with the press department for this festival. For people who don’t know Immortal Technique’s music or message, hearing him on stage for the first time could have a very jarring effect on someone chilling on the grass drinking and smoking at a hip-hop festival. But as anyone who’s a listener knows, and as he told everyone at the show, he really doesn’t give a fuck what you think.
He’s far more politically oriented than any other rapper at the show, and he delivers his lyrics with an uncompromising style that doesn’t care if the audience likes it or not. He played a great set with “Industrial Revolution,” “The 3rd World,” “Harlem Streets,” “Point of No Return,” and “Peruvian Cocaine.” More than any rapper I’ve seen in concert, he never truncates his lyrics or songs, which makes sense for someone with that kind of power in the message. If Tech is in your town, check out the show. He’s intense.
In between Immortal Technique and Raekwon and Ghostface, Supernatural took the stage and ripped one of the longest and most interesting freestyles I’ve ever heard live. With people at the edge of the stage, he freestyled solo for about 5 minutes, rhyming about whatever random objects the people in front of him handed to him. He talked about the San Francisco Giants, Trident gum, a bracelet, anything. It was like watching an extremely gifted improv actor who knew how to rap. I hadn’t seen Supernatural before this concert, and I was blown away by the depth and length of his freestyle.
Following Supernatural came, in my opinion, the weak link of the show. Raekwon and Ghostface took the stage and fell flat. Despite having a large bottle of orange juice and a blunt on stage with them, Raekwon and Ghostface just don’t deliver live like other members of the Wu-Tang Clan that I’ve seen.
It’s not that they’re not solid rappers in their own right, major contributors to the Wu-Tang crew, and fantastic studio rappers, but live they just don’t perform like GZA and Method Man. While other artists at the show were able to engage me with songs I hadn’t heard before, I couldn’t get into any part of the set. I also took some issue that these guys forgot where they were, thanking Los Angeles at the end of the set. Some people thought they said, “The Bay,” but I know I heard them say, “L.A.”
Next up was Rakim who unleashed solid song after solid song. The crowd was heavily invested in this one as a rapper so old school that he’s referenced in an old school 2Pac song called “Old School” ripped through an energetic set in which he rapped with enthusiasm, skill and what seemed like an urge to have everyone in the crowd feel what he was feeling when he let it out.
I hadn’t heard any Rakim other than his work with Eric B., and I was thoroughly impressed with how natural he sounded even removed from the sound of the ’80s. What’s more is that you can see in his reactions to the music and his delivery how much he loves the genre. This was one part of the show I wasn’t sure about going in and was very pleased with coming out.
When De La Soul took the stage, the passion from the crowd poured out. Posdnuous went off stage and into the crowd and was immediately surrounded by the fans. The entire set was upbeat and very strong for a group who has been dealing with numerous release and record label issues over the past 8 years. Along with Murs and Dead Prez, this group was the most accessible backstage, taking time to joke around and take pictures with Pharcyde.
De La Soul’s grind was followed by the rowdy duo of Method Man and Redman. From the minute they ran on stage to the time they left it, these two brought the show and the crowd to a new level. While some people not too versed in hip-hop may have thought The Wire‘s Cheese was trying his hand at rapping, there was no question to a listener that Method Man showed up.
Redman opened up a shook can of Coke on stage and then did an interesting dance trying to avoid the spray. But the cameras in the photo pit had no such luck as the box of bottled water on stage quickly became projectiles for Meth and Red to chuck into the crowd. There’s usually a 5-6 foot space between the photo pit and the seats near the stage. Method Man invites the crowd to come up and they quickly fill in the gap, providing him a place to dive off the stage and into them. These two slammed through their set of well rehearsed fan favorites such as “Y.O.U.” and “Mad Crew” with incredible precision despite the crowd surfing and water hurling antics. There were several excellent moments throughout every artist’s set, but for the passion of performance and raw energy, no set rivaled Method Man and Redman.
The Pharcyde took the stage next. The DJ gave them a little flak for the length of time since their last album, and they got the “with special guest” billing from the tour. The set was good, and of course closed with “Passin Me By” and included “Runnin” which had the crowd enthused. For a group who hasn’t been together in years, it didn’t show in their on-stage chemistry. The set was well done and while most know Slimkid3 and Fatlip, there wasn’t any sense of animosity between them or competition for stage time.
The always eclectic Mos Def followed, coming on stage in a shirt from a Louisiana coffee/beignet shop, sunglasses, a trucker hat and an 80s windbreaker style jacket.
This changed throughout the set as he lost the jacket and hat, traded them for a bandanna and gradually got more relaxed with the crowd as the set went on. Up to this point in the concert, the sun had been on the other side of the stage, so it fit perfectly as the sun started raining down on the front side of the stage for Mos to perform “Sunshine.” Although it’s still hard for me to separate Mos Def the rapper from Mos Def the Def Jam Poet and Poetry MC, he carries a stage presence and swagger that just works.
Nas was next. While Method Man and Redman put on the performance with the most juice, Nas had the best set of every artist at the show. He started with “Sly Fox” off his new album (we’ll leave it to other outlets to decide whether to call this one Untitled or the N-word Nas originally wanted to slap it with), and then went on an all-out retrospective of his work with varied length pieces of “New York State of Mind,” “The World is Yours,” “Life’s a Bitch,” “Street Dreams,” “If I Ruled the World,” “Nas is Like,” “Got Yourself a Gun” (complete with an interlude featuring Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E.”) and then doing a heartfelt rendition of “One Mic.” One problem with all the favorites is that rappers will drop out and let the crowd do some of the work…they paid to see YOU rap it! If they wanted to listen to themselves rap, they’d do it in their car or at home or at a karaoke bar.
Regardless of this fact, Nas’ set was more complete than any other in that he gave a taste of his new music but threw out all the favorites to remind the audience of his lyrical supremacy, and sometimes more importantly in rap, his longevity and ability to continue evolving while maintaining a quality of lyrics that rarely suffers from repetition even eight albums later.
To close the show, Q-Tip did three songs with Mos Def before he was joined by the rest of A Tribe Called Quest to finish out an excellent afternoon of hip-hop. Q-Tip initially seemed very agitated, angry almost that the crowd volume was not what he expected. He yelled “LOUDER” several times and was obviously frustrated. He of course performed “Vivrant Thing.” As for Tribe’s set, it was a throwback worthy of the concert, playing a host of fan favorites that had everyone dancing and rapping along. But why go through the setlist when I can simply show you?
So that was that, 2008’s Rock the Bells. With 2 more shows left, there’s still a chance for people to get out and see it, and if you don’t, don’t forget it when it comes around next year.