Speaking of suicide, if you weren’t at the Rock the Bells festival in New York this weekend, kill yourself. Seriously. Drink a shiteload of bum wine, listen to Sean Kingston’s “Beautiful Girls” on repeat for a few hours and just go through with it. Because I can’t imagine there’s gonna be another hip-hop concert this gully again for a long time, and your dumb ass missed it.
I can’t speak for Sunday’s show, which apparently took place during a torrential downpour, but the weather on Saturday was perfect. Which worked out well, considering how many people were there. Particularly during the last four or five sets there were just way too many people up near the stage. Had it actually been hot outside, they would’ve been carrying folks up out of there.
Indeed, Rock the Bells was far from being the most well thought out or well executed outdoor music festival that I’ve attended. The contrast was especially severe since it took place only a couple of weeks after the Pitchfork Music Festival, in Chicago, which is just plain the best music festival you can go to, provided you’re into shit like Cat Power and the New Pornographers, both of which I enjoy as if they were ice cream.
You always hear these stories about these outdoor music festivals where the water costs way too much money, and the crowd is way too dense with crazy white people, and eventually cats start getting restless and start raping chicks and trying to tear shit down. Rock the Bells never quite got to that point as far as I know, but it was teetering dangerously close to the edge. That the situation never erupted into full-on chaos was a testament to the brilliant nature of the performances more so than anything else.
I got there a little bit late, both because I was out way too late the night before and because I’m not sure how anyone can expect to be on time for anything in New York. When I got there, Pharoahe Monch was going off and EPMD was going on the big stage. I caught a little bit while I was in line for food, but I was a bit too far back to really appreciate what they were doing. Talib Kweli and Mos Def were the next acts on the big stage, so I figured I might head over to the way smaller independent rap stage, called the Paid Dues stage, for a spell.
As many people people were at this damn thing, there was hardly anyone over at the Paid Dues stage, and even a few of them were there just because it was a good spot to sit on the grass and finish your lunch. I stuck around for a few and caught incredible sets by cracka-ass crackas Cage and Brother Ali. Both Cage and Murs, who was the host of the Paid Dues stage, made it a point to mock the acts on the main stage, and I couldn’t help but think that they had a point. Suffice it to say that I wasn’t too pissed about missing anyone on the main stage pre-about 4:00.
Public Enemy was listed as not going on until like 8:00, second on the bill only to the two headliners, but I looked over, and their shit was beginning right as Brother Ali was going off. Nothing against Public Enemy, which is easily one of the best rap groups evar (yep, even better than OutKast), but they were probably the biggest disappointment of the sets that I saw. They were playing with a live band, I guess to appeal to the thousands of cracka-ass crackas in attendance, but compared to the Roots, who went on right after them, not to mention Rage Against the Machine, they just couldn’t bring it. Also, they turned over what seemed like the last half of their set to Flava Flav and his neo-minstrel antics.
The two biggest surprises to me, and really my two favorite sets of the evening were the Roots and Cypress Hill, which were the next two acts on the bill. The Roots are generally regarded as one of the best live acts in hip-hop, and the one time I’d seen them before, last summer, they weren’t bad, but they obviously brought their a-game plus some for their Rock the Bells set. In addition to the usual 8 or 10 cats they have on stage, they had a small marching band and probably a few other people as well, which they made great use of, in rollicking versions of shit like “Star” from The Tipping Point and a cover of Bobby Womack’s “I Can Understand It” that seemed to go on for 20 minutes.
I’d be lying if I said I spent very much time in the last 10 years or so thinking about Cypress Hill, but Saturday I think they made a pretty convincing case for being, on the low, maybe the second best live act in all of hip-hop. At least top five. As my boy Billy X. Sunday pointed out, the crowd was remarkably white and adolescent (if not particularly young, if you know what I mean), which I’m sure helped matters. There’s just something about Cypress Hill that brings the monkey out of ignorant-ass white people. Also, their catalog is probably a bit deeper than you’d think. I’m not into them enough to know at which point they began their descent into self-parody, but before then they were putting out some of the best hip-hop of the early to mid ’90s, i.e. the best period evar in rap.
To tell you the truth, I think the evening kinda peaked with Cypress Hill. Which is not to say that the headliners, the Wu-Tang Clan and Rage Against the Machine, were bad by any means. Just not nearly as good as nostalgia would have you believe. On the one hand, it was nice to see that all nine surviving members of the Wu, plus Cappadonna and Street Life were even in attendance. Together though, I don’t find their set as entertaining as it is to see the best of them, i.e. Ghostface, Method Man, and the GZA live by themselves. One thing I will say though is that seeing them all together provides an interesting glimpse into the group dynamic, which has been pretty well-documented going back to the days of Enter the 36 Chambers. Seeing the full Wu-Tang Clan live is actually more like seeing “Method Man, featuring the Wu-Tang Clan.”
Rage, to their credit, played a much more polished and professional set than their old touring partners the Wu. I’m just not sure how much of a Rage fan I actually am. In particular, I find them much more effective in small doses rather than over the course of an album, let alone a somewhat lengthy live set. To get an idea of what I’m talking about, try loading all five Rage albums up into iTunes and letting that shit play on repeat for about two hours. After the first half an hour or so, it’s like, “Alright, we get it.” You wish their catalog wasn’t nearly as same-y as it is. Granted I’m sure part of it was because I was tired and, again, there was just way too many people up near the stage, but I found myself wondering how many more songs it would be before they got to “Killing in the Name Of,” which ended up being the second song of a two-song encore.
Still, standing there in a sea of what had to be the craziest white people in New York (which would make them pretty much the craziest white people anywhere), middle finger in the air shouting fuck you to The Man, I couldn’t help but think that this was one of those events that people will be talking about for the rest of their lives, like the original Woodstock, or its sequels, with all the mud-throwing and the sexual abuse. The line-up alone was pretty much the best line-up of live hip-hop possible, at least as far as I’m concerned, and, for the most part, the groups actually came through with great sets. You wish the d-bags who planned wouldn’t have been quite as greedy or as inconsiderate as they were, but what are you gonna do?