In its fifth year the hip-hop festival Rock the Bells is still a vital part of hip-hop culture. This is why the festival needs to try to re-invent itself if it wants to stay relevant in both the hip-hop world and in popular culture. The all day celebration of all things hip-hop and rap got off to a rocky start when it was announced that one of the genres most vital players in the game Common, would not be performing at the southern California stop. Wu-Tang Clan member Raekwon the Chef was also a no show in his time slot but managed to pop up during Busta Rhymes set. Again, I implore hip-hop artists to stop using gold watches as wrist candy and start using them to tell time! These bumps in the road did not however take away from some of the days performances.
While indie/underground acts like Eyedea and Abilities and Sage Francis kept things moving on the second stage, the main stage showcased both the old school and new school artists trying desperately to move hip-hop forward. The hip-hop duo the Knux started things off on the main stage followed quickly by former Jurassic 5 frontman Charlie 2na. 2na was an integral part of the J5 sound and he proved why in his set by nimbly rapping, twisting and turning his lyrics inside and out, and providing some of the most memorable metaphors of the day. Rapper Tech-N9ne hit the stage next and brought with him a sense of intense energy and an almost horror film like approach to his brand of hip-hop. If there is such a thing as “goth-hop”, Tech-N9ne may be the inventor and leader of it. The rap group La Coka Nostra was up next and featured Everlast and Danny Boy from the 90’s hip-hop group House of Pain. La Coka demonstrated an old school feel backed with a new school, razor sharp attitude. The group went through the tunes on their debut disc and then got the crowd moving with the 90’s anthem “Jump Around”.
After a bit of a break in the action one half of the Outkast duo, Big Boi hit the stage and ran through many of Outkast’s biggest hits. Big Boi’s set finally had the crowd on their feet and reminded many of us just how important and innovate Outkast has been to the genre. The Roots made there way back to RTB and proceeded to bring the house down. Many fans scratched their heads when the group announced they would be the house band for Jimmy Fallon’s late night show. The late night gig however, seems to have sharpened the bands cohesiveness. The group powered through some of their better known tunes, showcased their guitar player, Capt’ Kirk Douglass and rapper Black Thought barely took a breath, as he spat out his rhymes in an adept, succinct manner. Thought has to be the most underrated mc in the rap game and The Roots again proved to be one of the best bands around in any genre of music.
The day was rounded out by an old school set by Slick Rick, a frenzied, albeit disjointed and much too short set by Busta Rhymes and as the sun set, Damien “Jr. Gong” Marley and Nas took the stage. The duo showcased a few tunes from their up coming disc “Distant Relatives” and they also did their own better known material. Marley brought a little much needed musical diversity to the festival with his brand of reggae while Nas captivated the audience with a set of his classic material. Headliner Ice Cube closed the show and reminded everyone that before he starred in “Are We There Yet?”, he was a member of NWA and one of the architects of hardcore/gangsta rap.
If Rock the Bells wants to stay on top of the music festival game it may want to enforce stricter rules against no show artists, have stricter adherence to set times and inject a bit more musical diversity into its action plan. The name of the festival includes the word “Rock” so why not add some? This may ensure more fans having there bells, rocked next year.