Last Night: Rock the Bells at Red Rocks

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Rock the Bells 2009
Red Rocks Amphitheatre
Thursday, August 6, 2009
Better than:
ringtone rap, anything associated with Auto-Tune or listening to the self-proclaimed newly anointed "King of Pop," Kanye West, talk about himself endlessly.

Since 2003, Rock the Bells has been the premier hip-hop festival to showcase rap music. In the past, the fest leaned heavily toward Wu affiliated acts and the much celebrated and maligned genre of backpacker rap. This year was no different with usual suspects like Nas, GZA, Busta Rhymes, Reflection Eternal, Chali 2na, Supernatural, KRS-One and newcomers such as the Knux, but the tour branched out in surprising ways by including acts like Tech N9NE and Slaughterhouse.

The show started off with the Knux, this year's sole representatives of the tight jeans wing of hip-hop. The two brothers from New Orleans (Alvin and Kentrell Lindsey) banged out tracks from their debut, Remind Me in 3 Days, with high energy and verve. Next, accompanied by a live band, Chali 2na's (of Jurassic 5) heavily syncopated flows helped get the party started, especially when he demonstrated his pop and lock skills while dancing to Rick James's "Give it To Me Baby."

Supernatural, who hosted the show with KRS-One, came out and did his thing where he asked the crowd to provide him with objects, and then he subsequently used these to build a freestyle rap (..."She gave me a twenty and I'm going to keep it as a tip").

The most disappointing part of the show came when Slaughterhouse took the stage.  Joell Ortiz is a ferocious MC, Crooked I and Royce Da 5'9'' are solid lyricists and Joe Budden can battle -- on paper, the group is capable of great things. And the act hinted at its potential when Ortiz took the lead, but all too often, with a shirtless Budden looking like he just came off a Jersey City street corner and seemingly more concerned with smoking a cigarette and finding his orange soda than contributing, the group lacked cohesion.

KRS-One helped get the show back on point by focusing on the art of emceeing and in particular how to move a crowd. By going old school and performing classics like "The MC," the philosopher had the crowd hyped and in his pocket, but he began to lose a bit of steam when he began to pontificate and do a sound check mid-set. He did, however, provide the quote of the day: "Rap is something we do. Hip-hop is something we live."

GZA filled the obligatory Wu designated slot in the set and lyrically showed why he is one of the most respected MCs amongst rappers.

Like Coachella, this festival is known for helping groups reunite. This year it was Reflection Eternal. Even though Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek hadn't shared a stage in ten years, their set was tight and fluid. Kweli spit like he was trying to extinguish the demons of those who have sold the soul of hip-hop in a Faustian bargain. A new album from these two couldn't come soon enough.

In Denver, Tech N9ne is huge. When he hit the stage alongside Krizz Kaliko and Kutt Calhoun, his fans in the crowd- many brandishing red bandannas and flashing gang signs went crazy. During N9ne's set, the marijuana smoke to oxygen ratio reached dangerous levels. Wearing tribal face paint, Tech N9ne's robotic rapid Twista like flow and Kaliko's unique delivery definitely made this act stand out.

Cool like Freddie Jackson, Big Boi kept the energy at a fever pitch by performing Outkast classics like "So Fresh, So Clean" and "Players Ball," as well as solo material. The ATL native promised that there is plans for a new Outkast album.

With a strong Jamaican influence, Busta Rhymes knows how to rock a crowd dancehall style and he did so with his longtime partner Spliff Star on classics like "Woo Ha!!! Got You All in Check." Unfortunately, at one point in the show he felt the need to lyrically dumb it down with derogatory remarks about the female anatomy.

Like last year, Nas headlined, but this year he brought Damian Marley, with whom he's collaborating with on a new album, Distant Relatives. Nas started the set, backed by a seven-piece band, including DJ Green Lantern, with an incendiary take on "Hip Hop is Dead" and then delved into material leaning heavily on Illmatic.  During this portion of the set, Nas was on fire and showed why he is one of the most charismatic performers in hip-hop.

A bit later, Damian joined in on tracks like "N.Y State of Mind," and they performed Nas's "One Love" and a cover of Bob Marley's "One Love" back-to-back. Marley's solo set played too much to the crowd by offering up rote covers from his father's catalogue. Nas's second solo set was top-notch but it wasn't Illmatic. Marley and Nas offered up a few hints of what the new album might sound like but it is clear that this project is still in the developmental stages.  

Rock the Bells is at a point where it might have to reinvent itself or tweak the model a bit to stay fresh. Many of the acts on the bill this year have performed in past years. That being said, the majority of these acts are still some of the best performers in hip-hop. And despite the recession and the show's high ticket costs that many cite as further evidence of the gentrification of hip-hop, the diversity of this year's crowd and relatively strong turn-out, suggest that hip-hop is still far from dead.

Critic's Notebook

Personal Bias: As a teacher, I have had many students try to get me to listen to Tech N9ne, but I've politely declined, probably because I don't understand the Juggalo fans. But after seeing them perform for the first time, I must say I was very impressed with the stage presence.
Random Detail: KRS-One is a Vivaldi fan. The Knux like to rock Queensryche when they're in the mood.
By the Way: Reflection Eternal featuring Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek will be back in town on August 21 at the Gothic Theater as part of a stellar bill with Mos Def and Jay Electronica.

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