Rock the Bells @ Red Rocks Wednesday, August 22 Red Rocks
Better than: Ninety percent of the hip-hop you see on television and hear on the radio. This acts on this bill hardly get any radio or video play anymore.
It’s been almost ten years since a quality hip-hop festival played at Red Rocks. It was called the Smoking Grooves Tour and featured such acts as Cypress Hill, the Fugees, Gangstarr, Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, among others. Smokin’ Grooves tried to make a comeback in 2002, with fewer artists and it was held at Coors Amphitheatre. But now with the Rock the Bells tour, hip-hop heads have a chance to spend a cool summer day watching legendary acts at the best venue in the nation.
The show started quite early this past Wednesday. At 3 p.m. in the middle of the week, most people are hard at work in their cubicles. Even so, there was a nice crowd for the opening acts, underground denizens Jedi Mind Tricks and the politically-charged Immortal Technique. Both had energetic sets that really served their purpose, which was to get the crowd warmed up for the other luminaries to take the stage.
Up next was Pharoahe Monch with a live band in tow. In his first Colorado show since 1999’s Spitkicker Tour at the Fillmore, he mostly did songs from his new album, Desire, and exhibited his undeniable lyrical genius. The crowd didn’t seem too familiar with the new material, but Monch got everyone into it once he performed well-known favorites such as “My Life.” He closed out his set with his biggest hit “Simon Says,” which had the crowd ready to rush the stage.
Supernatural did a decent job entertaining the crowd between sets, even though fans were expecting Rahzel to be there to help out. He’d bring out his beat machine on top of a speaker monitor with wheels, play a beat and rhyme about what he saw in the crowd. At one point he asked fans to dig in their pockets and bring items to the stage so he could include them in his rhyme. From jerseys, flags and hemp brownies, he threw it all in. At one point, a female fan hopped the stage rails and gave Supernatural her hotel room key.
“Supernat is the illest in the world,” he rapped. “And I just got a room key from a drunk white girl!”
Talib Kweli followed and only performed two songs from his new album, Eardrum, “Listen” and “Hot Thing.” The rest of the set consisted of classic songs from his Blackstar and Reflection Eternal days, as well as his last hit “Get By.” Last year, Kweli launched a new label through Warner Music called Blacksmith and one of the first groups he’s signed was Strong Arm Steady, which consists of veteran MCs Mitchy Slick, Krondon and Phil Da Agony. He invited them all to the stage to do their first single “One Step.” What got the crowd really excited, though, is when Kweli invited Pharoahe Monch back to the stage to perform “Guerilla Monsoon Rap,” from Kweli’s Quality album, making it even hotter, and Sadat X (of Brand Nubian) appeared from backstage to kick a verse on the song. X also performed the Brand Nubian hit “Punks Jump Up to Get Beat Down.” It was an excellent set ender.
Next up was Cypress Hill, who, with its loyal, gigantic following and massive collection of songs, could be considered the hip-hop equivalent of the Rolling Stones. To that end, if you’ve seen a Cypress show once, you’ve seen them all. The group, which practically has the same stage set-up from ten years ago, performed all the classics such as “How I could Just Kill a Man,” “Hand on the Pump,” “Insane in the Brain,” along with their pro-marijuana ditties “Stoned is the Way of the Walk,” “Dr. Greenthumb” and “Hit from the Bong.” The only song the outfit performed from this decade was “Rap (Rock) Superstar,” which ended the set. Regardless, the fans displayed an undying love for those classics.
After that, Nas took his turn on the mike, opening with his recent anthem “Hip-Hop is Dead,” which, as it turned out, was the perfect way to begin his set. He then ran through his catalogue of classics, including “New York State of Mind,” “The World is Yours,” “Life’s a B*tch” and “If I Ruled the World.” During his set, Nas, who has been in the news lately due to the fact that he is booked to perform at a Virginia Tech concert -- much to the dismay of some victim’s parents and Bill O’Reilly -- took a minute to address his detractors.
“Bill O’Reilly called me a gangster rapper,” he bellowed, as the crowd booed at the mention of the Fox News pundit. “They take one song [out of context] that I recorded eight years ago and don’t even perform at concerts anymore.”
With that, Nas went ahead and performed the song in question, “Shoot Em’ Up,” and then followed with the positive songs he is known for like “I Can” and “Made U Look,” and then finished with a dramatic performance of “One Mic.”
Wu-Tang Clan, the final act of the evening, came out with “Wu-Tang Ain’t Nothin’ Ta F*ck With.” RZA introduced all the members of group who were on, noting the conspicious absence of two major players, Ol Dirty Bastard, who died three years ago, and Method Man, who had some business to tend to back home and wasn’t able to make it. Regardless, the group performed almost the entire 36 Chambers album along, with select hits from Raekwon’s Only Built for Cuban Linx, GZA’s Liquid Swords, Ghostface’s Ironman and the group’s 1997 album, Wu-Tang Forever. With eight MCs on stage at once, the sound man having issues with the mikes and speakers, making it tough for those not familiar with Wu-Tang’s massive catalog to get into the set. At times, it was hard to tell who was rhyming and which song they were performing. Die-hard fans, however, knew every word of every song.
When it came time to honor Ol Dirty Bastard, RZA introduced the rapper’s oldest child to the crowd, who then lead them in ODB classics “Shimmy, Shimmy Ya,” and “Got Your Money.” In honor of Method Man, the group lead the crowd in a rendition “The Rockwilder,” Meth’s hit with Redman. As Redman’s verse of the song neared, he stepped out from backstage and did his verse. Wu-Tang ended the night with “Triumph” and “Gravel Pit,” which the members said was fitting for the venue, which they acknowledged, along with every artist on the bill, as being the best venue they’ve ever performed in.
“Whoever thought of cutting through a mountain and putting a stage in the middle of it was a genius,” Supernatural said.
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SHOW ME HOW
-- Quibian Salazar-Moreno
Critics notebook Personal bias: I own the entire Wu-Tang catalog (solos and affiliates included), I’ve followed Pharoahe Monch’s career for sixteen years, and I’ve interviewed Talib Kweli a dozen times -- and he still doesn’t remember me.
Random detail: There was a lot of kids dressing like rappers on TV.
By the way: Rock the Bells very first show in 2004. It also happened to be one of ODB’s last shows and can be seen in the new documentary, Rock the Bells: The Documentary.