Rock the Bells Tour Saturday, August 23, 2008 Fiddler's Green
The Rock the Bells show was supposed to be a sort of door closing on my adult years, one of those watershed moments replete with voiceover from Richard Dreyfuss that would have gone something like: “As my homies and I spazzed out to “Check the Rhime,” for what would be the last time as a crew, I couldn’t help but feel the pull of my adult life calling beyond the ones and twos to something more....” I’m sure you can fill in the rest. Well, like most thirtysomethings, my homies would much rather complain about the state of music than actually enjoy music -- or their lives, for that matter. So I gritted my teeth, determined to blend with the younger crowd, and took in some late summer hip-hop, the way it was meant to be, high off skunk and drunk off liquor.
Even though the lineup read like the names of all the girls I used to want to get with in school, I was apprehensive of the awkward exchange that comes from seeing old flames in the present, when they recognize you but you don’t recognize them at first:
“Hey, I remember you from school!”
“Wow, you have certainly changed since back then... I mean to say that you look good, all filled out… I mean, all grown up! A Big Beautiful Woman!”
“So it was nice seeing you I guess”
(walks away pissed)
So yeah, not only could all the old school dudes be fat and smoked out, but damn, could it be that my memory of all those good feelings this music elicited could change? Yeah, of course, but read on.
In my quest to maintain street cred and gracefully age while remaining a hipster, I am compelled to keep it as real in the feel as possible. So out of all my homeboys, the only one of my dawgs willing to roll was a cat. Yup, my homegirl that I used to date was sort of a last resort (but only cause I wanted to show homie love so strong), but she came through in the clutch and said she would fuck with me at the Rock the Bells show. She’s always down for a show, so I started calling her Showgirl. This works for me on many levels. She feeds my metrosexual image because she’s fine enough to be accessory, but she is also down like four flat tires for some hip-hop, sometimes even more than me. Back in the magical summer of ’94 when we were all in love, upon listening to Illmatic the first time she loudly exclaimed to me, "You know, Nas is so tight, I might have to just give him the pussy."
See what I’m saying?
So me and Showgirl set out for Rock the Bells and made it to Fiddler’s in time for the Cool Kids’s set on the side stage. Cool Kids put on the kind of show that should have played the main stage, and their faithful fans kept pace on mixtape joints and songs from their excellent Bake Sale EP. The quick set change before Flosstradamus afforded us time to hit the main stage for some Immortal Technique. Don’t get it twisted: I'm down with the message, but nobody likes to listen to Farrakhan over a beat, and I don't mean chill, post-cancer Farrakhan. I'm talking about scary, early ’90s, maybe-I-did-kill Malcolm X Farrakhan.
So, the headache caused by Immortal Techniques rabid rhymes, could only be cured by the sweet Excedrin of the stardom bound Kid Sister, who's stage show and performance were so fresh, so Chicago, she seemed to good for second stage, maybe even too good for Rock the Bells. Kid Sis flowed perfectly out of an ill DJ set from Flosstradamus that ended with "Better Off Alone" by Alice DJ, which flowed perfectly into "Beepers." If her album doesn't blow up in the fall, it won't be because she is not talented, it will be because people don't give a shit about good music anymore. YouTube her performances if you can, her dancers are incredible.
Well, maybe not as incredible as Redman's interpretive dance set to Method Man's "You're All I Need" from his seminal album,Tical. Red was his usual half Kumar and half Chris Kataan, goofing around behind Meth, adding all kinds of new dimensions to what could have been a typical run through performance. These two guys should never be in public without the other. Likewise, Rae and Ghost, who were up next, should never rhyme without each other. I know the Wu has had infighting, but damn, joints from fifteen years ago still sound vital with these two dudes on stage. Meth Red, Rae and Ghost were definitely big highlights on the main stage.
Now for the low light. That would have to be your boy Nasir, taking the stage after an audio glitch gave away his big intro, twenty-mintues late, only to find his mark and keep it for one of the worst Vegas style run thrus of a rap career on record. Nasty Nas was stiffer than his performance in Belly as he stumped for Obama (poorly) and refused to use the N-word. What? You try to name your album Nigger, start a national diatribe on the epithet, and then you won't use it in front of your base (i.e. weeded out white kids)?
In an audience of well over 10,000, only five percent or so of the crowd looked enough to even remember when any of these acts were relevant. What’s more, there were maybe fifty black people. I'm serious. Checking out the crowd was like playing "Where's Walt D?" The racial disparity was brought to its earth shattering eclipse earlier when the Pharcyde, (looking nice and shapely, finely aged and weirdly swapping hairdos amongst its four members; long hair is short now, short hair is long now) launched into its seminal classic "I'm The Type of Nigga," and everybody sang along... LOUD. damn.
But it wasn't all strange juxtapositions of race and class, well, yeah it was. A trip to the top of the green revealed merchants selling strange bootleg items that white kids aren't interested in -- faux Dior rasta sunglasses and fake ice. (Why does every African vendor of fake and bootleg shit always have to have his celly cradled and be counting a wad of cash? Check the books there might be a law.) One booth over, there were brochures about AIDS awareness, largely untouched and unnoticed, why? The rate of AIDS amongst black adolescents is skyrocketing; it's almost a non-issue for whites, even if they like rap music. Because after all, in 2008, you don't even have to like black people to like rap music, remember when you did?
As parents stood around patiently backstage for the show to end -- not on some, I love hip-hop like you, let's span generations shit; more like some, when will these loud mouthed old cats to shut up so we can get back to the burbs steelo -- Blackstar took the stage to cover for the absence of Tribe Called Quest. The crew’s show was live, even though Mos Def spent the first twenty minutes indulging his ego, listening to himself sing in the monitors and doing his "Mos Def thing" for the ladies in attendence (who were 90 percent white, and 75 percent of them didn't care -- takes a special brand of white girl to really feel Mos Def). If this dude is not the Dean Martin or Bing Crosby of hip-hop, then who the hell is? He would rather sing than actually emcee.
But as soon as Kweli hit the stage, Mos tightened up his act. But tight is a relative term, at least fifteen minutes of the set was spent with DJs playing old joints that are obviously favorites of the crew. I was feeling the old school and so was Showgirl. The crowd ... not so much. There is something to be said when DJ Revolution is cutting Kenny Burke's “Keep Rising” to the top and Kweli is rapping Doug E. Fresh's rhymes from his version, and then they fade into the original and everybody -- and by everybody I mean me and Showgirl -- sings along. That is what rock the bells is supposed to be all about. By the time Mos launched into the massive hit "Umi Says" to close the show, most of the crowd really wasn’t feeling it.
Ultimately, Rock the Bells is a festival time out of time, built for an audience that doesn't care, attended by an audience that doesn't know. Either they don't know, don't show or just don't care about what's going on in the ’hood. They just wanna smoke they drugs and do the hippie shake to Raekwon and Ghostface.
-- Shawn White