Rockin’ At Rock The Bells (Review)

Saturday June 27th, 2009, Midwest Bank Amphitheater, Chicago, IL.—let the bells ring. At Rock The Bells, it is tradition for the lineup to come with nothing but sickness. For the last 6 years, the organizers have been emphatic about providing a roster that not only reflects Hip-Hop leadership of today, but one prepared to go back 10 years, go back 20 years, even go back 30 years, if need be. They understand that younger fans might be fiending for some Talib Kweli or Slaughterhouse, but the old heads in the house grew up on EPMD and Pete Rock, and don’t consider them irrelevant in any way.For this reason, Rock The Bells maintains one of the most dedicated, loyal, and diverse fanbase in Hip-Hop concert history.As I watched, from my bird’s eye view—lawn seats (good lookin’ out Mitch Schneider Organization!)—act after act bum-rush the stage, it became increasingly clear why Rock The Bells is one of the most acclaimed concert series in the world. Any fan who got bored at the show only had him/herself to blame. There were two stages, as there are at events like this, featuring equally competent mic-rippers on both ends. Those at the smaller stage might have initially felt left out—but not for long. When KRS-One and Buckshot descended on the crowd, performing songs off their upcoming album, Survival Skills, the message was plainly delivered: “Errbody wanna rap/ Everybody wanna sing/ Errbody do they thing/ Like a muthaf**king robot/!” They couldn’t complain any longer because having M.O.P. leave the stage smoking immediately pacified all concerns. The legendary New York group performed classic hits ranging from “Cold As Ice” to “Ante Up,” as well as some exclusive tracks from their soon-to-be released comeback album, The Foundation. M.O.P.’s fans were glad to have them back, especially after the long hiatus from U.S. touring—a decision which, ostensibly, as accounted from the mouth of their DJ, occurred because they were “protesting George Bush.”Soon after, Slaughterhouse, the much-talked-about Hip-Hop boy band / “Supergroup,” consisting of Royce da 5’9,” Crooked I, Joe Budden, and Joell Ortiz established themselves as a force to reckon with, unleashing an “Onslaught.” The pure chemistry—though semi-hostile at times (word up, Joe!)—the group had on stage really gives up the secret that they are the next big thing—if a few preconditions can be registered. One gets the idea that Slaughterhouse will open up unfound avenues for themselves, if Joe Budden’s ego is kept in check. I hate to reiterate what has already been abundantly stated, but if the group has a diva, it is Joe. He is clearly the wild card—a personality that can turn off just as many people as it turns on. Before Slaughterhouse closed their set, M.O.P. reappeared on stage to perform the new collaboration single, “Woodstock.”“The Chef,” Raekwon, trailed shortly after, catering to the demands of fans who have awaited, almost hopelessly, the release of his highly anticipated sequel, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II. Raekwon credited the long delays, largely the result of label politics, to his refusal to “suck d**k.” At this, Raekwon delved into the ever appropriate “Ice Cream,” a single from his 1995 debut, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Raekwon surfed through crowd favorites from his classic debut, but also dropped some exclusive bombs off the new album, including “New Wu.” As usual, the W signs went up immediately.Raekwon’s set was more a foundation for the closing act of the smaller stage—his fellow Wu, The GZA. GZA’s presence commanded a level of respect very few MCs are capable of. With fans rhyming to his every word, and conforming to his every demand, Raekwon returned on stage to celebrate The GZA as Wu-Tang’s true “leader.” “Before Raekwon became Raekwon, I was a fan of this ni**a,” he said. The GZA’s set wrapped up around 8PM, leaving those at that stage scrambling to the main stage, where The Roots had taken center stage.But before The Roots, Chali 2na, K’Naan, Reflection Eternal, and Tech N9ne had come. K’Naan’s soul-stirring performance dripped of perfection—a must, after his unusually long (to say the least) sound-check. The Somali-born MC has, within the last 3 years, surfaced as a leading force on the international scene. If K’Naan keeps up this level of tenacity, I can only imagine how great an icon he is sure to become.Reflection Eternal, whose follow-up to their 2000 debut is scheduled for a release later this year, did what they do best—entertain while educating. Talib Kweli is no joke on the mic. Everybody knows that. And DJ Hi-Tek is an ingenious producer. Very few feel differently. Kweli had a hard time, though, adjusting to the sound technician’s incompetence; but all complications immediately vanished when “The Blast” ricocheted through the building.Busta Rhymes, coming right before the final acts, took the crowd energy to unreached heights. As part of the last of a dying breed of performers, Busta felt it fit, as many had through the day, to pay homage to the late Motown legendary performer—Michael Jackson. “I dedicate this show to Michael Jackson,” he said.In the course of the day, others had, in their unique ways, touched on Jackson’s illimitable legacy. Raekwon attempted to sing a Jackson classic. That didn’t go too well. Others, like Tech N9ne, performed dance routines. Some broke up their set to explain their love and admiration for Michael Jackson, while others remixed songs to include lines dedicated to the Pop King. Talib Kweli dropped a double line memorializing both Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett. Regardless of what media was used to remember him, however, the messages sent were identical—his impact on Hip-Hop was, as Raekwon noted, “big.” Busta Rhymes had just wrapped up his set, and the night was still young. It was a little after 10:00 PM, when headliner Damian Marley came running out from under the stage, preceded only by a Jamaican flag which swayed left and right as the renowned singer poured out his soul on stage, ready for some “Confrontation.” Damian Marley is a rare breed, gifted enough to turn a Hip-Hop concert into a spiritual awakening. Marley performed songs from his acclaimed past releases, even riffing on some of his iconic Father’s classics, like “War” and “No More Trouble.” The implications of his song selections are evident at this point. He has just begun leading the crowd in a chant of “We don’t need no more trouble/ We don’t need no more trouble/ We don’t need no more trouble/ We don’t need no more trouble/.”Marley’s 2005 album, “Welcome to Jamrock,” was greatly drawn upon, enlisting “Beautiful,” “Move!” “Welcome to Jamrock,” and “There for You”—a personal favorite—to do the job. Damian Marley had a huge task ahead of him. After all, his set was only followed by Queensbridge legend Nas’—co-headliner.Nas, draped in all-white, storms out, ready for combat with his distant relative. Nas ran through many classics, including “NY State of Mind,” “Made You Look,” “One Mic,” and “If I Ruled The World,” but did not touch any from his latest, Untitled. The highlight of his set seemed to be when “Hip-Hop Is Dead” found its way through the speakers’ tunnel. The crowd, already pumped, rhymed every word of Nas’ 2006 single, agreeing that “[to] every Radio station—murder!” Nas went further: “You know what, I hate the Radio. … F**k the Radio.” I concur. As the night grew older, a discovery was made—Damian Marley and Nas are a perfect match. Middle of his set, Nas performed his classic Illmatic single, “One Love,” with Damian Marley morphing it, halfway, into Bob Marley’s classic hit bearing the same name. Nas and Damian Marley seemed to be having way too much fun, even going overboard on the time limit. It was time to go, but Nas felt differently. He began protesting: “We gotta do this new sh**. It’s the only reason [why] we got together.” Nas wants to perform “Africa Must Wake Up,” a call to consciousness to the Motherland. It is a song featured on their highly anticipated collaboration project, Distant Relatives, set for release later this year. He gets his wish. The duo rides the high altitude of concentrated fans into the climax of an eventful day.Many had come, blessed the mic, ripped the stage, paid tribute, and disappeared. But the last men standing were Nas and Damian Marley, fit for their role as watchmen of Hip-Hop and Reggae music. Their alliance is anything but unholy. Their coming together is not by accident. It remains to be seen what direction these power duo hope to take music in. Till that happens, I’ll be waiting patiently, silently watching, and counting my blessings while I’m at it. If there was any ringing disappointment at the June 27th show, and I suppose at every other to come this year, it is that not one single female MC or performer was featured. I’m not sure the Guerilla Union executives have ever heard of Invincible, Jean Grae, or Tiye Phoenix, but they better recognize. Female MCs—in the lineage of Roxanne Shanté (Ph.D.), MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill—are no anomaly in the Hip-Hop community. It is a cultural disgrace when, in 2009, a great lineup featuring the best and brightest Hip-Hop has to offer remains riddled with the sort of gender bias and discrimination that, for decades now, has threatened to cripple Hip-Hop’s moral pillars. Female MCs work the hardest, do the most, and have the least to show for it. Sound familiar? It would be great to see a conscientious drive put into righting this wrong next year. That said, Rock The Bells is still the festival to be at; if not for the music, for the $6 lemonades.

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