San Bernardino: a city smack dab in the vast desert located 60 miles east of Los Angeles. Fun fact about San Bernardino: it just so happens that this city is the birthplace and annual home base of the illustrious traveling Hip-Hop festival, Rock The Bells.
Founded in 2004, Rock The Bells set out to be thee festival for authentic rap music. Were not talking about the things youll hear on your top 40 stations, were talking about real Hip-Hop, with all its grit, its grime, and its beauty. The festival has experienced varying levels of success over the years, at times being one or two shows, other times being able to tour with a full lineup all over the United States and even into Europe and Japan with acts that have included Rage Against The Machine, Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, Jurassic 5, Nas, De La Soul, Cypress Hill, The Roots, Public Enemy, Erykah Badu, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, MF DOOM, and countless, countless others. The economy obviously took its toll on this years installment, limiting the tour to only four stops, including one in San Bernardino, where CoS was well represented.
Lets just get the giant elephant in the room right out in the open. The Rock the Bells crowd enjoy their marijuana. Disclaimer: Winston Robbins does not use illicit drugs, but hes also not oblivious to the world around him. Most, if not all, of the artists on this years bill openly rap about smoking, dealing, or reminiscing about their sweet old Mary Jane. Hell, this years headliner Snoop Doggs song Next Episode 2003 straight up admonishes everyone to smoke weed every day. Further proof? There were several booths set up for the petitioning of legalizing marijuana, a medical tent that could tell you whether or not you qualified for medicinal marijuana (how they determine eligibility at a loud rap festival in a vinyl tent, I have no idea), and blunt wraps for the reasonable price of $6.25 at every food/alcohol vendor.
But it wasnt (and never is) all about weed. It was (and always is) about real hip hop. The realest (real word, honest. I asked Webster and Britannica) Hip-Hop. From noon ’til midnight, the greater Los Angeles area was treated to some of the best live rap available to the world. This years edition was especially awesome because many of the artists played their most popular albums from start to finish. It was a festival fraught with nostalgia.
Saturday, August 21st
Main Stage, 1:00 p.m.
The biggest logistical problem with this years installment of Rock the Bells was the sun, but we cant really point fingers for the sun coming out without running the risk of being smitten by an almighty entity. The sweltering heat ruined three acts from the Golden Age of Hip-Hop, much to my dismay. Slick Rick was the first victim. Rick was slated to perform his beloved Great Adventures of Slick Rick for an hour, but due to some logistical errors, and the scorching sun, this failed to happen.
However, this minor inconvenience didnt seem to slow Rick the Ruler down at all. Donning a stunning array of gold chains and what appeared to be an ivory cane, the legendary Slick came out playing hit after hit to those fans daring enough to brave the 98 degree heat. The brave souls were treated to spot on versions of Treat Em Like A Prostitute, Childrens Story, and Indian Girl, among others. It was a bad idea to put Rick on so early in the day, but as they say, the show must go on. And it certainly went on. -Winston Robbins
Jedi Mind Tricks
Paid Dues Stage, 2:00 p.m.
In an attempt to escape the blazing sun, I entered what I thought would be the air-conditioned building where the Paid Dues Independent Stage was located. I was disappointed to find little to no change in temperature, and a haze of marijuana smoke as thick as sea fog. It didnt matter, however, once underground Hip-Hop darlings Jedi Mind Tricks took the stage.
The crowd at the Paid Stage was much bigger than that of the crowd at the Main Stage, partly because of the heat, but also partly because Jedi Mind Tricks have quite the following. People of every shape and size were screaming the lyrics along with the Philadelphia trio. With virtually no pyrotechnics, this show was about raw rhyming skill, which they had in spades. They came out one at a time with their verses on bass blaster Sacrifice. They proceeded to satisfy their crowd in their short half hour set with fan favorites such as I Against I and The Worst. -Winston Robbins
Main Stage, 2:15 p.m.
Remember how Scottie Pippen played after Michael Jordan retired (the first time)? Or how the gang fared for their final season [of That 70’s Show] after Eric Forman pursued a teaching opportunity in Africa? Things just werent the same. In all honesty, they were much, much worse. Okay, now take that concept and flip it. Lets pretend the gang got by just fine without Forman, and Pippen continued to be one of the most dangerous Small Forwards in the game.
Such would be the case with Rakim. Despite the dissolution of the highly successful duo Eric B. & Rakim, he continued to flourish as a solo artist. Regardless, this was a festival of revisiting the past, so he performed bits of 1987s incendiary Eric B. & Rakim album, Paid In Full sans Eric B. The sun was still blazing and the crowd was still small, but all sorrows were forgotten when Rakim busted out his Hip-Hop anthem Dont Sweat The Technique. -Winston Robbins
Paid Dues Stage, 2.45 p.m.
You may notice in this coverage a leaning towards Winston pieces and not so many Philip pieces. Though this has to do with my focus on the festival photos, I feel I must admit that hip hop is not my thing. I love Wu-Tang and enjoyed most of the artists I watched on Saturday, but there is a difference between enjoying it and being able to write about it. So why I am I writing about Brother Ali? Well, Winston didn’t see him. But also, I felt like Brother Ali signaled me out first through frequently shooting me eye contact and frequenting the small piece of the stage I inhabited. These are all a photographer can want from an artist and unfortunately I cannot return the favor through any kind of knoledgeable analysis of the performance.
So, I could try to give you my best interpretation of Brother Ali’s set (it was fun, energetic, he performed what I assumed were improvisational flows that the crowd seemed to get a kick out of, the crowd generally responded to him favorably, blah blah blah), but instead I will leave you with this thought. It’s my opinion that to be a successful hip hop artist, talent is 50% of the game. The other half is personality. The most beloved rappers have all been enigmatic or larger than life characters, somehow relatable in where they came from and foreign on where they ended up. For other people who grew up in poverty, fighting racial discrimination or forced to live with a physical abnormality, these musicians end up being fantasies and if you aren’t getting in some trouble or making some waves, then the audience won’t be there to relate to you. You have to get people to listen to an album comprised mostly of lyrics. Brother Ali has the talent and he seems like he has already had an pretty interesting life with both universal and enigmatic struggles. I guess we’ll see how it all lands, but don’t be surprised to see him on a main stage in the future. – Philip Cosores
Main Stage, 3:30 p.m.
Yet another unfortunate victim of the blazing sun, KRS-Ones crowd should have been much larger. Hes received a BET award for his efforts in philanthropy and overall contributions to the Hip-Hop community. KRS-One was part of a highly influential rap trio called Boogie Down Productions, which released an impeccable album in 1987 entitled Criminal Minded. KRS eventually went out on his own, but has always kept the fame achieved with Boogie Down. As this years theme seemed to be nostalgia, KRS decided to revisit his Criminal days. With his unmistakably smooth vocal styling, he impressed all those who didnt mind standing in the sun to hear it. Criminal highlight Elementary brought the house down with authority. -Winston Robbins
Paid Dues Stage, 4:00 p.m.
Quite possibly the angriest, most emotionally charged rap at the entire festival belonged to Peruvian-born Immortal Technique. He and his five hype-men had the audience in an uproar right out of the gate. With chant-a-long sayings such as Viva La Revolucion!, The government should fear the people, the people shouldnt fear the government, and simple but effective, F*** cops!, the underground rapper had everyone ready to riot.
Immortal is most widely known for his infamously gruesome track Dance With The Devil, and I personally spent most of my time waiting for its arrival. But it was a foolish hope as the song is nearly 10 minutes long, and would have eaten up a third of his set. Instead, he stuck to mainly tracks from his most recent release Third World, interspersed with political sermons. If anyone came out of Immortals set without feeling some kind of anger, they are completely incapable of human feeling. -Winston Robbins
Murs and 9th Wonder
Paid Dues Stage, 4:40 p.m.
Murs is an unabashed outcast, and he likes it that way. Listen to any of his many, many raps (he promised 10 full-length albums in 2010 alone, but weve only seen one so far, and it was nothing to write home about), and youll see that this is true. Fun fact Murs had his own separate merch tent, completely separate from every other artists. Hes what we in the biz call a loner. In fact, Murs is admittedly a Juggalo. For those of you who do not know what that word means, click here and discover a subculture you will wish didnt exist.
Regardless, Murs and his gnarly dreads got his crowd of fellow lone wolves amped, and isnt that what its all about in the end? –Winston Robbins
Paid Dues Stage, 5:20 p.m.
Once again, cannabis was not something that was kept quiet at this show. Most of the crowded had shifted to the Main Stage to see Lauryn Hill, so Wiz Khalifa played to a very small crowd of fellow stoners, but Im not sure there was a more enthusiastic audience all night. Wiz was named to XXLs Freshmen 2010 list, which is an honor for any up and coming emcee. These acts typically attract a younger audience, and this was certainly the truth here. College age kids very serious about their weed were there to support one of their beloved up and comers. The Pittsburgh native laughed and joked with the crowd throughout his set, and played through his half hour set with impressive poise and talent. He commented on the title of his newest mixtape Kush and Orange Juice, saying Its just what I do, man. I like to wake up, smoke, and then have breakfast. True to his word, some audience member threw a J onstage and Wiz proceeded to finish it off for them whilst rapping over a remixed Empire of the Sun track. –Winston Robbins
Main Stage, 5:25 p.m.
Hip as ever, Ms. Lauryn Hill took the stage after a very generous and deserved introduction from an unnamed hype-man declaring her the most influential woman in Hip-Hop. She went on about 20 minutes later than scheduled, but once people got a taste of their old favorite Fugee, those 20 minutes were easily forgotten. She had little to say about her newly reclaimed career or where it was going, but she did say that she was happy to see us all again, which is good indication that shes warming back up to the game. She also had nothing to say about her former bandmates annunciation for Presidential candidacy for the country of Haiti or the prompt denial of his request, but she certainly had some things to sing.
Barnburners: Ooh La La La, Ex-Factor, and her version of Bob Marleys Turn Your Lights Down Low. Unfortunately her set was a little slow and droopy, and it didnt hold the attention of the audience as well as expected. I dont wanna tell her how to do her job, but why on earth would she not play Killing Me Softly? Anyway, it was nice to hear from a voice from the past, even if that voice was a tidbit subdued. –Winston Robbins
Street Sweeper Social Club
Paid Dues Stage, 6:15 p.m.
The Paid Dues Stage had a solid crowd all day long. This may have something to do with the fact that it was out of the sun, but by the early evening this advantage had become obsolete. So was that why Street Sweeper Social Club had the smallest crowd of all the acts we covered? I think it had to do with playing against Lauryn Hill, who was probably the second-most anticipated artist beyond Wu-Tang Clan (and probably the most anticipated amongst the founders and other performers, who all crowded the photo pit during Hill’s set to create complete awesomeness and madness). But the festival’s token rock act seemed to view the sparse crowd as more of a challenge than a defeat.
Now I am not a huge Rage Against The Machine fan, but I have a great respect for Tom Morello as both a musician and activist. When I saw him earlier giving an interview to some other agency, I was star-struck. But like his role in Rage, Morello is a low-key stage stage presence, making himself known but not going over the top. That job is left to his vocalist, which in this case is The Coup’s Boots Riley. Riley was everywhere, embracing the photo opportunities and trying to rile (pun intended) up the sparse crowd. Regardless of whether I would ever listen to the music outside of that precise moment, I dug every moment of it, even their cover of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes”, which on nine out of 10 days would infuriate me. What can I say, I like bands… -Philip Cosores
A Tribe Called Quest
Main Stage, 6:45 p.m.
I think Ive figured it out. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, better known as A Tribe Called Quest, have discovered the fountain of youth. On paper, the men are 40-years-old, but they both move better than men half their age.
After hearing the robotic female voice of The Midnight Marauders Tour Guide, the crowd edged closer with understandable anticipation. We were in the presence of outright legends. Phife Dawg came out first in a Kobe Bryant jersey and Lakers ball cap, despite his being from Queens. This can be perceived in one of two ways: A) he was just trying to fit in (there were plenty of yellow and purple 24 jerseys in the crowd), or B) he has given up on the Knicks, which would be entirely understandable (see last seasons 29-51 record). Next was Q, who was stylishly dressed in a pair of black slim slacks and a leather jacket. The two jumped right into their planned Midnight Marauders festivities with heavy-hitter Steve Biko (Stir It Up), which revved up the crowd.
They stuck to the script for the next five or six songs, playing tracks from their acclaimed Marauders, but they decided to switch things up a little bit and deviate from the plan. Should we really be surprised, though? Remember, were talking about the same individuals that pushed the limits in the early nineties to pave the way for modern Hip-Hop. They jumped back in time to play Low End Theory track, Scenario, which features Busta Rhymes. How could they do that without Busta, you say? Well, lets put it this way: they didnt. Busta joined the boys for the track, as well as Oh My God and remained for the rest of their impeccable set. Tribe kept the pace high the entire time (much unlike Ms. Lauryn Hill), and took the cake for most impressive act, in my opinion. –Winston Robbins
Main Stage, 8:30 p.m.
Wu-Tang Clan really aint nuthin ta f*** with, its true. Wu-Tang brought their rowdiest A game as they embarked upon playing their 1993 debut album Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in its entirety. Unlike A Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang played their album track for track in its exact order. As you may know, a key member of the Clan, Ol Dirty Bastard, passed away in 2004. So, a question that came to everyones minds at the annunciation of playing the whole album was Whos going to do Dirtys parts? 36 Chambers is a very ODB heavy album.
Fortunately, ODBs eldest son, Boy Jones, who looks way too much like his father, was happy to take the role. And although his role was strictly ornamental, he played the part like a champ and deserves major props at doing his Father justice, running all over the stage and into the crowd, screaming and yelling the whole time.
Every Clan member got their chance at the spotlight, but as usual, the performance was dominated by the more enigmatic characters of the Wu. Method Man, RZA, and Raekwon took the helm at fronting for the band, connecting with the audience between every song, and taking every opportunity to make a shout out. The album was played with brilliant expertise with major highlights including Bring Da Ruckus, Wu-Tang Clan Aint Nuthin Ta F*** Wit, C.R.E.A.M., and Method Man, though the group also squeezed in some other hits, including “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”, “Triumph”, and “Da Rockwilder”.
While less stylistic than that of Tribe, Wu-Tang really stole the show with mere presence. Really, who expected Method and Raekwon to re-enact those torture scenarios we’ve only heard on record? And who ever thought the crowd would sing along, after, what, 20 years now? Hilarious yet amazing. Once again, they owned a Rock The Bells festival, pretty much ensuring them a spot in the Rock The Bells events to come. –Winston Robbins
Main Stage, 10:15 p.m.
Lets be honest, most of the people in attendance were there for Wu-Tang. The original 2004 Rock The Bells was centered around getting the whole group back together, and at least one member has attended every year since. Its very much a Wu-Tang affair.
That being said, Snoop Dogg is something of a hometown hero, hailing from the LBC. But it had been quite a long day of energetic performances, and throngs of people made their way to the exits as Wu-Tang finished. It didnt help that Snoop didnt officially go on until exactly 10:47 PST. People got more and more tired of waiting, and a large portion of the crowd split. This ended up being a blessing in disguise, however, separating the true fans from the bandwagoneers; the wheat from the chaff, if you want to get Biblical. The remaining wheat were treated to the glitziest performance of the festival and hit after hit from L.A.s beloved son.
Coming on strong with Gin n Juice followed rapidly by The Next Episode, I wasnt sure he could go up from such a lofty starting point, but I was gladly wrong. He pulled out all the old Doggystyle stops; Who Am I (Whats My Name), and Doggy Dogg World, among others. But he, like Tribe, didnt stick to the playbook, and deviated from the Doggystyle course, much to the delight of his adoring fans. He finished things up with a newer cut, a big sing-along version of Drop It Like Its Hot, the perfect authentic Hip-Hop end, to a perfectly authentic Hip-Hop day. –Winston Robbins
Photography by Philip Cosores
Gallery by Philip Cosores