Rock The Bells
Saturday, Aug. 25, 2012
Better than: Partying with your own demographic
Rock The Bells is the only annual hip-hop festival to manage the difficult feat of attracting a truly diverse and multi-generational crowd. In its fifth year in the Bay Area (and ninth overall), the event expanded to two days, with over nine hours of live music on two stages each day.
We felt a clear generational shift on Saturday as we arrived to discover that the older artists like Ice Cube, DMX, and Method Man and Redman were scheduled for the smaller "36 Chambers Stage" (which was set up in one of the venue parking lots), while the '80s babies like J.Cole, A$AP Rocky, and Kid Cudi held court on the big stage. In previous years, what might now be called the "heritage artists" (even if your heritage is pot-smoking rappers like Red and Meth) were in the main bowl.
Also gone for this year were the artists performing one of their classic albums in full. While this has been an interesting formula to observe in the past, as in Lauryn Hill's 2011 appearance, it was fun this year to not know an artist's set list in advance.
Alabama's Yelawolf, a Caucasian rapper signed to Eminem's Shady Records, was singing "White Boy Shit" when we got to the main stage. Travis Barker was on drums, and Yelawolf was hoping he was the first to ever incite a mosh pit on the lawn at Rock The Bells. We think that honor goes to Method Man and Redman in past years, but Yelawolf did create the only mosh pit we saw all day.
Compton rapper Tyga, who is part of Lil Wayne's Young Money crew, favors the stripped-down sound that this region is known for these days. His songs "Rack City" and "I'm Faded" have been unofficially adopted as Yay Area anthems, and got an enthusiastic response -- particularly from the lawn, which offered the disconcerting sight of girls in braces singing about dropping it and making it nasty. Oh dear.
The Snoop-and-Dre-approved Kendrick Lamar also grew up in Compton, but is a few worlds away musically, an MC focused more squarely on lyrics and possessed of a more laidback approach with the ladies. He modestly shared the bulk of his set with his South Central collective Black Hippy (Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, and Schoolboy Q). Schoolboy's "Weed and Booze" and Lamar's "The Recipe" had big pockets of the audience shouting along.
A$AP Rocky, clad in a white hoodie with the Last Supper illustrated on the back, brought Schoolboy back out to reprise "Weed and Booze," which fit right in with the Harlem rapper's catalog of songs about marijuana, Ecstasy, and liquified codeine. He paid tribute to the late Pimp C and offered a live remix of sorts to the Three 6 Mafia classic "Sippin' on Some Syrup." While we smelled lots of weed all day, the aroma during A$AP's show was decidedly blunted with cigar paper.
Salt N Pepa were scheduled to perform on Sunday, but they unexpectedly turned up on the second stage on Saturday afternoon to offer abbreviated versions of their '80s and '90s joints ("Push It," "Express Yourself," "Shake Your Thing") and, in Pepa's case, some impressively sparkly and tiny shorts. Salt's husband, Gavin Wray, and Pepa's ex-husband Treach, frontman of Naughty By Nature (who had taken the same stage earlier) came up to dance with them when they did "Whatta Man."
Salt called out for the '70s, '80s, and '90s babies to represent themselves. Each generation made a decent amount of noise, but the '80s babies dominated.
"Who is this performing?" asked a tall young man, who soon turned his back to the stage to take up with his iPhone.
Salt N Pepa's surprise set was an upshot of the day's schedule getting a little bit mixed up, and we and a lot of other people became frustrated with not having an updated one to follow. Even if this information had been simply tweeted out by Rock The Bells, it would've saved some confusing or sad moments.
One such instance: We arrived early in the day to catch Atlanta's 2 Chainz, who was scheduled at 1:25 p.m., but he didn't turn up until the middle of Kid Cudi's closing set after 9 p.m. at night. Cudi had brought the trippiest and most impressive visual projections of the day, including fractals and images from space, but we divided our time between there and also seeing Method Man and Redman on the second stage, missing 2 Chainz altogether. We heard that Cudi was gracious enough to let 2 Chainz perform five songs in the middle of his set, including his recent number one "No Lie," but we missed all of it because there was no updated schedule information available.
We would have put money down that DMX wouldn't show, but there he was, a gaunt figure climbing as high as he could on stage and sounding as high as he could on stage.