Traveling hip-hop fest Rock the Bells downsizes, experiences growing pains
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Chang Weisberg is aware that the natural thing to do in this situation is count his blessings.
Rock the Bells, the traveling hip-hop festival he founded, is recognized as the most consistently successful tour of its kind: a beacon to fans of indie-leaning and old school rap with a track record of safety and high sound quality that stands virtually alone among hip-hop arena tours. As the annual fest enters its seventh year – at a time when the concert industry has been rocked by declining revenues, cancelled tours and widespread hand-wringing – ticket sales have already exceeded expectations with more than 20,000 tickets pre-sold in each of the major markets Rock the Bells will reach (including San Bernadino’s NOS Event Center, where the tour kicks off on Aug. 21).
But Weisberg, founder and head honcho of the Pomona-based concert promotions and marketing firm Guerilla Union, hasn’t been able to ignore the broadsides from fans outraged by his decision to significantly downsize the tour for 2010.
“We have a lot of fans upset at Rock the Bells this year,” the promoter acknowledged. “Last year we were in eight markets and this year, we’re in four.”
Previous years have seen the festival book as many as three times more dates and travel to smaller cities including Honolulu, Minneapolis, Myrtle Beach, SC and Columbia, MD. In addition to the NOS Event Center engagement, Rock the Bells 2010 will reach San Francisco’s Shoreline Amphitheater, Governor’s Island in New York and Washington, DC’s Merriweather Post Pavillion.
The festival reliably showcases many of the genre’s most beloved acts alongside a Who’s Who of hip-hop up-and-comers. But in another shift from established policy, this year’s Rock the Bells will feature several rap luminaries performing their classic albums in their entirety: Long Beach gangsta doyen Snoop Dogg running through his 1993 debut “Doggystyle,” A Tribe Called Quest doing its classic LP “Midnight Marauders,” the many tentacled Staten Island collective Wu-Tang Clan reuniting to perform “Enter the 36 Chambers,” (with fallen member Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s eldest son, Boy Jones, subbing for his father) and influential British-America rhyme-spitter Slick Rick performing “The Great Adventures of Slick Rick.” Then there’s what amounts to a three-date mini-comeback by reclusive rap-R&B diva Lauryn Hill – but more on that later.
To chatroom commenters across a grumpy hip-hop nation, the sense of loss remains acute.
“They did a horrible job organizing this event this year,” wrote a commenter on okayplayer.com. “They screwed a lot of cities over.”
“Only four cities? maybe this is a trial run to see if hiphop is dead,” reads a post on deephousepage.com.
To hear it from Weisberg -- who launched Rock the Bells in Southern California by refinancing his house in 2004 and morphed it into a touring fest in 2007 -- the decision to scale down this year has not been entered into lightly. The choice comes after conducting years of field research and trying to grow the festival on the road. Not, as some haters have grumbled, because of lax organization or Rock the Bells caving in to the soft economy.
“It’s not physically possible to recreate the show we do 12 times across North America. And we tried,” Weisberg said. “I don’t know that the audience is there in Boston, Chicago, Miami, Denver or Toronto. The markets are not capable of sustaining a hip-hop show of this magintude.”
As the concert promoter explains it, by limiting Rock the Bells to just four markets, each date on the tour becomes a destination event a la the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival or Lollapalooza, the type of blockbuster, multi-day summer music festivals Weisberg hopes to one day build Rock the Bells into.
“The LA show gets people from all 50 states,” he said. “In New York, ridiculous amounts of people come from Europe. In DC, you get the southern states pluse the midwest. You can’t get 20,000 hip-hop lovers to an event without some out of market support.”
In addition to such emerging rap talents on the line-up as Yelawolf, Wiz Khalifa and Jedi Mind Tricks, sure to be a big factor in that kind of market support this year will be “special guest” Lauryn Hill.
As hip-hop heads have never forgotten, L-Boogie (as she was known as a lead singer of the Fugees) became a solo phenom with the multi-platinum-selling release of her 1998 album “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” – a nimble rapper and soulful R&B chanteuse with a multiple-octave register whose musical talents were only matched by her beauty. But at the apex of her success – after selling some 8 million albums and collecting five Grammys -- Hill seemed to grow disenchanted with music. And her behavior grew increasingly erratic. She began demanding that people address her as “Empress,” quoting scripture at public events like the Grammys and even declared herself “crazy and deranged” in a between-song rant on her 2001 CD “MTV Unplugged No. 2.0.”
For the last decade, the rapper-singer shied away from the public eye to raise her five children, although fan ardor never diminished. In that light, Rock the Bells can be seen as an attempt to return to form, a sustained commitment by Hill to reestablish her pop stardom.
According to Benjamin Meadows-Ingram, senior editor of XXL magazine, the festival has done well by catering to an under-serviced market: a constituency of “longtime hip-hop heads” overlooked by most other traveling hip-hop shows.
“There’s real excitement about this year’s line-up. About this packaging of artists doing full albums,” Meadows-Ingram said. “What Rock the Bells promises, it’s consistently delivered. It seems to be a very well conceived and executed appreciation of what a lot of people consider to be ‘real’ hip-hop.”
At a press conference for the fest in May, an MC on this year’s bill, Supernatural, couched its appeal in a different way.
“Every year at Rock the Bells, you can expect one thing and that’s high level, high quality music. That’s never a question,” Supernatural said. “If any of have ever read comic books, Rock the Bells is like ‘Marvel Universe.’ It’s the greatest collection of super heroes ever brought under one roof.”
-- Chris Lee