Oliver Wang on Rock the Bells, hip hop and nostalgia


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When the Rock the Bells concert series debuted in 2004, it was already steeped in nostalgia for the “golden age” of 1980s and ‘90s hip-hop. Not only did it take its name from LL Cool J’s 1985 hit single, but the two shows that year featured headliners such as the Wu-Tang Clan, Redman, A Tribe Called Quest and Xzibit — artists whose greatest imprints were crafted in the previous decade.

Seven years later and Rock the Bells — stopping at San Bernardino’s San Manuel Amphitheater on Saturday — has doubled-down on its retrospective focus. Twelve of its 30-plus acts are slated to perform signature albums in their entirety. That includes Lauryn Hill performing her Grammy-winning 1998 debut, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” Nas revisiting his 1994 debut “Illmatic,” and Mobb Deep returning to 1993’s “The Infamous.” In fact, only one of those dozen album-based performances was recorded from the last 10 years (Common’s 2005 LP, “Be”).


So-called “classic album” shows have become a fast-growing niche. In 2009, Bruce Springsteen and Steely Dan made industry headlines with concerts based around performances of “Born to Run” and “Aja,” respectively. That same year, Public Enemy performed “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” as part of the ironically named Don’t Look Back series (this September, Public Enemy is following up by performing “Fear of a Black Planet”). In 2010, Rock the Bells dipped its toes in too, with classic album performances of Snoop’s “Doggystyle,” A Tribe Called Quest’s “Midnight Marauders” and the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Enter the 36 Chambers,” plus three others.

For hip-hop fans of a certain age, these kinds of concerts hold an undeniable appeal. Albums and singles aren’t just units of musical consumption but they’re also mnemonic markers, tracing cultural histories and personal audio-biographies.

To listen to an iconic album such as Black Moon’s “Enta Da Stage” (also on the bill) isn’t merely to celebrate its musical qualities, it’s also to transport oneself back to the fall of ’93. Even for those not yet born when these albums came out, enjoying them now connects them to a community and continuum of like-minded fans. This is both the gift and the curse of classic albums: They’re important to how we understand and celebrate a music’s history but they also threaten to encase genres into amber while excluding those who don’t fit a particular aesthetic or temporal sensibility.

For example, when I mentioned the Rock the Bells lineup to a friend — a working musician with over 10 years of international touring — he chafed at it, suggesting it’s an insult to the artists involved by forcing them to fixate on a single recording as if the rest of their catalog was immaterial. I could see his point: Cypress Hill (who will perform “Black Sunday”) and Mobb Deep have 16 studio albums between them but by performing recordings from early in their careers, what does that imply about their two decades of music-making since?

It’s a fair question to raise, but Rock the Bells has always been upfront about the style — and era — of hip-hop it celebrates. It devotes one of its four stages to the Wu-Tang extended family — the “36 Chambers” stage — where devoted fans can hear classic album sets by Masta Killa and Killah Priest.

The festival doesn’t neglect younger fans though. The “Paid Dues Stage” will include Pittsburgh’s YouTube sensation Mac Miller, while the Cali collaboration of Fresno’s Fashawn, L.A.’s Blu and San Diego’s Exile somehow ended up on the “36 Chambers” stage. However, the main stage lineup belongs firmly to legendary recordings of the ‘90s, with Erykah Badu (performing “Baduizm”), Nas and Hill as the evening’s 1-2-3 combo. (Hill may be the night’s most anticipated billing but mostly because she’s now become notorious for shows oft-marred by uneven performances and sometimes bizarre behavior.)


It may be uncomfortable to think of Rock the Bells as the rap equivalent of an oldies revue show, but as hip-hop grows into its own middle age, it has to confront where its 40-and-older fans and artists fit in. This festival, for the last seven years, has taken the most prominent approach to addressing that issue and however specific their choices may be, they seem comfortable with their vision. The question will become: Will other festivals and promoters follow in the same aesthetic path or choose to chart different routes into hip-hop’s past?


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-- Oliver Wang

Oliver Wang is the editor and co-author of “Classic Material: The Hip-Hop Album Guide” (ECW Press, 2003) and runs the music site,