Review: Rock the Bells gazes back while looking ahead

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

Don’t ask me about Rock the Bells. Ask Ron Artest. After all, the Los Angeles Lakers forward was ubiquitous at San Manuel Amphitheatre on Saturday: ebulliently rapping along to every word of Mobb Deep’s “Infamous” and bouncing onstage alongside Nas to help foster nostalgia for “Memory Lane.”

The sometime rapper/full-time fan represents the demographic sweet spot for the traveling hip-hop festival: 31 years old, weaned on rugged ‘90s boom-bap rap and unabashedly nostalgic for the era when its raw and uncompromised iteration received a spot on the throne. The aesthetic defined by Q-Tip’s declaration, “Rap is not pop. If you call it that then stop.”

To its credit, festival promoter Guerilla Union put in a yeoman’s effort at booking young guns such as Curren$y, Mac Miller, Blu & Exile, Freddie Gibbs and even Childish Gambino, the project from “Community” star Donald Glover. But it was clear from the massive crowds clustered around the Rock the Bells stage and the smaller Wu Tang Clan-branded Enter the 36 Chambers stage that more people loved the ‘90s than VH1 could ever guess.

Photos: Rock the Bells 2011


In its eighth year extant, the festival has evolved toward a model similar to that of England’s All Tomorrow’s Parties. Out of the 30-plus acts assembled Saturday, a dozen performed their classic records, abiding by the unofficial “20 Year Nostalgia Rule.” For fans frustrated with the fickle climate of the Internet age, it was a reminder of the days when albums seemed like omens: both indelible testament to concrete contemporary realities and harbingers of future financial windfalls.

No album better captured that dichotomy than the evening’s emotional core, ‘Illmatic,” with Nas aided by the album’s lone guest star, AZ, and its legendary producers, Pete Rock and DJ Premier. Backed by a set piece of the Queensbridge Houses projects and clips from four elements of the hip-hop bible, “Wild Style,” the all-black clad Nas brought the “dungeons of rap” to the Inland Empire.

DJ Premier shouted out, “How many of y’all got ‘Illmatic’ on CD, tape or vinyl?,” and the West Coast crowd howled like a New York winter wind. Part celebration, part high-fidelity re-creation, “Memory Lane” featured Nas’ Bravehearts crew, Artest and a top hat-clad Erykah Badu grooving in the ersatz projects. With jazz loops flaring, the usually stoic Nas loosened up, smiled and said, “If we made it out… Anyone can do anything,” underscoring the lyrical urgency of the canonized record.

“Illmatic” was a highlight, one of many. Badu was backed by a dozen-piece band, and her celestial analog soul cooled off the crowd at dusk. Despite the comparatively rustic foothills setting, Mobb Deep’s rendition of “The Infamous” was so grimy that it made Dizzee Rascal seem like Daffy Duck. While Souls of Mischief’s performance of “93 ‘Til Infinity” and Cypress Hill’s “Black Sunday” brought warmly welcomed Left Coast representation to the heavily New York-skewing lineup.

Hosting the 36 Chambers stage, RZA added context to a galvanic performance of “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx,” describing the year that Ghostface Killah, Cappadonna and Raekwon spent recording in the solitude of his basement, not chasing women and eating turkey burgers, to create a cosmology that combined “Scarface,” Staten Island and stick-up kid slang.

A venue switch from the NOS Events Center to the amphitheater yielded both creature comforts and sonic dividends. Exceedingly well-organized, the festival was only mildly marred by events out of organizers’ hands: Mos Def and Talib Kweli missed their scheduled time slot and turned in a rushed, 10-minute performance later on, while Lauryn Hill’s rendering of “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” was disastrous, with the notoriously erratic artist woefully off-tempo from her thrashing backing band, leaving songs such as “Lost Ones” nearly unrecognizable.

Thankfully, Ron Artest was nowhere within earshot.


Live review: Motley Crue, Bush, others at Sunset Strip Music Festival

How they rocked before the revolution: Iranian rock of the ‘70s

In Rotation: Aaron Goldberg and Guillermo Klein, ‘Bienestan’

-- Jeff Weiss

Top photo: Raekwon performs onstage at the Rock the Bells Festival on Saturday at San Manuel Amphitheatre. Credit: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times.