Rock the Bells’ raucous roar

The Pharcyde turns in a kinetic set at Rock the Bells.
(Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times)
Special to The Times

You know a music festival is stacked to the gills with talent when Rakim, considered the father of modern hip-hop lyricism, is stuck playing the 2:30 p.m. slot in the scorching San Bernardino summer sun.

But Rock the Bells isn’t just any festival, having emerged in its fifth year as the genre’s preeminent annual event, with the Pomona-based Guerilla Union seemingly topping itself each time in assembling a veritable murderers’ row of artists.

Indeed, in the course of 12 hours Saturday at the Glen Helen Pavilion, a neophyte could’ve received a terrific tutorial in Rap 101, with nearly everything in the genre’s 30-year life span represented: old-school hip-hop; left-of-center Native Tongues movement; grimy New York City ‘90s street rap; late ‘90s underground eclecticism; and the latest school of Golden Age-inspired artists who rocked a smaller second stage to small yet passionate crowds.

If there was a message to be gleaned, it was that old adage of strength in numbers, with legendary groups, A Tribe Called Quest and the Pharcyde, turning in the day’s most kinetic sets.

Tribe, reunited for its first Los Angeles show in years, whipped the crowd into a frenzy from the moment Q-Tip hit the stage with Mos Def in the role of hype man. Q-Tip, nicknamed “the Abstract,” kicked an impressive half-hour solo set of material from “The Renaissance,” his second solo album, set for release this fall.

When long-time partner Phife and sometime sidekick Jarobi emerged to join Tip, the raucous roar could’ve been heard 55 miles west at the Los Angeles County border. Running through a greatest hits set list ranging from debut single “Bonita Applebum” to their final smash, “Find a Way,” both Phife and Tip seemed imbued with the passion typically found in younger, less-established artists.

Though a perfunctory, mailed-in performance might’ve still engendered euphoria from the rapturous crowd, both rappers maintained a feverish intensity throughout, dripping with sweat -- Tip scatting, wriggling, gliding across the stage; Phife, towel over his head, Kobe Bryant shirt on his back, evoking notions of another great underrated figure in Lakers history, that ultimate second banana, Stu Lantz.

As for the Pharcyde, it may not have been the first time they “rocked the bells,” having played the festival’s Anaheim show in 2004. But Saturday’s performance seemed to convey a deeper meaning.

Reunited for the first time in more than a decade, the seminal Los Angeles oddballs were finally at full strength, with Fatlip and Tre Hardson no longer estranged from Tre “Slimkid3" Hardson and Bootie Brown.

Playing to a crowd mostly too young to have seen them in their first incarnation, the Pharcyde were nothing short of brilliant, dazzling the audience with a dizzying array of high-pitched wails, rubber-limbed dance moves and timeless material from the group’s first two albums, “Bizarre Ride II to the Pharcyde” and the J-Dilla assisted “Labcabincalifornia.”

Canonical singles such as “Runnin’ ” and “Ya’ Mama” awoke the crowd from its sun-stunned stupor during the previous “surprise” performance, a tepid set from a Fergie-less Black Eyed Peas, who encountered little love from the purist-oriented crowd whom the Peas long-ago snubbed in favor of unthinkably cheesy pop pursuits.

By the time the Pharcyde finished with its biggest hit, “Passin’ Me By,” flanked by the song’s indelible black-and-white video, it was difficult not to wax nostalgic for the classic era of the group, an idea only now beginning to regain credibility in the wake of the me-first attitude that plagued hip-hop for much of the last decade.

Of course, with such a stacked roster, the day was filled with other memorable performances, including Ghostface Killah and Raekwon performing a Wu-die-hard wish list of cuts from classic albums such as “Ironman” and “Only Built for Cuban Linx.”

Redman and Method Man turned in a frenzied, fantastic set despite Method Man’s tardiness in arriving to the venue. Meanwhile, De La Soul showed off its practically limitless discography, successfully demonstrating why it remains on the short list of all-time greatest groups.

By contrast, the day’s solo performances seemed secondary, though not through a lack of effort, as Nas and Rakim turned in perfectly serviceable, occasionally great sets that leaned heavily on their classic material. Yet arguably the day’s premier stand-alone performance came from hometown son Murs, braving the searing early afternoon heat to galvanize a still-arriving crowd with a frenetic, dread-lock whipping stage show that included a guest appearance from West Coast hip-hop legend DJ Quik, perhaps the day’s most welcome surprise.