Review: ‘Comeback’ of Eazy-E and Ol’ Dirty Bastard at Rock the Bells
The hip-hop festival Rock the Bells kicked off its 10th anniversary run Saturday at San Manuel Amphitheater in San Bernardino, and to celebrate the landmark event, organizers called upon some unlikely guests.
The late rappers Eazy-E and Ol’ Dirty Bastard materialized in hologram-like form over the weekend, joining a lineup of more than 60 acts on a bill that included veterans and newcomers such as Common, Jurassic 5, J. Cole and Kid Cudi.
FOR THE RECORD:
Rock the Bells: In the Sept. 9 Calendar section, the caption for a photo accompanying a review of the Rock the Bells festival said that the photo showed Kendrick Lamar of the hip-hop group Black Hippy. The photo showed Ab-Soul of Black Hippy. —
But the big buzz of the event, which attracted 20,000 fans over two days, was watching the two late rap icons come to life on stage.
The hologram-like performances introduced the two revered greats — Eazy-E from N.W.A fame, ODB from the Wu Tang Clan — to a new generation of rap fans. The younger concertgoers stood next to the older brothers and fathers who introduced them to the genre.
As the lights dimmed midway through Cleveland rap posse Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s set Saturday, a lighting rig lowered onto the stage and, to the tune of 1988’s “We Want Eazy,” the rap legend was beamed onto a well-hidden screen set up on an elevated platform in the middle of the stage.
Clad in his signature Dickies and Compton hat, Eazy shuffled through “Straight Outta Compton” and “Boyz in Da Hood” and was joined by Bone Thugs for “Foe Tha Love of $.”
“What’s up, my thugs,” Eazy asked, albeit much more profanely, as the audience was aglow with thousands of smartphones documenting the moment. Many people appeared awestruck at the “ghost” that sauntered slowly across stage, often stopping to address the audience with prerecorded banter.
It was a much-needed lift for the crowd after a day of temperatures in the triple digits and logistical bumps in the form of snarled lines into parking lots and at the will-call ticket pickup. Two-day general tickets went for $165, while festival organizers offered one-day tickets for $99.
But nothing agitated crowds more than the acts starting their sets late. It happened often and across all three stages Saturday, testing the crowd’s patience.
Rock the Bells staged its inaugural outing in 2004. With lofty ambitions of being a prime destination for fans of hip-hop, its first year anchored acts such as Redman, Supernatural and a fully reunited Wu-Tang Clan over a day.
Over the years, the festival transformed into a cross-country tour, traveled as far as Europe and continued to attract a formidable lineup of hip-hop luminaries, current chart-toppers and buzzy, emerging rhyme-slayers.
However, it didn’t escape concert industry woes such as declining ticket sales — promoters began to downsize to a smaller cluster of markets in 2010, going to fewer stops. Still, Rock the Bells has cemented itself as the preeminent showcase for hip-hop in the country, also reaching San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and New York during its annual run.
This year, the bill included everything from hip-hop outliers to revered rap statesmen to the new class of rap wunderkind. Reunited iconic groups such as Wu-Tang Clan shared space with younger collectives such as Black Hippy, ASAP Mob and Pro Era.
Sunday offered younger emerging talent that moved crowds. ASAP Mob, led by charismatic, acerbic frontman ASAP Rocky, kept the theme of posse rap going strong. Unlike West Coast supergroup Black Hippy, the Harlem crew opted for face time as a crew rather than leaning heavily on individual showcases, even if Rocky has mostly triumphed alone.
As on Saturday, festivalgoers got comfortable in the roughly 11,000 seats at the main stage and stayed put for the night’s back-to-back offerings that included thoughtful wordsmith J. Cole and the Wu-Tang Clan, bolstered by another (digital) rising of the dead.
By dusk Sunday, the anticipation for ODB’s return was high. A pair of vendors outside Too Short and E-40’s bouncing set sold shirts with ODB’s likeness illustrated over Lakers and Oakland Raiders logos.
With ODB’s and Eazy-E’s “appearances,” festival organizers were taking cues from last year’s Coachella, where Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg performed with a video projection of slain West Coast superstar Tupac Shakur.
“I can’t hear y’all. Are ya’ll ready for this ...” N.W.A’s DJ Yella asked the thousands who packed into the main-stage area, which on Saturday featured Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Black Hippy and the cerebral, stoner rhymes of Kid Cudi.
The crowd knew what was coming. It was not only the talk of the weekend but also the anticipation for months leading up to the weekend: N.W.A founder Eazy-E, who died in 1995, was about to make his grand entrance to “perform” again.
Wu-Tang Clan’s most boisterous member, ODB, received the digital treatment Sunday night to close the festival and mark the 20th anniversary of Wu-Tang’s seminal debut, “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).”
Although the beamed-in images weren’t surprising, considering that the “performances” were announced four months ago, the crowd was still audibly impressed. Perhaps it’s because they knew that the late rappers’ families participated in the event to perfect the animated avatars.
Images of Eazy-E’s kids — Eric “Lil Eazy-E” Wright Jr., Derrick “E3" Wright and Erin Wright — made up the body, voice and face, respectively, of the deceased N.W.A. founder’s projected image. And an image of ODB’s oldest son, Young Dirty Bastard, embodied his father.
These impressive technical feats helped buoy a festival that got off to a slow start Saturday and didn’t find its stride until late in the day.
Small hiccups aside, though, the sprawling San Manuel Amphitheater, with its lush green surroundings and seating around the main stage, rewarded festival-goers with a reprieve from the heat throughout the weekend — plenty of shade and fast-moving vendor lines helped too.
What really mattered, though, was that Rock the Bells pulled off one of its more impressive lineups of talent — both dead and alive.
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