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Festival Review and Photos: Rock The Bells 2011, August 20, 2011, San Manuel Amphitheater – San Bernardino, CA




Photos by Philip Cosores

Rock The Bells is now in its eighth year and this year features so many big names that the clashes can become as any festival you can imagine (Nas vs. DOOM vs. GZA?!). But, Rock The Bells is also set apart from other festivals because of its dedication to the hip-hop and soul genres, which entices the type of fans who are real devotees to come along and show genuine appreciation of the skill it takes to write and recite like these performers do. This makes the whole event one of relative single-mindedness right down to the various products on sale at the stalls, and for one day it feels like a tightly-knit community.

Common

Fashawn

After Black Star missed their early slot on the main stage (which they made up for with an unannounced short performance later in the day), I and the majority of the crowd dispersed into the rest of the grounds to see what else was happening.

I’ll be honest, I came to the 36 Chambers Stage expecting to see Childish Gambino, but it turns out I was reading the timetable for the San Francisco event, and it wasn’t until Young Dirty Bastard (son of the deceased ODB and the stage’s host for the day) announced that Fashawn would be taking to the stage next that I realised my mistake. It turned out to be a happy accident, since the local rapper put on an exhilarating performance, helped greatly by his live band, his partner Exile on decks and various other performers coming on to liven up some songs. There was even a drum off between Exile on the drum machine and the live drummer which was entertaining. What could have been a telling moment in Fashawn’s set came about midway when he announced that he’d just created his own strain of marijuana called “Grizzly City Kush,” followed by a member of his posse coming to the front of the stage and throwing some joints into the crowd. Rather than spark up or even glorify the moment Fashawn continued straight on with his charismatic performance, right up until the end, when he did finally light a joint, but by that point he deserved it.

Big K.R.I.T.

Big K.R.I.T. is riding high at the moment, after the rapturous reception of his mixtape Return of 4eva, released earlier this year. Although he has his debut album out next month, he stuck to the material that was familiar to the crowd, which was to his benefit. The Mississippi rapper put on the most precise performance of the day, with his raps always seeming up tight and on point, never missing a cue or stumbling over his words. The highlights of the set came with “Sookie Now” and, particularly, “Rotation”, which saw all of the crowd imitating Big K.R.I.T. by putting their hands up and rotating them in unison. Without a live band there’s only so much you can do as a hip hop performer, but energy is always good. In the heat of the mid-afternoon it was hard for the crowd to show much excited movement, but the temperature didn’t stop K.R.I.T. and the crowd greatly appreciated it.

Childish Gambino

It sort of makes sense to put Childish Gambino on Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers Stage; he did after all get his name by entering his real name (Donald Glover) into a Wu-Tang name generator, but, if anything, this performance showed that Glover has aspirations to move on to Rock The Bells’ main stage in the amphitheatre, and many other stages beyond that. The band consisted of a drummer, a keyboardist and two guitarists, one of whom would switch to violin for some songs. Childish Gambino’s performance saw many things that weren’t typical hip-hop, including a slow, crooning number (“So Fly”), a neo-dance song (“Lights Turned On”), an a capella harmonised cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” and moments when all of the members, Glover included, would take up percussion. Despite all this, Childish Gambino is a hip-hop project at its core, and at these moments Glover would come most alive, rapping viciously and smartly on new songs and favourites like “Freaks and Geeks.” Coming down off the stage on to the speaker stacks to sneer fiercely into the crowd while he spit out lines and continuous brags, in this moment the Donald Glover we know from acting was a different person entirely, and one that could magnetise a live audience’s crowd like the most accomplished of performers.

Curren$y

With the 36 Chambers and Paid Dues stages, the opening segment of Curren$y’s set was almost drowned out by Childish Gambino’s live band, but the rapper was in the zone and he didn’t seem to notice, and his slick Louisiana drawl mesmerised those down the front who paid no mind to the racket coming from elsewhere either. Although his style is laid back, Curren$y professed his excitement for a couple of things, namely having his posse come on stage to help him out with a few numbers, and the fact that he managed to get so many people in the audience to start smoking that there was a genuinely thick fog rising off the audience. Mixing up tracks from his two big releases from this year Covert Coup and Weekend at Burnie’s, Curren$y’s lyrical prowess played out nicely and the crowd were happy to stay even after he kept spewing track after track beyond his scheduled end time.

Black Star

Erykah Badu (Performing Baduizm)

One of the big themes at this year’s Rock The Bells was the big name performers playing their classic album in its entirety. My first opportunity to experience this was Erykah Badu performing her debut album Baduizm. Her band took to the stage first and performed a funky instrumental that showed all of their abilities on their various instruments, which even included a flute. The first song Badu performed once she took to the stage was an acappella song, backed up by her incredible backing singers, supposedly written specially for Rock The Bells to show her appreciation at being invited back. I half thought that she didn’t realise that she was supposed to be performing Baduizm, but she certainly had not. She performed the songs passionately and emphatically, and from the opening “Rimshot” the amount of fans in the audience was made clear as they all sang along. Badu and her band completely captured the soul put into the recording of the album when Badu recorded it back in 1997. Although at one stage Badu called a “New Amerykah Part One break” to perform “The Healer,” she was definitely into it, as she happily called the revisitation of all the old material “crazy” and even included the skit “Afro” in the performance. As the performance went on Badu started to drop a few bits of info about certain tracks, such as parts that were originally written for Black Thought of The Roots, or about Andre of Outkast. All of this was appreciated by the crowd who, along with the band, played a large part in making Badu’s performance the stand out of the festival.

Nas (Performing Illmatic)

The next big performance of the night was Nas performing his debut album Illmatic, which stretches all the way back to 1994. DOOM pulling out was certainly unfortunate, but this meant that I could kick back and take in this classic album performed in its entirety with nothing weighing on my mind. Before the performance the stage was blocked out by a black sheet, and when it was dropped to reveal the stage, it had been made to look like the Queensbridge Projects with high rises on either side of the background, and a bench and a streetlight on the stage. After the introductory “The Genesis,” Nas arrived and burst straight into “N.Y. State Of Mind,” stopping to allow the crowd to finish the “sleep is the cousin death” line to see if they were feeling it, and judging by the emphatic shouting of that line, they certainly were. Following the conclusion of that Nas invited AZ onstage to perform “Life’s A Bitch” and “The World Is Yours.” Speaking between songs Nas and AZ made a big deal about the fact that Nas had the producers DJ Premier and Pete Rock with him running the beats. This was certainly nice, and it evidently excited Nas, but things were taken a little too far after “The World Is Yours” when Nas left the stage and the two producers decided to have a ‘beat off’ (I’m sure that’s not what they called it, but that name works in both descriptive and euphemistic ways) where they took it in turns playing the opening of a famous song that each of them had produced. This was a little fun to begin with, but with each playing five, and the segment lasting nearly ten minutes, there was a definite impatience in the crowd.

Fortunately when Nas returned the show was saved. Jumping straight into “Halftime,” the next track in the sequence, we got to see the man’s rapping skill at its finest. The songs of the middle section of Illmatic don’t feature outright choruses, so no moments were taken to try to get the crowd to sing along; instead we just got Nas doing his thing, which is what we all really wanted. Nas marches in time with his flow, and you can almost see the gears grinding in his head as his thoughtful flows are discharged. Following “Memory Lane,” Nas and his producers talked about when they first met, and took the time to allow Nas to perform his verse feature on Main Source’s 1991 song “Live at the Barbecue.” The team then returned to complete Illmatic with “One Time 4 Your Mind” and “Represent” seeing a lot of crowd participation.

Nas wasn’t the headliner of the night, but his performance deserved an encore, so he went on to perform a trio of other favourite from his back catalogue including “One Mic” and “Get Down.”

GZA (Performing Liquid Swords)

GZA played his classic album Liquid Swords in full, but by the time I arrived, having been held up watching Nas, it seems that he had either finished it or gone way off that path. The performance had turned into more of a posse performance with Young Dirty Bastard getting a turn to perform after a day of hosting, as well as Killah Priest and various others jumping on tracks. It all seemed a bit messy and it was not easy for the crowd to get involved in the performance due to this aside from the moments when the performers asked the crowd to “put up their W’s” or chant “Wu-Tang! Wu-Tang!” By the end the troup seemed more than happy to leave the stage and allow two of the Wu-Tang’s more well-known performers take over.

Immortal Technique

Raekwon and Ghostface (Performing Only Built 4 Cuban Linx)

Although Only Built For Cuban Linx is a Raekwon album by name, it made sense to have Ghostface Killah perform with him, since he appears on the majority of the tracks. The duo make an interesting partnership, visually and audibly. Raekwon is short and heavyset while Ghostface is tall, but as they looked like a proper partnership as they bounced off each other lyrically and roamed the stage together. Running off each other’s energy and backed by the RZA on beats, the duo had no trouble rolling back the years to 1995 and moving powerfully through the full album. The music was lyrically dense and the duo were uncompromising in their determination to get through as much as they could. And to finish the night, it was pretty intense. If people weren’t already tired before Raekwon and Ghostface’s performance, I’m sure they were wiped out by the end, but gratefully so.


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