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By Philip Cosores
Rock the Bells celebrated their ten-year anniversary in San Bernardino, California this weekend with two days of hip hop that showcased both how long a decade really is, and how short. While Wu-Tang Clan has remained a fixture of the event — appearing at both the first installment in 2004 and headlining this year’s lineup — now fans have the opportunity to watch a hologram of Ol’ Dirty Bastard perform with his original group. This interplay between tradition and originality is the hope with anniversaries; that the relationship is not merely about survival, but that you improve whatever you are celebrating over that time. The take-away with this edition of the music festival was not only has Rock the Bells not grown significantly over the many installments (figuratively, not literally), but it just might be worse than ever.
Ol’ Dirty Bastard passed away four months after the Wu-Tang’s 2004 appearance at the inaugural event and I don’t think much thought was placed into what emotional conflict it might cause the group. Following Saturday night’s hologram of Eazy-E with Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, which was mostly successful despite it being a bit too dark, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s synthetic persona was lucky to have actually an act that didn’t need a hologram to be noteworthy. But the hologram’s appearance was botched when a technical malfunction caused Wu-Tang’s DJ to lose sound 25 minutes into their set. Method Man took control of the situation, offering up freestyles that pointed out his narrow range in that department, as he admitted he wasn’t good at freestyling. Had Ghostface Killah or Raekwon actually attended the show, they would have been ideal for passing this time, but no one stepped up to assist Meth, and he grew increasingly more agitated with the lack of a backing track, threatening to walk off stage “hologram or not.”
Photo Gallery: Rock The Bells 2013, San Bernardino, CA
When the beat did return at the wrong tempo, Method Man lost his cool, calling out the festival founder Chang Weisberg by name until RZA attempted to diffuse the situation by skipping whatever performance was planned and heading straight into the hologram section. The remaining set saw the ODB hologram interact with his son and rap some of his most famous bars, including “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” and strangely the night’s planned show-stopping moment had become its failed saving grace. It tried to rescue rappers when the next backing track went sour again, but the audience followed Method Man’s lead and left the stage area, as more than half of the onlookers made their way to their cars or over to Girl Talk’s virtually abandoned mashing of confetti, strobes, pop hits, and exuberance.
RZA made it a point to divert blame away from the Rock the Bells founder, not surprising due to the long-term relationship that has been cultivated between both camps. But, the Wu-Tang set was just a more visible manifestation of the oversights, misjudgments, and often ineptitude within the Rock the Bells (Gorilla Union) organization that do not improve after ten years of practice.
Everywhere on the grounds of the San Manuel Amphitheater, poor planning and discomfort overshadowed the one thing Rock the Bells consistently does well: music. The event pushed the VIP experience with such gusto that non-VIP felt like being a peasant, with VIP meaning just a reasonable festival experience that everyone should expect at a concert. Temperatures reached over 100 degrees, while the event took that opportunity to sell single small bottles of water for $4.50. Lines of people waited to be let into the venues standing room floor or the general admission seating areas but spent significant amounts of time herded into pens like cattle. And Rock the Bells staff showed little concern when approached with hazardous conditions, like CDs being launched from the venues expansive lawn into the crowd below.
But despite the fact that many vow never again to come back, there isn’t really a better rap festival to steal business away from Rock the Bells. Many of Los Angeles’ and Orange County’s premiere music writers and photographers don’t even bother trying to work at Gorilla Union events. And, it’s a shame, because they were forced to miss a continually impressive J. Cole on Sunday night, employing a full-band to deliver a pop-indebted, lyrically dense hour of music that concluded with Cole getting as close as possible to his fans, trying to shake hands with and acknowledge as many as he could while production members literally pulled him off the stage. What may be a typical gesture for Cole in concert rang sincere, and he left as one of the event’s heroes.
On Saturday, it was rap’s artist du jour Kendrick Lamar performing with his Black Hippy crew that put an interesting spin on what Rock the Bells had been just a few years back. While years before had offered artists like Nas, Erykah Badu, Snoop Dogg, and many others with classic albums performed in full, 2013 made sure that the present state of rap got equal representation. It’s tough to say if this is a good thing, as A$AP Mob drew nearly the entire three stages’ worth of fans to their set, resulting in maybe 300 people checking out Deltron 3030 performing with an orchestra.
With Lamar’s verse from “Control” still on everyone’s minds, few rappers used the mic at Rock the Bells to react to what Lamar was saying. Big K.R.I.T., Pusha T, ASAP Rocky, Danny Brown, Curren$y, Chief Keef, and Joey Bada$$ all took the stage at some point in the event’s two days, but only Pusha T reached the passion and focus and competitive spirit that Lamar has been hoping will resurge. Pusha, whose career with Clipse pre-dates Rock the Bells, blended verses he wrote for Kanye West songs with his own cocaine-indebted tracks, taking a memorable pause when Talib Kweli was spotted backstage, turning off his tough guy act to switch into humble and star-struck super-fan, sure to bow and address Kweli as sir.
Most others were good, except for Chief Keef who is simply not a performer and wound up hiding behind his crew for the set while they carried the weight on his songs. But the lack of fire that Lamar had been attempting to usher, the same thing Jurassic 5 rapped about during “Concrete Schoolyard” in their reunion appearance, speaks to a lack of competitive spirit in the rap world. Lamar’s challenge has gone largely unmet, at least in the way he intended, and J5’s line “You shouldn’t have told me the pyramids can hold me, so now a contest is what you owe me,” sounded far from reality this weekend as well.
But even if there wasn’t a fire always burning on stage, the performances were the best part of the event, which also was hurt by scheduling errors (the cruelty of putting Rakim on against Wu-Tang Clan or Common at the same time as Black Hippy) as well as a severe lack of female performers on the bill. RZA’s attempt to defend the organization ultimately doesn’t hold water. If this were a marriage, a ten-year anniversary would see hip hop considering a divorce, needing time apart, ready to see how a better spouse would treat them. But, it’s all we’ve got, and San Francisco, DC, and New York will have something to look forward to as they once again prepare for disappointment. The more things change in rap, Rock the Bells sadly just stays the same.