The Nonsense of Rock The Bells
The best part of San Francisco’s Rock the Bell’s 2011 lineup was the list of artist on paper. The day before, then the day of, the list changed—and honestly, that’s reflects our story. MF Doom, “The Villian” who seems to single handedly destroy his career more preemptively than Plaxico Burress, did not show. Curren$y broke his foot. Mac Miller got all tangled up with Hurricane Irene. The only thing expected that happened—shit was disorganized.
After asking five, no maybe seven staff members for directions to the press tent, we finally made our way back stage (which at the time we thought we were sneaky mutha$@% but in actuality we just took a back door route), spotted Baron Davis, and then watched Mos Def and Talib Kweli perform. To everyone who’s ever wanted to watch a performance backstage—it’s not that cool. You can’t hear the vocals clearly because the speakers aren’t pointed backstage (no shit, right?). There are twenty other fools trying to push for the same two spots which aren’t blocked by stage design (sounding pretty cool now). Oh, and you can’t hear the performance. Skip the VIP unless you really want to shake hands with an artist.
Now, I don’t like whining—though at this point you might disagree–but sometimes it’s warranted. The layout of stages for Rock The Bells was dumb. There were three stages. The main one had all the big players performing: Nas, Lauryn Hill, Cypress Hill, Black Star, etc. Only certain press members could shoot that stage—and we didn’t make the “cool” cut (and clearly we’re still sore about that). We’ve never heard of festival where we’re not supposed to review certain acts. Then there were two smaller stages with performances by: Big K.R.I.T., Fashawn, Blu & Exile, Mobb Deep, Ghostface & Raekwon, etc. These stages were literally fifty yards from each other. Was that a problem? Yep. Artists couldn’t hear their own beats without hearing the adjacent stage’s monitor. It wasn’t much better for fans who could hear a huge overlapping mix of noise.
Let’s talk logistics now. Blu and Fashawn were properly scheduled to perform together with Exile (who has produced albums for both artists). However, we can’t show you any photographs of Blu because we could only take shots of the first three songs which were all by Fashawn. Now when this problem became apparent, we spoke with security managing the photo pit to ask if we could shoot the first three songs by Blu. Nope. The explanation: “This is a hip hop festival and I’ve been doing this for years, shit always gets messed up.”
Alright, let me breath from this nonsense of criticism. Real talk now. Our music experience began with Black Star who performed their debut album, Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star. The highlight “Brown Skin Lady” saw Mos’ singing way better than Kanye West’s attempt on 808s & Heartbreaks. However many of the tracks like, “RE: Definition,” were distorted by the heavy bass and muted vocals.
We then shifted to the smaller stages to watch Fashawn, Blu, & Exile perform, followed by Big K.R.I.T. Fashawn is an annunciated, intelligent emcee who’s stage presence doesn’t simply rely on hand gestures. His use of call and response tricks and overall energy is always entertaining. The underrated producer, Exile, beats merge the funk of West Coast production and crisp sampling of East Coast legends like Pete Rock and Premier. Even during a bright 4pm set, the crowd danced unabashedly.
Big K.R.I.T. is a Southern rapper with more swagger than a candy painted car with fuzzy dice hanging low. With a thick Southern drawl, K.R.I.T. represented Mississippi with the same lyrical ferocity and tenacity of early Geto Boys and Outkast. His flow like Big Boi injects Southern slang, stopping to emphasize rhyming pairs, in between verses that fire like machine gun bullets. He performed several tracks from his recent mixtapes Return of 4eva and K.R.I.T. Wuz Here.
Arguably on the greatest hip hop albums, we can’t begin to explain how ready we were to pop off for Nas’ performance of Illmatic. In addition to be joined on stage by AZ for “Life’s A Bitch” DJ Premier and Pete Rock dj. The two legendary producers acted out “a battle” of beats, which while “cute,” broke any atmosphere momentum created by Nas’ performance. Unlike Black Star, Nas’s vocals were crisply punctuated. He also reached into his bag of singles performing tracks like “Hate Me Now,” “Made You Look,” and “One Mic” which featured a bongo drum prelude.
The final hour was for the lady of the night, Ms. Lauryn Hill. How long we’ve waited to hear her perform, heard dismissals of her shows, only to disregard and campaign on her behalf, to then be disappointed can only be expressed in a mere sigh. The woman who stole our heart with the incredible version of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” has lost the voice she once had. Listening to “Doo Wop” it was clear. The hook where she sings “That thing, that thing” was cut short so not to emphasize her vocals. Her once sweet range was rougher and raspy. Her dynamic ability of a flawless rhymstress and singer seems now to lean on her rapping skills. Unfortunately, we must agree, she’s not the lady we once knew.
Hip hop shows are not meant to be seen in amphitheaters. The whole front row, which normally is filled with dancing, instead has a huge crowd of people sitting in chairs. The sound is not meant for huge projection. For a lengthy explanation of what music is intended for that type fo venue check out this great video by David Bryne on the evolution of music and venues. For a short explanation: Would you ever want to hear classical music in a baseball stadium? Nope.
Download Mp3 – Big K.R.I.T. ft. Ludacris and Bun B “Country Shit” (Remix)
Written by Stephen Blunt
Photographs by Daryl Kirchner