This past weekend we took the 2 to the 134 to the 210 to the 15 and got off on Glen Helen Parkway. That put us in San Bernardino, deep in the Inland Empire, for Rock The Bells. The all-day festival, which has become a mini-nationwide tour, began as a yearly event in Southern California, making this the hometown stop. It is a strange show, one that idealizes and is optimistic about hip-hop, yet ignores much of its current reality. We didn't hear the DJs in between acts play a single record released after 2000, none of the three final groups on the bill has released an album of new material since 2004, and there wasn't a single performer from the south (David Banner left the tour shortly after it began citing "creative and promotional differences" with the organizers, probably meaning he didn't like playing around noon). Check our coverage of the rest of the festival after the jump.
In the enthralling documentary Rock The Bells about the 2004 edition of the festival, founding promoter Chang Weisberg recalls that in the summer of 1997, Rage Against The Machine toured together with the Wu-Tang Clan as each crew was solidifying their genre dominance. Unfortunately, the Wu couldn't get their shit together and members kept missing shows. Before they made it to California they had to pull out, leaving the Roots to step in and pinch hit for them. It was his disappointment in never getting to see Shaolin's sons that motivated Weisberg to pull off the last performance featuring all the Clan's members before Ol' Dirty Bastard's death a few months later. Now on select Rock The Bells dates Weisberg has made this legendary pairing happen again, even if certain members of each group probably hate each other. He even brought the Roots along too, maybe just in case.
The last time we saw EPMD, also recently reunited, was in ’92 at Oakland's Henry Kaiser Center as party of the Hit Squad tour. Though we would have liked to see them again, we knew we weren't going to be at the Hyundai Pavilion in time for their 1PM set time. No one is meant to stand in 90 degree weather for that long, just ask the kids we saw dropping from heat exhaustion. We had hoped to make it there for the Talib Kweli/Mos Def/Black Star segment, but the traffic and the parking situations didn't make that happen either. These factors also made us miss Nas' set, but apparently they made Nas miss it too.
We got inside just as Public Enemy was starting. They played a career retrospective of jams ranging from "Rebel Without A Pause" to "Can't Truss It" to the title-track from Spike Lee's He Got Game (Netflix it!). All good shit, but they never really got righteous with it. Instead it was like watching a talented group of old friends play a pick up basketbal game.
There is still no one else in hip-hop who do what the Roots do. And though we appreciate that the they keep making adjustments to their routine, including the addition of their horn revue, we honestly don't follow their box scores closely enough to appreciate the intricacies of each individual set. We bet their tape-trading community is mad thorough on this subject.
We bailed on the Roots early to try and catch MF Doom over at the Murs-curated Paid Dues Stage, but things were running late over there (the main stage was focused). Instead we came in the middle of the Living Legends, whose multitudes were spread across the twin stages. The vibe in the indie hip-hop centric Paid Dues area was kind of like the quad on Zonker Harris day.
Hustling back to the press area for the photographers check-in, we arrived just in time to hear Nas leave the stage after performing "Hip-Hop Is Dead" and "Made You Look" with the Roots. Whoops. Then the band went into "You Got Me," which we swear folks are going to start yelling at hip-hop shows just like they yell "Freebird" at every other fucking concert.
Cali-favorites Cypress Hill started off with blazing oldies like "We Ain't Going Out Like That" and "Hand On The Pump" before finishing off with late period work like "Dr Greenthumb" and "(Rap) Superstar." We wished it had been the other way around. Still we hope that the members of Cypress die the same way that their inflatable stage mascot did: happy, on a throne, with a beard made out of weed.
Once the sun went down, things got weird and kind of worrisome. Some crowd members that had been up on the higher lawn seating area started fires in trash cans, others tried to break past security to the closer concrete section. That's when we felt the first residual mist of pepper spray in our chest.
Soon the Wu-Tang Clan was on the stage. All of them. Plus a ton of motherfuckers playing the back, including Flavor Flav. With Method Man acting as the frontman, the group was furious and sprawling, unrelenting to the point that they seemed to be teetering on disaster. It was mesmerizing.
Maybe it was just because we were down in the photo pit as security was prepping for a potential riot situation, but before Rage it seemed like things could get real bad really quick. See the guy on the left in the black T-shirt? That's Chang Weisberg.
At this point there had already been more fires, some more pepper spray dousings and there was a serious security breach on one side of the lawn where folks were rushing down to the concrete. Seconds after we took this photo, Weisberg told whoever he was standing with that Rage needed to start playing right now. They were on shortly, but never acknowledged the potential situation they were about to face.
Despite their fury and bombast, Rage Against The Machine seemed to settle the crowd. What they had on their side, and what they were deprived of at their first reunion set at Coachella earlier this year, was volume. It was the boom that brought peace to The Battle Of San Bernardino.
The Battle Of The Hyundai Pavilion Parking Lot? That's another tale...