Rock the Bells: Live Last Night
By Sarah Godfrey, all photos by Kyle Gustafson
The annual Rock the Bells hip-hop festival stopped at Merriweather Post Pavillion on Sunday, with its usual line-up of golden era hip-hop acts and emerging artists that sound like golden era hip-hop acts. The day held plenty of low points --- late starts that threw off the strategically staggered set times on two stages; Baatin from Slum Village falling off stage. But between the music and the weed smoke that swirled through the air, it was an event defined by highs.
Nas, after dominating the Rock the Bells tour in 2008, nabbed this year's headlining slot. He did everything one would expect --- most of his drooled-over 1994 masterpiece "Illmatic," and a sampling of work from all the lesser albums that followed. Co-headliner Damian Marley was a no-show, but Nas packed his time with other guests: longtime collaborator AZ, as well as Styles P and Pharoahe Monch. But during the show-closing "One Mic," the Queens rapper stood alone, just himself and his microphone.
The Roots seem to be working even harder than usual lately, perhaps to let everyone know that their stint as house band for "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" hasn't robbed them of any fire. The group kicked things off with a lengthy hip-hop tribute, covering everything from NWA's "Gangsta Gansta" to EPMD's "So What Cha Sayin," but the band was best when they got into their own stuff: "Proceed," "Star," and "Seed 2.0," the rock song that never fails to move a crowd of hip-hop heads.
Busta Rhymes, accompanied by loyal hype man Spliff Star, gave the most surprising set of night. The rapper's most recent work is club-oriented, so he's not a natural fit for the conscious hip-hop-leaning tour. But by sticking mostly to older tracks such as "Woo-Hah" and "Everything Remains Raw" and being his animated self, he fit in perfectly. Busta was also one of the few artists to address the voice-modulation trend in hip-hop, which purists perceive as a threat to the fundamentals of the culture. "There are no special effects up here --- this is real hip-hop!" he growled.
(Big Boi, Common, Talib Kweli and more after the jump.)
Big Boi is a skilled rapper in his own right, but his set was defined by the absence of his Outkast partner Andre 3000. Still, with solo tracks, such as "Ghetto Musick" from 2003s "Speakerboxxx," and new single "Follow Us," Big Boi showed that while his partner gets more sonically kooky with each project, he still stays true to the drawling Atlanta hip-hop on which Outkast was founded.
Common, dressed in a T-shirt and basketball shorts, looked like he came straight to the show from the courts, but still brought his A-game. The Chicagoan gave the best of his worst album ("Punch Drunk Love" and "Announcement" from last year's "Universal Mind Control"), as well as enduring classics. During the anthemic "I Used to Love H.E.R.," Common's outfit finally made sense --- those shorts allowed him to execute a breakdance routine with ease.
Reflection Eternal unofficially marked the real start of the show: when DJ Hi-Tek began spinning and Talib Kweli launched into his dense lyrics, people stopped milling about and paid attention. The duo's electric set ran through material from Reflection Eternal's 2000 disc, "Train of Thought," its upcoming album "Revolutions Per Minute," Kweli's solo albums, and tracks from Black Star, Kweli's project with Mos Def.
Midwest rapper Tech N9ne continued his quest to make the strange marriage of funny clown face paint and deadly serious rapid-fire machine gun raps seem entirely natural. He barreled through tracks including "Einstein," from 2001's "Anghellic," and "Welcome to the Midwest," from 2006's "Everready (The Religion)."
By David Malitz |
July 13, 2009; 1:36 PM ET
Live Last Night
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