Saturday, February 13, 2010

Rock the Bells: Quality Hip-Hop?

This past summer I had another opportunity to work in Colorado, and, as a result, had another opportunity to attend a concert at Red Rocks natural amphitheater.  The previous summer I had seen R.E.M. with Modest Mouse and the National.

For the early part of the summer, I was looking forward to seeing Death Cab for Cutie with Andrew Bird and Ra Ra Riot.  However, over the course of looking at other shows and talking with people I worked with, I decided to go see Rock the Bells instead.  Rock the Bells touts itself as a "World-Class Hip-Hop Platform" and is substantially different than the typical indie and rock based concerts I normally find myself at.  I wanted to break away from some norms and expand my viewing of hip-hop some more (I had seen Lupe Fiasco and K'naan before).

Rock the Bells is a festival series that began in 2004 and travels to multiple locations around the world each summer.  Previous headliners have included the Wu-Tang Clan, Rage Against the Machine, and A Tribe Called Quest.  This year was headlined by Nas & Damian Marley in anticipation of their upcoming album Distant Relatives.  Other big acts on tour included Cypress Hill, Ice Cube, Common, and the Roots.

Unfortunately, not all acts perform at each venue, and the show in Denver was one of the smaller shows on the tour.  Only Nas & Damian Marley, of the acts I listed, performed, and other acts I was interested in, such as K'naan and Sage Francis, I missed out on.  There was a positive of this, which was a decently priced ticket for 8 hours of live music, and there were still a lot of great acts to see.

Hip-hop and rap music always has certain ideas and stereotypes attached to it, and Rock the Bells showed that, in some cases, stereotypes can be totally true, but also totally false.  These following acts showed me both the positives and negatives of hip-hop culture.

The show began with some smooth rhymes from the Knux, representing New Orleans and the indier side of the genre, and Chali 2Na (pictured above) of Jurassic 5.  At this point, I was really excited for where the show would go, even if I didn't know the music of every artist.

Following these two sets, one of the show's hosts, Supernatural showed the crowd some of his mind-blowing freestyle skills, making up rhymes about objects the crowd gave him on the spot.

Next up was the group Slaughterhouse, which is made up of four different rap artists (Royce da 5'9", Crooked I, Joe Budden, and Joell Ortiz) from around the country (Detroit, Long Beach, Jersey City, and Brooklyn).  This set was the first lapse of quality that I saw in the show.  While each rapper could spit like the best, they didn't seem to be on the same page, and Joe Budden seemed more interested in smoking than participating.  I'll try not to speculate what his issue was.

The other host for the night, KRS-One, righted the ship again by educating the audience about emceeing and the work they do.  To quote: "Rap is something we do.  Hip-hop is something we live."

While the Wu-Tang clan was not present this year in its entirety, a number of its members were on tour.  The privilege of addressing the Denver crowd was GZA, and he showed why the Wu-Tang clan is continually invited to perform for Rock the Bells.

One of my favorite sets of the night came next, with the reunion of Reflection Eternal.  Consisting of Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek, Reflection Eternal was only matched, in my opinion, by Nas & Damian Marley.

Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek perform as Reflection Eternal

Following up Reflection Eternal was Tech N9ne.  Tech N9ne was the obvious reason why most of the crowd came to Rock the Bells and many were decked out in baggy clothes, wearing bandannas, and painted with tribal face paint just like their favorite artist.  I did enjoy his set, which he performed with label-mates Krizz Kaliko and Kutt Calhoun.  It was full of energy and the precision of his speedy delivery was stunning.  However, after his set was done, he proceeded to encourage women in the crowd to flash the rest of the audience, claiming it was something he promised to the festival promoters.  This kind of treatment toward women promoted by some hip-hop artists is one stereotype that I was extremely disappointed to see, especially after such an enjoyable set, musically.

Tech N9ne performs at Rock the Bells 2009 in Denver, CO

Now it was time for some of the bigger names to reveal themselves.  First up was Big Boi, one half of the group Outkast.  He performed a solid set with hits such as "So Fresh, So Clean" and some of his newer, solo material.

Big Boi on stage at Red Rocks Amphitheatre

Next was Busta Rhymes, who knocked the crowd out with his up-tempo performance, but, like Tech N9ne, let off some negative vibes by using derogatory remarks and obscene gestures on stage.

Finally, it was time for Nas & Damian Marley, and they did not disappoint.  Nas was up first with some solo material, including "Hip Hop is Dead".  Eventually, Marley joined in and the two performed together on some tracks, even covering Bob Marley's track "One Love".  Marley followed in a set of his own with some quality reggae music.  To end the night, Nas came back out and the two showed what kind of sound Distant Relatives might have.

Nas and Damian Marley performing at Rock the Bells

Rock the Bells was definitely a different experience compared to seeing R.E.M. or Death Cab for Cutie, and I'm glad that I exited my box to see this show.  Most of the performers had top-notch lyrical quality and excelled at what they did.  Unfortunately, at an event like this, the negative stereotypes and associations with hip-hop still exist, even outside of the mainstream.  But, based on the majority of the artists I saw at Rock the Bells, there is a level that exists beyond the misogyny and dumbed down lyrics that plagues most mainstream lyrical hip-hop and rap found on the local top 40 radio station.  I can only hope that artists continue to shoot for this higher level of quality I saw on display (for the most part) at Rock the Bells.

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