Three to five years ago, the most popular phrase at Rock the Bells was “Rest in peace J Dilla.” This year, it was “Let’s get turned up!” The difference between the two shout-outs exhibits the festival’s progression from underground/old-school hip-hop gathering to a way more genre-expansive festival.
This year included stalwart acts that you would have seen at Rock the Bells 2004, 2005, and 2007 such as the Wu Tang Clan, TechNine, and Deltron 3030. But rappers like Juicy J, Riff Raff, and Trinidad James would have been ridiculed for not being “real hip-hop” enough in past years. This year’s eclectic and diverse cast was a reassuring reminder that hip-hop is not dead and that the music coming out in 2013 is just as worthy as that of any other era.
More than 50 acts split between two days and divided onto three stages meant that I had lots of ground and music to cover despite only being one person. And due to the immense offering of music, there were bound to some distressing scheduling conflicts. The worst of all was Juicy J vs. Black Hippy vs. Deltron 3030 at 7:45pm.
Even more upsetting was the fact that there was no music playing between 7:15 and 7:45. I cannot fathom why the organizers would have absolutely no act performing for 30 minutes less than three hours before the end of the festival. Fortunately I was able to dash between the three stages where the three acts were performing.
Nearly every act, all weekend, encouraged the audience to get “turned up,” but Juicy J was the only rapper to get his crowd “turned up” without asking. Due to the scheduling conflict, Deltron accompanied by an orchestra played to a rather small but very impassioned group of fans. When I caught Black Hippy, Kendrick Lamar was in the midst of performing the hits from his acclaimed good kid m.A.A.d city and I only needed five minutes to understand why he proclaimed himself to be “King of New York.”
The E-40/Too $hort duet was lackluster due to their early time slot — a mind boggling 4:25pm slot — and because 40 didn’t show up on the stage till more than halfway through the set. Other bland performances included Joey Bada$$ who was very undeserving of his main stage slot, Immortal Technique who belongs in a museum of homophobia and sexism and not on a concert stage, and Action Bronson. Bronson, who normally is overflowing with personality, spent his entire set floating around on stage and basically talked his verses, the most exciting part of his set was the guest appearance of Riff Raff on “Bird on a Wire.”
For the most part, the rappers at the festival were generally excited to be presenting for an exclusively hip-hop head audience. Brooklyn outfit Flatbush Zombies exploded on stage with psychotic energy from start to finish. Odd Future mates Tyler the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt in each of their sets trolled the hell out of their fans, which made for an even more amped set. Pusha T gets immense credit for kicking off his set with his lively guest verse from “Don’t Like” and Clipse-favorite “Grindin,’” a successful attempt at keeping fans from drifting off to the other stages.
Trinidad James’s “I’m so happy to be here” schtick surprisingly made for a bouncy show. A$AP Mob and Black Hippy each tied for best overall group performance and both crews played like they owned the Shoreline Amphitheatre. Kid Cudi, who some hip-hop heads might have doubted as a viable headliner, possessed a contagious enthusiasm that the crowd inhaled like it was pot smoke.
As for the holograms, they get credit for their novelty and not much else. Both Eazy E and ODB were flickering in the beginning. The hologram as a medium could barely play surrogate for these two strong and influential personalities. I pray to god Mac Dre never gets subject to this. The hologram was a worthy endeavor in that it gave a sense to millenials what it was like to witness Eazy E and ODB, but fun time is over and it’s time to retire this gag before we jump the shark.
Least Surprising Cancellation: Chief Keef.
Best Surprise Guest: Tiny “Zeus” Lister aka Deebo from “Friday” showing up during Earl Sweatshirt, E-40/Too $hort, and TechN9ne’s sets.
Most “I’m old” Comment: RZA for “I know a lot of y’all grew up with iPads and iPhones, but I’mma show y’all how we used to do it back in the day”
Most Generous: Juicy J for throwing his sweat-soaked Gucci sports jacket into the crowd.
Most Unnecessary Stage Set-Up: Kid Cudi and his giant “Legends of the Hidden Temple” boulders.
Biggest Bay Area Panderer: Host Peter Rosenberg for constantly reminding people who live in the Bay Area that they are currently in the Bay Area.
Best Freestyler: Supernatural for the umpteenth time.
Number of times I heard the word “Twerk:” A shockingly low 2.
Number of times I heard the phrase “Turn Up” or any variation there of: ∞ [infinity]
iPad sightings: 6 (ugh)
Number of “Fuck the Police” chants: 7
Number of acts I heard lip-syncing: 4