Rock The Bells | Mountain View | Review | Pics

Words by: Chris Clark | Images by: Casey Flanigan

Rock the Bells :: 08.27.11 :: Shoreline Amphitheatre :: Mountain View, CA

A full gallery for this one-day festival is directly below this review!

The remaining dates for the 2011 Rock The Bells are Saturday, September 3, on Governor's Island in New York City, and Saturday, September 10 at Comcast Center in Boston, MA.

Lauryn Hill by Casey Flanigan
You never know what you’re going to get with live hip hop. From the outlandishly horrific to the stunningly sensational and everywhere in between, seeing your favorite rapper or hip hop group in the flesh is undoubtedly a crapshoot. Will the artists be on time or even show up? Will the bass bombardment outshine the vocal quality? Will the festivities be mired in the muck or go off without a hitch? Like it or hate it, for all the poetic wizardry and production prowess that defines the genre, how the product will perform to the sweaty masses often offers a big ‘what if?’ With its foundation dating back to 2004 where the inaugural one day event showcased the first full Wu-Tang Clan (ODB included) show in a decade, Rock the Bells has now become a touring hip hop institution. Many of the greats have played the festival-A Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def, De La Soul, Public Enemy, Nas and Cypress Hill among countless others-and 2011’s rendition was no different. Boasting a blistering lineup including the likes of Black Star, Nas, Lauryn Hill and the GZA performing their classic albums live; Rock the Bells 2011 arrived at Shoreline Amphitheatre in the heart of Silicon Valley for a full day of sunshine, beats, rhymes and life.

Black Star by Casey Flanigan
Black Star - Rock the Bells Stage

I’ve considered Black Star’s coming out party, Black Star, to be one of the quintessential hip hop albums since I first heard it in high school in 1998. Having seen both Mos Def and Talib Kweli solo live, this was the most highly anticipated set of the day for me. The duo wasted not a second getting warmed up, as Black Star arrived on the main stage promptly with mics blazing as they opened up with “Definition.” Performing their trademark album in its entirety, Mos and Talib were quick to engage the filling amphitheatre crowd as only the two Brooklyn lyricists can - skinny tie, top hat and all. Before long, the chants of, “One, two, three, it’s Mos Def and Talib Kweli, we came to rock on til the tip-hop, best alliance in hip hop,” arose and a Shoreline dance party ensued. Mos Def exuded so much East Coast swagger thriving in such a West Coast setting that the entire tent-covered amphitheatre danced and sang to every beat. While short and sweet, Black Star’s sun-soaked set was one continuous highlight; most notably during rhyme tight versions of “Brown Skin Lady” and “Respiration.”

Random Axe - 36 Chambers Stage

If you haven’t heard Random Axe yet, it’s about time to. Performing tracks off their recently released, self-titled debut, the New York City trio (today sans producer Black Milk) engulfed the 36 Chambers Stage with the sounds of new school hip hop flare with an old school hip hop flavor. The tandem MC’s of Sean Price and Guilty Simpson flowed rather effortlessly over the super-slick production of Black Milk (filled in at Rock the Bells by Pete Rock) as the early afternoon sun beat down on a boisterous crowd of hip hop aficionados and newbies alike. Random Axe’s sound possessed a bass-heavy (but not too heavy) quality that was littered with choppy keys, meandering flutes and enough freestyle to impress even the staunchest of lyrical proponents. Take note, Random Axe is a talented crew with a huge upside and not much in their way.

Big K.R.I.T. - Paid Dues Stage

The only negative news leading up the festival was that of Curren$y breaking his ankle at the previous Rock the Bells date in Los Angeles. While I certainly support his vigor for live performances, it was a bit of a bummer that he wouldn’t be making it back to the Bay. Nonetheless, his colorful confidant Big K.R.I.T. picked up his slack and then some. The Mississippi bred K.R.I.T. brought his Delta Country Shit flavor to the Bay, enjoying possibly the most boisterous and audience-involved set the day offered. Without question, his adept ability to engage an audience and feed off the fervor was on full display, allowing K.R.I.T. to flow seamlessly through material off his album Return of 4Eva and make a name for himself live in the process. I’m not sure if that’s commonplace for the big guy or not, either way, it is now.

Cypress Hill by Casey Flanigan
Cypress Hill - Rock the Bells Stage

While acts like K.R.I.T. and Random Axe (along with Mac Miller, Slaughterhouse, Common and many others not mentioned) provided a talented and fitting opening to Rock the Bells festivities, the last few sets of the day were the true reward. You’d be hard-pressed to find lovers of music who haven’t at least delved into “Insane in the Brain,” “Hits From the Bong” or “I Want to Get High” off the West Coast rap staple Black Sunday at least once or twice. Performing the album in its entirety, Sen Dog, Muggs and B-Real (along with Eric Bobo on live percussion) proved that they were not only still relevant but that they can still bring it live after 18 million sold and a multi-platinum career. Along with raucous versions of the aforementioned classics, Cypress Hill unleashed a percussion-based fury on the Shoreline crowd during heavier tracks like “Cock the Hammer” and ‘I Ain’t Goin’ Out Like That.” While the sound system on the main stage has some issues mixing in B-Real’s vocals to the overall sound, Cypress Hill was able to overcome and perform a solid set of one of the most influential rap albums ever released.

Nas by Casey Flanigan
Nas - Rock the Bells Stage

Nas is amazing live. He has immense dexterity and an uncanny knack for smooth, concise lyrical delivery. Unlike much of the hip hop world, seeing him live is just as good as his studio production, as both his vocal range and his intricate flow always shine through. His Rock the Bells performance was much of the same, but this time around, Nas performed his gem Illmatic for the masses. And he wasn’t alone for the festival, bringing along two of hip hop’s finest producers - DJ Premier and Pete Rock - to handle the ones and twos behind his velvety, vivacious rhymes. Released all the way back in 1994, Nas’ debut album has withstood the holds of time and is still as fresh and relevant today as it was then. Tracks like “The World is Yours” and “Memory Lane” seemed to resonate universally as the day’s largest crowd bobbed their heads and sang along with Nas and crew. Without any doubt, Nas’ verbal abilities and sheer onstage presence haven’t slipped a beat, even 17 years later.

GZA - 36 Chambers Stage

While it’s certainly debatable, the GZA’s solo effort Liquid Swords, to me, is the premier Wu-Tang solo album. Sure, there’s Ghostface and Raekwon’s Cuban Linx and Method Man’s Tical, but at the end of the day, front to back, the Genius’ effort takes the proverbial cake. With his Wu mate Masta Killa adding some Shaolin style on the 36 Chambers Stage, GZA arrived in pure form, launching immediately into the album commencing “Liquid Swords” and followed up by “Duel of the Iron Mic,” an almost tribute of sorts to his late cohort O.D.B. From “Living in the World Today” through “Cold World,” the GZA delivered a fine performance to end a full day at the festival.

Rock the Bells went off without a hitch and proved that hip hop is still the thriving art form it used to be. Whether relative newcomers like Big K.R.I.T or Random Axe or rap gods like Nas or Cypress Hill, the festival succeeded at shining a light on a genre and culture that continues to be relevant today in 2011.

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[Published on: 8/31/11]

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