Rock The Bells
Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, Pharoahe Monch, Immortal Technique, Talib Kweli, Jedi Mind Tricks
Chicago, IL • August 26th
“He whipped a Heineken bottle at me!”
“One of ’em!”
“I don’t know? I think it was the RZA or Method Man!” He took a swig of his Hennessey and then sprayed all of us in the pit with it. My camera and my shirt smells like Henessey!”
The Wu set was a blast and I half-chuckled at the fact that a member of the Wu Clan almost smacked my wife in the head with a beer bottle while she snapped pictures. But that’s how the Chicago stop of the 2007 Rock the Bells festival ended, with Wu-Tang Clan bringing the necessary raucous–promoting their upcoming 8 Diagrams album–and scurrying around stage while backdropped by a curtain displaying the Chinese-style house of Wu and a banner with the words “RIP O.D.B.” slung over the elevated stage where the DJ worked the decks. Adding even more drama to a show that felt like one-half reunion tour and one-half questionable relevancy, a fan began taunting the Clan, yelling “Death to the Wu!” and “Where the fuck is O.D.B!” Now, whether or not what followed was spontaneous or scripted–probably the latter only because the very next song was “Bring Da Ruckus”–RZA and company stopped the show, shouted back and then catapulted into the crowd and proceeded to pummel the flippant fan, who after being saved by security, was then calmly escorted to the side stage.
The Festival was certainly memorable but I do have a couple beefs that are related to the slogan that was boldly printed on the festival banner. I disagreed every time I read “A World-Class Hip Hop Festival” as I walked the grounds. This Chicago tour stop was a slimmed down version of the San Bernadino, CA and New York stops, both of which featured bills filled with the likes of Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy and also boasted a merging with Guerilla Union’s other sponsored summer hip hop tour, the Paid Dues festival, which featured Sage Francis, MURS, Brother Ali and EL-P. The Coastal tour stops also included stages with DJs who spun records and b-boys who breakdanced under various tents. Chicago was only sparsely treated to two of the four hip hop elements–Emceeing, and some DJ work. At several points during the show Chicago was given props for being a current hip hop hotbed, birthing the likes of hip hop’s biggest and most progressive acts–Common, Kayne West and Rhymefest. However, aside from utilizing an instrumental version of Common’s single “The People,” over which tour host Supernatural freestyled as he collected a bra, chewing gum, a shoe, sunglasses and a Pop Tart from the front rows, all used as fonder for slick punch lines fixed onto the end of witty, spontaneous rhymes. Other than that the festival lacked local flavor or relevance as Chicago’s hip hop talent was slighted when it should have been given a larger spotlight.
The other downer was the poor scheduling of rapper Talib Kweli at 3:00pm, who unfortunately performed to a meager crowd as fans were still arriving. Armed with a mic and backing tracks only, Kweli cruised through tracks from his latest album Ear Drum–his best yet and a possible mainstream breakthrough– “Get ‘Em High” from Kanye West’s debut College Dropout and a couple others from his previous albums. Sadly, though, the performance was more of an afterthought than a proper showing of his skills, which could’ve been better showcased with a later slot and a full band.
Nas’s set was the festival’s true moment of soulful transcendence as he opened up with the title track from his latest album “Hip Hop Is Dead”- anchored by the guitar riff from Iron Butterfly’s “Innagoddadivida”- an album title that has successfully stirred the hornets nest via a slick dose of reverse psychology on hip hop’s faithful. Nas shimmered in a white hot spotlight during “One Mic”, providing a rare contemplative hush that stood out in a festival packed tight with raging anti-war anthems and rang with the din of aggression.
Backed by a full band, New York-rapper Pharohe Monache unloaded his banging hybrid of rock, soul and hip hop, while Philadelphia grit-hop trio Jedi Mind Tricks and New York’s Immortal Technique both came locked and loaded with napalm drenched rhymes aimed at the masses.
New York-based and Peruvian-born Immortal Technique cemented his rebellious m.o. and controversial image by donning a Michael Vick jersey as he deftly mixed fiery rants with vicious rhymes and rapped the whole gamut of controversy–politics, race, relationships, drugs and rape. He got a deafening roar from fans when he volcanically explained that he didn’t bring any merchandise with him because he didn’t want to have to give 30 percent to the greedy Charter One venue who was asking for that cut of all goods he sold. His passion is undeniable and even though I didn’t agree with everything coming out of his mouth I was still moved by his vivid lyrics and dynamite delivery. Beyond the beats and lyrical flow, I was impressed when he gave away t-shirts and stayed around until every last fan was satisfied with an autograph.
A palpable sense of mourning and loss hung heavy as almost every artist paid homage to the late producer Jay Dilla and the Wu-Tang’s O.D.B. via a shout out or by performing a song written or produced by the two influential hip hop icons.
Yes, Chicago’s lakefront did rumble to the beat of The Rock the Bells tour, but the festival limped into a half-filled pavilion, failing to capitalize on a golden opportunity to pour gasoline on a city already smoldering and growing as a mighty Midwest force in hip hop.