Live: Rating Rock the Bells Sets From Slick Rick, Wu-Tang Clan, Lauryn Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, Snoop Dogg, and More
On a sweltering Saturday, the seventh annual hip-hop nerd convention Rock The Bells took over Governor's Island. It's a place where people know to "throw a one in the air" for Guru before DJ Premier even asked, a place where you can overhear a convo about whether Mos Def or Talib Kweli would be cooler to hang out with, a place where VIP ticket buyers actually get brand new backpacks. This year, the fest tapped into All Tomorrow's Parties-style nostalgia market of "Don't Look Back," and asked six legendary rap artists to perform their legendary albums in their entirety. We sweated in a field for nearly 11 ½ hours--with zero breaks for food, water, or Port-O-Potty, no joke--to see how well these albums translated to a live setting.
Oh, hey Q-Tip. All photos by Rebecca Smeyne.
Slick Rick performing The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick
Live interpretation: 5/10
Slick Rick's entire persona is based on being too cool for school (see: "...Crumbs!"). His world's-biggest-badass affect is pure magic in a place like the Knitting Factory, but a huge obstacle in a festival setting, where you need to rock a crowd from the front row back to the tip of the gyro stand. Rick's Rock The Bells posture is best described as statuesque. Mostly, he stands in one spot with a diamond-encrusted microphone in one hand and the other tucked in his pocket--well, mostly in his pocket, since his enormous bracelet wouldn't exactly fit in there. Adding to the problems: His extra-chillaxed remixes of classics like "Teenage Love" and "Teacher, Teacher" weren't going to remotely scratch the nostalgia itch the "full-album concert" is intended to scratch. But Rick is the Ruler after all, and his raps are as nimble as ever. If you were close enough, his natural charisma shone through: his inimitable smile, his jovial mouth-trumpeting on "Mona Lisa," and his high-BPM, highly dynamic shout-to-whisper take on "Children's Story."
Rakim performing Paid In Full
Live interpretation: 7/10
Rakim's performance of the groundbreaking 1987 debut he made with Eric B was gloriously animated. He practically coaxed the lyrics out of the audience by pantomiming them--acting out taking off his coat, clearing his throat, slamming the mike to make sure it's broke, eating a nice big plate of fish which is his favorite dish, etc. When he wasn't charadesing out the lyrics, he was simply tearing into them ferociously, no slouch after 25 years, which quickly whipped the crowd into a froth--especially when he came out to do "Paid In Full" wearing the Gucci suit from the album cover. However, without Eric B at his side, the Paid In Full run through was clearly missing something, mainly songs like "Eric B Is On The Cut" and "Chinese Arithmetic." Rakim's new partner, Technician The DJ, is clearly an amazing cutmaster in his own right, and could have handily updated those tracks with some contemporary pyrotechnics. However, in a hilarious dick move, he just played 10 seconds of each of the Eric B. tracks and said, "OK that's that song."
KRS-One performing Criminal Minded
Live interpretation: 3/10
That 3/10 is certainly no slight on KRS-One's performance--an energy-soaked burst that was easily one of the highlights of the day--it's just he didn't really perform the album at all. KRS ran through maybe a good six out of ten tracks by my count, completely skipping songs like "South Bronx" and "Super-Hoe." Instead, most of his set involved the legendary stage-champ flying about, playing classic megahits, doing motivational speaking, giving a space for an excellent mini-set by Buckshot, freestyling with Supernatural, and generally doing that always-entertaining lecturing thing he does--"You see... before Serrato... before Hot 97's wack ass... before Power 105's bullshit... there was real hip-hop in New York." You gotta love him.
A Tribe Called Quest performing Midnight Marauders
Live interpretation: 10/10
Tribe clearly did their homework and evidently rehearsed the fuck out of this, knowing there's more to doing these shows than just showing up and playing songs. Their set was maybe the only set that had the pace and feel of an album, DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad just slamming track after track after track together, no room for banter, no breaks to shout into the crowd "Where's my real hip-hop heads at?" or a "Who's excited to see Wu-Tang?" Hell, they even got Large Professor to come out and do his verse on "Keep It Rollin'" (followed by a brief Main Source mini-set!). The chemistry between Q-Tip and Phife was palpable and kind of felt like 1993 again, but that was largely owed to Tip eschewing his dapper Abstract mode in favor of a fun-loving, sweat-soaked blast of frantic energy. Bonus: Busta Rhymes came out for "Scenario" and seriously exploded into some circa-1991 kicking and flailing and screaming.