At the 10th anniversary of Rock the Bells hip-hop festival this past weekend in Mountain View, the lineup — though it included virtual performances by the Eazy-E and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, both deceased — reminded festival-goers of the virtue in dynamic stage presence and solid delivery that no special effects can replace.
In a nostalgic weekend filled with accomplished rappers such as Slick Rick and Tech N9ne, it was a remarkable opportunity to see the likes of Kendrick Lamar, who “bumped that new E-40 after school,” perform on the same stage and with a later set time as E-40 himself.
Fellow Rock-the-Bells-er Danny Brown once tweeted that Black Hippy — Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q and Kendrick Lamar — are the new Beatles. One can dispute or try to pick apart the argument, but undoubtedly there is something electrifying about the group that sparked one of the most excitable audiences of the weekend.
The layout of the set, presenting each rapper by himself (except for Ab-Soul, who welcomed a Maker’s Mark-clutching Danny Brown onstage for one song) seemed awkwardly disjointed. While Jay Rock, Ab-Soul and Schoolboy Q performed their two or so songs individually — Schoolboy Q especially impressive — there was an unfair impatience from the crowd awaiting Kendrick Lamar.
The presentation seemed to model a biased talent show — each of the Black Hippy members performed, with Lamar’s finale transforming the festival set into a true stadium-style show. One couldn’t help but wish that the group performed in a similar style as A$AP Mob from he day before. A$AP Rocky, the recognizable leader of the group, performed a couple of songs solo, but the most robust songs were when the entire Mob was onstage with him.
That’s not to say that Lamar didn’t deliver. Though he only performed songs from his first studio album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, his buttery voice surged freely with the live band. One couldn’t help but be torn between wishing the rest of Black Hippy got more praise and wanting more Kendrick Lamar.
Though the cult favorite Wu-Tang Clan presented the promised Ol’ Dirty Bastard hologram (but with Ghostface Killah and Raekwon absent), the feeble crowd call-and-response feedback and the noticeable masses leaving after virtual ODB swirled away following “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” undoubtedly left a bitter taste in the group members’ mouths. Method Man blasted those who were leaving before the group was finished with their set, saying, “I hope you all go home, make a dick sandwich and eat it.”
Despite the numbers that left, Wu-Tang didn’t need a hologram. They showed what many of the other artists, whether climbing to or descending from their peaks, also displayed this weekend — that no technology can ever completely eclipse the titillation of a great performer. Method Man traversed the crowd, spurted champagne on the audience and chucked the DJ’s pristine white sneakers into the crowd while he scratched the turntables with his socked feet, reminding us of the importance of personality and self-loyalty in music.
Surprisingly, the surviving members’ average age is the same as Jay-Z’s (43). But Jay-Z, who just released tour dates for later this year and is still one of the most visible rappers in media, has transformed into a figure of mainstream hip-hop, his Reasonable Doubt self diluted and distant. Jay is still a legend, but there’s something valiant about Wu-Tang’s insistence on preserving their role as the most important, if not the best, rap group of all time.
Zombie Juice entered first with his signature beard, announcing in a dramatic fashion the “microphone-rocking, undisputed champions of the world”: Erick Arc Elliott (the least outwardly eccentric and the producer of the group) followed by a swaggering, polka-dot-clad Meechy Darko with a 40 in hand.
Their performance of “MRAZ,” off their mixtape Better Off DEAD that came out only three days before the San Francisco stop of Rock the Bells, was almost a tantrum, complete with voice cracks and rasps set against grainy, lo-fi beats. This terrifyingly compelling and crisp style classifies them as the type of zombies from old and campy horror films, not the mute empty shells on “The Walking Dead.” Darko has a remarkable talent for the upward-eye-roll-psycho look.
The Flatbush Zombies led the Beast Coast movement out of Brooklyn along with Joey Bada$$, who performed on Sunday, and the Underachievers, who performed on Sproul Plaza last semester.
Their songs may come off as overblown — for example, the chorus of “Drug Parade” with Danny Brown is “Shrooms shrooms, LSD, mescaline, a lot of weed” — but Flatbush Zombies aren’t just druggie braggarts. “Thugnificense” also emphasizes this first impression: “High as hell, don’t give a fuck / Not coming down, I’m going up.” But this also refers to their rise in fame. There’s a reason that the Zombies have already collaborated with RZA and were one of the most anticipated acts of the weekend, despite having only performed live for the first time a year ago.
Even though Odd Future helmsman Tyler, The Creator created buzz this weekend while roaming and socializing in the lawn seating, it became clear that fellow collective member Earl Sweatshirt is the new star.
Tyler was absent when Earl performed “Orange Juice,” which samples Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade” and was recorded by the two rappers. But that didn’t seem to matter to the sardined crowd.
To further the ridiculousness of this gangly and dorky teenager performing for a mob and being watched backstage by RiFF RaFF and others, Tommy “Tiny” Lister Jr., also known as “Debo” from the movie “Friday,” rolled onstage on a green Monster Energy Drink-sponsored bicycle and began riding around. The former wrestler and film star, who may be one of the most prolific meanmuggers in history, practically lifted Earl with his handshake and waved to the crowd before continuing his laps onstage. This semicircus of the performance also included Earl’s friend Taco Bennett throwing his broken Samsung Galaxy into the audience.
It actually seemed that older hits such as “Drop” were the more popular and well-known songs of the set, leading Earl to even ask the crowd half-jokingly if they had even heard his second studio album, Doris. But the crowd responded convincingly and yelled along to “Molasses”: “I’ma fuck the freckles off your face, bitch.” At the end of the song, Earl mocked the audience, “Are you guys proud of yourselves? That shit is nasty. You (guys) are disgusting.”