Rock the Bells: where old school rules

    Method Man wants to make it clear: He’s not saying he and Redman are the best, he’s just saying nobody rocks the stage like they do.

    That’s because at the fifth annual Rock the Bells, the touring hip-hop fest featuring performances from legends like A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, The Pharcyde, Mos Def, De La Soul and Rakim, as well as Redman and Wu-Tang Clan member Method Man, he knows talk like that might be considered blasphemous.

    Four of those legends are Imani, Slimkid3, Bootie Brown and Fatlip who, as alternative West Coast rap group The Pharcyde, released their platinum debut Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde in 1992 and followed that three years later with the double platinum Labcabincalifornia. On Saturday, July 19 at Rock the Bells’ first stop in Chicago, they took the stage together for the first time in 11 years, further boosting the legacy of a concert series that in 2004 reunited jazz rap pioneers A Tribe Called Quest after a six year break. This year the tour has added international stops, including four in Europe and one in Japan, to a schedule that previously included only U.S. and Canadian cities.

    Unlike last year’s festival, which featured hard-rockers Rage Against the Machine as headliners and was consequently attended by what the New York Times’ Jon Pareles dubbed “a cargo shorts crowd,” this year’s event drew a more traditional hip-hop fan base.

    Brightly colored clothes and shoes, flat brimmed hats, billowing dreadlocks and facial piercings were on full display. Between sets, heads bobbed most enthusiastically when DJs played classics like Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth’s horn driven “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.),” an early 90s track that magazines like Spin and The Source have featured on various best songs lists.

    Strangers struck-up conversations. Dialog even flowed at a nearby gas station after the show. One man’s comment of, “Who here thinks Nas was better than Tribe?” provoked icy stares from two women who weren’t feeling the Tribe MC Q-Tip’s new material, from his upcoming album The Renaissance. “But he’s a poet,” one said.

    Indeed, a preference of older material seemed to rule the day. Songs off new or upcoming albums from Q-Tip, ‘80s icon Rakim and Nas elicited mixed reactions at best.

    After politically charged sets from underground duo Dead Prez and Peruvian MC Immortal Technique, Rakim’s old school clout and late 80s, early 90s fixture De La Soul’s kickin’-it-on-a-Saturday-afternoon vibe created some party spirit. But things really got started with Method Man and Redman.

    “The energy you give to us,” Method Man proclaimed in his gravelly voice, prefacing their set, “we give back to you.”

    The duo then unleashed their hit “Da Rockwilder” before being joined by fellow Wu-Tang members Ghostface Killah and Raekwon. They proceeded to put on the day’s most memorable performance. They frenzied the crowd with their raw energy and undeniable chemistry, as they mounted speakers, crowd surfed, unloaded water bottles and rocketed around the stage.

    At one point, Method Man leapt off the stage and assaulted a viewing platform off to the side, climbed it and heroically delivered a verse as enthusiastic fans swarmed beneath him and others stood behind him, separated only by a wooden guardrail.

    Fans showed their approval by releasing clouds of smoke from out the sea of people.

    “That was a solid throw-down!” screamed one man, probably drunk, wearing a Cubs hat. “A nine-point-five solid.”

    After that adrenaline rush, Mos Def’s one man show seemed comparatively tame. But The Pharcyde dazzled behind a live band, as suspended screens above depicted giant marijuana leaves.

    Many bass-heavy songs didn’t sound right over the poor sound system, which pumped too much bass and often obscured the music, but Pharcyde classics like “Passing Me By” and “Runnin’” got roars from the crowd by their instantly recognizable guitar and keyboard riffs, which sounded great.

    Nas followed and, dressed completely in white, glowed ethereally under the spotlight. The crowd demonstrated its old school roots during his emotional set, responding more to well-known classics like “N.Y. State of Mind” (the lyrical substitution of “Chi-Town” for “New York” also helped) than to songs off his latest album like “Sly Fox,” after which Nas called Fox News “the devil.”

    Q-Tip, one of two A Tribe Called Quest MCs, along with Phife Dawg, preceded Tribe’s set with songs from his upcoming solo album The Renaissance, but nobody knew or could make out the songs over the shoddy sound system, making for a disappointing combination. He also seemed indifferent through most of the set but become astronomically more animated for his recital of Tribe hit “Sucka Nigga.” Anxious for the Tribe, when Q-Tip finished and the stage went pitch dark, some booing ensued.

    Had Phife Dawg and DJ-producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad not appeared, there might have been a riot. Wearing a Chicago Bulls Derrick Rose jersey and looking a little chubby at 37, Phife joined Q-Tip in recounting vintage Tribe.

    Here as a volunteer with Rock the Vote, Max Rothstein, 19, took in the set after a day of registering voters, grooving to a climaxing medley of tracks like “Can I Kick It” and “Electric Relaxation.”

    “Basically everything we wanted to hear,” Rothstein said.


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