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Festival Review: CoS at NYC’s Rock the Bells 2011

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     rock the bells 2011 albums played Festival Review: CoS at NYCs Rock the Bells 2011

    Rock the Bells, the annual, traveling hip-hop festival, has entered its eighth year. Following up a lauded 2010 series that boasted Snoop Dogg performing Doggystyle and A Tribe Called Quest reuniting for Midnight Marauders, among others, this year’s four-city, month-long concert series takes that concept a step further. At least 11 acts (varying slightly by date) have performed their classic albums on this year’s tour, largely representing an era of hip-hop that took place from the years 1993 to 1998.

    Consequence of Sound was on hand for the New York leg of the festival series, where the action played out across two main stages. The larger Rock the Bells Stage hosted hip-hop legends and modern R&B greats from Nas and Black Star to Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu. The 36 Chambers Stage was home to numerous Wu-Tang Clan affiliates from GZA to Raekwon and Ghostface Killah, as well as other iconic East Coast hip-hop acts including Mobb Deep and Black Moon. Side stages included the Paid Dues stage, which put the spotlight on underground and up-and-coming acts such as Big K.R.I.T. and Immortal Technique, and the Grindtime stage, which hosted DJ performances.

    Governors Island provided an ideal spot, merely a 10-minute boat ride from Battery Park, although attendees had to deal with hour-long ferry lines on the Manhattan side. Still, thousands of NYC-area music fans found themselves in a festival-sized venue within the city limits, catching some of the 90’s biggest names in hip-hop flash back to their most classic cuts. Even though Rock the Bells is making stops in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston, New York City is where many of these artists call home, and so the entire day seemed to celebrate just how special New York hip-hop was in the mid-late ’90s and how important it continues to be.

    -Austin Trunick
    Staff Writer 

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    Black Star – Rock the Bells Stage – 2:25 p.m.

    blackstar1 rockthebellsnyc Festival Review: CoS at NYCs Rock the Bells 2011

    Photo by Jake Cohen

    “That’s the second time we’ve played that song in 10 years.”

    Despite any number of acclaimed solo albums, film roles, and TV appearances, to some people Mos Def and Talib Kweli will always be Black Star, the independent hip-hop duo that released one brilliant, self-titled album in 1998. Despite issues with boat transportation to Governors Island that caused many festival-goers to miss the day’s first few sets, the pair kept the energy level high for the smaller-than-normal early afternoon crowd. Knocking out most of their singular LP, Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star, highlights included the anti-violence sermon “Definition”, the NYC street life tale “Respiration”, “Thieves in the Night”, and the salacious “Brown Skin Lady”. While they let on that they hadn’t played some of the material in quite some time, it was hard to hear any rust in their rhymes.

    Both artists’ solo careers were also represented during their performance: Kweli dropped his 2002 single “Get By” from Quality, while Mos Def took on Black on Both Sides’ “Umi Says” from 1999. The duo repeatedly promised a sequel Black Star record in 2012. For many of the gathered fans in the audience, the new year won’t come soon enough. -Austin Trunick

    GZA - 36 Chambers Stage –  3:55 p.m.

    gza2 rockthebellsnyc Festival Review: CoS at NYCs Rock the Bells 2011

    Photo by Jake Cohen

    “Sometimes we gotta flash ‘em all back, remind them where it all started.”

    GZA may be the festival’s longest-tenured veteran on the nostalgia circuit, as he’s been performing Liquid Swords in its entirety on tour since 2007. While other performers can sometimes come across as a bit rusty on their classic album’s lesser-regarded tracks, The Genius has been knocking out all of the songs from his seminal LP long enough to have each line down tight. He gave the best renditions of classics such as “Duel of the Iron Mic” and “I Gotcha Back” that this writer’s ever seen, despite the searing afternoon sun. There were a decent number of cameos from his various Wu-Tang brethren and affiliates: Killah Priest hung out onstage through the bulk of his set, giving support on most songs and taking on his featured track from Liquid Swords, “B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth)”. RZA rushed the stage for a surprise appearance on “4th Chamber”, which sent the audience into a roar of cheers. Some time was even taken to pay tribute to Ol’ Dirty Bastard by rolling into a rendition of “Shimmy Shimmy Yah” with the departed’s son, Young Dirty, who bears an uncanny resemblance to his father both in looks and in stage antics. GZA departed from the Liquid Swords playlist a few times, including a crowd-pleasing section of the Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)staple “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck Wit” and an amped-up run-through of his own “Alphabets” from 2008’s Pro Tools-Austin Trunick

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    Cypress Hill – Rock the Bells Stage –  4:00 p.m.

    cypresshill5 rockthebellsnyc Festival Review: CoS at NYCs Rock the Bells 2011

    Photo by Jake Cohen

    “Yeah, I’m started to feel this spliff right here. I’m starting to settle into it. Y’all settlin’ into your high?”

    Cypress Hill took the stage minutes before 4:20, as if there were any other time they could possibly start. Still, despite the kitsch factor of being the big pot-smoking act of the day, B-Real and Sen Dog threw down a classic set, drawing from their 1993 triple-platinum album, Black Sunday. Improving on the album’s original track order, the boys from L.A. crafted a set with a natural flow and arc, centered around B-Real’s lighting up a spliff before heading into “I Wanna Get High” and “Hits From the Bong”. For these acts playing full albums, an unexpected divergence was often an exciting highlight, and that was certainly the case when Cypress Hill’s turntablist, DJ Hitman Julio, and percussionist Eric “Bobo” Correa played a duet of old-school 80s hip-hop beats and Latin-flavored hip-hop drums, ending with a dramatic percussion solo that got the crowd going. The group amped up the intensity with “Cock the Hammer” and “A to the K”, and of course, closed with their mega hit, “Insane in the Brain”. -Jake Cohen

    Black Moon – 36 Chambers Stage – 5:25  p.m.

    blackmoon4 rockthebellsnyc Festival Review: CoS at NYCs Rock the Bells 2011

    Photo by Jake Cohen

    “It ain’t over when the sun goes down, because that’s when the Moon comes up.”

    Black Moon’s Buckshot was a constant force through all of the group’s 1993 classic, Enta Da Stage, pacing the platform and raising the audience’s excitement levels on heavy-hitting jams like “Who Got da Props?” and “Powaful Impak!”. Onstage, Black Moon’s live band included two saxophonists, keyboards, electric guitar, drums, and a bass player; the live instrumentation added an extra level of vitality to the proceedings, and the group gave shout-outs to jazz forefathers Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong. The bass groove that kicked through “How Many MC’s…” was a highlight–enough to make you stop and recognize the value of a little bit of funk in a song. Other notable tracks included “Make Munne” and “Buck Em Down”.

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    Never the most prolific group, Black Moon has only released two albums of new material in the 18 years since their landmark Enta Da Stage, and none since 2003’s Total Eclipse, but that may soon change: “New Black Moon record coming soon,” Buckshot promised toward the end of their set, “called Dark Side of the Moon. Because we’re all about that dark shit. We’re all about that real nighttime shit.” -Austin Trunick

    Erykah Badu - Rock the Bells Stage – 5:45 p.m.

    badu3 rockthebellsnyc Festival Review: CoS at NYCs Rock the Bells 2011

    Photo by Jake Cohen

    “There will never be another Baduizm. There will never be another 1997.”

    Not many artists can pull off elegant, sexy, and eccentric at the same time. Not many artists are like Erykah Badu. She ran through most of her landmark, genre-defining, neo-soul album Baduizm, and her six-piece live band and four backup singers brought a funky, smooth groove to the late afternoon show. Needing a few songs to get warmed up, Badu really got things going with “Appletree”, giving the song a much stronger push than the slick album version and displaying some scat-singing acrobatics. Her performance generally took the album tracks a touch faster and harder, perhaps to bridge the gap between the more hardcore hip-hop acts and herself. Her introductory quote was dead-on: More than other classic 90s albums, Baduizm seemed to capture a very particular moment in African-American music, when female artists were trying to navigate the territory between R&B, jazz, soul, and modern hip-hop. Yet, of the two late 90s female singer/rappers, Badu was overshadowed by Lauryn Hill’s outstanding set.  -Jake Cohen

    Mobb Deep - 36 Chambers Stage – 7:00 p.m.

    mobbdeep2 rockthebellsnyc Festival Review: CoS at NYCs Rock the Bells 2011

    Photo by Jake Cohen

    “What we gonna do right now is go back!”

    Havoc and Prodigy, the Queens, NY, duo better known as Mobb Deep, took the 36 Chambers Stage just as the sun was disappearing behind Erykah Badu’s set across the festival grounds. Joined onstage by regular contributor Big Noyd, the pair ran through cuts from their acclaimed sophomore effort, The Infamous, as well as choice selections from their more recent albums and solo discs. Those hoping for cameos by the original featured guests on The Infamous’s “Eye for a Eye (Your Beef Is Mines)” or “Right Back at You” (Nas and Raekwon & Ghostface, respectively) might have been a little let down given those guys’ proximity at the time, but they were likely too busy prepping for their own sets coming later in the night. Mobb Deep’s Rock the Bells set left little other reason to disappoint, as Havoc and Prodigy energetically tore through all of the album’s best songs, just killing “Survival of the Fittest”, “Temperature’s Rising”, and their dark classic, “Shook Ones Pt. II”.

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    If that weren’t enough, Prodigy took off with “Keep It Thoro”, the lead single from his solo debut, H.N.I.C.. Latter-day Mobb Deep tracks performed included “Quiet Storm” from 1999’s Murda Muzik and a hard-hitting version of Amerikaz Nightmare’s “Got It Twisted”, driven along by a cranked-out Thomas Dolby sample. -Austin Trunick

    Ms. Lauryn Hill – Rock the Bells Stage – 7:45 p.m.

    laurynhill6 rockthebellsnyc Festival Review: CoS at NYCs Rock the Bells 2011

    Photo by Jake Cohen

    “People always say, ‘You do the old stuff, but you don’t do it in the old way.’ Well, tonight we’re gonna do the old stuff in the old way.”

    Lauryn Hill has taken a lot of flack (no pun intended) over the past 10 years. Since leaving the Fugees and dropping her monumental solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, she’s been the subject of nasty rumors and unfortunate stories, both of which have contributed to her stepping out of the public eye. But make no mistake about it: Lauryn Hill still knows how to throw it down, to belt it out, and to sing tenderly. Her Rock the Bells set was a powerful, dynamic, passionate performance, showing off her soulful vocals and her strong rapping abilities. Her set began with an energetic version of “Lost Ones” and continued running through The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill with a heartfelt “Ex-Factor” and a spirited “To Zion”, during which she repeatedly implored, “I trusted you with my heart!”, straining her voice and making her audience feel the heartbreak. Her hit single “Doo Wop (That Thing)” came next, flying by at a fast clip with high energy as Hill jumped around the stage and the crowd swayed their arms.

    laurynhill7 rockthebellsnyc Festival Review: CoS at NYCs Rock the Bells 2011

    Photo by Jake Cohen

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    After fixing some monitor problems and blowing up the crowd with “Doo Wop”, Hill found her confident stride, and her performance kept growing stronger as it went on. She wowed the crowd with the lyrical acrobatics of “Final Hour”, finding that hardcore attitude that was a crucial part of the powerful Fugees sound. But even an intense version of “Forgive Them Father” was overshadowed by the evening’s biggest surprise: two thirds of a Fugees reunion, as Hill was joined (unannounced, she said) onstage by Pras Michel. The part of the crowd milling about the middle of the concert field immediately gravitated to the main stage while Hill showed her strongest rapping of the night, taking Wyclef’s verse on “Fu-Gee-La” and then throwing down a ripping “Ready or Not”. For her encore, Pras and Hill gave the audience an energetic “Killing Me Softly”. On this night, it seemed as though Ms. Lauryn Hill re-educated the audience, reminding us that she still knows how to crush it. -Jake Cohen

    Childish Gambino – 36 Chambers Stage – 8:35 p.m.

    “Latin girls see my face and call it Jupiter /
    Latin girls see your face and call it stupid-er.”

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    Childish Gambino is the hip-hop project of comedian/one-time-Spider Man candidate Donald Glover, who currently appears on NBC’s Community. Taking his emcee name from an online Wu-Tang name generator, Gambino was far and away the only rapper at Rock the Bells dropping references to Shining Time Station. Or Amelie. Or Huey Lewis. Or Smurf villain Gargamel. Roughly one third of the small crowd that chose to forego Lauryn Hill to catch him seemed to be caught off guard during the initial part of his set. (More than a couple shouts of “Get off the stage!” were thrown his way.) At first, it’s hard to tell whether he’s a joke rapper or just one with a lot of genuinely funny rhymes. On further inspection, the needle points firmly toward the latter, and Gambino won over a lot of his detractors with overflowing energy and wit, climbing up the amplifier stacks and wearing his voice raw on self-released tracks such as “Do Ya Like” and “Put It in My Video”.

    Besides, any emcee who can drop a line about “eating more pussy than Alf” and keep a straight face deserves any props that come his way.-Austin Trunick

    Raekwon & Ghostface Killah  - 36 Chambers Stage – 9:35 p.m.

    raekwon ghostface4 rockthebellsnyc Festival Review: CoS at NYCs Rock the Bells 2011

    Photo by Jake Cohen

    “Then analyze my soundtrack for satisfaction/ 
    You adapt like a flashback chain reaction.”

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    Deservedly headlining the 36 Chambers stage, Wu-Tang Clan members Raekwon and Ghostface Killah took the stage to perform the former’s 1995 solo record, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…. Rock the Bells attendees were forced to make the difficult choice between this set and Nas’s going on across the field; those who stuck were treated to a Wu-Tang mini-reunion, with Masta Killa and Cappadonna joining at different parts of the set. Despite sound problems that stalled out the setlist and forced Ghostface to spend five minutes mid-show on a mic check, the hip-hop veterans successfully banged out old, crowd-pleasing favorites such as “Incarcerated Scarfaces”, “Criminology”, and “Ice Cream”. Before Raekwon or Ghostface even took the stage, Supernatural warmed up the crowd with his virtuosic freestyling and spot-on, chameleon-like impersonations of Slick Rick, Busta Rhymes, and Biggie Smalls. In a fun bit of audience interplay, the nimble-mouthed MC had the crowd hand shirts, drinks, or any other object to him onstage, which he then incorporated into his freestyle. -Austin Trunick

    Nas - Rock the Bells Stage – 9:55 p.m.

    nas6 rockthebellsnyc Festival Review: CoS at NYCs Rock the Bells 2011

    Photo by Jake Cohen

    “Life is good. Life is beautiful. But sometimes, life’s a bitch!”

    After grabbing the main headlining spot following a number of schedule rearrangements, Nas found himself with the biggest and most hyped-up crowd of the night. Taking full advantage of his hometown show, Nas dropped the first three tracks from his debut album, Illmatic, featuring many of the original MCs and DJs. After throwing down “N.Y. State of Mind”, “Life’s a Bitch” with AZ, and “The World is Yours” with Pete Rock, Nas gave the stage over to Pete Rock and DJ Premier for a quick battle mini-set. While it was cool to hear this club-style exchange on the grand proportions of Rock The Bells, it also seemed to suck the energy out of the set, thinning out the crowd eager to catch an early ferry back to Manhattan. However, any early departures missed the biggest party of the night, as Nas ramped it up and kept it going for almost another hour. He re-emerged from the intermission clad in camouflage, filled the stage with guest MCs and his cheering entourage, and ventured well beyond the confines of Illmatic. The intensity and energy reached a fever pitch with “Hate Me Now”, while Nas capitalized on Lauryn Hill’s presence to partner up on “If I Ruled the World”. With the stage set up to mimic the Queensbridge Houses projects, Nas blew up a NYC-sized celebration with a NYC-sized set. -Jake Cohen

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