This past Saturday, Aug. 20 was a blistering hot day and the classic line-up at Rock The Bells only made it hotter. Upon arriving at the San Manuel Amphitheater in San Bernardino, I was amazed at how large this venue was. After some 12 hours of speed-walking under the sun to the various stages, I woke up the following morning as though I were beaten with a baseball bat. But the classic performances from Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Nas, Common, Ghostface & Raekwon — along with watching underground acts such as Blu & Exile, Black Moon and Souls of Mischief, was well worth the endurance walking.
Arriving at San Manuel around noon, it was a mission to find the press/VIP check-in. Thankfully we came across these little golf carts that shuttled us to and from the general ticket sales area where I was meeting with friends. Holy shit! That general ticket sales line was mammoth. It was worse than Disney Land on a Saturday! It’s a good thing that the Rock The Bells peeps started sending general ticket holders to the VIP entrance (because we had it easy).
Out of all the masterful performances on the bill, one of the acts I was most looking forward to was Black Star (Mos Def and Talib Kweli). I can’t tell you how disappointed I was to have waited for Black Star to hit the stage. After two hours of waiting under the melting sun, fans along with myself were bummed with the no-show. Apparently the duo came on a few hours later, after Cypress Hill. Unfortunately they only performed for about 15 minutes due to the tight schedule and I already had made my way to the 36 Chambers Stage for some Black Moon and Mobb Deep. Yeah, fuckin’ bummed. Regardless, Common directly proceeded Black Star’s slot and the man was straight up on point. Bouncing from stage left-to-stage right, Common made sure to grace every side of the crowd with his presence. The man was all smiles and fashionably dressed as he busted out rhymes from his entire album “Be.” He even went on to flow some custom Rock The Bells freestyles. It was definitely fresh.
Although super bummed we had missed Mastah Killa’s set due to schedule confusion, we managed to catch some hot underground acts such as Blu & Exile and Fashawn. All three lyricists were tight and performed with a live band, but Long Beach’s Blu did it for me. This boy is meant for the stage with a flow so tight even your mama would bust a groove. Taking the 36 Chambers Stage next was Childish Gambino, who pretty much annoys me. He’s indie hip hop for white hipsters that don’t know much about hip hop/rap. I love my indie, but I didn’t come to hear Grizzly Bear cuts — no thanks. I took this time to adventure back to the main stage (Rock The Bells stage) to catch some Cypress Hill. As I walked down the hill to the pit, the crowd was covered in hazy plumes of smoke. Indeed the marijuana was puffing freely as Cypress went on to perform “Black Sunday.” Even B-Real himself had a fatty joint in his hand (see our photos below). After bobbin’ around to some classic hits such as “Insane in the Brain” and “I Ain’t Goin’ Out Like That,” I got my swerve on with Erykah Badu. She was absolutely enchanting and she looked like a Goddess. I took the most joy in her performance, dancing to her soulful voice in a calm and positive setting. But somewhere in between her set, I had to bolt back to the other side of the venue to catch the infamous: Mobb Deep. I came into Mobb Deep’s set just as he was finishing up with “Survival of the Fittest.” At his point I really needed a bit of a break and ventured backstage to watch the rest of Mobb Deep’s performance which wasn’t the greatest. I hate to say it, but I found it a bit bland compared to what I had already seen. The best part was meeting the RZA backstage! Yeah, that was dope.
The rest of my evening went like this: Nas, Genius GZA, Lauryn Hill, Raekwon & Ghostface, Lauryn Hill and then some more Raekwon & Ghostface. Now I totally understand why my legs and hips hurt so much the following day. It took me nearly two days to recover from all the speed walking from stage-to-stage! Great work out though.
With a New York projects back drop and the cover of “Illmatic” projecting against the stage, Nas came out and handled it. Watching and hearing him perform “Illmatic” was iconic, straight up history. This was and still is one of the most influential East Coast hip hop albums. To top it all off, Nas had DJ Premier and Pete Rock both throwing down some battles on stage. Shit was fresh and very unexpected.
GZA was a wild show with kids just shouting out lyrics to the famed Wu-Tang member. I bobbed my head so hard I almost got whiplash. I had to cut out after a few songs to make sure I didn’t’ miss any of the “Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” Naturally, Ms. Hill was a little behind schedule but it was nothing compared to her recent diva moves and late appearances from her past L.A. tour dates. Making my way through the packed photo pit, I caught Lauryn Hill’s first three songs right under her nose. It was pretty epic and gave me goosebumps. Songs like “Ex-Factor” and “To Zion” brought tears to her eyes as well as mine. I’m getting teary-eyed just thinking of the beautiful moment. She truly moved the crowd with her soulful vocals and emotion. With a handkerchief in hand, Ms. Hill performed like a champion with no diva bull shit (except for maybe the strict crowd control on the near empty floor pit and her National Guard security). She looked gorgeous on stage in her lil mini skirt and thigh high boots. Indeed, Ms. Hill still has it going on! Her performance was the highlight of Rock The Bells. Not just because “Miseducation” holds so many great memories for me, but she honestly did a stellar job on stage. God damn she’s great. But as great as she was, I could not miss out on Ghostface & Raekwon.
Practically running to catch some of the starter songs from “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx,” I took my spot sidestage and enjoyed the hip hop vibe. Aside from Ghostface and the Chef, also up in the mix were Supernatural and Cappadonna. Even the late and great O.D.B’s son, Young Dirty, catapulted over my shoulder to jump on the stage and perform his father’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya.” Although this was a damn good time, I was craving some more Ms. Hill. Once more I ran to the mainstage and got my fix, but I then closed my night with Ghostface & Raekwon. Yeah, I was the stage marathon runner.
Rock The Bells may have kicked of with a few unfortunate hiccups but the remainder of the day flowed as smooth as buttah’. From iconic performances to some of today’s hottest up-and-comers, Rock The Bells had a little something for everyone no matter what your hip hop palette favored. I don’t know how RTB is going to top this historical day of music. But I look forward to what they cook up for us next year.
Words: Sandra Burciaga
Photography: Matt Fisher