rock the bells 2011 was a world-class hiphop affair. from the moment i arrived until i boarded the ferry from governor’s island back to lower manhattan, i enjoyed nothing but the best from a handful of raps heaviest hitters. all peace. no problems. a few celebrity handshakes. follow me as i walk you through the greatest musical day of my life.
my brothers and i got staff access wrist-bands. shortly after that, we got VIP access. i took it upon myself to walk up to the guards and act like i belonged there. no one said a word and next thing you know we were side-stage for random axe, the project from black milk, sean price and guilty simpson. they ripped a short set from their self-titled debut and had the crowd moving. after wrapping up, sean price hung with the crowd on the side stage, and i have to admit, he’s a massive dude. they warmed the crowd up nicely.
next came blackstar. they did their 1998 record from front to back. mos, dressed in a white short-sleeved button down, skinny black tie and black and white loafers, was on point and kweli stood tall as his lyrical counterpart. though early in the day, the main stage crowd was surging. blackstar sounded fresh even though their record is nearly 15 years old. age didn’t matter as even the youngest fans sang along with the chorus, “one, two, three…mos def and talib kweli.” kweli even managed to sneak in a verse and chorus to his hit “get by”. all in all, blackstar lived up to the legendary hype the duo has always carried. as they left the stage there was a mention of a new blackstar record coming this year. at this point, the mood was set. rock the bells 2011 was going to be about business. top-notch talent, delivering their best.
cypress hill stormed the stage and performed black sunday in its entirety. b-real sounded fantastic as he urged the crowd to sing along to songs like “dr. greenthumb”, “insane in the brain” and “a to the k”. the crowd seemed to enjoy cypress hill, but at times they seemed a bit disinterested. this was, of course, until b-real lit up what looked like a six-inch joint. he asked if anyone in the crowd wanted to smoke with him, and almost immediately, clouds of smoke rose from random spots all over the main stage lawn, like a thousand tiny forest fires. they did their thing, giving the crowd a dose of west coast flavor like only the boys from the hill could deliver.
erykah badu was up next. i caught a few songs and jetted across the park to catch some of black moon. they were set to play enta da stage from top to bottom, and i didn’t want to miss it. when i got close i saw buckshot and his crew doing their best to rock a crowd that looked a little lost. something about black moon backed by a live band that was lost in translation. i was hoping for two turntables and a few mics, but they opted for the truly live experience. “buck em down” and “who got da props” sounded great, live band or not.
for a better part of the afternoon we bummed around between stages, picking up partial sets from slaughterhouse, big k.r.i.t and childish gambino. plenty of build up for ms. lauryn hill to set up and bring the house down. it seemed that lots of people were in attendance to watch her rock the main stage. i was torn, earlier in the day i found out nas and lauryn had swapped spots. nas would headline the main stage at the same time that raekwon and ghost were set to do only built 4 cuban linx across the way. ultimately, the decision wasn’t tough at all. nas was who i was there to see.
lauyrn hill did her thing. she rapped and sang her way through the miseducation of lauryn hill as the crowd belted and danced along to every word. her voice was strong, and even more surprising, her rhymes were spot on. i imagined she’d come out and sing a bit, maybe fumble through her raps, but she killed it. the crowd ate it up and went nuts when she invited pras, from the fugees, out on a few duets from the score, the fugees bona fide classic.
the scene was set for nas. he came out to a stage decorated like the courtyard of his childhood stomping grounds, the queensbridge projects. over dj premiers carefully placed and expertly chopped up beats, nas proceeded for the first time in history, to perform all of his stellar debut illmatic for a hungry crowd that knew every single word. there are too many highlights to list but i’ll say this, watching pete rock (who i briefly met earlier in the afternoon) battle dj premier before a crowd of thousands, was unlike anything i’d ever seen. before leaving the stage, nas ripped through “hate me now”, and brought out lauryn hill to duet on arguably his biggest track, “if i ruled the world”.
walking back to the ferry, chatting with my brothers, we all decided unanimously, rock the bells 2011 was the best festival experience any of us has had to date. loving hiphop, seeing that many great acts in the same day and catching most of the afternoon from up on the stage made for some memories we will never forget. hiphop certainly has come a long way. at one time, the entire genre was condemned and boxed in, called violent by the media and protested against from all angles. on that long saturday on governor’s island off the southern most tip of manhattan, musicians and fans came together to celebrate with style in the september sun. no fighting. no shootings. no problems. just beats, rhymes and life.