Previewing the Rock the Bells Festival coming to the RFK Stadium parking lot on Saturday, September 28th and Sunday, September 29th may truly be impossible. It’s the festival’s tenth anniversary in rap music’s 40th birthday year. The festival itself has never made a stop within the city itself, previous years’ events having been held at the Merriweather Post Pavillion. It’s also rap’s biggest era-to-date. Hip-hop culture’s influence on the zeitgeist is larger than ever before. Literally anything that touches the culture at its peaks turns to platinum, and rappers now have the legitimate ability to call themselves gods, rock stars, and potential billionaires and trillionaires. In the midst of all of this financial largess and social influence, though, it’s the art of rapping itself that has brought rap to this point, and it’s in an abundance that matches the apparent importance of rap in global life in the Nation’s Capital this weekend.
The headliners are holographic. In the logical evolution of Tupac at Coachella, the next largest moment in hologram rap history (wrap your brain around that notion for a second), the holographic form of Eazy-E joins with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, while the Wu-Tang Clan’s Old Dirty Bastard joins more than likely the ENTIRE Wu-Tang Clan onstage for a performance.Yes, it says something that living and breathing rappers can’t headline, but, it says something equally as profound about technology when holograms can as well. It’s a spectacle, and as much as people like car crashes and Miley Cyrus, its arguable that witnessing the animatronic motions of HOLO-DB is a far better expenditure of one’s time.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YjvIEFQTpIE
Below is an honest rap fanatic’s take on (highlights) of what will be great, what will be intentionally awkward (but win), and what will likely bore you to tears. It’s going to be a long day out there, so I’m just trying to help.
Also, here’s a THIRTY SONG SPOTIFY PLAYLIST featuring Rock the Bells artists to get you hyped for the day.
GREAT PERFORMANCES: Wu Tang-Clan, KRS-One, Wale, Common, Pusha T, Immortal Technique, Big KRIT, Freddie Gibbs, Supernatural, Jhene Aiko
Clearly, the Wu-Tang Clan are the headliners for a reason. This is worth the price of the ticket alone. KRS-One will hopefully say something mad controversial about the current state of rap that will trend on Twitter. Wale (apparently) loves his city again, and will likely have a spot to showcase his surprising array of songs you know by heart. Pusha T blew my mind at the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival and is probably the best pound-for-pound emcee in the game right now. Common has tremendous stage presence and is engaging as a live performer. Immortal Technique’s an underground legend, and I’m happy to see him on the billing. Freddie Gibbs will forever be cool for being a real ass rapper with a tattoo of Huey Newton on his back, but, he also once told a couple in the crowd at U Street Music Hall that “there ain’t no tongue kissing during my set,” so, there’s that. Big KRIT’s “Country Shit” is one of my favorite songs to see performed live, and KRIT will probably jump into the crowd. Supernatural is going to freestyle and make your jaw drop, and Jhene Aiko is the most spellbinding blend of talent, aura and beauty that R & B and rap have seen since Erykah Badu. While Rock the Bells is a so-so look for her, I’d absolutely love seeing her at DC’s Trillectro next year.
VISUAL SPECTACLES: Riff Raff, Logic and Chase and Status
I know that the jury is out on Riff Raff, but with FM Radio sounding as comfortably tired as AM Gold songs did in the 70s, “Jody Highroller”‘s blend of classic rap tropes with a knowing glance at the crowd of “I’m trying y’all, and I’m just a big a fan of this as you are” is eventually going to win. It’s times like these when he’ll slowly get people on board. Rap’s afraid of revolution, and thus, OG UK dubstep dons bridging into rap production Chase and Status are on the billing. This will either be terribly anachronistic, or utterly awesome.
MAY UNDERWHELM: J. Cole, Big Sean, Chief Keef, Talib Kweli, Tyler the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, Hit-Boy, Flatbush Zombies
J. Cole and Big Sean are two radio hit-makers who deserve headlining status, but at the same time are two personalities who arguably come off better on record than they do in the live realm. Cole’s heart-felt yearning pales by comparison to Drake, and quite possibly Wale’s as well. Chief Keef has a lot to prove here, as, well, he’s the OG king of the “turn up” for this generation, and he has to be more than this vapid and limited debut album. Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt are best when heard in small and enclosed venues. So much of their live acts (especially Earl’s) are based in nuance and style that being in a giant crowd may not work. That being said, Tyler has the personality of 10,000 men, so that may overwhelm any other issues. Hit-Boy is a pretty pedestrian rapper, and the only thing that I personally like that he’s done as an artist was the remix of Britney Spears’ “Scream and Shout,” and while he produced it, he’s on there as an artist for probably less than 30 seconds. As well, continuing the punk asshole kids on the big stage thoughts, the Flatbush Zombies are cool in concept as a live act, but still have yet to master the art of controlled mayhem that made say, “Take it Away” era Red Hot Chili Peppers one of the most entertaining live acts of that time.
GREAT PERFORMANCES: Black Hippy, A-Trak, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony (w/ Eazy-E), Juicy J, Jurassic Five, Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Too Short & E-40, Rapsody & 9th Wonder, Freeway and Stalley
Kendrick Lamar is rap music’s favorite rapper. He may be tied with Danny Brown and Pusha T for being the most focused rappers-on-a-come up in the game right now, attacking songs with ferocious bars. Ab-Soul, Jay Rock and Schoolboy Q are the best trio backing a superstar since John Paxson, Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen, so that performance will be undeniably grand. A-Trak’s everyone’s favorite DMC champion in EDM, and will blow heads as he now does for a living. Bone Thugs with Eazy-E will be special, though possibly for most fans not as special as Wu-Tang with ODB. Everybody’s coming for “Crossroads” and staying for “1st of the Month.” Juicy J is a 21st century version of fellow Memphis native Rufus Thomas, and I’ll pause so you can look at Thomas’ performance at Wattstax in 1972 to get a sense of what that could mean for Sunday. Jurassic 5 were my favorite rappers of 2003, and when I saw them at Lollapalooza that year, I had a blast. Ten years later, “What’s Golden” and “Quality Control” should be a touch of retro fun. Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh, Rakim and Big Daddy Kane should perform in a medley format and be backed by DJ and Kane’s travelling band. They likely won’t, but individually are the three classic acts that can still go in the live performance realm. Too Short and E-40 sounds like it could be all of the fun, the two’s live set could easily be a pimp-tastic show that’s Dolemite meets Abbott and Costello. Rapsody’s the only female rapper booked for Rock the Bells, and that’s bullshit. I interviewed Freeway while he was half asleep in the green room at U Hall once, and we bonded over how much we love Philadelphia International Records. He then proceeded to blow away less than 100 people at the venue, and besides drunk Raekwon at a Direct Drive Record Pool, is the best rap show I’ve seen there. So many hits. Finally, Stalley’s the most underrated rapper in rap music. “Hercules” and his bars on Bawse Ross’ “Ten Jesus Pieces’ are likely two of my favorite performances in covering rap music in the past five years.
VISUAL SPECTACLES: Danny Brown, Action Bronson and Girl Talk
Danny Brown and Action Bronson are the giant question marks to DC rap fans at the event. Rock the Bells’ lineup definitely skews more towards fan of top 40 radio than anything else, so the weird black guy with the fucked up hair and teeth, and the fat white dude who used to rap just like Ghostface Killah are going to stand out. Danny Brown could have a girl on molly perform fellatio on him onstage. Action Bronson could bake the entire crowd a giant pizza. Who knows? However, what likely will happen is that these two visual oddities will open their mouths, and their ability to rap in the way that great rappers once rapped – with thoughtfulness tinged with humor, and with a premium on quality bars that could withstand anything Rakim is spitting on the same stage on the same day.
All I can say about Girl Talk is that rap music is so far behind the “cool shit we think white people like that black people would think is cool” curve. I have two words for Rock the Bells organizers. Dan Deacon. Marinate on what he could do with a Rock the Bells crowd for a minute.
MAY UNDERWHELM: Joey Bada$$ with Pro Era, The Internet, Hopspin and Dizzy Wright
There was once a time that the internet heard Joey Bada$$ rap, and got so clouded in his dusty, classic production that they proclaimed him the second coming of 90s era lyricism. Since that point, he and his friends pretty much rap about taking drugs and having sex with rich white girls from Manhattan and Brooklyn. That’s cool and all, but it doesn’t make for compelling live performances. The Internet are like the best high school band that sounds like they could be The Roots one day of all time. However, as long as the Roots are on Jimmy Fallon and they’re one of about 97 rap acts in the parking lot of a multi-use stadium in Washington, DC, they’ll be good, but not quite yet great. Hopspin and Dizzy Wright may actually be the two rappers whose inclusion on XXL’s Freshman lists made me question the necessity in the current era of XXL Freshman lists. They feel like nothing absurdly special, just faceless dudes whose named are hyped in press releases and Twitter updates so much that we’re forced to care.