Rock The Bells: Randall’s Island, NY—7.27.2007

When Public Enemy brought out a special guest at last weekend’s Rock The Bells festival in New York, it wasn’t a like-minded veteran rapper or up-and-coming protégé that surprised the crowd. It was Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian, partially reuniting the two groups on their classic “Bring the Noise” collaboration. A highlight from PE’s theatrical (S1Ws […]

When Public Enemy brought out a special guest at last weekend’s Rock The Bells festival in New York, it wasn’t a like-minded veteran rapper or up-and-coming protégé that surprised the crowd. It was Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian, partially reuniting the two groups on their classic “Bring the Noise” collaboration. A highlight from PE’s theatrical (S1Ws in effect) and energetic set, Ian’s appearance personified a festival where beats still dominated, but the day had all the trappings of a rock show.Walking into Randall’s Island, where over 30,000 people would eventually show up for the first of two days here, felt more Bonnaroo than Brooklyn. Whether it was not interrupting a hacky sack circle, keeping a beach ball in the air or pushing a crowd surfer along (or laughing when he falls) you had to remind yourself that, yes, this was a Hip-Hop festival. Hosted by Supernatural, (with frequent help from Rahzel), the veteran freestyler was the perfect choice to warm up the crowd and keep energy levels up between sets.After a brief set by Jedi Mind Tricks, politically-minded emcee Immortal Technique busted off tracks like “Industrial Revolution” and “Point of No Return” off his Revolutionary, Vol. 2 album. His fiery, baiting lyrics and aggressive persona set the tone for the day, where politicized polemics circulated through many of the main stage’s acts.But in a way, Pharoahe Monch, with a treasonably early set, set the stage more with the live band he’s been toting around on his recent solo tour. Guitar-heavy tracks like “Let’s Go” and “Free” were intensified live, making smoother material like “My Life” slightly anti-climactic. As guitars blasted to the crowd of predominantly young white males, fists and middle fingers flew up in the air as if headliners Rage Against The Machine had already hit the stage. Throughout the 10-hour show, live music, employed by Cypress Hill, Public Enemy, Black Star, and, of course, The Roots was the norm, as the processed beats of Wu-Tang and EPMD oddly felt like anomalies at a Hip-Hop concert. Not that they didn’t hold their own. EPMD joked that a young girl in front was “still in diapers” when they came together before launching into a greatest hits set that included “Headbanger,” “Crossover” and “So What Cha Sayin” (“This is my favorite beat in EPMD history,” said Erick Sermon before the latter.) When the crowd, many of whom seemed to know the group in name only (if at all), heard the obligatory “Four elements of Hip-Hop” speech, the repetitive lesson felt strangely appropriate here. You wonder if anyone cared when the group announced a new album set for release next year.Wu-Tang Clan, another veteran group with an upcoming new album, abandoned performing the publicized new material and stuck to the established classics, ripping off a medley of early to mid-90s staples that have earned the love of every thug, backpacker and baja wearer for over a decade. With every surviving member on stage—ODB’s parts were alternately handled by other members or by playing the original recorded verses—the high-energy set was the largest reunion since 2004’s Rock the Bells, which saw the clan reunite for the last time before ODB’s death.“I feel like we’re picking up where we left off,” RZA told before their set. “[The festival] has more of a special significance. Every time we come here, we know that the last time the whole clan was seen together performing a concert was at Rock The Bells, so Wu-Tang has the spirit of it.”Like Wu, a number of veteran artists went the classics-heavy route. Cypress Hill’s set, depending on your point of view, either catered or pandered to the frat-rap audience and could have been practically performed verbatim in 1993. Besides the five-foot bong smoked on stage in between “Stoned is the Way of the Walk” and “Dr. Greenthumb”—I still don’t understand how rappers get away with that if it’s real—the jazzy, mellow intros preceding the energetic classics was the most notable aspect of the set. Ending appropriately enough with “Rock Superstar” (The counter “Rap Superstar” was conspicuously absent), staples like “How I Could Just Kill a Man” and “Insane in the Brain” are as much rock songs as Hip-Hop when played at the appropriate volume.And it was moments like this where the audience was most alive. The Roots—who can burp into a French horn and excite certain audiences—and Talib Kweli & Mos Def, alternating between solo tracks and Black Star material, valiantly tried to move the crowd, but the vibe here was more Fist in the Air than Spliff in the Mouth.“I wish we would have had more time to prepare,” said Talib Kweli after his set. “I saw Mos as soon as you saw him [on stage]. We weren’t sure what was going on with this set, so we just kinda winged it and had a lot of fun. It’s definitely different [compared to a solo show]. It’s a stadium vibe with a lot more energy. You have to cover the whole stage and focus on [the crowd]. In a smaller venue, they have to focus on you.”On another stage, some acts accustomed to smaller venues got their chance to perform for a larger, rotating crowd. The Paid Dues stage, which featured sets by Felt, Mr. Lif and Brother Ali among others, functioned more as a separate festival than supplement to the main acts. To more than a few people, this was the real main attraction, as both artists and audience appeared hungrier, more enthusiastic and more responsive to each other than their Main Stage counterparts. It was a refreshing reminder that while the veterans could still rock a stage, there was still pockets of great Hip-Hop music coming out today.But the clear draw today was headliner Rage Against the Machine in their first New York performance in over seven years. By the time the L.A. quartet took the stage, the energy that had been bubbling up for over nine hours erupted in a pungent mix of sweat, adrenaline and testosterone. Unlike many of the acts today, the band made no effort to rework their songs. But with legendary status already attained for millions, they didn’t have to. Sticking to material from their first three albums, the band lost none of its energy over the years, as every squiggle and shriek of Tom Morello’s guitar elicited fevered reactions. Lead singer Zach de la Rocha was unusually quiet between songs, only stopping to say he was misquoted by “the fascists” at FOX News, who lambasted de la Rocha for anti-administration statements made at a concert in April.“We never said Bush should be assassinated,” he told the crowd. “What we said was Bush should be brought to trial as a war criminal, hung and shot. If we truly want to end this miserable war, we have to stand up with the same force as the Iraqi youth every day.”De La Rocha went on to change the line “Some of those that work forces/are the same that burn crosses” from “Killing in the Name,” replacing “burn crosses” with “hold office.”In retrospect, Rage’s mix of politics, rock and Hip-Hop was far more in line with the rest of the day’s acts than the lineup appears on paper. Sure, this was a Hip-Hop festival first and foremost, but it was still, to recontextualize Mos Def, “A long way from the shell tops/And the bells that L rocked.”