Rock the Bells keeps heads ringing

A review of Rock the Bells at the Comcast Center on Saturday, July 26, 2008

, Staff Writer

Another long day at the Comcast Center, another day of up and down sets. Say what you want about Wednesday’s Warped Tour and Saturday’s Rock the Bells, but at least fans got their money’s worth as far as quantity goes at both shows. While not every act on Saturday was on target, things went right more often than they went wrong.

Starting off some of the wrong was the duo of Redman and Method Man which, due to an issue in New York, turned out to be just Redman and a few hype men. Red tried his best, talking a lot about "real hip-hop" and attempting to take things "back to ’97", but "Da Rockwilder" isn’t nearly as good with the crowd trying to fill in Method Man’s lines. The high point of Redman’s set was actually when he introduced DJ Kool, who led the crowd in some call and response before dropping the song from a million high school dances, "Let Me Clear My Throat".

Picking up the pieces and putting the night on the right track were The Pharcyde, who took the stage along with live drums, keys, and bass. The LA rappers possessed much more individual, but more importantly the four members, Imani, Bootie Brown, Slimkid3, and Fatlip, haven’t lost any cohesiveness as a collective during their hiatus.

"Can’t Keep Runnin’ Away" and "Ya Mama" were accompanied by original music videos, and the band promised to take it "back to ’93" (sensing a theme here). Smoke clouds were everywhere as soon as "Pack the Pipe" started, and it appeared that the Comcast Center security was not interested in enforcing any kind of non-smoking policy. The sound was extremely bass heavy, which at times was annoying but played well for set closer "Passin’ Me By". While the foursome has no official plans for a new album, it would be one that we would like to see.

After a fairly large brawl in the upper reaches of the crowd, a figure wrapped in a gypsy-looking shawl slowly shuffled onto the stage, wailing like Bob Marley about a "boogie man". That figure turned out to be Mos Def, and the intro, while not totally pleasing, made it clear that his set would be different than those that preceded him.

Things really started to heat up when Mos Def began Grandmaster Flash’s "The Message" before pulling a great transition into his own "Close Edge". Acknowledging the ties between the songs would have been cool enough, but Mos pushed it all a step further by bringing the beat of "The Message" back in but performing a verse from "Close Edge" over it. Between that and "Hip Hop" Mos Def upped the bar for lyrics on the day.

The rapper / actor wasn’t terribly active onstage but was nonetheless a commanding stage presence, continuing to impress with esoteric reggae chanting, real singing, and devastating raps, especially during "There Is A Way", the song that strayed the furthest from traditional hip-hop on the day. Mos Def didn’t try to take anyone back to the 90’s, instead focusing on the present and even recognizing the place enough to invite Boston’s own Edo G onstage for a guest verse.

"Sunshine" was the rap highlight of the set, featuring a shout out to Black Star partner Talib Kweli, a set which ended with a rap re-imagining of "Leaving On a Jet Plane". While Mos Def may not be the most commercially successful or easily accessible rapper, he is easily one of the most unique in using his prodigious talent, and he more than managed to keep the crowd interested even during his most untraditional moments.

Rock the Bells came to its solo rapper pinnacle in the next set, one from the owner of the #1 album in the country. Nas took the stage to "Hip-Hop Is Dead" to the delight of thousands of screaming fans who protested that it was, at least for one night, alive and well. Nas followed up a semi-controversial song with an overwhelmingly controversial one, "The Slave and The Master", which deals intelligently with the complex issues at stake in the use of the N-word.

Perhaps the best line of the night came not from any song, but instead from a song introduction, as Nas began "Sly Fox" by saying, "This next shit on my album is about the faggot motherfucker Bill O’Reilly and the worst news channel in the world, Fox News." The song managed to be both powerful and catchy, with topical lyrics playing over an insanely hot beat like a vitriolic Schoolhouse Rock song.

Nas then asked to take the crowd "back in the day", running through a collection of hits including "It Ain’t Hard to Tell", "Represent", and "The World Is Yours". "If I Ruled The World" was stellar, with its chilling piano line and the crowd assuming Lauren Hill duties. Nas then asked "Hip-hop dead, hip-hop alive? That shit is getting stronger everyday" then delivered "I Want to Talk to You", another song with a strong message but an even stronger hook.

"Made You Look" produced an instant rush, which Nas tempered with "One Mic", controlling the rap ballad (there were lighters) by crouching down before displaying exceptional control of dynamics by ratcheting up the chorus. Nas proved to be the culmination of the day’s rappers, and the only thing left to do after he departed from the stage was celebrate.

Luckily, A Tribe Called Quest was on hand to rock the party, and it started with a Q-Tip solo set, during which he was joined by an overjoyed Mos Def. Tip, complete with backpack, was just straight fun on tracks like "Higher" and "Let’s Ride", and he closed out his solo section with the hard hitting down beats of "Vibrant Thing".

As Q raised his arm the stage went dark, and the Comcast Center erupted as the other members of the Tribe, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed, and Jarobi joined him. The party started with "Buggin’ Out", picked up for "Oh My God", and hit a peak for "Jazz (We’ve Got)". During "Steve Biko" Q-Tip provided the moment of the night, yelling after a group of concertgoers who were making an early exit. Q proceeded to jump off the stage and chase after them, all the while yelling into the mic for them to stay. He then made his way back to the stage slowly and circuitously through the crowd, stopping once to do the robot on top of a chair.

Q-Tip got back into the crowd for "Electric Relaxation", and thanked the crowd and all the other rappers afterwards. Lots of fans began to make for the exits, expecting that the song was over, but without warning the opening strains of "Scenario" burst forth from the speakers, sending the Center into a frenzy. "Award Tour" capped off the night and with that the Tribe was actually gone, leaving behind a party that had been sufficiently rocked.

It’s hard to complain about a concert that brings so many exceptional artists together for one great day. Was it a little long? Of course. Were there disappointments? Yes. But the organizers could not have achieved the goal of bringing great live hip-hop to an amphitheatre sized crowd in order to show the strength of the genre much better. Rock the Bells had something for hip hop fans no matter what their preference, and exposed them to lots of other flavors in addition. All in all, a rousing success.

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