We were an army of white men, decked out in cargo pants, T-shirts, and baseball caps, descending on a rap festival that had invaded Randall’s Island; meanwhile, across town in Williamsburg, Sonic Youth re-created 1988’s Daydream Nation for a different fan base but a similar demographic. At Rock the Bells, everyone was also reliving the past, honoring their favorite hip-hop acts from the past decade, even if the 10-hour sold-out show felt like a modern rock fest: beach balls bouncing, mosh pits, crowd- surfing, drum solos, cheeba everywhere, Zep and Floyd shirts, and a main stage heavy with talented legends while a smaller stage pulled in smaller numbers (despite backpacker faves like Brother Ali and Sage Francis).
A stage banner announced the agenda of this history lesson: “Respect, represent, and recognize.” You saw that as Mos Def called out to old-school heroes and even deftly imitated a few (namely Biggie and Slick Rick) before a spirited Black Star reunion with Talib Kweli. We also got the point when Public Enemy reunited with Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian to trade verses on “Bring the Noise,” providing some historical context for the day’s headliner, Rage Against the Machine. The Roots paid tribute to Sly Stone and Kool and the Gang, providing a showcase for Black Thought’s extended 100-mph delivery. The highlight of Cypress Hill’s strangely uneven set came when they honored their stoner heritage: B-Real lit up both a blunt and a three-foot monster bong. Even Wu-Tang Clan’s glorious tag-team bluster was inherently nostalgic, a pack of now-famous solo acts returning to the Mothership. Several Bells acts had recently headlined more durable shows elsewhere, but the whole point here was a show of strength and unity not just among the artists, but also within a weary fan base recently wondering if rap was really dead, or dying.
In any event, the festival’s most anticipated act stomped on the host of heavy-hitters that preceded it. The newly reunited Rage’s first East Coast show of the new millennium was a vivid reminder of why they were one of the most powerful and important acts of the ’90s, mixing hardcore rap and metal (much more convincingly than their progeny, by the way) with hardcore-left politics. Even recent laudable reunions by the Pixies, Gang of Four, Mission of Burma . . . nice try, everyone, but Rage 2.0 stomps all of you, too. For their hour-long set, frontman Zack de la Rocha still sounded pissed with the world and like he had something to prove, as did undersung guitar hero Tom Morello, who unleashed a frothy mix of semaphore signals and theremin sounds as they rampaged through oldies like “Bulls on Parade,” “Down Rodeo,” and “Tire Me.” Even with minimal stage patter—a quick rejoinder to Fox News for attacking the band’s earlier demand for a White House lynching party—Rage made their point: Fuck imperialism, fuck Limp Bizkit, we’re back.