Ah, the exquisite joys of a sunny Sunday afternoon on the Long Island Rail Road, whereupon we’re toughing out signal-problem delays en route to Jones Beach for Rock the Bells, the annual retro-minded hip-hop extravaganza headlined this year by Nas, Mos Def, Raekwon and Ghostface, and the freshly reunited A Tribe Called Quest. Thumbing through a copy of Vibe, we stumble across the following quote from Rich Boy, describing the evolution of his craft: “Even when you read Nas’ lyrics, sometimes you have to go get a dictionary to see what that word means. Instead of just saying, ‘I did this, I slapped this person, I shot this person,’ you can really get deep with it.” This is an excellent way to describe the Rock the Bells ethos.
1:45 p.m. On the bus from the LIRR station to the venue, unsure of the right stop, we resolve to follow a blond-haired kid in a Wu-Tang T-shirt who seems to know what he’s doing. This, too, is an excellent way to describe the Rock the Bells ethos.
2:17 p.m. On the second stage, which is relegated to a parking lot and almost universally ignored by the crowd all day, we encounter B.O.B., a rapper from Atlanta. “Do y’all like smokin’ weed in New York City?” he asks. This would be an excellent lie-detector-test control question, along the lines of “Are you currently indoors?” or “Are you a woman?”
2:46 p.m. On the main stage, we kick off with Kidz in the Hall, whose DJ, Double O, has a Burger King crown, an eyepatch, a cast on his left leg, and severe computer issues. At least one of those things is unironic. “Oh, I see—someone unplugged my hard drive,” he nervously informs an irritated crowd during his 10-minute impromptu soundcheck. “Anyone who has a Mac understands this problem.” Just Blaze comes out to help him.
3:27 p.m. We would’ve set the over/under for Obama references today at, like, 15. There were five, maybe, including the observation from Dead Prez that “Al Sharpton ain’t my leader . . . Obama can’t save y’all.” The duo actually leaves the stage in a huff so “the soundman can get that shit right”; incredibly, the soundman does, and Dead Prez return to do several vitriolic political jams, as well as “Mind Sex,” a slow jam about foreplay that rhymes croutons with futon.
3:58 p.m. We do, however, hear the phrase “Fuck the police” at least 15 times, currently from Immortal Technique, who allows for the possibility that maybe your dad is a cop, in which case: “Fuck your dad. Fuck your family.”
4:11 p.m. “I’m rapping in swim trunks!” announces Chuck Inglish of Cool Kids, incredulously. Briefly drawing an actual crowd to the second stage, he and cohort Mikey Rocks address such topics as Fruity Pebbles, lame kids who still play Sega, and their vested interest in “bringin’ ’88 back.”
4:39 p.m. De La Soul are bringin’ ’89 back: “Potholes in My Lawn”! They bring out Dres from Black Sheep (who’s rocking a splendid green sweater vest) and Biz Markie (who invests every atom of his being in howling the chorus to “Just a Friend”).
5:38 p.m. Pharcyde, reunited. Just four MCs, nobody else onstage, no adornments (the DJs mostly hold court from a towering ledge overhead). Which makes their set feel like some kind of minimalist experimental dance piece performed by possibly stoned gentlemen with Looney Toons voices. “Passing Me By” kills.
6:09 p.m. Conversely, at least 60 people join Raekwon and Ghostface onstage; the chorus of “Be Easy” sounds wonderful when shouted en masse. They’re on a bill surrounded by hip-hop hippies, of course, but they politely keep quiet about it.
7:15 p.m. As we wait in an hour-long concession-stand line, Spank Rock closes out the second stage, loudly and angrily decrying this show’s lack of alcohol.
7:29 p.m. Mos Def is wearing a basketball uniform seemingly designed by whoever does M.I.A.’s album covers. He mentions Spoon’s song “The Underdog,” sings luxuriously in a bellowing reggae patois, and brings out Talib Kweli and Pharaohe Monch to rampant crowd approval. Calls for “Ms. Fat Booty” are eventually heeded.
8:30 p.m. Here’s where we tell you that Method Man and Redman ran away with this thing. Shocking, we know. Out come the beach balls, off come Meth’s pants midway through the second song. They stalk the stage in tandem like a sniper team. They bring out EPMD. They threaten to make How High, Part Two. They climb the speaker cabinets. They bring out Slick Rick for a 10-second cameo—it seriously would’ve been longer if he’d walked leisurely from one end of the stage to the other. And during “Method Man,” Meth climbs into the crowd, balances on the tops of the seats, and triumphantly smokes a joint offered by the guy standing next to me. This is without question the greatest moment of that guy’s life.
8:42 p.m. Wild the fuck out! Smoke the fuck out! Drink the fuck out!
9:26 p.m. The soundcheck for Nas involves a keyboardist, a guitarist, a DJ, a full drum kit, another keyboardist who also plays trumpet, and a bassist, both electric and upright. Audience apprehension is palpable.
9:48 p.m. But it’s fascinating, actually, to hear such an overwrought beast tear into “One Love,” “If I Ruled the World,” etc.—no need to merely sample “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” this way, right? Plus the man himself is in fine narcissistic/messianic form, thanking us for gifting him a No. 1 album and advocating that we kick Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to the curb and replace them with . . . himself. The guy has an entire song about Obama and doesn’t even mention him.
10:15 p.m. Jay-Z. “Black Republicans.” Mass hysteria.
10:51 p.m. Q-Tip’s warm-up set features a bass solo, which you may find instructive.
11:15 p.m. We are resistant, inexplicably, to the charms of the Tribe Called Quest reunion until “Bonita Applebaum” and “Electric Relaxation,” during which the ramparts fall, hard—they all look weathered, sure, but the sultry sweetness and easy charm with which they play off each other remains, an echo of the camaraderie that made Meth and Red so exhilarating. Busta Rhymes leaps out for “Scenario,” busting a huge grin before nearly convulsing with adrenaline: He screams “Check the rhiiiiiime” as the next song begins and goads crowd and performers alike to new heights of intensity. It’s the apex of the masterful, respectful, confident but not violently megalomaniacal age of New York hip-hop that this whole day has been constructed to make us revere. And we do revere it, an Award Tour we’re all on together now, too blissed out to even dream of shooting or slapping anyone, getting deep with it deep into the Long Island night.