On a sweltering Saturday, the seventh annual hip-hop nerd convention Rock The Bells took over Governor’s Island. It’s a place where people know to “throw a one in the air” for Guru before DJ Premier even asked, a place where you can overhear a convo about whether Mos Def or Talib Kweli would be cooler to hang out with, a place where VIP ticket buyers actually get brand new backpacks. This year, the fest tapped into All Tomorrow’s Parties-style nostalgia market of “Don’t Look Back,” and asked six legendary rap artists to perform their legendary albums in their entirety. We sweated in a field for nearly 11 ½ hours–with zero breaks for food, water, or Port-O-Potty, no joke–to see how well these albums translated to a live setting.
Slick Rick performing The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick
Live interpretation: 5/10
Slick Rick’s entire persona is based on being too cool for school (see: “…Crumbs!”). His world’s-biggest-badass affect is pure magic in a place like the Knitting Factory, but a huge obstacle in a festival setting, where you need to rock a crowd from the front row back to the tip of the gyro stand. Rick’s Rock The Bells posture is best described as statuesque. Mostly, he stands in one spot with a diamond-encrusted microphone in one hand and the other tucked in his pocket–well, mostly in his pocket, since his enormous bracelet wouldn’t exactly fit in there. Adding to the problems: His extra-chillaxed remixes of classics like “Teenage Love” and “Teacher, Teacher” weren’t going to remotely scratch the nostalgia itch the “full-album concert” is intended to scratch. But Rick is the Ruler after all, and his raps are as nimble as ever. If you were close enough, his natural charisma shone through: his inimitable smile, his jovial mouth-trumpeting on “Mona Lisa,” and his high-BPM, highly dynamic shout-to-whisper take on “Children’s Story.”
Rakim performing Paid In Full
Live interpretation: 7/10
Rakim’s performance of the groundbreaking 1987 debut he made with Eric B was gloriously animated. He practically coaxed the lyrics out of the audience by pantomiming them–acting out taking off his coat, clearing his throat, slamming the mike to make sure it’s broke, eating a nice big plate of fish which is his favorite dish, etc. When he wasn’t charadesing out the lyrics, he was simply tearing into them ferociously, no slouch after 25 years, which quickly whipped the crowd into a froth–especially when he came out to do “Paid In Full” wearing the Gucci suit from the album cover. However, without Eric B at his side, the Paid In Full run through was clearly missing something, mainly songs like “Eric B Is On The Cut” and “Chinese Arithmetic.” Rakim’s new partner, Technician The DJ, is clearly an amazing cutmaster in his own right, and could have handily updated those tracks with some contemporary pyrotechnics. However, in a hilarious dick move, he just played 10 seconds of each of the Eric B. tracks and said, “OK that’s that song.”
KRS-One performing Criminal Minded
Live interpretation: 3/10
That 3/10 is certainly no slight on KRS-One’s performance–an energy-soaked burst that was easily one of the highlights of the day–it’s just he didn’t really perform the album at all. KRS ran through maybe a good six out of ten tracks by my count, completely skipping songs like “South Bronx” and “Super-Hoe.” Instead, most of his set involved the legendary stage-champ flying about, playing classic megahits, doing motivational speaking, giving a space for an excellent mini-set by Buckshot, freestyling with Supernatural, and generally doing that always-entertaining lecturing thing he does–“You see… before Serrato… before Hot 97’s wack ass… before Power 105’s bullshit… there was real hip-hop in New York.” You gotta love him.
A Tribe Called Quest performing Midnight Marauders
Live interpretation: 10/10
Tribe clearly did their homework and evidently rehearsed the fuck out of this, knowing there’s more to doing these shows than just showing up and playing songs. Their set was maybe the only set that had the pace and feel of an album, DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad just slamming track after track after track together, no room for banter, no breaks to shout into the crowd “Where’s my real hip-hop heads at?” or a “Who’s excited to see Wu-Tang?” Hell, they even got Large Professor to come out and do his verse on “Keep It Rollin'” (followed by a brief Main Source mini-set!). The chemistry between Q-Tip and Phife was palpable and kind of felt like 1993 again, but that was largely owed to Tip eschewing his dapper Abstract mode in favor of a fun-loving, sweat-soaked blast of frantic energy. Bonus: Busta Rhymes came out for “Scenario” and seriously exploded into some circa-1991 kicking and flailing and screaming. Wu-Tang Clan performing Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Live interpretation: 8/10
They must have really patched things up since–unlike the last time Wu rolled through–the eight remaining members were seriously performing as a unit. No fur-covered rock star posturing from Ghostface and Raekwon, no stage-hogging from Method Man. Boy Jones, ODB’s first born son, filled in for the deceased legend, and was certainly the best dude to replace the irreplaceable, spazzing and rolling his eyes and diving into the crowd. Quoth Rae: “Just like his father! That’s Scrappy-Doo right there!” Even solo tracks like Raekwon’s “Ice Cream” and GZA’s “Liquid Swords” seemed like team efforts. The only problems their 36 Chambers tracks suffered from a live setting is the same problem that Wu always has during live shows–too many voices at once and the sound system un able to handle the subtleties of a RZA production. But otherwise this was a lively, show-stopping chance to keep hope alive for a sixth classic LP.
Snoop Dogg performing Doggystyle
Live interpretation: 10/10
Despite a mild air of consternation about a West Coast dude headlining a rap festival in the city it was birthed, honestly, no one rose to the occasion like Snoop. He really seemed to have performed every second off Doggystyle, skits and all. He made brand new, pimptastic videos. He brought everyone–Kurupt, Daz Dillinger, Warren G, RBX, The Lady Of Rage in full afro-puff–save maybe the girls that sing the WBALLZ jingle. There was a giant dog mascot that pissed on a fire hydrant before “Gin & Juice.” Dr. Dre showed up via video. There were puppets. There was a picnic table with 40 ounces for his whole crew to chill at. The table gave the illusion of being relaxed but was really an ingenious, super-professional way to showcase a relaxed album. Snoop was cool as a cucumber the entire time. He unironically referred to his set as “The Doggystyle experience” and it really felt like the EPCOT interpretation of a stoned classic. Kudos.
Oh yeah, Lauren Hill was there too
Ok, so yes this happened. Sorry to disappoint all you blog-readers but she didn’t do anything crazy–she was usually somewhere between a bit frazzled, totally enraptured, kind of psyched, frustrated at mic feedback, and frantically flapping her arms to wave directions to her band. If you believe Twitter, her voice is shot (she did drop “To Zion” about an octave), but I think it’s just gone from one type of beautiful to another type of beautiful–a little more rough around the edges, a little easier to crack in the romantic parts, and still enough to make Chris Rock look like he was gonna break down on the sidelines. And oh yeah, go see her because her arrangements are totally fucking bonkers now. The entire show, complete with eight-piece band, was majestic retro-future space-metal that could sit comfortably next to “Tangerine” on the Big Boi album, except jammed out into Bonnaroo-ready seven-minute extended jammage. “How Many Mics” was like Fishbone skank one minute and Chili Peppers aggro-funk the next. Hill injected Robert Plant screams in to “Zealots” and sprinted about like Karen O for “Fu-Gee-La.” She brought out everyone for a hug and a wave–Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, Chris Rock, Swizz Beatz, Jerry “Wonder” Duplessis, John Legend, and Jay-Z, looking mad “Beach Chair” in some cargo shorts. Hell, I’d say it was a triumphant comeback if Twitter opinions about her headbanger-ready arrangements weren’t kind of mixed. Also she didn’t show up for the D.C. show the next day, so who fucking knows.