In the hip-hop version of nostalgic rock ‘n’ roll packages like Art Laboe’s Memories of El Monte or Alan Freed’s American Hot Wax, the 2010 Rock the Bells tour barreled into a packed Shoreline Amphitheatre to revive the golden age of hip-hop with a particular zeroing in on the magical year of 1993. That year, after all, saw releases of Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders and the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)—all iconic albums, and all performed “in their entirety” at Rock the Bells on Sunday.
Notably, though, none of the acts adhered to the “in its entirety” concept. Rakim purportedly performed Paid in Full in its entirety, but excluded three songs from the album and scattered the others, out of order, throughout a greatest-hits set. This set the stage of artists bending toward hits from classic albums rather than staidly presenting them cover-to-cover. While at first this seemed like a bit of false advertising in action, it was eventually evidenced that when deep album cuts were dutifully unearthed—Tribe’s “God Lives Through,” say—energy levels suffered.
At a show like Sunday’s, one had to set aside valid concerns about hip-hop getting older and leaning on its past rather than looking to its future. For all the chatter about the genre being in a slump, there is so much life and vitality to the music presented on Sunday to get hip-hop through the longest dry spell. No one tugged at their goatee or scribbled in their notebook about these concerns. You don’t worry about shit like that when an epic lineup is playing out in front of your eyes.
Rakim opened with “My Melody,” played the part of Eric B. by cutting up lines from “I Know You Got Soul” on the 1200s, got the Bay Area crowd to boo Los Angeles and dedicated songs “to all the mommies out there.” Standing like an impenetrable wall of skill, he moved deliberately around the stage to rearranged Paid in Full cuts alongside later hits “Know the Ledge” and “Don’t Sweat the Technique.”
Scheduled early in the day at 1pm for too many empty seats, it felt like Rakim got little love for someone generally regarded as the most innovative and influential MC of all time. He didn’t seem fazed. He told security to lay off so the people could cluster near the front of the stage, absolutely killed tracks like “Microphone Fiend” and “I Ain’t No Joke,” and at one point planted his Nike shoe on the monitor, licked the back of his thumb and deftly cleaned off a tiny fleck of dirt stuck to otherwise spotless sneakers. Smooth.
“When I get off stage,” he warned of the massive lineup to come, “it’ll get crazy. And then it’ll get crazier.”
“Hip-hop is not that Hollywood bullshit!” yelled Immortal Technique, on the side stage. “Hip-hop is being one with the people!”
He then finished a song with a chant of “Fuck Cops,” and then explained himself. “I know some of you out there don’t agree with that last song. You might be like, ‘My dad is a cop. He works hard and put himself in danger to keep the country safe.’ Well you know what? Fuck your dad! Fuck your family! And fuck cops!”
This didn’t go over well with some. While Immortal Technique talked about his recent trip to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, a dude in the crowd threw a soda bottle at him. It missed, but the audience was all too glad to point the guy out. Immortal Technique’s entourage ran off the stage, into the crowd, and cornered the guy. It looked hectic, but then security intervened and dragged the dude to be thrown out at the gates.
“The crowd will always be filled with one agent provocateur,” quipped Immortal Technique. “You got off soft.” After his set, he stayed at the merch booth for two hours, signing autographs.
Lauryn Hill was 45 minutes late, and by the time she finally came out and finished her extended rock version of “Lost One,” her first song, it was 5:35—the end of her set, according to the schedule. If the stickler Bill Graham had still been in charge at Shoreline, he’d have unapologetically pulled her off stage right then as punishment for tardiness. Rock the Bells allowed her a full set anyway, albeit a shortened one; in the ridiculously long wait before she took the stage, roadies twice came out and crossed songs off all the set lists.
In Sally Jessy Raphael glasses, a black sequined cap and a homeless-chic green trenchcoat covering an early-’90s high-waisted getup, Hill displayed all the same hopeful energy of her show earlier this year at the Harmony Festival in Santa Rosa by churning her arms wildly and strutting in insanely high four-inch heels. Things looked grim when she left the stage ten minutes in, but returned wearing different shoes. Probably a wise move.
The crowd seemed confused by her new arrangements, and didn’t move much until she got into Fugees tracks like “Ready or Not” and “Fu-Gee-La,” which opened the floodgates for mayhem. Hill performed everyone else’s verses, and displayed her recent desire to be taken seriously again after a long rough patch. By the time she ended with “Doo Wop (That Thing),” the sting of her late arrival was nicely salved.
“I can only introduce this next group,” said Hot 97 DJ Peter Rosenberg, solemnly, “by saying that this is my favorite group of all time. Rock the Bells, please welcome to the stage… A Tribe Called Quest!” Except Tribe wasn’t ready yet, and when a rushed Ali Shaheed Muhammad emerged from the wings and quickly started the intro to Midnight Marauders on the turntables, he shot Rosenberg an icy stare. Oops.
As mentioned, Tribe actually stuck somewhat to the material from Midnight Marauders, even performing late-in-Side-B cuts like “Lyrics to Go,” which you’ll never hear at a regular Tribe show. The “Midnight Lady” voice popped up from time to time in the set, they did everything on the album except “8 Million Stories,” “We Can Get Down,” and “Keep it Rollin’,” and Q-Tip remarked that Midnight Marauders and Enter the Wu-Tang came out on the same exact date in 1993.
But the heat came when they brought out Busta Rhymes for “Scenario,” “Check the Rhime” and “Award Tour,” which saw Q-Tip running out into the amphitheater and working the fans in a show-stopping, all-star set closer. Tribe, Busta, Jarobi all onstage, simply sliding into place? Um, best part of the festival?
“It’s just like 15 guys all shouting the same thing and shitting on each other’s verses,” remarked a companion before the Wu-Tang Clan came on, and in a way, he was right. Wu-Tang, however, also adhered pretty strictly to the in-its-entirety thing, and it’s pretty thrilling to see all those guys on stage at the same time.
The role of Ol’ Dirty Bastard was filled by Ol’ Dirty’s son, who styled his hair in the same fashion and wore an oversized “R.I.P. ODB” T-shirt. He was clearly the most excited to be on stage, but the Wu held it down, and I tell you, the place was going bazonkers.
“I saw this shit on stage last night,” said MC Supernatural, introducing Snoop Dogg, “and what you’re about to see is epic. It’s like a movie.”
Snoop’s set was the perfect way to end the long day—laid back, entertaining, and for the sonically inclined, perfectly EQed. He had a tricked-out bike and a fire hydrant onstage. He had a picnic table covered in Olde English 40 ozs. He had the entire Dogg Pound (sans Nate Dogg). He had a giant backdrop of the cover to Doggystyle. He had full-budget video interludes to match all the skits on Doggystyle. He had a guy in a gigantic full-body dog suit. He opened with the bathtub skit, had the Lady of Rage deliver “G Funk Intro” and launched majestically into “Gin and Juice,” blunt in hand. It was beautiful.
Snoop also really took time to paint a picture of where he was at when making the record. He explained that “Gs Up, Hoes Down” had to be taken off the record due to sample clearance issues. He told the story of proposing “Ladi Dadi” to Dr. Dre: “When I was working on this album, Doggystyle, I told Dr. Dre I wanted to do something that’d never been done before. I wanted to redo this song I loved when I was a kid. And he said, ‘Okay, but we gonna fuck with it.’”
By the whole crew exiting the stage after every few songs, the set had the feel of a theatrical play, divided into acts and narrated by the Greek chorus of video interludes. And yet it was when Snoop broke the fourth wall that the show carried most of its weight. “Who here really did buy Doggystyle when it came out?” he asked. “Who had it on cassette? Who had it on wax? Who had it on CD? Were CDs even out? I was scared of the CD, man, I had the motherfuckin’ tape. Yeah. East side, G side.”
Warren G performed “Regulate” to represent the non-Snoop hits of the era, and the whole Dogg Pound even performed the posse cut “Stranded on Death Row,” from The Chronic. (“We wanted to show the world that we weren’t just gangsta rappers, but that we were MCs.”) And even though he ended with “Drop it Like It’s Hot” and “I Wanna Rock,” the set was a very well-done, heartfelt homage to a groundbreaking, bygone era.
“Doggystyle, man,” Snoop mused, near the end. “This shit is crazy. All my people on stage right here? I’m havin’ a moment right here.”