Day on the Green-like music extravaganzas are back—again. We sent two writers, and they returned with two very different takes on two unique Northern California festivals.
ROCK THE BELLS
The Rock the Bells festival stood out for one reason: None of today’s radio hip-hop was present. That’s to say, the festival was a 10-hour journey that transported concertgoers from late ’70s Bronx (Afrika Bambaataa) to modern day bookish Brooklyn (Mos Def), but never ventured—no matter how talented the performer, how historically relevant the act, how big the SanDisk banner—into the world of commercial rap (with the exception of Nas, who has experienced a fair amount of crossover fame).
When A Tribe Called Quest disbanded after 1998’s The Love Movement, the body of hip-hop skipped a heartbeat. And when they reformed some six years later, it was more of a flutter.
They’re the Beatles of hip-hop and they’re standing right in front of me, I thought. This seemed like a collective sentiment among some 18,000 people packed into Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View (screw Ritalin; apparently golden-era hip-hop is a suitable cure for ADD). Standing behind me was a full-fledged pimp, silk suit and the whole lot. He was mouthing the lyrics to “Buggin’ Out” while leaning to one side with his pimp cane. (Out of their element, in a controlled setting, pimps are pretty awesome.) Next to him was a mother and her pre-teen son, swaying in unison with their “motherfucking hands in the air” like they just didn’t care, so to speak.
A Tribe Called Quest—Q-Tip, Phife, Jarobi and deejay/producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad—swerved around onstage, spitting classic rhymes as if they never broke up:
Back in the days when I was a teenager
Before I had status and before I had a pager
You could find the Abstract listening to hip-hop
My pops used to say, it reminded him of be-bop
I said, well daddy don’t you know that things go in cycles
The way that Bobby Brown is just ampin’ like Michael
It’s all expected, things are for the lookin’
If you got the money, Quest is for the bookin’
It was hours after the sun ducked under the mountains and the crowd was exhausted. But under the iridescent glow of the yellow and red stage lights, in a moment of pure synchronized hip-hop, ATCQ stopped rapping and beatboxed in unison. It sounded as if they were channeling a cosmic Zulu spirit beating down from the moon, like a helicopter in stereophonic sound.
Oh yeah, this is hip-hop.
That feeling—you know, the where has real hip-hop been for the last 10 years? feeling that rushes through your veins like a cool shot of adrenaline—was pretty much a constant throughout the day at Rock the Bells. It began with Gift of Gab’s technically superior rhyme patterns on “Alphabet Aerobics” and carried into Rakim’s set, which showed us exactly who put modern-day lyricism on the map. Method Man and Redman bum rushed the stage with a show-stealing act that was as cartoonish as it was acrobatic (Method Man leapt into the crowd and literally stood on, and rhymed on top of, his fans). And there was the Pharcyde, our heroic geeks of the underground, who unleashed their jazzy, tripped-out anthems of the ’90s, like “Passin’ Me By” and “Ya Mama,” to an audience that stood slack-jawed with nostalgia. When De La Soul—Posdnuos, Trugoy, Maseo—took to the stage with their colorful rhymes and organic production, it nearly knocked people back with excitement.
Actor Michael Rapaport, a well-known connoisseur of hip-hop, wandered through the audience with a camera and a shit-eating grin, catching audience-reaction shots, which were varied but with each face carrying a trace of wide-eyed bewilderment.
Before the show, I tried to explain to my 55-year-old friend (we’ll call her “Eileen”) the groups who’d be at the festival: Nas, the Pharcyde, Ghostface and Raekwon, De La Soul, Mos Def, Method Man and Redman, Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest—I rattled on like a kid giving his wish list to Santa.
“I’ve never heard of any of those people,” she replied, nonchalantly adjusting her dinner napkin.
Days after the show I was still reeling from the experience, recharged with a love for hip-hop. I thought about my friend’s answer until I couldn’t take it anymore and called her up.
“Wait, do you know who 50 Cent is?”
“Yes!” Eileen said, a little offended that I even asked.
A pimp took an entire day off from smacking his hos to watch the greats from the golden era of hip-hop, and my own friend can’t tell A Tribe Called Quest from A Fish Called Wanda. But she knows an illiterate faux gangster like he’s her Uncle Curtis. It just ain’t right.
Take Ecstasy. Have a beer. Paint your nails different colors. Bundle up and go outside. Put on headphones and listen to OK Computer. Stare at your fingertips. Take a $100 bill and burn it.
For the tens of thousands at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park last Friday night who weren’t within 50 yards of the Radiohead, the latter scenario was the Outside Lands experience. Radiohead’s awesome LED-lit stage was the size of a pinky nail for many. And while the British band’s sound was impeccable—perhaps too tight—fans grumbled as the PA went out for the second time. Thousands dozed off—and left—before the encore. Others nearly rioted when a second beer garden ran out of suds.
It was truly impossible to get from one end of the venue to the other, so seeing bands like the Black Keys or Cold War Kids and getting a spot for Radiohead was out of the question. In fact, chaos ensued while migrating from the Beck stage: Fans tore down chain-link fences and ran through the park to escape gridlock. Others used “DIY” toilets instead of trekking across the 80-acre grounds to find designated potties.
There was no parking for the venue, except for VIPs—a certain local blogger and his proclivity to dissect Radiohead à la symphony movements might gladly rehash the splendor of VIPism—so festivalgoers had to either park in the inner Sunset or Richmond neighborhoods or take MUNI, so most hiked in from miles out. Bros downed 40s in the park woods at the “green” event, “leaving no trace” apart from rare Olde English fossilizations. As with most festivals, pretty much any drugs you needed for the evening could be bought on the walk to the park. The frontload was first-rate.
But the pre-party wasn’t cool for everyone. The entire west side of the city came to a standstill around 6 p.m.: no parking, no available buses, no moving cars. It was the same story after Radiohead’s set, which finished by 10 p.m. curfew. The situation getting in and out of Golden Gate Park was so grim that the guy who was supposed to write this story bailed, citing anarchy. There was no cell-phone reception on the grounds, kids texting in vain. It was worse for neighborhood homeowners, who complained to the city’s daily paper of freewheeling drunks, parking shenanigans and even vandalism.
“But it’s about the music, ultimately,” Radiohead’s Thom Yorke reminded the crowd mid-set after apologizing for the evening’s technical snafus. He’s only partially correct: It was all about Radiohead. Most of the Friday-night crowd—estimates went as high as 80,000—were there to get ’Head, the first band to rock the park in the dark.
And dark it was. The gray fog that encompassed the city’s west side all day didn’t part by evening, a colorless, melancholic dome blanketing the polo grounds, light mist trickling down from above. Radiohead’s depressing set of Amnesiac-era ballads and negative-pop In Rainbows tracks by no means lifted the mood. Perhaps the $12 shucked oysters—Outside Lands was all about unconventional concessions, like ceviche and artisan cheeses—were sufficient aphrodisiacs? Maybe that’s what all those 40-plus-year-old shadow-dancing women ate? Or the Radiohead fans crying on each other’s shoulders during “Videotape”?
After 10 Radiohead shows and who-knows-how-many festivals, I’ll stick with the simple life: a good basement or living room, close friends, earplugs and a $5 donation. Perhaps a woman from Humboldt County put it best: “I’ll never drive my boyfriend’s ass down here for Radiohead and come to this stupid park again.” Yup, because you know Arcata just goes off.