Rock the Bells rewind

Ghostface Killah and Raekwon or Lauryn Hill?:
Rock the Bells is what would happen if Willy Wonka had grown up next door to Kool Herc instead of a candy store. The festival is a wonderland of hip-hop, with boom-bap coming from every direction, vendors hustling everything from T-shirts and jewelry to candy pipes (perfect for the stoner with low blood sugar), and a crowd full of fans from all walks of life.

This year’s lineup featured artists performing classic albums, including some of the most legendary hip-hop artists of the last 20 years: Common, Black Star, Cypress Hill, Nas and Lauryn Hill. This year also saw the addition of two new stages at Shoreline Amphitheatre: The 36 Chambers stage and the Grindtime stage.

I hit the main stage at 3 p.m. to catch Mos Def and Talib Kweli perform the Black Star album. I followed my photographer to the photo pit and took a front-row seat for one of my favorite albums of all time.

Mos and Talib are still two of the best in the business and delivered the whole album as though they recorded it last week, not 13 years ago. Later, I would find out my non-photography press badge did not allow me access to the front. So I beat up my photographer and took his badge. (OK, well, I thought about doing this.)

Cypress Hill served as a smoke break for what felt like at least half the crowd. This was partially due to the fact it was Cypress Hill, and partially because they put on the least impressive show on the main stage. Sure, they were still Cypress; it was still dope. B-Real just smoked a little too much weed while wearing all black and jumping around in the sun and got tired midway through the set.

For many, Nas’ performance of Illmatic was considered the true headliner of Rock the Bells. Only Nas could ask DJ Premier and Pete Rock to co-deejay his set. He played host with hypeman AZ and The Braveheart Crew to perform his classic album before bringing out Mobb Deep for an onstage reunion. Nas finished his set with an indecisive trip through verses from classic songs from Stillmatic and I Am. He’s Nas. He can do that. Easily the best performance of the day.

Rock the Bells made patrons choose between Ghostface Killah and Raekwon teaming up for Only Built for Cuban Links and Lauryn Hill performing the Grammy-winning Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Much ado was made about her RTB performance last year, so I was unsure how my choice to check her out this year would go. The rest of the crowd, too, was uncertain.

Fashionably speaking, she chose Victorian swag over bag-lady chic this year, and although she obviously avoided some of the high notes, Hill conducted her band and back-up singers like a female James Brown. She seemed to loosen up and enjoy herself more (by Lauryn Hill standards) for her encore, which included “Fu-Gee-La,” “Ready Or Not,” and a special feature by Nas on “If I Ruled The World.” I’d give her show a solid 7.5, and her encore an 8.

Aside from the $46 hot dogs and a lack of Baduizm for the San Francisco date, I have no complaints about this year’s Rock the Bells. Where else can you catch 2Mex, Planet Asia, GCM, and a Grindtime Battle all while waiting for the show to start?