Living up to its Twitter hashtag #HipHopDisneyland, Rock the Bells festival landed in New York for a day of musical mayhem.
Festival maths is a tricky business. Hours spent noting schedule clashes and crafting itineraries rarely pays off in the heat of the moment. But owing to the sheer volume of talent at three-dayers, unexpected discoveries and lost hours in faraway fields make-up for missing a few must-see acts. Not so at Rock the Bells. With three stages showcasing the cream of classic and contemporary hiphop in just less than eight hours, you can’t let your eye off the ball. A last-minute set shuffle doesn’t help; but nevermind, it all feeds into the unruly nature of the day.
Blackstar kicked things off with a bang, giving the most energetic performance of the day – an encore of Mos Def’s ‘Umi Said’ went down a treat. GZA came next drafting in RZA for a performance of ‘The 4th Chamber’ and ODB’s son for ‘Shimmy Shimmy Ya’. Black Moon were the surprise hit of the day, ripping through their overlooked album ‘Enter Da Stage’, backed by a live band. Souls of Mischief scored track of the day with ’93 to Infinity’ and Big K.R.I.T.’s raucous Southern flavour and Childish Gambino’s witty lyricism showcased two ends of the contemporary hiphop spectrum. All this and still time to grab a burrito and sit in the blazing sun. After the ferry ride over and with the Manhattan skyline looming large over Governer’s Island, there was a distinct holiday feeling in the air.
With a polite appreciation of other people’s pitches and a breeze in the air, Erykah Badu offered a welcome soulful accompaniment to the setting sun. She looked the part and glided flawlessly through new material and a handful of soul classics from Baduizm before declaring ‘I’m so happy right now’. Lauryn Hill’s later offering was less relaxed and it wasn’t long before she stormed off stage, but emerged again joined by Pras for “Ready or Not”, the closest thing to a Fugees reunion and well worth tolerating a little dose of diva for.
The toughest choice of the day came as Nas took to the stage a few hundred yards from Raekwon and Ghostface. Hip-hop faithfuls caught the first thirty minutes of the Wu Tang alumni before crossing the site to catch the Illmatic-star open triumphantly with ‘Genesis’. Ms. Hill accompanied him on ‘If I Ruled the World’ and show-closer ‘Made You Look’. She was redeemed, and he kept his crown as King of New York rap. And with that, the sums add up and the crowds head back to the ferry.
Text: Oscar Quine
Photography: Felix Quine