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Rock The Bells 2007

Maximum Performance

We were halfway to Bernadino when my blood started to boil. Butterflies buzzed in my belly as we entered a maze of orange cones, angry cops, and Cletus the inbred parking attendant.

"Excuse me man, we've been all over this parking lot and no one can seem to tell us where press parking is..."

Imagine a toothless hairplipped redneck with a lissthp stammering, "P-rass, puh puh Prass? Nah sir, this here's the parking lot."

"Yea I know, where's parking for the press?"

"Prass"

"No, Press, like media"

"O, I sure don't know sir, yuh you'll have to ask somebody....somebody else...somebody that works here..." he trailed off.

"Thanks Cletus!"

We arrived just in time to see Pharoahe Monch stalking the stage like a lion, all swagger and passion. His voice commands like a general's so when he drops knowledge you have no choice but to stand at attention. The man's creativity and conviction are contagious; the crowd reacted on instinct, nodding their heads in agreement. He ran through all the heaters on his newest and best album, Desire, including the amazing song, Body Baby, check out the video below.

Here's an interview we did with Pharoahe.

Pharoahe Monch interview  (MP3, 5:18)

 

Rock the Bells attracts two entirely different audiences; the main stage crowd and the Paid Dues kids. The main stage played host to an array of hip-hop legends, pop icons and even a few film & TV stars. All symbols of wealth and success that grew from poverty and violence. In turn, the crowd for those groups was all old school heads, teeny pop tarts, the casual listeners and Flavor of Love fans. (Who slept like babies that night knowing without a doubt that Flavor of Love 3 was really going down).

On the flipside, the Paid Dues performers grew up listening to the likes of EPMD, PE and Wu-Tang. Now they make a living rapping, paying rent show to show, t-shirt to tape. Their fans are often punk rockers and skinny indies, totally new to hip-hop. But something sucks them in, and it's the same thing that grabs the main stage crowd. Every performer at that show -on both stages-- does what they love and writes what they know. They're all just kids who never grew up, and for them the mike was like Toys 'R' Us.

Here are a few highlights from the Paid Dues stage.

Murs & Slug are two MCs who've paid their dues together over the past 10 years, and it pays off. Slug, with his romantic sketches and pockets full of poetry has built an enormous fan base that feels connected with him personally. Murs, who rose from the ranks of west coast supergroup the Living Legends to work with El-P, ninth wonder and now set to release his major label debut, Murs for President. Onstage the two look like a couple of blue collar Joe's having a blast on their lunch break. If only your job was this fun.

Here's an interview we did with Slug. Slug interview  (MP3, 3:58)

The Mighty Mos Def strolled onto the main stage rockin' a raggedy old Jungle Brothers t-shirt with the "s" in brothers almost faded out completely.

Mos owes those boys for blazing the trail he walks on and came prepared to pay that debt, in full. His set kicked off with a few solo joints and as the last bass lines of "Sex Love & Money" boomed over the towering stack of speakers a lone figure emerged from behind the Dj booth. Drum roll b-boys and b-girls, the one the only, Talib Kweli!

They jumped right into Re-definition, on some "1-2-3, Mos Def & Talib Kweli, we came to rock it on to the tip-top, best alliance in hip-hop, WAI-OH!"

So I said, "1-2-3, BlackStar shine eternally, they came to rock it on to the tip-hop, God please don't let my heart stop, UH-OH!"

Seeing those 2 onstage after all these years was nothing short of transformative. It felt like watching two old friends playing catch in the backyard. The chemistry was atomic, sizzling through song after song until the set hit its climax, and they played Respiration.

I closed my eyes, spitting every word back at the stage. The boys from Brooklyn hadn't lost a beat.

And there was, "so much on my mind that I can't recline/blastin' holes in the night til' she bled sunshine/breathe in, inhale vapors from bright stars that shine/breathe out, weed smoke retrace the skyline/yo don't the bass ride out like an ancient mating call/I can't take it ya'll, I can feel the city breathin'/chest heavin', against the flesh of the evenin'/kiss their eyes goodbye on the last train leavin'"

By the time Cypress Hill carried their scent backstage the circus had slowed to a few familiar faces. Sparse compared to the full fledged family reunion that ran throughout the day, with big pounds and bear hugs bouncing off old friends. I was sitting on the bumper of Pharaohe Monch's trailer waiting for a wrist band to sneak my way onstage. But by the time it arrived, all the "important" people in the place started showing up to see the Wu-Tang Clan. I mean EVERYONE, Mc's, groupies, family, Schavo from System of a Down, Chali 2na from Jurassic 5, Planet Asia, Killah Priest, even John McEnroe rolled up in a shiny black Escalade. So with courage and ripped wristband in hand I stepped the sixty feet to the wall of fast talkers trying to negotiate their way onstage. I got halfway to the gate when it hit me, I don't belong back here. I can't even fake important; I'm just some hip-hop junkie. My place is in the swarm, with my hands in the air in a shape of a W.

So I sprinted back to front and into the pit just in time to catch the Clan midway through their classic, "C.R.E.A.M." People were going nuts; everyone seemed to know all the words. Personally, I have no idea what the Wu are talking about half the time but it was still crazy to see all 8 Clansmen plus their legions of hypemen, friends, biters, competitors and even descendents on stage at the same time. That's right, little ODB, Old Dirty Bastard's son was there to mark the last spot all nine members performed together three years earlier. They even gave lil' man a chance to fill his father's dirty shoes, spitting his verses and soaking up 50,000 voices screaming his father's name. He even took one from Method Man's playbook, jumping offstage and into the pit to storm the grounds and touch the fans pasted against the railing. The clan kicked back, doubling up on Junior's verses, smiling like proud uncles at a soccer game.

The Killer Bees closed their set with the amazing, 9 verses long, mega monster classic, Triumph. Method Man, who earlier in the night literally walked on top of the audience -their outstretched arms supporting his weight-spit his Triumph verse while crowd surfing. With his back to the fans and mike to the sky, Method Man, and the Wu-Tang Clan showed everyone how to Rock the Bells for real.

The musk of anticipation hung in the air. The pit area surrounding the stage had already reached capacity as 50,000 strangers jockeyed for position. Soon every stair case, gate and barrier began to flood with red eyed rage fans. Teams of event staff gathered to snuff the advancing masses, physically pushing them back, but a heart full of rage is hard to contain. The human blockade directly behind me was the first to break. Fans streamed into the pit as though shot from cannon, middle fingers in the air and freedom on their tongues. That first wave was contained by a peppery cloud of tear gas blasted in the faces of those who didn't make it. Fans and staff alike now came staggering back from the affected area, heaving fresh air and wiping poison from their eyes.

And that's when it really got messy. The mutiny started to spread. Hordes charged the 10 foot fence dividing the backstage area and the pit. Event staff and cops alike ran around in a panic, unable to decide where they were needed most. A woman ran right past me screaming, "Get outta here kid, it's not safe for you!" Move? And miss this? You've got to be kidding! Instead I moved closer to the gas and into the pits alongside my fellow Rage fanatics. The second I stepped inside, the black flag with the blood red star descended from the stage & the Rage had begun.

Rage Against the Machine opens a vent to the primitive man. Like a spike through ice, steam rising against gravity. No other live musical experience produces that powerful of response from the audience. No other band can transform a librarian into a lunatic faster than Rage Against the Machine. And the pit was filled with lunatics.

Like a living organism it shifts and breathes. Cells bouncing off each other like magnets  of opposite charge. Everyone shouting, jumping, throwing punches & fingers at the stage. In the pit your skin is literally clothed in the skin of others and the temperature rises so high it feels like hell might feel after a long drought. After a few songs it's hard to breathe, pours sealed in by skin, breathless from screaming along to every word, the air thick like butter and harder to swallow. So you jump above the crowd, siphoning the air above like a fish coming to the surface then returning to the madness smiling, okay for at least another song.

(all photos by Devin Begley)

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