Backpacks, Beanies and (Wrist) Bands: Rock the Bells Or How Hip-Hop Is Like the Iraqi Civil War or A Roundabout Summary of The Year in Hip- Hop, 2006
"This is that real hip-hop. You understand that? Because real hip-hop is in danger and we out to protect it. Who here loves that real hip-hop? If you love that real hip-hop than throw your hands in the air."
Raekwon is screaming this to me and the other 1,000 people or so packed into the House of Blues in Los Angeles on the Sunset Strip. It's a few days before Christmas and everyone seems to be a in good mood. Los Angeles has already started to empty out like it always does right before the holidays, but still, the House of Blues is nearly at peak capacity to see a lineup that might as well be a who's who of mid 90's NYC hip-hop. Rae. Ghost. Red. Three HOF'ers, still hanging in there roughly a decade after their classic debuts. So it's no surprise that the crowd erupts into a paroxysm of cheers, heeding Raekwon's call, waving their hands frantically, jostling wildly, nodding their heads in unison to the raspy bass booming out of the speakers.
You don't need to be Hunter S. Thompson to detect a palpable sense of fear and loathing in the air. An undercurrent of rage is running beneath this superficial exhortations to get the crowd going. On-stage, a hard menacing glint shines in Raekwon's eyes as he makes subtle digs towards the current state of hip-hop. He isn't happy with it and neither is the crowd. Or else they wouldn't be at The Rock the Bells Tour, which bills itself a music festival that "strives to expose all the elements of Hip Hop culture. Whether it’s an emcee battle, turntable exhibition, or b-boy circle, Rock The Bells represents, respects, and recognizes all aspects of the culture."
But everyone involved knows that Rock the Bells doesn't represent, respect and recognize ALL aspects of hip-hop. It's a narrow interpretation of the culture focusing squarely on the brand of street hip-hop that New York City spawned from roughly 1988-1998. The South, which in recent years has become the most commercially viable region, is nowhere to be found, unless of course, New Jersey happens to be your definition of the South. But the South is certainly present in every performer's mind, as everyone on-stage endlessly repeats how they represent the "real hip-hop and not the commercial bullshit you hear on the radio." For a second, you can hear the echos of Young Jeezy's taunting ad-libs, whispering, Ha-Ha....
Young Jeezy and Nick Cannon: Presumably, Not that "Real" Hip-HopRock the Bells is a portrait of hip-hop in the midst of Civil War. And no, it isn't the East Coast/West Coast beef of the mid-90s. In 2006, hip-hop is undergoing its own equivalent of the Iraqi Civil War, as the New York City rappers that gained fame during the mid-9os have found themselves trapped in a hip-hop landscape that looks increasingly strange and unfamiliar. With the rise of file-sharing and media consolidation and the demise of powerful indies like Loud Records, Rawkus,Tommy Boy and others, veterans have been dropped, driven to labels with infinitesimal PR budgets or at best, seen their release dates perptetually pushed back. The vets have taken on the mentalities of Sunnis in Iraq, losing their stranglehold at the top and trying to take down the new rulers.
The specter of the South hung heavily over the event. Just like the Shiites, Southern Rappers, after years of being unheard have asserted their control on the industry. Guys like Young Jeezy who would be laughed out of any freestyle cipher are suddenly not just receiving record deals, but becoming the biggest sellers in the game. And like the Shiites, the Southerners aren't afraid to fight back (see Young Jeezy Al-Sadr's recent attack on one of the old-guard's last hopes, Nas.)
Of course, this isn't just an East Coast/Southern beef, there are wild cards, namely The West Coast and Chicago. The West seems like the natural analogue to the Saudi Arabians, a strong neighboring state with vast influence. Of late, both the "charity giving" Saudi's and the Iraqi Sunnis, and the East and West Coast have formed unlikely alliances (Drereminem signing Queens-born 50, The Game claiming to be a West Coast rapper with a New York state of Mind/Raekwon signing to Aftermath.) Also around are the Chicagoans/Iranians whose main seems to be status as a regional giant (see Kanye West's man-whoring of the last two years, and Common's lame GAP ads.) Of course, completely out of sight and mind are the underground hip-hoppers best repped by Stones Throw, Def Jux and Rhymesayers. Labels that put out great music every year that most people never hear about. Just like the Kurds. Sort of.
But the show most go on. Talib Kweli came out to do a surprise guest appearance with Planet Asia, spitting a few energetic but ho-hum verses, promoting Kweli's new imprint, Blacksmith Records and just being competently boring. Next came Redman, who delivered an impressive, well-rehearsed and professional set, per usual, complete with stage dives and cuts from Whut thee Album, all the way up to Malpractice. At points, he shouted out boasts about how his voice was strong and how people needed to go cop Redman Gone Wild, now supposedly coming out in March. But instead of Red passing the microphone to Ghostface to close out what should've been an impressive declaration of continued relevance, he did nothing of the sort. Ghost never came on-stage despite Raekwon having earlier proclaimed that "Ghostface was in the building. No explanations were given for his absence.
Instead closing-out duties were handed to the "legendary" DJ Kool. I'm not exactly sure who he's "legendary" to, but he certainly wasn't to the crowd, as most people wrinkled their faces, clueless to exactly who DJ Kool is. Granted, if you hadn't heard his 1996 novelty hit "Let Me Clear My Throat" which Kool doesn'even really rap on, there would be no real reason to even know his name. On-stage Kool, who's pushing 50 (according to Wikipedia), kept huffing and puffing, making all sorts of windy declarations about preserving that "real hip-hop," dancing incessantly and making stale remarks about how he knew that one side of the crowd was louder than the other side. Which just seemed kind of annoying because we all just wanted to see Ghost, whose name was promised on the fliers, not to mention the More Fish posters blanketing the walls. Meanwhile, we got DJ Kool, the low-budget equivalent of DJ Kool Herc (No Sr. Spielbergo.
OK Dude, We Get it, Your Throat Isn't Clear
Look, I can't deny that I'm rooting for these guys. To me, the rap music made in New York City during the 10-year span between 88' and '98, IS the real definition of hip-hop and the best music the genre has ever produced. But these very talented rappers need to stop complaining and/or talking about the good old days and start making great albums again. Guys like Redman need to stop spending the money made off the Red and Meth sitcom and invest in a label of their own. They need to develop talent. They need to do it themselves, because god knows the major-labels aren't going to help them. These dudes need to build from the ground up, build grass-roots movements and forget about going platinum. It probably isn't going to happen in the near future, if ever again.
Ultimately it comes down to the music. The East Coast's "keepin' it real" mantra grew empty and stale (Kweli, being the best example.) Meanwhile, no new artists have arrived to fill the void. 2007 is looking like an increasingly crucial year for this branch of hip-hop as both Rae, Red the Wu and other vets are slated to drop records. But the truth is, these guys are getting old, the youngest of them are in their mid-30s. Art forms need to evolve to stay relevant and unless the East can evolve and produce a third generation of classic MC's, we seem destined to hear lame songs like "We Fly High" being passed off as NYC anthems.
Of course, things work in cycles and now the South is having its moment in the sun. But if the New Yorkers really want to reign once more, they need to start listening to themselves. "Real hip-hop" isn't deodorant commercials, skit-laden 1 hour and 20 minute long albums, or rappers no-showing at their own concerts. Real hip-hop is hungry MC's with their ear to the ground, rapping about what they've seen and heard, like Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, or off-the-wall Redman and Method Man cuts about smoking with college students, most of whom weren't graduating and they knew it." Chuck D said was right, hip-hop was "the CNN of the Streets," but right now as 2006 draws to an end, the reception looks pretty blurry.
Also Check Crock Tock's Review of the LA Show
And Oh Word's Review of the NYC Performance
MP3: Chef Raekwon-"Glaciers of Ice"
MP3: Chef Raekwon-"Verbal Intercourse"
MP3: Redman-"Whateva Man"
MP3: Redman-"Da Bump"