As the sun burned down on San Bernardino, California, the 9th annual Rock the Bells festival kicked off the first of two nights. Organized and executed by Guerrilla Union (GU), the festival has been a summer staple for Hip Hop aficionados thirsty for a notable Rap lineup. This year, GU hoped to quench that with a double dose.
The first day of two saw a fair share of intriguing acts on the three festival stages. Early on, 2 Chainz followed Future to applause from a sunburned audience. Savvy with marketing, fans were given hand fans that read, "I'm a T.R.U. Fan." Dancing (and teaching his dance moves), Chainz ran through his hits as fans chanted along to songs like "Mercy," "Beez in the Trap" and "No Lie."
Perhaps energized by Chainz, the crowd appeared amped as Travis Barker (of Blink 182 fame) began to set the stage for his Psycho White comrade Yelawolf. Backed by Barker, Yelawolf had additional enthusiasm, raising middle fingers in the air while wearing an American flag bandana under his cap. If nothing else, the performance raised anticipation for the Barker/Yela collaboration.
While Tyga continued the surge of what one fan referred to as "new swag" to the lineup, Common balanced it out with his seasoned performance. In the scorching afternoon, Common came out in shorts and a tee, ready to launch into his own batch of hits and album cuts. While he rocked "I Used to Love H.E.R.," the Chi City wordsmith also brought "Be (Intro)" and "Testify" with him. This veteran brought forth a change in the dynamics provided by the younger/newer acts. But this may have been beneficial for a festival offering something for various ages while also trying to please them all.
A balance of old soul with new bravado came in the form of Black Hippy. Jay Rock entered the main stage first, a potent entrance with "I'm Thuggin." Ab-Soul and ScHoolboy Q followed, both maintaining the energy established by Jay. Together or solo, each emcee held their own. Next came Kendrick Lamar, who came out, hugged ScHoolboy and proceeded to entertain with hits like "A.D.H.D." and "The Recipe" (sans Dr. Dre). Kendrick also performed his "Swimming Pools (Drank)" single while fans helped with the chorus.
The Black Hippy spirit made way for that of the Ruff Ryders. Reenergized, Jadakiss took over. Going through his catalogue, 'Kiss' raspy voice served as a reminder of what he could do and what he might do with his next offering. Next, the growl set it all up. DMX began doing this before his set with Eve, letting fans know he had arrived. Eve's touch certainly balanced this set but the set being split in two also shortened each emcee's time. Once X finished his passionate prayer, Eve entered with a much different vibe, making some wonder why they shared a set billed as "DMX + Eve" when they pretty much had separate shows. Still, it was refreshing to see them at the show, adding more veteran seasoning to the festival's flavor. One young lady said she'd faint when Eve appeared as she was "still" her favorite, showing what the veteran acts also mean to the young audience members.
However, after that, the night on the main stage belonged to the younger generation of performers. J. Cole started this off with his band, accompanied by a potent sound. Going from riding those drums to dropping the beat for a passionate a capella, Cole showed why he felt he deserved being one of the night's closers. A definite highlight was his a cappella performance of a new cut, "I'm a Fool," where he discusses many personal topics including education, debt and his mother's opinion of his rhymes. Later, Kid Cudi appeared to close the show. Apologizing for his "tardiness," Cudi blasted off into "Down & Out" and "Soundtrack 2 My Life" to start his set. The latter had him (seemingly) forgetting his lines but the crowd didn't seem to mind, filling in the gaps while Cudi held his mic out.
On the other stages, Killer Mike, Prodigy, Dipset, El-P and Naughty by Nature had fans waving their hands like the electrical fans placed around the venue. Through the heat, acts like Curren$y and Z&G&E (Zion I, The Grouch and Eligh) pushed up and on. A bit later, Immortal Technique followed with his pleas for the crowd to emphatically yell along to "Harlem Streets." RZA, who hosted his 36 Chambers Stage, would then praise Tech as a "smart" rapper. Soon, this would make way for Wu-Block to join forces before Method Man and Redman closed out.
A telling moment at the show took place as Wu-Block prepared to take the stage. Before the set, their deejay asked how much Hip Hop history the crowd knew. The crowd, many of whom were teenagers, sang along to many of the songs played, including hits by The Pharcyde and Onyx. They sang along like those songs came out last month. This blending of youth and history within the culture shows just how much a festival like Rock the Bells can bring forth such unity (among races, ages and more). It also shows how Rock the Bells continues to highlight a respect for the past in the present. It has been said that the culture must preserve the roots that have helped it grow, while still respecting the need for expansion and change. In that regard, with day one now gone, Rock the Bells showed that it can be a vessel for preservation as well as change.
Photography by Andres Vasquez.