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Live review: Rock the Bells

August 9, 2009 |  7:30 pm

The best way to sum up the hip-hop festival? Ice Cube's 'It Was a Good Day.'


"Welcome to hip-hop summer camp," Chang Weisberg, the promoter of Rock the Bells, greeted well-wishers backstage Saturday. And, like summer camp, the all-day concert at San Bernardino's San Manuel Amphitheatre confronted you with tough choices: Do you practice culinary arts with chef Raekwon on the Paid Dues Stage or martial arts with Big Boi on the Main Stage? Do you practice riflery with Buckshot of the Boot Camp Clik or jewelry craftsmanship with gold-chain rocking Slick Rick, the event's special guest?

Luckily, there were few ways to go wrong at Rock the Bells' 2009 incarnation, unless you were Joe Budden of Slaughterhouse, whose backstage live-stream was interrupted by an angry Raekwon and his Ice Water crew, eager to deliver a punch to the eye and a stern reprimand.

But despite the fisticuffs that dominated early reports, the event's gestalt was generally ebullient and entertaining -- with a substantial swath of people born between 1970 and 1985 rapping along word for word. 

Headliner Ice Cube trotted out fellow West Coast legend and former Westside Connection partner WC to help him perform a greatest hits set, including gangsta rap classics "Natural Born Killaz," "Bow Down," "Straight Outta Compton" and the latter's "Pay Ya Dues," a song that could've served as the official soundtrack for the veteran-heavy lineup. 

But "It Was a Good Day," Cube's now-classic 1993 single, might've been the more appropriate anthem, a sentiment the adoring crowd agreed with as the man born O'Shea Jackson led them through a lighters-up group sing-a-long, dedicated to the merits of the Lakers beating the SuperSonics and Momma cooking the breakfast with no hog.

By 11 p.m., attendees had been on their feet for hours, displaying proper deference to the performers' iconic stature. Prior to Ice Cube and WC's homecoming set, Damian Marley and Nas unveiled kinetic cuts from their forthcoming "Distant Relatives" collaboration, flanked by a backing band and a massive Jamaican flag. The erstwhile Nasty Nas stood out as one of the day's finest performers, a stark contrast to last year's appearance, when he seemed to coast on the fumes of his estimable greatest hits collection.

But on Saturday night, the self-proclaimed street's disciple demonstrated a fierce and focused flow, recalling his prime and auguring well for his future. Marley, a son of Bob, was no slouch either, unfurling dancehall raps with a dragon's force and a patois as thick as the spliffs he smokes.

Sets from Busta Rhymes and the Roots went off without a hitch, despite the former taking the stage late and being forced to compress a 20-year record of hits into just 20 minutes. Taking a break from their current gig as house band on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," the Roots still flashed their prodigious musicianship and tight stage show. Though their set list may veer toward the slightly stale, Philadelphia's finest made up for it with Black Thought's still-ferocious MC skills and guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas' psychedelic guitar workouts. At this point in their career, the Roots are hip-hop's only jam band, and like most good jam bands, they're better than many want to admit.

Other standouts included Big Boi, who eschewed new material in favor of classic OutKast hits such as "Rosa Parks," and Raekwon, who hyped the crowd for "Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Part 2," and alternately performed vintage Wu-Tang cuts from the mid-'90s. Meanwhile, the Brooklyn hard-core duo M.O.P. drew a crowd that seemed unfamiliar with much of its work outside of "Ante Up," but raucous renditions of such classic tracks as "4 Alarm Blaze" couldn't help but make people want to get rowdy.

--Jeff Weiss

Photo: Nas. Credit: Getty Images