Live review: Rock the Bells still tolls for 1993
Old school’s in session as Snoop Dogg, Wu-Tang Clan and A Tribe Called Quest party likes it’s 1993 at San Bernardino’s hip-hop hoedown.
For a large swath of its audience, hip-hop’s center of gravity will always stay moored in 1993 and 1994 — the same way that classic-rock fans permanently hold 1966 and 1967 sacred. After all, as Q-Tip noted, the final three sets at Saturday’s Rock the Bells Festival at the NOS Events Center in San Bernardino consisted of full-album performances of records that were released in a two-week span in November 1993.
Yet Wu-Tang Clan’s “Enter the 36 Chambers,” A Tribe Called Quest’s “Midnight Marauders” and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Doggystyle” are more than records to those whose teenage years overlapped with the ’90s. They’re inviolate touchstones of youth, crammed with dozens of classic cuts as inextricably intertwined to memory as madeleines to Marcel Proust.
For roughly 25,000 roaring fans, nostalgia for the days of Death Row was transubstantiated via “Gin and Juice,” a highlight of Snoop Dogg’s spectacular headlining set. Aided by performances from Tha Dogg Pound, the Lady of Rage, RBX and Warren G, Snoop conjured the ghosts of the early Clinton years with frightening accuracy.
Though he’s long since evolved into the lovable “Uncle Snoop,” a film star and pitchman nonpareil, Snoop tapped into the cold-blooded menace that made him America’s Most Wanted (before he was one of its most adored). Clad in a vintage Pittsburgh Penguins jersey, braids, shades and creased khakis, Snoop’s hyper-relaxed flow of modern vintage was replaced by his formerly surly bark.
His partners in the Death Row diaspora similarly retained the ability to dial back the decades, slipping comfortably into their old styles: Rage rocking afro-puffs and leather, Daz draped in blue bandanna, Kurupt in Ben Davis coveralls. The only ones missing were Dr. Dre and Nate Dogg, yet even they appeared in spirit. Dre had taped a pre-recorded video, instructing Snoop to “play that old school …,” while Snoop paid homage to Nate Dogg via a sing-a-long tribute to “Regulate” and “Ain’t No Fun (if the Homies Can’t Have None),” promising that they would show Nate the video in the hospital (where he lies incapacitated after a 2007 stroke).
But the star was Snoop, who proved that he went Hollywood in all the right ways. The transformation from gangsta-rap legend to consummate entertainer displayed itself in the background set piece depicting the cartoon cover of “Doggystyle.” More memorable were the grainy mini-movies that played between songs, portraying Snoop as a lanky lothario, packing pistols, seducing females — Snoopafly come to life.
It was the standout in a 12-hour day filled with many great performances. Preceding Snoop was the Wu-Tang Clan, who ran roughshod through the rugged “Enter the 36 Chambers,” without maudlin nostalgia. All the Clan had to do was play “Can It Be All So Simple” and exhort crowd members to hold up their lighters. They complied with actual fire, a rarity in an era where cellphone screens pass for a substitute. The gesture aptly fit the song that sampled Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “The Way We Were.”
A revitalized A Tribe Called Quest displayed why Q-Tip and Phife remain the gold standard of rap duos, trading off bars and knowing each other’s ad-libs perfectly. After performing the entirety of their 1993 classic, the two brought out former member Jarobi, plus a surprise appearance from Busta Rhymes, whose live-wire verse from “Scenario” turned the head-nodding crowd into rowdy heads.
Full album performances from Slick Rick, KRS-One and Rakim deserve their own essays, but the day’s most anticipated performance was from former Fugees star Lauryn Hill. Known for her eccentric behavior and supererogatory gifts, the reclusive singer/MC dispelled any doubts of her abilities.
Backed by an 11-piece band, she performed cuts such as “Lost Ones” and “Doo Wop (That Thing)” from “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” along with earlier work like “Ready or Not” and “Fugee-La.” While occasionally chaotic and harried, her voice and skills remained peerless and again revealed that her lack of prolificacy doesn’t stem from an absence of talent.
In its seventh year, hip-hop’s longest running festival amply proved its enduring viability. (The festival moved on to San Francisco for a show Sunday, then will set up camp in New York and Washington, D.C., next weekend.) Perhaps the only thing missing was a performance from Souls of Mischief, whose biggest hit could have perfectly encapsulated the day’s underlying theme: To a crowd that ranged from very young to very old, the songs resonated from ’93 till infinity.
-- Jeff Weiss
Photos, from top: Lauryn Hill, the crowd at Rock the Bells and Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest. Credits: Michael Robinson Chavez/ Los Angeles Times
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