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Goin' Off: Looking back on Rock the Bells

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SEPTEMBER 05, 2012

Method Man spit on me. Then he made like a flying squirrel and landed, legs wide open, on the metallic railing separating crowd and stage. After his testicle-shifting tumble, myself and a few husky amphitheatre security guards in ill-fitting yellow polos helped Meth to his feet. But the mic never left his hand and the rhymes he and Redman exchanged kept coming.

Meth then proceeded to rock the crowd atop the thin railing before dismounting into the outstretched arms that punctured the billows of rising reefer smoke from the innumerable glowing Phillies (cigars) illuminating faces in the crowd. He was a verbal gymnast. Literally. Awestruck for the first time in a long time, I thought to myself:  This is Rock the Bells.

For a majority of the two days I ceased to be my 21-year-old self, transported back to the time I first heard my favorite MCs. The festival put me in a hip-hop time warp like Tim Curry circa 1975. Sans transvestitism and Transylvania, of course.

I had my backpack. My hoodie was pulled tight over my scalp. And my head bobbing was fucking impeccable. It was a religious experience unlike any holy sacrament I’ve received. I think I was even speaking in tongues. Or maybe it was just Wu slang.

That’s probably why I looked at this kid sideways when I overheard him announce that he didn’t recognize the chubby guy with an ice water lexicon rhyming alongside Ghostface. It was Raekwon.

Had he been dragged there? Why wasn’t he at another stage? Mac Miller and J.Cole were playing somewhere. I felt compelled to school him, but did so with regrettable levels of snobbery and pedagogy. Like some green cagey and wrinkled old fool hiding in a cave somewhere, shortsighted I was. I should’ve suggested some albums, told him about the force embedded in the purple tape. But my mind just wasn’t in Mountain View. It was in Shaolin. And so Doc Brown had shown up in the guise of a pale-faced teenager with a crimson cowlick to bring me back to the future.

I suddenly became cognizant of the crowd. Hip-hop sanctuary momentarily turned into farcical commodity, a horrific neon sign with the pulse of boom bap drums.

The bros were out in tie-dyed tanks. The hipsters donned whatever it is they wear now. The girls in their cutoffs and designer ODB T-shirts didn’t know the words to “Shimmy Shimmy Ya.” My insular idyllic hip-hop fantasy was no more.
But then I remembered that hip-hop doesn’t exist solely for those of us who follow it like a cult. It has become so much a part of popular culture that people pass off attendance at these types of festivals like some sort of social ensign. It’s sad. But at least they’re listening, right?

Well, my cynical self damn near ruined the weekend as I scanned the festival ground for countless egregious offenders and posers. But thankfully a larger part of me said I shouldn’t play the role. So I did that thing you have to do every couple of years when something or someone forces you to step back and look at yourself. I grew up.

I came to terms with the fact that my interest and passion for hip-hop, for the artists and music at Rock the Bells, didn’t dictate who got in the door. The impetus for each person in attendance didn’t matter. They came. They saw. They experienced.

It was a two-day trip down memory lane, a time of reflection for listeners, bluntheads, fly ladies, bros and hipsters alike.  A time to take stock of our relationship to hip-hop. I had once been the pale-faced kid who couldn’t pick a Wu-Tang member out of a line up composed of all nine swordsmen. And there will be a few who attended Rock the Bells that will look back and laugh when they think about how lucky they were to see Ghostface, DJ Quik or any one of the legends at Rock the Bells, for those performances will have changed them like they changed me.

So remember, the mystery of chessboxin isn’t all that simple. And while the song may remain the same, time changes all.

Contact James Bell at [email protected]

SEPTEMBER 12, 2012

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