Rock the Bells Hip Hop Festival in Miami

nas.jpg The Rock The Bells music festival took place this Saturday in Miami at the Bayfront Amphitheater and featured a collection of hip hop legends including De La Soul, Dead Prez, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Mos Def, The Pharcyde, Redman, Method Man, Nas and A Tribe Called Quest.

This was a typical hot, humid summer day in Miami except for the fact that we were spared the usual fleeting thunderstorm and torrential downpour. The sun shined and blue skies persisted though out the entire day and night making for an unspoiled musical experience. Of course the sun and heat made for some desperate moments of water intake to offset the dehydrating effects of beer consumption and profuse sweating.

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Supernatural

Around 3 PM underground rapper Supernatural hit the stage. The lesser-known emcee displayed his lyrical chops with versatile rhymes and freestyle prowess. This guy has a deep bag of lyrical tricks and didn’t quit the passionate discourse until the last beat was dropped. His Midwestern origin (Indiana) is certainly evident with the slight verbal lilt that characterizes his lyrical flow. He is a talent to keep on your radar.

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stic.man of Dead Prez

Dead Prez came on next and members M-1 and stic.man cruised through an energetic set filled with their characteristic political vitriol. The acerbic lyrics bounced back and forth from the two performers and the brutal beats carried their revolutionary message over the amphitheater’s mass of undoubtedly disaffected youth and receptive ears. The reason these guys resonate with fans isn’t just in their fierce lyrics and social consciousness but also the delivery via jazzy hooks and clever rhymes. Dead Prez flipped the script recently by introducing some Miami beat into their politically laced songs effectively opening up their music to legions of club goers. If they can’t beat them can join them – a subversive message conveyed in dance friendly jams is a smart way of reaching a wider audience. Substance is sorely lacking from most club tracks and is much like empty calories – by taking this tact they can sneak in some serious brain food. This crowd certainly received an education.

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De La Soul

From here on out the stage would feature rap heavy weights – artists who have worked to define this music and leave a lasting impression. The hip hop giants De La Soul humbly took the spotlight so they could blow our minds once again. It was a family affair and the children of the group were on the side stage watching their dads rap in front of their adoring fans. The collection of small children shyly looked on as the veteran performers rocked the crowd with their lyrical mastery. De La Soul hasn’t slowed down at all after all these years – even at their ages they were able to bring the clever flows and bouncing beats that made them famous twenty years ago. The dynamism of their lyrical delivery have remained fresh and this day they were able to show that their relevancy is rock solid. One of the pillars of hip hop De La Soul put all in attendance into a deep reverie with glints of nostalgia for a simpler time when rappers cared about their message.

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Ghostface and Raekwon

Ghostface Killah and Raekwon represented hard for Wu-Tang by spitting the fire. They performed songs from the continuum of the Wu Tang collection even rapping C.R.E.A.M buoyed by the ecstatic response from the crowd. The dynamic between these two worked well to inspire stage bravado and showmanship. The grimy New York raps touched on the struggle of the inner city, the signature grit of Wu Tang is their layered narratives and songs that tell a story. The signature discordant beats dropped hard on that stage and helped drive the message home as they unleashed the brutal rhymes dripping with ugly truths and lessons learned. They are the conduits of the violent and vivid poetry of the streets.

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Mos Def

Mos Def performed a mellow set that may have been affected by the heat on this sunny and hot day. He introduced some new songs that seemed a bit misconceived. But Mos Def was all smiles as he performed for the Miami audience — happily strutting up and down the set comfortable that his hip hop genius was hitting the right spots. He harmonized on several songs and his vocals floated over the humid air and heads of star struck fans. A highlight of his set was the song “Definition” which did not fail in getting the heads bobbing. It’s hard to not to be distracted by Mos Def’s movie stardom and it can overshadow his musical efforts. His Hollywood association seems to have made him less than approachable evidenced by his comments about the pretexts of talking to him. He mentioned how after the show if you see him don’t ask to take a picture with him – maybe the paparazzi have made him jaded.

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Redman and Method Man

It wasn’t clear if Mos Def necessarily disappointed the crowd or if they were worn out from the heat but they certainly were lacking energy by the end of his set. Thankfully there was some relief when the sun dipped lower in the sky; the crowd’s energy level seemed to rebound plus the anticipation of the next set of performers, Redman and Method Man, gave them the extra boost they needed. The chemistry between Redman and Method Man was electric as always. You can tell they have a blast performing together; they feed of each other’s energy. They careened through their raucous set with unstoppable momentum dropping fierce lyrical flows and ear popping beats. There was a great degree of interaction with the crowd and it was their mission to get people hyped. They jumped from the stage to the amps risking a nice little tumble to get closer to the crowd. Once there they dropped pounds on the eager fans and engaged the audience to further the excitement. The crowd was in an orgiastic state by the time these two were finished. They were no primed for the next legend to hit the stage.

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Nas

Nas is one of the reigning prince’s of hip hop. His street credibility, provocative lyrics, intelligent commentary, verbal virtuosity, and keen understanding on how to deliver all that over a banging beat or infectious hook has secured his place among hip hop royalty. This night Nas gave a legendary performance that shows that he’s got one of the biggest hearts in this hip hop game. He busted onto the stage with a hat and shades, dressed in a black t-shirt and a gold chain and crucifix around his neck. As the show proceeded he shed his hat and sunglasses and eventually his t-shirt. The stage lights shone on his body and he shined with the sweat from his passionate exertion. He was a bright beacon of truth shining through the bleak and shadowy world – a messenger from the streets who isn’t afraid to share the vivid horrors or the ugly realities in order to enlighten and illuminate. He killed the mic that night and left the crowd reeling from his potent message and powerful presence.

This was truly a backpack hip hoppers dream – this many underground hip hop heroes assembled in one place at one time is a rare and, certainly, a not-to-be-missed occasion for any serious fan. The bright shining lights of these hip hop stars served to collectively banish the shadows that have so completely immersed the rap world over recent years. It felt like a renaissance was happening, a rebirth of the spirit that catapulted hip hop to mainstream credibility and exposure. The mere presence of Tribe as a cohesive group seems to signal that the return of real hip hop is eminent. The bleak landscape of top 40 rap has been so clogged with stereotypes, materialism, and misogyny; this is the reality of the current radio play rap that ironically is a beneficiary of the early 90’s golden age spawned by Tribe and their peers. Now the fans are looking for a departure from this negativity. The upsurge of indie rock has generated the momentum for indie rap and the reemergence of the legends that laid the foundation of independent music production nearly twenty years ago. The indie scene has kept the message alive that you can rap about life and experience in a positive way – hip-hop is the poetry of the streets. The commercial rap perpetuates negative black stereotypes and appeals to the lowest common denominator — it appears that labels owned primarily by rich white men don’t see anything wrong with this. The 2006 Nas album Hip Hop Is Dead is a direct indictment of rap’s commercial turn that has resulted in this creative wasteland. But it is clear from this epic display of talent that hip hop is indeed alive and well.

Photos/Words by Shaun Flagg

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