RANDALL’S ISLAND, NY—The gates had only been open for about 10 minutes and already there were over 1,000 people waiting for security to open the main stage barrier to the greatest hip hop acts of today and yester year. Public Enemy, Wu Tang Clan, The Roots, E.P.M.D., Cypress Hill, Mos Def and Talib Kweli…an underground hip hop fan’s dream concert. Not to mention Rage Against The Machine’s first appearance on the east coast in seven years. The anticipation of the crazed hell that would ensue that day enveloped us as we waited to battle for the closest spot to the barrier.
Rock The Bells first began in 2004. Sponsored by Chang Weisberg and Guerilla Union, that first sunny day in Southern California marked the beginning of a new era in hip hop, creating a festival series that could bring together socially conscious “backpacker” hip hop artists and fans for a day to revel in the joys of music while upholding the ideals that set such artists apart from the rest of the genre. The first show also featured the reunion of the legendary hip hop dream team, Wu Tang Clan, only months before the death of Old Dirty Bastard, making it the last performance the original Wu Tang lineup would ever give.
On the second stage, acts worked hard for every fan they found coming their way and rhymed with all the might they had to try and keep their fans there instead of wandering off to the main stage. But unfortunately, many fans found the likes of Immortal Technique and other big name headliners far too tempting to stay and watch the younger artists paying their dues.
After a set from the legendary E.P.M.D., Talib Kweli took the stage. About halfway through the set he was joined by the one and only Mos Def, and together the two became Black Star. Afterwards, Mos Def went into solo fashion, running through the audience, high-fiving the fans much to the delight of the crowd as evidenced by my friend Greg’s statements: “Holy shit man! I touched fucking Mos Def!”
Public Enemy were, well, Public Enemy. Chuck D’s bass bark echoed through the park as he rapped, “They wanted me for their army or whatever/Picture me givin’ a damn—I said NEVER!” on the classic “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos.” Scott Ian of Anthrax joined the band for “Bring The Noise” much to the delight of the metal heads in the audience.
The Roots were fantastic as always, sporting a four- piece horn section in addition to the usual full band, but they just didn’t have enough time. An hour is not enough to get the full effect of one of the most diverse live acts in hip-hop.
When Cypress Hill hit the stage, Randall’s Island was engulfed in a giant cloud of marijuana smoke. To the surprise of many, Cypress Hill held a full-on Latin percussion jam onstage. Wu Tang Clan sounded great as they rolled through classics like “Wu Tang Clan Ain’t Nothing To Fuck With, “Bring Da Ruckus,” and “C.R.E.A.M.” but I couldn’t see a goddamn thing over the thousands of W’s that the fans threw in the air. Frustrated with not being able to actually see Wu Tang Clan, several friends and I pushed our way through the crowd as far as we could in a desperate attempt to be able to enjoy Rage Against The Machine from the closest proximity possible.
Rage took the stage and all hell broke loose. From the classic intro riff “Testify” to the last notes of “Killing In The Name Of,” the entire audience pulled together in a mass blitzkrieg for the barrier. Tom Morello’s guitar squawked and squealed, Tim C’s bass rumbled and shook the audience as we screamed every line Zach De La Rocha spat, ending with a mass chant of “Fuck you! I won’t do what you tell me!”