Some Long, Rambling Thoughts on Rock the Bells and the Enduring Power of Hip Hop

My piece in today's Guardian makes mention of the Rock the Bells concert/festival on Governors Island in New York a few weeks ago. I used it as an example of how there's quite clearly a significant number of people willing to pay money to hear classic rap. But I didn't really get much of a chance to talk about the event itself in there, and wasn't able to review it anywhere, so here's a few ruminations and reminiscences on what was a pretty incredible day. WARNING: even by my standards, this one's pretty long, with lots of rambling tangents and asides of dubious relevance. I'm told that online isn't the place for long-form writing, but I can't persuade anyone to actually print this twaddle, so this is where it's going to have to go. If you want to skip to the exclusive interview with John Legend, it's about three-quarters of the way down. Everyone else, pull up a pew, make sure you've got a hot cuppa, and off we go.

I should start by saying that I hate festivals. I remember, in my pre-festival days, I'd look at things like the Reading line-up and would think, 'Wow - it must be brilliant to be able to see so many great bands for such a comparatively small amount of money.' I didn't really stop to think that when you pay full price to see a band you get to see their whole performance, not just a 40-minute greatest hits montage; and that you are generally in the same postal district as them while they're performing.

My first actual festival experience - the Treworgey Tree Fayre - scarred me for life (psychologically, though it was close to being physically). It would clearly be an exaggeration to say that this was akin to my own personal definition of hell - but if purgatory is chosen specifically for you, mine will be based on Treworgey. I didn't realise until I was looking up a link to it for this piece that this seems to have been a pivotal event in the free festival/traveller/rave culture universe, talked about in terms reserved for mythical meetings between ancient cultures in the vale of Eden. My recollections are somewhat different.

This was during my very brief "career" as a roadie, for my friends Les and Jim. While their band, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, would later become pretty big stars (several Top Ten hits, a number of Top of the Pops appearances, a Number One album and tabloid infamy after a rather inebriated Les rugby-tackled a supposed "national treasure" on live TV), this was in the early days, their first single hadn't set the indie charts alight, and they were second on the main stage, at about noon, on day one, the Friday. The touring set-up was minimal - just Les, Jim, me and manager Adrian (the only one who could drive) in a rented Fiat Tipo, with four guitars, two practice amps, and a tape machine to play their electro-punk backing tracks on rammed in the boot. The plan for Treworgey was we'd get in, play the set, then drive back to London and be home in time for last orders. Unfortunately, the Tipo got blocked in by some crusty band's bus, which proceeded to break down, or something, and we were stuck there for the whole weekend. The backstage bar was in a cowshed behind the farm, which, to be fair, they'd tried to muck out a bit in advance, but there's only so much you can do to remove the stink of generations of encrusted cow dung from a large metal shed. We'd not brought tents or sleeping bags, but the prospect of four vaguely grown men trying to sleep in one small Fiat was removed as a likelihood by the decision of everyone else in the artists' parking/camping area to set up impromptu acid house sound systems that ran all night at a volume greater than the main stage PA. I tried to get away from the place as much as was possible - Les and I walked the four miles to the nearest pub on Saturday, and again on Sunday, though this was in the days before all-day opening so our time in civilisation was short-lived. And we had to wear long-sleeved shirts despite the heat because if they'd seen our wristbands they wouldn't have served us - the festival wasn't popular with the locals, as a number of pretty hardcore types had apparently set up camp at the farm some days ahead of time and their dogs had been worrying the sheep and scaring pensioners and infants. They scared me, too, on the Saturday night, when what we later discovered to be a pitched battle for the right to control the supply of drugs on site took place between the tooled-up security team - a gang of dealers from, we heard variously, Bristol or Ladbroke Grove - and a number of militant crusties armed an assortment of club-like wooden implements and a vintage fire engine. Motorbikes were involved; tents were crushed, with people in them (miraculously, no-one died as a result - though there was at least one death on site during the festival). The crusties won, apparently. I've never been happier to be in a traffic jam as I was when we finally started to inch towards the exit on whatever day it was we managed to leave.

Anyway. That was the end of me and festivals. Thereafter, the occasional trip to Reading was undertaken, only if I could get home on the train each night and sleep in my own bed. I've been to Global Gathering and Witness in Hyde Park (oddly, both times mainly to see Kanye West), but that was for work, and I was able to either get home or to a hotel at the end of each day. And there aren't enough wild horses on the planet to drag me to Glastonbury, which, in my imagination, is Treworgey with cash machines and trench foot.

Yet I was still pretty excited about Rock the Bells. For starters, it was on Governors Island, and to me, if you choose as your festival site a disused military base only accessible by boat, and which is usually off-limits to the public, you're already on to a winner. Then there was the line-up, which included some of my most favourite artists of all time (Rakim, KRS-ONE, Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, Lauryn Hill), all of them (bar Hill) due to perform a classic album in its entirety. But it was still a festival.

It reminded me of Treworgey, but only in one way. That was the last time I saw quite as many people so heavily tattooed in one place. There was a bloke you sometimes saw at gigs in London, and I'm pretty sure he would have been at Treworgey too, who had a spider's web tattooed on his face, the centre of it being the end of his nose. He was probably a lovely bloke, but I imagine he got a hard time at job interviews. I didn't see anyone with as extreme a case of body art at Governors Island, but there were some arresting sights. I've never before, for example, seen women with tattoos of mermaids or otherwise semi-clad females running the entire length of their leg, from thigh to ankle: at Rock the Bells I saw three. There was also a guy with the most amazing picture of a pirate ship, its sails bulging in the wind, wrapped around a bicep, as if a box of England's Glory had developed into parasitic form and chosen to inhabit his upper right arm. Quite a few people had names or slogans written around their necks.

The cuisine was superior to most events of the type in the UK, though in New York you'd expect nothing less than extensive availability of grade-A junk food. Overall the atmosphere was a bit different to what I was expecting - I've not been to all that many rap gigs in the US but it wasn't really like any of them. The thing it reminded me of most strongly was the San Diego County Fair - as if it was a locals' event that they'd have gone to no matter who was playing. Which is weird, as it only took a few seconds glancing at the folks behind you when any artist was on the main stage to realise that almost everyone there knew all the words to records released before quite a number of them were even born. There's a superbly evocative set of photos from Eric M Townsend that really capture the whole vibe here.

Anyway. Fourteen hundred words of waffle and eventually I get to the hip hop. Folks I know in the UK who I told I was going to this event were uniformly and considerably jealous. I wasn't convinced their jealousy was merited, because it was still, at the end of the day, a festival, with all the hassle and difficulty and inevitable unpleasantness that that entails. It was a hard slog - at least, for a middle-aged bloke with a touch of jetlag who really isn't up for the slumming it that goes with the festival territory - and I didn't make it all the way through; sorry, Snoop, but I had to leave before your set. My feet hurt, I couldn't stand up any more, and I was falling asleep. However, there were still a number of Hip Hop Moments that made it something I am completely delighted to have been able to say I was at.

Hip Hop Moment Number Five: Wu-Tang Infinity


It happened a few times during the Wu-Tang Clan's set, and it was when the light screen that was fixed to the DJs' riser showed live footage of the Clan during the show. It was a weird thing to look at anyway - Meth, Rae and Rza performing as if superimposed onto double-size versions of themselves behind. But every now and again, the camera filming it lined up with the image being broadcast and you got one of those ever-diminishing-tunnel-type views of the band, in the video equivalent of feedback. The light-show people clearly felt this was an error - and, just like a sound engineer would rush to correct the howl of an audio loop-back, so they quickly switched to a different camera, or switched the screen off. But for a moment or two, you got this feeling of staring not just at all eight Clansmen (and ODB's son) - a rare enough sight on a stage anywhere, but particularly in the States, and particularly in New York (and particularly so close to Staten - and on an island to boot!) - but at in infinity of Wu stretching off into the past and the future.

Their set was great, for all the reasons most gigs aren't - underrehearsed, sloppy, goofily juvenile, chaotic - and some reasons Wu gigs always are: rambunctious, unpretentious, lyrically intricate. It's been almost 20 years and they still can't get those backing tracks to snarl into life with the same fullness of sound that exists on record, but even a skeletal mix composed of booms from the bass and snaps from the snare framing the ghostly echo of a sampled melody is enough when the gang's all here.

Hip Hop Moment Number Four: Travelling Once Again in the Paths of Rhythm
I was at A Tribe Called Quest's last gig in the Tri-State Region before they broke up. It was at what was then the Continental Airlines Arena in New Jersey, supporting the Beastie Boys. Biz Markie was the between-sets DJ. (This wasn't the most ridiculous bill I ever got to see at a hip hop gig in the US: that was in Cleveland, in 1997. The headliner was Puff Daddy and the Family, with Lil' Kim and Mase and a full band; top of the support bill was Busta Rhymes, who had a stage set involving a gothic horror mountain landscape and a giant skull with a flip-top scalp, the DJ standing where the brain would have been; before him it was The Firm - AZ, Foxy Brown and Nas; before that it was Jay-Z; and the first act on was Usher. The DJ was Kid Capri.) Before the gig I interviewed them for a piece for NME [subscription required] and another for Hip Hop Connection. Tip didn't arrive until later, and I spoke to him on his own - the other three (Jairobi had rejoined for these last few dates) cut dejected figures in a vast dressing room in the venue. They'd just made what I still consider to be a wonderful and unfairly maligned/overlooked/ignored fifth album, but they'd decided to break up the band and it was like talking to people who'd just been bereaved. If you'd told me then that in 12 years I'd see them play a barnstorming greatest hits show, loosely sequenced around Midnight Marauders, to 20,000 people on an island off Manhattan, and that Busta would have come on stage to do their bits of Scenario and it wouldn't even have been the best part of the set, I'd have thought you were an idiot and would have told you as much while laughing in your face. They did a great job, the music sounded clearer than any of the main stage acts all day, and in terms of crowd response and enthusiasm from all concerned, this was the highlight performance of the entire festival. But the fact that they were there, enjoying it and not just going through the motions, would have been enough.

Hip Hop Moment Number Three: Diesel Power Moves a City Block
There was a lengthy break before Lauryn Hill's set - she was the only artist on the main stage performing with a full band, and it took a while to get everything set up. The sun was starting to go down. Oddly, perhaps, over to the right of the stage, between the festival site and the coast of the island, there's an abandoned residential block that looks exactly like a smaller-scale version of the project buildings in Queensbridge, and it was in its shadow that I was first able to get out of the blazing sunshine. Two things happened at once.

First, the music playing over the PA gave me a real jolt. I'd expected to hear lots of things at this event - classic hip hop from the artists who were appearing, obviously, and perhaps a golden-age-to-the-'90s selection of between-set songs from DJs; maybe some current hits, to keep what was always going to be a mixed-age crowd happy. But if you'd put a gun to my head and given me 4000 goes at it, I don't think I'd ever have guessed that I'd hear the Prodigy's Diesel Power. Second, Governors Island began to float north. But more of that in a minute.

Diesel Power is pretty special for me. In about 1995 I was in the States and I picked up a copy of Urb magazine which had a Prodigy interview as its cover story. In the interview, Liam Howlett mentioned how he'd love to work with Kool Keith. At that point in time, I was trying to get a new magazine launched in the UK, with the people behind Volume - a mag which was the size of a CD box, 200 small square pages with a disc in the package containing exclusive tracks from each of the artists featured. We were going to do a hip hop version, and one of the artists who'd given us a track to use was Kool Keith (the mag never happened, and the track Keith and his producer/business partner KutMasta Kurt had said we could use was eventually released; still sounds pretty great to me). So I got in touch with the Prodigy's mangement, passed on the number, and that's how Rhythm X came to appear on the biggest-selling album of 1997 (and how come I'm mentioned in the credits on that record).

So I'm there, between sets from some of my favourite artists, listening to a track that holds a peculiarly important place in my life and which I happen to think is ace, and noticing how thrillingly modern it still sounds 13 years on, when I start to think the island is moving. The sensation passed in a second when I realised that what had looked like it might be a luxury apartment block on the mainland over to the east was in fact the Caribbean Princess, a huge cruise ship, which had just weighed anchor at the Brooklyn cruise terminal and was heading off to sea, doubtless under considerable diesel power. It was one of those moments you'd never have been able to script - entirely magical. Hip hop does that sometimes, which is why, despite everything, I still love it so much.

Hip Hop Moment Number Two: The Blastmaster's Shock and Awe
KRS-ONE gigs I've been to, in order. 1) The Wag, London, 1988. This one was infamous. I was stood outside for about three hours and couldn't get in. Eventually the bouncers just turned everyone away. I was gutted. Then I read in the NME the following week that the gig hadn't taken place: the Wag's heavy-handed and preeningly pretentious door staff hadn't let Kris in to his own gig either. 2) The Town and Country Club, London, 1989 (or was it 1990?). Parts of this gig appeared on the Live Hardcore Worldwide album - hip hop's first live LP. It was awe-inspiringly good - and he got us all to shout "The Wag is wack," which helped make up for the last time. 3) Brixton Academy, London, 1989 or '90 again I think. Support from Queen Latifah. Magnificent again. For years I am convinced that the photo on the cover of the Love's Gonna Get'cha 12" was shot at this gig, and that my forehead is visible in it. 4) Hackney Empire, London, either '98 or '99. He did a lecture. I later had a lively debate in the NME office with Steven Wells (rest in peace), and was struck by how far along the line he went with Kris (Swells stopped at the point where metaphysics entered the equation, but this was a lot further than he normally went with rappers or would-be musician-intellectuals). 5) Shepherd's Bush Empire, 200...4? 5? Paul H will know - he was there. Blistering. Hip hop on another level. 6) The Forum, London, 2007. With Marley Marl on the Hip Hop Lives tour. I got to watch some of this from the side of the stage. I'd never really noticed before just how much Kris loves performing - too busy enjoying it myself, I suppose. 7) The Jazz Cafe, London, 2007. An incredible night, shockingly minimal, deeply personal for KRS, and incredibly moving. Review here. 8) Rock the Bells, Governors Island, New York, 2010. He really worked at making this show an edutainment in every way he could - it was an affirmation of every one of the values of hip hop culture, a reminder of the art form's potential, an energetic piece of musical theatre and an opportunity to show the new jacks what a real emcee looks, sounds and acts like. Best of all, he reminded you that, 19 years after gangsta rap happened and in an era when, as Cee Lo says, nothing's shocking anymore, a rapper can still smack you about the head with the power of a rhyme. The words in question? "I'm goin' off the top of the head, like Kennedy's brain." 9) The Forum, London, 2010. He does the Kennedy line again. It has the same effect - people grinning at each other and shaking their heads with a "did he really just say that?" look on their faces.

Hip Hop Moment Number One: We Only Have Eyes for Ms Hill

Lauryn Hill's performance at RtB seemed to divide critics, but out in the crowd, you'd have struggled to find anyone with a bad word to say about her. Her "sin", as far as I could make out from what I read, was that she played versions of the songs that were radically different to the stuff people knew from her long-ago records. Some folks reckoned she was playing new songs, but everything on the set list was familiar material in unfamiliar sonic garb (apart from the penultimate track, a cover of Bob Marley's Zimbabwe - I remember on the ...Miseducation... tour she was playing War). A couple of days later I was talking to John Legend, one of the string of A-list stars she brought out on stage during her set, just to kind of stand there and be applauded - it was a nice touch, and you could see that none of these people really knew what to do: L still has that presence, that mystique, something like royalty mixed with deity that means even the well-to-do and the rich-beyond-dreams don't quite know whether they're supposed to bow, curtsey or salute. Of course, John wasn't just a peer - he has worked with her at different times, playing piano on Everything Is Everything before he was known as Legend, and had her guest on the So High remix around that time when it looked like the Fugees might be getting back together. Anyway, I thought John's take on her set was pretty much on the money:

JL: "I think, for me, as a fan and as somebody who's worked with her before, I was so happy to see her in her element and feeling, you know... She really seemed like she was enjoying being on stage. And that just gave me good vibes. I think a lot of people were disappointed because of what kind of arrangements she put on everything, and I understand that; I understand people's desire to hear things as they experienced them before, in the melodies they experienced and the arrangement style that made them fall in love with her in the first place. But I also understand as an artist, when things feel stale to you and you've gotta revamp them."

That was my take on it - I thought it was an artist trying to find new things to excite them in their old songs.

JL: "Yeah. And she seemed so excited! Which was, like, such a thrill to watch her so excited about making music, when the reputation was, 'Will she show up? Will she be an hour and a half, two hours late? Will she go up there and do a bunch of sad songs like the Unplugged album?' Like, people were thinkin' all those things, and then when you see her up there and truly lovin' life and loving the experience of being back in the public eye in such a positive way...? I dunno. I felt good. Heheheheh! I felt good seein' her. We all missed her, you know? We all missed her. I was happy at the end of the day. I understood what people were saying about what they wanted her to do differently, but at the end of the day I was happy to see her."

You can say or think what you want about the arrangements and the performances - there's a lot of it on YouTube so you can form your own opinions - but those two points, that the artist needs to be granted the space by their fans within which they can be excited anew by their art, and her evident joy at being up there performing again, are fundamental to me. Would anyone really have wanted to see her desultorily meandering through rote readings of those songs? The key thing about Lauryn has never been the note-perfect singing voice, the professional execution or the measured delivery of the music - she's a lightning rod: she brings the magic down to earth. Some artists have this - it's rare, but you do see it, and when you see it you know it and it touches you; yet the person standing next to you can be watching the same thing and not get hit by it at all. For all sorts of reasons - the metaphysical lyrics, the grit and rasp in her voice when she delivers a line and really, really means it, her mother/goddess thing that's at least partially tied up with her position in the Marley dynasty - Lauryn Hill is proof positive that KRS-ONE may be on to something in his Gospel of Hip Hop book with this idea that the art form is akin to a religion. She connects and impacts on a spiritual level, and splits her audience into believers and sceptics.

I'm a believer. I've been one since I first heard Some Seek Stardom on the Fugees' debut album. No-one ever really talks about that song any more, but that was a work of absolute genius - a perfect delivery encompassing rap, song and scat that existed simultaneously in the noble traditions of soul, jazz and hip hop, with a message of utter simplicity (one she's stood by and lived up to, too) delivered with a richness of language and a sense of poetic poise so strong that it could eclipse other writers' careers in three minutes and 42 seconds. By the time The Score came out, and they played a series of unforgettable shows in the UK, The Fugees were up there as one of my favourite bands of all time. They're still there, beside PE and Sly & the Family Stone and The Fall and Tom T Hall - people who've made records that moved me in ways I can't begin to explain. I sometimes wonder if I get a bit too blase about music - if I hear too much of it or listen too analytically to really get it on an emotional level: and then you get smacked in the guts and you remember why you care so much about someone standing on a stage, playing an instrument, singing a song.

The whole set was special. It was worth everything involved in being there. But within the special hour, there was one particularly special moment. She got the band to play I Only Have Eyes for You as a lead-in to the Fugees track Zealots, which samples the Flamingos' unearthly, mesmerising version of that song. Now, something about Zealots has always got to me. I know it's just a typical emcee brag - "we're great, everyone else is pants." Maybe it's the eerie atmosphere of anticipation, dread and mysticism that the Flamingos sample brings (and - another tangent - this now comes with a side-dish of knowing humour, ever since that part of DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist's The Hard Sell where they play the Flamingos 45 - "Are the stars out tonight?/I don't care if it's cloudy or bright" - to their audience out in the open air at the Hollywood Bowl, knowing that everyone there will get not just the lovely lyrical nod to their immediate present but will recognise the part the song plays in hip hop history too). Maybe it's the perfectly crafted verses, with first Wyclef, then Lauryn and finally Pras all, literally, dropping science: Clef's is astronomy - "gaze into the sky and measure planets by parallax", Lauryn plays word games with relativity when she talks about "two MCs can't occupy the same space at the same time/it's against the laws of physics", while Pras gets technical on the recording process with his "I compress sound sets with my rap DBX/then drop vocals on my 456 Ampex". Whatever it is, I remember this being the moment during the Fugees gig at the Hammersmith Apollo on their 2005 reunion tour where I got more than goose bumps, I actually felt my eyes stinging. And it hit me again on Governors Island, exactly the same way, all the more forcibly because she'd changed the arrangement, speeded the song up significantly, and was doing Clef's verses for him. But the emotional impact it had was almost physical. Somehow she made all those lines - and there's a ton of 'em, and they're all pretty clever and shrewd and go to the heart of what this rap thing is supposed to be all about - mean so much more.

But it didn't just hit me - it haunted me. I woke up in the middle of the night in my hotel, with the song and that performance of it buzzing through my brain and a complicated thought trying to fight its way to the surface. It was probably jetlag, but it felt like some sort of revelation. I'm not one to wake up from a dream and write something down, but this time I felt compelled, because it seemed that I'd stumbled on something that might tell me, for perhaps the first time, exactly why I care about this music as much as I do. I can barely read the note I made but I think it says this: "Hip hop is a light in the darkness. It could be guiding you out of harm's way, it could be leading you home. L-Boogie still shines."


Excellent piece, not boring or rambling and made me want to be there.x

posted by: Les: 8 Oct, 2010 22:57:24

Great read. Felt like I was right there with you at RTB.

posted by: Michelé: 10 Oct, 2010 22:18:09

That's a good article. Even with my short attention span I didn't find it long or rambling. I can imagine why, in the circumstances, people would have liked to have heard Lauryn Hill doing more familiar material.

I was at the Treworgy festival. I remember enjoying it, more or less, but I didn't have any unfortunate experiences there.

posted by: Martin Millar: 14 Oct, 2010 16:54:45

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