Rock the Bells Festival Is ‘Thanksgiving Dinner of Hip-Hop’
Over the past seven years, the Rock the Bells music festival has worked its way up from a regional Southern California event to become one of the most anticipated annual concert series in the hip-hop world.
Kicking off in 2004, straight out the gate, RTB made hip-hop history for featuring the then re-united Wu-Tang Clan on its stage and for being the last place where member Ol’ Dirty Bastard performed, before his death. With a reputation for fusing big names with lesser known acts, this year’s RTB festival finds the likes of Mobb Deep, Ghostface Killah and Raekwon, Common, Nas, Lauryn Hill and Blackstar each performing one of their influential albums in its entirety. Sat., Aug. 20 marks the Rock the Bells Festival in Los Angeles.
“There’s even more content and more amazing live performance going on than ever before,” RTB founder and CEO of Guerilla Union, Chang Weisberg tells The BoomBox. “There’s 10 classic albums being performed in their entirety. It’s the same formula for making a once in a lifetime experience. It’s the best up-and-coming talent, from the best lyricist, independent, conscious, political, mixed with some of the most memorable hip-hop albums of all time.”
Since its inception, RTB has consistently drawn hip-hop fans flocking to various cities around the nation. In preparing for the tour, Weisberg plans ahead, coming up with themes and booking artists up to two years in advance. In his opinion, RTB sets itself apart from other music festivals because it focuses solely on hip-hop and has turned itself into a “one-of-a-kind” growing brand.
“It’s not a Lollapalooza with all these different genres. It’s definitely what it tries to be, which is just a world class hip-hop platform,” he explains. “There’s commonality in that some of the acts have performed [at RTB] before but this is the first time in Nas’ life that he’s going to perform ‘Illmatic,’ it’s the first time that Souls of Mischief has done ”93 to Infiniti.’ It’s a challenge for the artist and a reward to the fans. It’s kind if the antithesis to the music industry. Today is a very singles driven market, and it’s amazing that the album concept is the draw [of this year's tour]. We set the bar high and we always try to surpass their expectations.”
In choosing the line-up, the Rock the Bells team steers clear of popular choices like Lil Wayne, Drake and Eminem in an attempt to pay homage to the artists that have paved the way for their success, and stay true to the reputation of the concert series. “A lot of the records that are being performed in their entirety are from the early ’90s, which people call the classic era of hip-hop,” Weisburg reveals. “Lil Wayne, Drake and Eminem, they’re all so popular today but you wouldn’t have Eminem if you didn’t have Nas. You wouldn’t have Drake unless you had Mos Def. Sometimes you have to take a couple steps backwards and really appreciate where the music came from. Rock the Bells is always that music history lesson and is still very relevant today. Bringing 20,000 people out to a venue with the highest average ticket price, for people who like this type of music, it gets no better.”
Rock the Bells has also become a go-to location for groups looking to publicly squash their differences. There have been many iconic reunions on the RTB stage, but among the most exciting to witness for Weisberg was the 2008 RTB show, when Los Angeles hip-hop group the Pharcyde came back together for the first time since their split. “I think seeing Pharcyde on stage,” he says of one of his most memorable moments. “After being so involved in trying to bring the guys back together there were a lot of moments that were just a little bit more personal because the issues between the group were so personal. They were willing to share that with us, and do what they thought was right for the fans.”
For the second year in a row, RTB will also welcome back Hill, who has resumed her Moving Target tour despite giving birth to her sixth child last month. As of late, the former Fugees frontwoman has built a reputation for exhibiting questionable behavior, consistently showing up late for performances and angering audiences in the process. Yet Weisberg is honored to bring her back, and felt it necessary to add her to the bill because fans still can’t get enough. “She’s very content with where she’s at musically. Critics of good music can appreciate remixes of her music. The millions of millions of fans who love the Fugees and ‘The Miseducation [of Lauryn Hill' album] have wanted so long for her to sing those particular songs because it’s been so long. Really Ms. Hill had stayed away from that, the fact that she would take on the challenge and really give the fans what they want,” he said noting that Hill was adamant about raising the bar from last year’s set, which featured a new spin on tracks from her debut as well songs from the Fugees.
With a summer that has been packed with tons of music festivals, most end without incident, but some events have been marked with tragedy. Two patrons died at this year’s Bonnaroo Music festival in Tennessee, and most recently fans scrambled to safety at the Indiana State Fair when a windstorm caused the stage to collapse, killing five people. In the wake of these calamities, Weisberg and his team have taken precautions to ensure a safe time for concert-goers, but realizes that when it comes to Mother Nature, some things can’t be prevented. “There are lots of prospects and procedures and safety measures that are in place,” he states. “My heart goes out to all the families that have lost somebody in that [Indiana State Fair] tragedy, but an act of God can happen anywhere. If an act of God were to happen at Rock the Bells, I pray that my staff is experienced enough or trained to do what’s right. No one can be prepared completely you just hope that people use their training to do what’s right.”
Fans can also look forward to RTB breaking new artists on its surrounding stages, which are separate from the main stage that features the headliners. Last year, rapper Wiz Khalifa was the virtual new kid on the block, and this year, Weisberg is looking forward to introducing rappers who are bubbling under the radar to a larger audience. “From top to bottom nothing’s missing, it’s all there,” he shares. “It’s a Thanksgiving dinner for hip-hop.”
Check out the Rock the Bells tour dates below.
Aug. 20: Los Angeles – San Manuel Amphitheatre (RTB Festival Show)
Aug. 21: San Diego, Calif. – House of Blues
Aug. 22: Las Vegas, Nevada – House of Blues
Aug. 27: San Francisco, Calif. – Shoreline Amphitheatre (RTB Festival Show)
Aug. 30: Indianapolis, Ind. – Egyptian Room
Aug. 31: Cincinnati, Ohio – Bogart’s
Sep. 1: Detroit, Mich. – Saint Andrew’s Hall
Sep. 3: New York, N.Y. – Governors Island (RTB Festival Show)
Sep. 8: Cleveland, Ohio – House of Blues
Sep. 10: Boston, Mass. – Comcast Center (RTB Festival Show)
Sep. 13: Miami Beach, Fla. – Fillmore Miami Beach
Sep. 15: Atlanta, Ga. – Tabernacle
Sep. 16: Myrtle Beach, S.C. – House of Blues
Sep. 17: Charlotte, N.C. – Fillmore Charlotte