Photo: Max Herman
When summer hits, hip-hop heads across America have come to expect nothing but the best acts at the Rock the Bells festival. On the first RTB 2008 stop at First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre in the Chicago suburbs July 20, the lineup was a dream team of goldenera greats and post-millennial innovators with Cypress Hill's B-Real serving as host. For almost 11 hours, the respected MCs kicked rhymes over the massive albeit sometimes faulty sound system.
Sure, there's something special about seeing your favorite acts up close in a show-box venue, but in a stadium-size pavilion, these artists are truly put to the test. Surprisingly, one of the least-known acts, the eccentric Jay Electronica, gave one of the most commanding sets and undoubtedly stood out in his purple boots and matching military T-shirt. Atlanta's B.o.B was another newer artist who held down the oversize stage performing his hit “Haterz Everywhere” and by sitting down and deftly playing acoustic guitar.
It didn't always go so smoothly for the vets. Recent Warner signee Murs suffered from several technical difficulties, which cut his songs short and led to awkward arguments with his DJ. Thankfully, he finished strong, introducing his bouncy new single “Lookin' Fly.” Meanwhile, Mos Def simply appeared dazed and often sounded incoherent. But Mos Def's old friends De La Soul put on one of the best all-around sets of the festival, dashing around the stage like they were still 20 years old.
When it came to energy alone, though, no one could top Redman and Method Man. The reunited East Coast duo made it a point to get up close to the crowd — particularly Meth, who did a somersault off of the photo pit barricade into the audience; then during the pulsing single “Da Rockwilder,” he ran off stage and climbed up onto the edge of an elevated patio as fans fervently held him up.
Another unforgettable reunion was the return of L.A.'s playful quartet The Pharcyde. It has been 11 years since the four MCs were all together, and when they delivered the J Dilla-produced hit “Runnin'” and their seminal single “Passin' Me By” with the help of a full band, Rock the Bell goers went nuts. Of course fans were equally eager for the return of '90s hip-hop favorites A Tribe Called Quest. Yet following so many great moments, the Q-Tip solo set and the headlining Tribe reunion proved to be worthwhile but no more enjoyable than the rest of the day. When you have so many hip-hop legends and promising up-and-comers on one stage, it's hard for any one act to be the true headliner.