NEW YORK — Backstage at the Rock the Bells show on Randall’s Island felt like a live version of the MTV News show “The Greatest Hip-Hop Groups of All Time.”
Several acts mentioned on the program popped up. You spotted Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav walking around with his family, shaking hands and hugging people like he was Barack O’Flava on the campaign trail. Later, you saw ?uestlove of the Roots talking to P.E.’s Chuck D, followed by Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA and Masta Killa milling about by the food tent, while Erick Sermon, Parrish Smith and DJ Scratch of EPMD sat inside munching on some post-show snacks. The Clan are the co-headliners of the hip-hop-heavy bill, along with rock and roll gods Rage Against the Machine.
Ten years ago, the two groups joined forces for a groundbreaking trek: the biggest rap group in the universe touring with a collective that had just as much standing in the rock universe. Rock the Bells not only marks a reunion of the two camps but of the groups themselves. By now, we’re used to the Clansmen’s M.O. of separating and re-forming every few years. In fact, they headlined Rock the Bells three years ago, before the untimely death of one of their most popular members, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, in 2004 (see “Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Death Stuns And Saddens His Peers” ). Rage, on the other hand, went through an old-fashion breakup. Their revolutionary lyrics and battleground beats have been sorely missed by fans.
Saturday was the first of two shows on Randall’s Island, with a myriad of MCs fattening up the lineup: Mos Def and Talib Kweli, Poison Pen and Immortal Technique, the Roots, Supernatural, David Banner and Cypress Hill.
“Sawed-off shotgun, hand on the pump,” Cypress’ B-Real and Sen Dog rapped from “Hand on the Pump,” with the crowd yelling along.
“If that felt good,” Real said after the song. “This should feel incredible!
“Here is something you can’t understand,” he continued, a cappella.
“How I could just kill a man!” the audience responded.
This, of course, signaled the start of Cypress’ “How I Could Just Kill a Man,” which was followed by “Insane in the Brain.” “Insane” definitely had the biggest jump factor of the night.
Chants of “Wuuuuuu-Taaaang, Wuuuuuu-Taaaang, Wuuuuuu-Taaaang” were thick in the air as the stagehands prepared for the Clan’s set. The group’s catalog is so deep that every song in their concert is a fan favorite — they have no time for anything obscure. “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta F— Wit” started the musical melee, followed by “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’.”
The excitement surrounding Wu-Tang was tempered by the absence of ODB and the knowledge that he’ll never perform with the group again. Various members and the fans had to rhyme his part on that song (“Here I go, deep type flow/ Jacques Cousteau could never get this low”) and on “Shame on a N—a.”
As with most Clan shows, Method Man was undeniably the most energetic, bodysurfing and even standing on top of the crowd during records such as “Method Man” and “Bring the Pain.”
Redman came out to join Meth on “Da Rockwilder,” while Ghostface Killah took the spotlight on “Fish.” The Wu ended with a full-team effort: “Triumph.”
When Rage came on, it was as if a mushroom cloud had come over the Island — their presence was just so powerful. Zack de la Rocha is so commanding, and sonically the music overshadows what the band has done on wax. One kid said it best: “This is a f—in’ concert.” And that was only two songs in. The young crowd gave a respectable response to the rap acts, but there was no doubt that they had come to see Rage.
“Come wit it now,” de la Rocha yelled, inciting his fans during “Bulls on Parade.” “People of the Sun” came next, further increasing the energy.
“Yeah, never forget that the whip snapped ya back,” Zack rapped. “Ya spine cracked for tobacco/ Oh I’m the Marlboro man/ Our past blastin’ on through the verses/ Brigades of taxicabs rollin’ Broadway like hearses/ … This is for the people of the sun! It’s comin’ back around!”
The guitars on “Bullet in Your Head” were cutting and deadly. “Just victims of the in-house drive-by,” the audience sang along. “They say, ’Jump,’ you say, ’How high?’ ”
Although Rage were performing hits from years ago, their militant sensibilities still hold true today. De la Rocha addressed the crowd, telling them not to believe what they may have seen and heard on “fascist” television station Fox News. He said his group was wrongly quoted as saying they think the president should be assassinated.
“Nah,” he said. “What we said was he should be brought to trial as a war criminal and hung. That’s what we said.
“This system has become so brutal and cruel it needs to profit from wars so it could survive as a world power,” he added.
He urged American citizens to stand up to the government “with the same force the Iraqi youth are fighting with every day and bring these mutha—-ers to their knees. Wake up! Wake up!”
After dropping the mic and leaving the stage with the band, Zack and the rest of Rage returned for the closer, “Killing in the Name.”
On Sunday, Rock the Bells continued with a slightly different lineup of supporting performers: Rakim, Slick Rick and Erykah Badu were all added to the bill. Down the road, acts such as Nas will be taking spots on the roster.
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