LONG ISLAND, New York — On Sunday night, Nas gave the Rock the Bells show its most monumental moment, bringing out fellow legendary MC Jay-Z. After Nas, backed by a live band, performed “Breathe” — a prime cut from his Untitled LP — Hov came out to the music of “Success.”
“Nas, let that bitch breathe,” Jay yelled before going into his grumpy verse about being bored with all the spoils that go to the victor. “I used to give a f—, now I give a f— less/ What do I think of success? It sucks.”
Jigga cut the record short as the music changed to “Black Republican.” The two hip-hop icons lacerated their mics during the performance, making the audience dance and throw up their Roc-A-Fella diamonds.
(Read more about Jay-Z’s surprise appearance with Nas on our You R Here blog.)
Nas started his set off with a live band that played a heavy-rock swing for his intro. With his feet firmly in front of the people, he kicked into “N.*.*.*.E.R.” (The Slave and the Master). “We trust no black leaders,” he rhymed. “Use the stove to heat us/ Powdered eggs and government cheeses/ The calendars with Martin, JFK and Jesus.”
The band continued to earn their keep with a frenetic rendition of “Hip Hop Is Dead.” The live guitars really enhanced the song, and the instrumentation seemed to enhance Nas’ mood. He was way more energetic than the last few times he performed in New York, at times even shouting his words.
In between songs, he once again declared the irrelevance of some of the elder black leaders and said he’s ready and able to take on the responsibility of leading his communities. “Jesse Jackson, I love you, but his ass is outta here. Al Sharpton, his ass is outta here.”
From there, it was a mini-Illmatic set with everyone on their feet to hear selections from his most lauded LP. Nas performed “New York State of Mind,” “Ain’t Hard to Tell” and “Represent” back-to-back-to-back, followed by “The World Is Yours” and “Life’s a Bitch,” leaving the crowd no time to get any air.
With no capes, masks or gloves, Nas and Jay-Z epitomized hip-hop crusaders standing side by side. Jay in his Yankees hat and Nas sporting the Mets logo above his brim brought dizzying energy to Jones Beach with just the sight of the two together. Their historical battle ended many moons ago, and their friendship has been a matter of public record for years. Still, whenever you see them together, it’s an event. It feels like history.
A Tribe Called Quest were the show’s closers, and their set also felt historic. It was the first time the timeless collective performed a proper concert in their hometown since disbanding in 1998.
Q-Tip set things off with a few minutes of his solo act, as his friend and obvious fan Mos Def played hypeman. Tip’s black T-shirt read the opening lines from “Excursions,” and as Tip rapped, Mos pointed out every word: “Back in the days when I was a teenager/ Before I had status and before I had a pager/ You could find the abstract listening to hip-hop/ My pops used to say it reminded him of bebop.” Q finished with “Breathe & Stop” and “Vivrant Thing.”
When it was finally time for the whole Tribe, DJ Scratch exchanged turntable duties with Ali Shaheed Muhammad from a set high above the stage, which was actually the top of a super-size TV screen. On the stage, long-lost Tribe member Jarobi joined Q-Tip and Phife Dawg for a live rummaging of their catalog, which included “Electric Relaxation” and “We Got the Jazz.”
Phife, who looked like his health has been getting increasingly better since having a kidney transplant, wore a New York Knicks Jamal Crawford jersey and switched up his quotables from the latter record to make a statement about the group’s label: “So jet to the store, and buy the LP/ On J.I.V.E., unfortunately.”
Consequence came out during “Stir It Up,” and Busta Rhymes trampled the stage during “Scenario.” Mos Def, who couldn’t contain himself, was out with the entire gang for that showstopper as well. Bus was then given time for “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See.”
Tribe ended their triumphant return to New York with “Check the Rhyme” and “Award Tour,” during which Q-Tip rapped from the crowd.
Method Man, no stranger to stage-diving, took his tireless enthusiasm to the expensive seats during his and Redman’s set. Meth jumped in the audience, wearing a fan’s sunglasses, and was even passed an extremely large pair of feminine bloomers. The duo promised to have a Blackout 2 LP ready this year and to start filming “How High 2″ in early 2009.
Slick Rick came out for literally 30 seconds and did half a snippet of “La Di Da Di.” EPMD — Long Island natives — made a surprise appearance with “It’s My Thing” and “You Gots Ta Chill.” Keith Murray helped Red and Meth close with “Rapper’s Delight.”
Guest appearances were in abundance Sunday. Pharoahe Monch and Talib Kweli held Mos Def down during his set. Cappadonna — really no big surprise — appeared with Ghostface and Raekwon the Chef during their show. Jay Electronica, Poison Pen, Immortal Technique, De La Soul and the Pharcyde also opened during the more than 10-hour-long festival.