NEW YORK — Thousands of rap fans gathered in hip-hop’s birth city for a daylong celebration of the genre’s classics. Nas, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon and Ghostface Killah all performed at the Rock the Bells 2011 festival on Governor’s Island in New York City on Saturday (September 3).
The musical tour was comprised of four stages, including the main Rock the Bells stage, the Wu-inspired 36 Chambers stage and the underground-themed Paid Dues stage. More than 20 acts, including Mobb Deep, Slaughterhouse, Black Moon, Big K.R.I.T., the Immortal Technique and GZA, performed, with some dedicating their sets to their own classic albums; others devoted their shows to just a gang of fan-favorites.
The festivities kicked off at approximately 2 p.m. ET, and started off slow. Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA fumbled through his 1995 sophomore album, Liquid Swords, as concertgoers ping-ponged back and forth between stages. Cypress Hill ran through selections from their Black Sunday LP. Marijuana anthems like “I Wanna Get High” and “Hits From the Bong” set the tone for a smoke-filled set that mixed equal parts rap, rock and Latin soul.
Mobb Deep didn’t disappoint. Although they were advertised to perform only their 1995 breakout album, The Infamous, the Queens, New York, duo did so much more. In addition to tracks like “Shook Ones Pt. II,” “Survival of the Fittest” and “Give Up the Goods,” the Mobb dove into their catalog of street bangers, including “G.O.D. Pt. III” and “Quiet Storm,” as well.
MTV Jams’ 2011 Fab 5 inductee Big K.R.I.T. found his set overlapping with that of the Mobb’s Havoc and Prodigy, but he was still able to draw a sizable crowd on the Paid Dues stage. The gatherers bounced energetically to Southern-fried selections like “Glass House” and “Country Sh–,” proving that it wasn’t just a day for rap veterans.
After drawing fan criticism about her previous live shows, Lauryn Hill promised at the beginning of her set to perform the songs from her The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill album as they were recorded. Unfortunately, the plan was thrown out the window pretty quickly as she rapped to a ridiculously sped-up version of “Lost Ones.” In fact, many of Ms. Hill’s classics were performed quite differently from how fans may have remembered. Still, she did thrill audiences with almost-flawless renditions of “Doo Wop (That Thing)” and “To Zion.” There was also a Fugees reunion of sorts when Pras joined his former partner to rock “Ready or Not,” but the warring Wyclef was nowhere to be found.
Before Hill could finish her set, Raekwon and Ghostface took to the 36 Chambers stage on the other side of the field. They opened with “Striving for Perfection,” the opening skit from Rae’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx … , and then tore into “Incarcerated Scarfaces,” “Criminology” and “Ice Cream.” It was a ’90s-era dream come true, but unfortunately hip-hop’s faithful were forced to choose, because halfway through Rae and Ghost’s set, the night’s headliner Nas, started his show on the main stage.
At around 10:30 p.m., the crowd gathered at Nas’ stage, which was decorated with props made to mirror his native Queensbridge, New York, housing project. There was a backdrop with buildings, a real lamppost, project benches and a gate that stood as the entrance. It was 17 years ago that Nasir Jones dropped his highly regarded debut, Illmatic, and on Saturday night he maneuvered through the 10-track masterpiece starting with its opener, “Genesis.” With DJ Premier backing him, Nas rapped the words to “N.Y. State of Mind” and “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” with a ferocity that recalled the young MC in 1994.
Nas did, at times, depart from the Illmatic theme, treating his day-one fans to something special. First, he brought out MC Serch to perform their 1992 underground banger “Back to the Grill.” Next up, he invited Joe Fatal, Akinyele and Large Professor to do “Live at the Barbeque,” the 1991 song that gave Nas his rap debut.
From there, it was a full-on party as the Braveheart MC did his new single “Nasty,” invited Lauryn back out for their collabo “If I Ruled the World” and closed with the hyped-up “Made Ya Look.”
Before he left closed out the night, Nas shouted, “I love you New York City,” and it was apparent that NYC loves him back.
Did you catch the Rock the Bells tour this year? Tell us your thoughts!