I answered the obligatory Camp Yale inquiry this week the way most do, “My summer was good! I studied/worked/traveled for a while.” Only, the best part of my summer started when I went back home in August, and attended “Rock the Bells” with my one of my best friends in New York City.
This annual, and now international, hip-hop music festival, has been bringing together elite emcees on an unprecedented platform since 2004. In its inaugural year the festival featured the seemingly impossible reunion of Wu Tang Clan four months before the death of Old Dirty Bastard. This summer they raised the bar even higher.
All 15,000 seats at the Nikon Theater in Jones Beach pulsed with hip-hop, as the nine headlining performers (Dead Prez, Immortal Technique, De La Soul, The Pharcyde, Mos Def, Raekwon & Ghostface, Method Man & Redman, Nas and A Tribe Called Quest), seven of which proudly represented New York, took over the stage.
Dead Prez got things started on the main stage, rousing the crowd and setting the tone for the evening as they crooned the lyrics to one of their more popular songs “Hip Hop”: “I’m sick of that fake thug, R&B rap scenario all day on the radio/same scenes in the video, monotonous material / y’all don’t hear me though.”
Only, the audience at “Rock the Bells” was likely to have shared these sentiments, as they were patrons of a festival with a decidedly nineties feel. This came in part from performances by De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest, two groups that got their start during hip-hop’s golden age and only saw their star rise during the nineties. Younger emcees like Nas made the vintage vibe complete as they waxed nostalgic for the era — a time when there was no doubt that hip-hop was alive and well.
However, any fears that hip-hop was dead were allayed that evening as the festival grew more energetic alongside the dimming glow of the summer sun. When Nas hit the stage that evening and performed “Success” with surprise guest Jay-Z, it was easy to forget that just last semester many were still obsessed with walking it out and cranking that soulja boy.
As performer after performer poured his soul into the lyrics and panted while feeding off energy from the crowd, I knew that I was creating sweet marijuana-scented memories of an important moment in music history. Not only did I get to see A Tribe Called Quest perform for the first time in over a decade in the birthplace of hip-hop; I was also part of a racially and socially diverse crowd of thousands that refused to settle for a song to which we could only lean and rock. We chose to be part of an event that celebrated hip-hop deeply committed to its basic meaning. Music that is both hip — socially conscious — and hop — moving us forward.