Among the more than 30 musical acts appearing across four stages at the annual Rock the Bells Festival this weekend, nearly one-third are seasoned artists who plan to perform their debut albums in their entirety. Most of these records were released in the '90s, so this will be the first opportunity for many fans to hear complete live versions of albums that, in at least a few cases, are considered seminal to the development of urban music.
A lot has happened to Ms. Lauryn Hill since her solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, appeared in 1998. At the time, she was a young mother of one, as immortalized in "To Zion"; now she has six children, including one born last month whose name (and father) has so far escaped the media radar.
Miseducation topped the charts and went platinum eight times over in the U.S. Hill has not released a studio album since then, though a live album for MTV's Unplugged series dropped in 2002. Her recent live performances earned praise from critics, though the past several years have also seen a fair number of erratic and late sets. In each show, Hill loves to serve up different versions of her well-known songs. "That Thing (Doo Wop)," her biggest hit, is often performed at such a rapid-fire pace that it seems as though she wants to get through it as quickly as possible. But recent renditions of "Ex Factor" have been given an incredible blues injection she seems to revel in. Whether Hill ends up delighting the crowd or giving them something utterly unexpected to talk about, her headlining set will surely be worth watching.
Back before he dived into the marital abyss by marrying and subsequently divorcing pop star Kelis — and before he declared the death of hip-hop — Nas was excited about the art form on Illmatic (1994). The collection of hungry tales is told from the perspective of a resident of New York's Queensbridge, the largest public housing project in the country and the fertile home for hip-hop legends Marley Marl, Roxanne Shanté, and MC Shan, among others. Illmatic singles "One Love," "It Ain't Hard to Tell," "Life's a Bitch," and "The World Is Yours" continue to be sampled and name-checked as current rappers — Nas included — feel nostalgic for a more lyrically nimble time.
Wu-Tang Clan has long been a pivotal part of Rock the Bells, and this year the spotlight falls on some of the members' solo debuts. Ghostface Killah joins Raekwon in a live offering of Rae's Only Built for Cuban Linx (1995), Killah Priest bangs out Heavy Mental (1998), and Masta Killa raps No Said Date. Genius/GZA will also unleash his cult classic, Liquid Swords, his sophomore release, while RZA is set to host the whole show. Though "Heaven & Hell" might be the most familiar tune from Cuban Linx, Rae and Ghost's performance of the gritty housing project classic should be taken in its entirety, as it is structured like a sonic answer to a Mafia film.
Mountain View may be miles in geography and social outlook from Brooklyn, but two legendary groups will represent very different sides of the borough in the 'burbs. Black Moon's Enta da Stage (1993) and Black Star's Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star (1998) sketch tales of struggle, education, and activism from both sides of the law. The tunes likely to rouse the most energy: Black Moon's "Who Got Da Props," which works out lyrical violence on other MCs over a deceptively smooth horn-laden jazz riff; and Black Star's Boogie Down Productions-sampling "Definition," which has refrains beyond the chorus that are worth retaining: "Stop acting like a bitch already/Be a visionary." Together, these full-length works illuminate an urban balance that neither completely achieves on its own.
Last, but certainly not least (especially around these parts), rappers A-Plus, Opio, Phesto, and Tajai from Oakland's Souls of Mischief will go through '93 Til Infinity, one of the full-length cornerstones of the independent Hieroglyphics empire and lauded as one of the classic rap albums from the Bay Area. Souls of Mischief rarely get to enjoy the honor of performing on such a large stage so close to home, and we expect them to rise to the occasion. The title track is an anthem about chilling amid the hectic pace of East Oakland — and when that drops, it will be a pivotal moment. Expect this to be the part of the show where the weed smoke is at its thickest and local hip-hop fans are at their most sentimental, indulging in a rap past that still rings bells in the present.