"This venue is way more crowded than it was an hour ago," Busta Rhymes announced , surveying Rock the Bells' audience June 27th at the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre in suburban Chicago — the first stop on RTB's seven-week, 10-city tour. "Let's turn this bitch up, right now!"
Then the co-headlining MC, his perennial hypeman Spliff Star, and ace DJ Roc Raida bashed through Rhymes' gleefully bawdy "Make It Clap." And from that point on, savvy showman Rhymes — whose headlining performance had been immediately preceded by predictable and adventurous sets, respectively, from Big Boi and the Roots — owned Rock the Bells' crowd.
They roared at every intro to Busta's life-of-the-party parade of hits — "Pass the Courviosier," "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See," and more — and apparently forgave him for serving up only snippets of each. "He's a tease, man," one fan griped, but he was smiling.
Less congenial were the grumblings of festgoers who felt like victims of corporate greed. Having ponied up $30-$100 for tickets — not overly outlandish, granted, for 11 hours and 25 acts, including electrifying breakout artist K'naan, the Somali-Canadian Afro-pop rapper (who more than lived up to the hype) — attendees then found themselves hostage to the venue's usurious concession prices. No recession-relief at this Amphitheatre: one slice of pizza and one domestic draft beer set you back nearly $20.
Rhymes' above observation notwithstanding, attendance at the (initially) sun-saturated kickoff of this annual traveling hip-hop extravaganza was, in fact, noticeably sparse: the pavilion had swathes of wide-open spaces, with the lawn maybe two-thirds empty.
And when Rhymes' galvanizing set — which he dedicated to the recently departed Michael Jackson, who also got shouts from performers throughout Rock the Bells — ended and a late-arriving rain began, many took off in droves. Unfortunately, they missed final, inspiring headliners Nas and Damian "Junior Gong" Marley. The royal duo, who span "Queensbridge to Kingston," as New Yorker Nas put it, graced remaining festival-goers with selections from their first full-length collaboration, Distant Relatives (still awaiting release). Plus, each served up signature works of his own &8212; Marley's urgent "Welcome to Jamrock," for instance, and Nas' classic "Represent."
Main stage co-host KRS-One, the pioneering Bronx MC and activist respectfully (and affectionately) dubbed "The Teacher," had made a surprise mid-afternoon appearance with Brooklyn rapper Buckshot at RTB's smaller, indie-oriented Paid Dues stage. KRS had also proffered a rhyming crash-course in hip-hop history prior to Big Boi's set, touching on the indispensable contribution of Jamaican-born Kool DJ Herc, originator of break-beat DJing. When KRS-One introduced Nas and Marley (youngest son of reggae icon Bob Marley), history came full circle.
Backed by a populous band augmented by a Rasta-flag twirler who made tornadic circles of red, yellow and green, Marley took the stage first, swirling his monumental, near fathom-length dreadlocks and calling for fans to raise their lighters, cell phones — or, he exhorted, "Just push your hand up."
Junior Gong's incisive take on Marley Senior's fed-up plea, "No More Trouble," preceded the appearance of Nas. Clad in customary dazzling white, he joined Marley in a blazing track from Distant Relatives, "Afro Beat": "And my man'll speak patois and I can speak rap star," Y'all feel me, even if it's in Swahili."
Particularly poignant was an impassioned rendition of the duo's first collaboration, "Road to Zion," from Marley's 2005 album Welcome to Jamrock. It speaks frankly, yet hopefully, of struggle and revolution — and redemption.
Despite the dispiriting intrusion of big-business venality, Rock the Bells 2009 offset that corporate footprint with the music. It was a day that ultimately fit the KRS-One's oft-repeated hip-hop ideal, reiterated by The Teacher as concertgoers filed out: "Peace, Unity, and Safely Having Fun."