Rap’s golden age was in full effect at the seventh annual Rock the Bells festival, which opened at the NOS Events Center in San Bernardino, California on Saturday. Snoop Dogg, Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, KRS-One, Slick Rick, and Rakim all performed their most notable albums, but the most anticipated set belonged to Lauryn Hill. “This may be some people’s favorite historic moment on a night of many historic moments,” said Paul Rosenberg, a D.J. at New York’s Hot 97, introducing the “true queen of hip hop culture.” Hill took the stage wearing a sheer black dress, black lace tights, black suede boots, and a red beret, then quickly launched into a frantic version of “Lost Ones,” the opening track from 1999’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Later, introducing “Zion,” a tribute to the oldest of her five children, Hill alluded to all the time she has spent out of the spotlight: “My son Zion is now 13 years old. Thirteen years … Can you believe that much time has passed?”
The crowd went wild as Hill performed Fugees songs like “Fu-Gee-La” and “Ready or Not.” During a seven-minute rendition of “When It Hurts So Bad,” she made eye contact with many fans, repeating “I gave you too much, I gave you too much, I gave you too much” during the drawn-out bridge. Her voice, grittier now than in the ’90s, cracked as she attempted to falsetto on “The Ex Factor,” but her passion came through. Watching from a small VIP section, MTV’s Sway sighed heavily, and described how “emotional” it was to see Hill perform.
A Tribe Called Quest had the unenviable task of playing after Hill, but as they ripped through 1993’s Midnight Marauders, Q-Tip led the group with an energy that recalled Tribe’s earlier days. “Yo, I have to say this,” he announced, noting the history marked by the festival. “In November 1993, A Tribe Called Quest put out Midnight Marauders and Wu-Tang put out 36 Chambers on the same day. Two weeks later, Snoop put out Doggystyle.” Tribe’s fourth member, Jarobi, joined Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammad midway through the set. After the group ran through Marauders, an explosive Busta Rhymes and his sidekick Spliff Starr came onstage to help perform “Scenario.”
As night fell, the Wu-Tang Clan — including RZA and Ghostface Killah, who were carrying baseball bats — presented Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers in its entirety. Boy Jones, son of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, filled in for his father. “They said he looks like him, acts like him, raps like him,” said rapper Yelawolf, who performed earlier that afternoon. It was true: Jones ran through the crowd shirtless, dropping to his knees during “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” as photographers surrounded him. “We wanna thank ya’ll sincerely from the bottom of our hearts for buying 36 Chambers,” RZA said at one point. “We went on to go platinum, so we got a lot of our families out of the hood, left the projects, started getting the good life.”
A picnic table loaded up with 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor waited on stage for Snoop Dogg, who entered with “Gin & Juice.” Joined by Tha Dogg Pound and Warren G, Snoop commanded the crowd sing along with “Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None)” and “Regulate” in honor of Nate Dogg, who suffered a stroke two years ago. “I’m gonna play this back for Nate Dogg in the hospital so he can see how much love ya’ll got for him,” Snoop said. After an hour and-a-half of puffing blunts and easing through favorites from Doggystyle and The Chronic, Snoop closed out his set with recent hits “Drop It Like It’s Hot” and “I Wanna Rock.”
In the dank, dark warehouse that housed the second stage, Wiz Khalifa, Immortal Technique, Murs, Yelawolf and others performed. After Immortal Technique’s set, fans surrounded him with items to sign. “In a genre of music where people are known for being arrogant and self-centered, just talking to people after the show lets them know you really are who you say you are,” said Technique. “Tribe, KRS, Wu-Tang and Rakim remind me of a time when skill was more important than superficial things in music.” Meanwhile, Wiz Khalifa’s fans honored him in their own way. “It was awesome,” Wiz said afterward. “The wildest part was them throwing pre-rolled joints and bags of kush on stage. I got like four bags of pina colada! I give to my fans and they give back.”