Shirtless white-male aggression reared its dangerously burned chest at this past weekend’s Rock the Bells festival in numbers not seen since Woodstock 1999 went up in flames. The show was ostensibly a two-day hip-hop event, but most of the overwhelmingly white audience seemed to regard Saturday’s show as a Rage Against the Machine concert with lots of opening acts. Judging by the license plates, the 35,000 fans came from far and wide to check out the group’s second concert since splitting up seven years ago.
“We are Rage Against the Machine from Los Angeles, California,” Zack de la Rocha roared as his group took the stage and tore into their 1999 single “Testify.” Rage broke up less than a month before Bush stole the 2000 election and thus nearly every word de la Rocha performed was written before the unending nightmare of the past seven years. They’ve never sounded more relevant or necessary. The only lyrical alteration was a new line in “Killing in the Name”: “Some of them that bore crosses are the same that hold office.”
The show was nearly identical to their last tour behind The Battles of Los Angeles. Highlights included an incendiary “Guerilla Radio,” a sing-along “Sleep Now in the Fire” and a show-closing “Killing in the Name” that had every single person on Randalls Island raising their middle fingers and screaming, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” at the top of their lungs. Tom Morello’s day job as the wrong-writing acoustic troubadour the Nightwatchman has done little to temper his thunderous guitar playing, and Zack de la Rocha’s seven years’ hibernation has only made his flow sharper and his anger more palpable.
At the completion of each song everyone waited for de la Rocha to address the audience and say something to rival his famous Coachalla rant in which he said that Bush “should be hung, and tried and shot.” At the end of “Bullet in the Head,” he finally opened his mouth. He began by saying he was misquoted at Coachella and that the president should be “tried like a war criminal and then hung and shot.” He went on to say that the only way to end the war is for everyone to “rise up like the youth in Iraq and bring these fuckers to their knees.” Most of the audience roared their approval, while others had expressions on their faces that seemed to ask “What exactly is he advocating?”
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If Audioslave seemed irrelevant when they started, they now seem like an asterisk next to Rage’s name in the Rock and Roll Dictionary. Hopefully the oldies show Rage is doing this summer will pave the way for a new album. They weren’t here in the years we needed them most, but Bush does still has a year and a half in office. Better late than never.
The rest of the two-day festival was devoted to indie and mainstream hip-hop. VH1 regular and Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian joined Public Enemy on the main stage, where Chuck D sprinted around and rhymed urgently to tracks like “Bring the Noise” and “Welcome to the Terrordome” with Flavor Flav at his side. The Wu-Tang Clan battled sound problems while tearing through their set and honoring lost member Ol’ Dirty Bastard (a banner reading RIP ODB hung in the corner of the stage). Though the Wu seemed a little disjointed and low-energy mid-set, as soon as they brought everyone together for a “this one’s for ODB” rendition of the late rapper’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” they were on fire. Method Man crowd surfed and struck a Jesus pose, standing upright and walking across the sea of hands, rocketing the crowd into a frenzy.
Main stage acts like Mos Def and Talib Kweli kept the crowd’s energy up with hits like “The Blast” and “Get By,” while old-school pioneer Rakim made his presence known with booming tracks off Master and Seventh Seal. Cypress Hill jumped around looking young and vibrant with a twenty-foot-tall golden Buddha behind them (and, of course, a pot leaf). B-Real, who according to DJ Muggs is “the highest man in the world,” held it down with all the expected classics and announced the group will have a new joint out next year.
At the smaller Paid Dues stage, Murs, Brother Ali and Sage Francis garnered substantial crowds despite the pouring rain on Sunday (concert-goers in garbage bags were a common sight). Atmosphere’s Slug and Ant joined Murs as the trio known as Felt and easily had the crowd laughing and bouncing. The star of the second stage, though, was clearly MF Doom, who arrived in his trademark silver super-villain mask, a green Mets jersey and very mysterious pants that looked like they’d been made out of tree leaves. The set started and the crowd — packed with a diverse group of indie kids and hard-core hip-hop heads — immediately fell under the spell of his lazy, smoky voice and those eerie, hypnotic space-beats. It was almost mesmerizing enough to distract everyone from the bad weather, which truly didn’t dampen this tireless fest.
Want to see the Roots, Rage, Wu-Tang and more in action? Check out the Rock the Bells photo gallery here.