Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Rock The Bells and the Pleasure and Pain of Live Hip-Hop

Last night I finally got around to watching Rock The Bells, a 2006 documentary about the madness surrounding a Wu-Tang Clan reunion show that marked the group's last appearance with Ol' Dirty Bastard. I wanted to review it when it came out but couldn't track down a copy. I'm glad I finally caught up with him. For Rock The Bells manages the formidable feat of being both a stirring tribute to hip-hop in its purest form and a veritable encyclopedia of everything that's annoying, irritating and pandering about live hip-hop shows.

Illustration for article titled iRock The Bells/i and the Pleasure and Pain of Live Hip-Hop
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Rock The Bells unwittingly illustrates why every true hip-hop head is on some level also a hip-hop apologist. It's a cavalcade of lame crowd participation bits, gimmicky freestyles, boorish behavior from spoiled rappers who behave like overgrown children and clumsy political sermonizing that nevertheless captures something vital, exciting and pure about hip-hop. The film chronicles brash young promoter Chang Weisberg's attempts to reunite the Wu-Tang Clan for the inaugural incarnation of his Rock The Bells festival, a semi-heroic quest that looks like an impossible mission right up until the film's last few minutes.

Weisberg assembled a weirdly schizophrenic line-up for the show, with True School fan favorites Dilated Peoples, Jurassic 5 and Supernatural following Eyedea and Abilities and Sage Francis, art school rejects that come off like broad parodies of pretentious, humorless serious artists from a late period Christopher Guest movie.

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I remember being impressed by Eyedea both times I saw him live but I found his sing-songy delivery, whiny white boy flow and poetry slam cadences insufferable here. I tend to watch movies with the close captioning on, both because my hearing is bad (damn you faulty senses!) and because closed-captioning sometimes veers into weird editorializing, as when the closed captioning robot captures the crowd's reaction to Eyedea and Abilities and Sage Francis as "Mild applause and scattered boos" or when it describes one of Abilities' beats as something like "Futuristic percussive repetitive music." The other unexpected advantage of watching Rock The Bells with closed-captioning on is that it captures just how unremarkable Eyedea's and Supernatural freestyles really are once the "Ooh, he's making stuff up right in front of my eyes!" factor is gone. That million-miles-a-minute delivery seems a whole less impressive once it becomes apparent that Eyedea seems to have stolen his rhymes from a depressed high school sophomore's poetry notebook. When Sage Francis and Eyedea take the stage a painful open-mic night at your local university breaks out.

Illustration for article titled iRock The Bells/i and the Pleasure and Pain of Live Hip-Hop
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All the while drama rages behind the scenes. Will all ten Wu-Tangers (including Cappadonna) show up? Will Ol' Dirty Bastard destroy Chang Weisberg's dreams of putting on the ultimate hip-hop show by staying at his room smoking crack with random skanks or will RZA and Weisberg be able to coax ODB onto the stage by any means necessary? Ol' Dirty Bastard is probably onscreen for less than two minutes but he nevertheless dominates the film. He's like Homer's conception of Poochy: when he's not onscreen everyone's talking about him, and worrying about him, and sweating bullets about whether the apoplectic overflow crowd will get their riot on Guns N' Roses style if ODB's too cracked-out to perform.

Meanwhile Redman refuses to perform unless Weisberg hooks him up with some weed. I found this both confusing and ironic. Redman needs a fucking weed connection? Redman? That's like George Washington Carver constantly banging on your door asking to borrow peanuts. Dude, you're synonymous with peanuts. You're the peanut guy. On your tombstone it reads "George Motherfucking Washington Carver: Did A Bunch of Shit With Peanuts". Why on earth would you need my help in getting you what you're famous for? Redman emerges as one of the film's most fascinating and contradictory figures, a loving dad, smart, grounded veteran and consummate professional when he's not brattishly demanding his weed fix.

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While Weisberg, who incidentally looks The Rock's emaciated brother, struggles to coax Ol Dirty Bastard out of his hotel room and onto the stage the performers are forced to kill vast oceans of time in front of an increasingly apoplectic audience. The always game and sometimes hacky and lame Supernatural freestyles up a storm, then brings out his free-styling pre-pubescent son. Sway panders to the crowd with anti-Bush rhetoric and the same hackneyed stage banter you hear at every fucking hip-hop show.

Knee-jerk Bush bashing is a fixture of pretty much every rap show I've ever attended, which makes me wonder what will happen if Obama is elected President. Will the instant applause line "Fuck George Bush" be replaced by "Make some motherfucking noise if you're cautiously optimistic about Obama's Presidency yet concerned that, like Jimmy Carter before him, he will ultimately disappoint his core constituency and not follow through on some of his stirring campaign rhetoric in the face of partisan bickering and the need to placate a broader spectrum of voters! Aw yeah!"

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The Rock The Bells show is a shambling goddamned mess held together almost entirely by Weisberg's steely determination that the show will go on even if he has to literally kidnap Ol' Dirty Bastard and drag him onstage. In the end Rock The Bells becomes a weirdly moving exploration of a favorite hip-hop theme: creating order and beauty out of chaos, madness and anarchy. It's a love letter to hip-hop in its messiest, craziest form. It's also a reminder of why I increasingly find myself going to hip-hop shows and thinking "Good Lord, I am getting too old for this shit."

What do you guys think? Has anyone seen this film? I am especially interested in hearing the live show pet peeves of hip-hop fans. What angries up your blood when you rock out to your favorite hip-hop artists live? What rap concert staples would you like to see retired permanently?

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