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Uncertainty takes toll at Bells show

The annual mega rap gathering offers riveting moments, but concern over the genre's future also seeps into the performances.

August 13, 2007|August Brown | Times Staff Writer

Cypress Hill's B-Real indicated something unsettling about the state of rap music during his band's performance at Saturday's Rock the Bells festival in San Bernardino. "Thank you for coming," Real told the audience. "By being here, you're supporting hip-hop."

Real's gratitude sounded awfully close to a pledge-drive solicitation. It's no secret that mainstream hip-hop's record sales (and arguably, its quality) have taken a nosedive in the last few years. But is it really bad enough that the genre's leading lights have to ask for life support?

Rock the Bells, far and away the largest rap-centric tour in recent history, provided few answers. Headlining agit-prop hard rock band Rage Against the Machine is heavily influenced by early hip-hop, but it's far from an orthodox ambassador. The highest-profile rap groups on the bill, Cypress Hill and Wu-Tang Clan, hit their commercial peaks nearly a decade ago. Latino kids wearing Rage's "The Battle of Los Angeles" shirts far outnumbered those in white Ts. If hip-hop needs support, who might answer in 2007?

Some of the day's most fiery performances came from Minneapolis' Brother Ali and shock-rapper Cage, whose hoarse tales of urban and domestic violence made for unlikely call-and-response cries ("Say 'Teenage death!' ").

Nas, who most clearly addressed rap's identity crisis on his recent album "Hip-Hop Is Dead," didn't arrive in time for his set, leaving genial L.A. rapper Murs to fill in with dark and witty pillow-talk rhymes. Nas turned up later, performing "Made You Look" with the Roots.

Public Enemy played a loose and well-received live-band set.

The Roots and Cypress Hill offered competing versions of hip-hop's current ambitions. The Roots' set found MC Blaq Thought in rare form on the brooding tracks from the group's latest album, the excellent "Game Theory."

Cypress Hill was tight and menacing but bogged down sinewy hits such as "Shoot 'Em Up" with a water-bong fixation that occasionally defanged the group.

It wasn't until Wu-Tang Clan's audience broke through gates and set several large trash fires that any spark of volatility truly caught. Security sprayed mace on large swaths of the crowd, but it did little to calm anyone as the Wu-Tang's battalion of MCs took the stage.

After scores of solo projects, TV shows and the death of Wu-Tang rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard, the Clan seemed invigorated and ready to fight for the genre's relevance with its noirish, labyrinthine rhymes and self-mythologizing. Method Man stood over the crowd, held aloft by fans, and clearly enjoyed his hero's welcome. But it's uncertain if the "W" hand signs were out of resonance or nostalgia for one of the '90s' most innovative groups.

Rage has toned down its vitriol since the band's Coachella reunion. In contrast to the political offensive he launched there, front man Zack de la Rocha told the crowd: "I think that this could potentially be the greatest generation."

Searing cuts including "Guerrilla Radio" and "Bombtrack" sounded as fierce as ever, but four shows into its reunion, even Rage seemed uncertain on what its role in modern music is.

"Everybody wants to know what set you claim," Murs said during his set.

If Rock the Bells is the genre's most forceful live statement, what kind of fan is claiming hip-hop?

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