Kid Cudi performs during the first day of Rock the Bells at the San Bernadino… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
SAN BERNARDINO -- During nearly triple-digit temperatures Saturday on the first day of hip-hop festival Rock the Bells, one of the finest -- and certainly most defining -- moments came from seasoned rapper KRS-One.
The iconic performer was midway through his set, which closed the sheltered Guerilla Union stage (a late addition to this year’s festival), when he surveyed the crowd in search of what he called “real hip-hop.”
Dissatisfied with the flat response -- probably due to the fact that much of the audience was too young to know who he was -- he offered up one of the key elements of a genre birthed during the Nixon administration: the freestyle.
PHOTO: Rock the Bells 2012
“I can say this, cause I'm a free MC, hold your cameras up … MTV,” he explicitly rhymed as an appreciative audience cheered him on. It’s worth noting the cool comfort of the festival's only indoor stage probably played a role in the enthusiastic reaction.
KRS-One’s defiant proclamation set the tone for the day, calling out the hot topic of hip-hop commercialism.
There are plenty of arguments made for and against the commercialization within the genre, which has a long creative history blostered by underground mixtapes by independent artists. For someone who released their critically lauded debut in 1987 as part of the groundbreaking rap collective Boogie Down Productions, it was easy for KRS-One to fall into nostalgia. But he wasn't alone.
PHOTOS: 7 acts to watch
Whether it was the '90s-era trio Naughty By Nature busting out party songs or rapper-cum-actor Common waxing poetic, there seemed to be an consensus that the current trends driving the market -- bawdy, generic club raps and futuristic beats -- have no place in hip-hop.
That yearning to drop those pop sensibilities and return the genre back to its roots fueled a battle of sorts between old and new school artist, which unfolded on the three stages at San Bernardino’s NOS Events Center.
This year's event, Rock the Bells' ninth installment and the first to expand to two days, played up that tension of new vs. old having Jay-Z protégé J Cole and the stoner rap of Kid Cudi close out the main stage, while having Common and Mobb Deep's Prodigy go on oddly early.
Where seasoned acts like KRS and Killer Mike transformed the Guerilla Union stage into the sweaty basement parties where freestyles and battles birthed rap, the unbearable heat made the main stage tough to stomach as new princes of club rap, notably Future, 2 Chainz and Tyga delivered sets that created little buzz (the 2 Chainz-branded paper fans handed out to the audience, however, were a big hit).
At the 36 Chambers stage, which was curated by the Wu Tang Clan's RZA, Naughty by Nature relied heavily on crowd pleasers and had the smarts to spray the crowd down with water, but the up-and-coming L.A. based Kendrick Lamar failed to capture the magic he created at Coachella earlier this year. He took a backseat as his Black Hippy supergroup did most of the heavy lifting, something that didn’t sit well with listeners who filed out during the set, or sought cooler repreves from the concrete jungle that was the festival grounds.
PHOTO: Rock the Bells 2012
Without a doubt, Saturday belonged to DMX, a rapper who ruled the charts over a decade ago. His anticipated return to the stage after years of a downward spiral that included more arrests than career hits and a few turns at reality TV was the undisputed highlight of the evening, with thousands cramming the front to hear what turned out to be a way-too-short set. He was with fellow Ruff Ryder Eve, who was equally abbreviated, but covered some of his greatest hits including “Ruff Ryders Anthem” and "Party Up (Up in Here)."
Though it's been frustrating to watch DMX unravel to the point of potential disrepair, he found a brief moment of redemption on the main stage, despite that he and Eve delivered only a little more than half of a planned hourlong set (and neither debuted new material onstage despite their absence from the limelight).
Younger, current hit makers such as Cole and Kid Cudi deftly represented the new generation of nimble voices, but given the festival's trifecta of headliners Nas, Ice Cube and Xzibit – it was the veterans who truly rocked the mic.
Odd Future announces carnival at Club Nokia
Review: Jennifer Lopez not down for the count at Staples
Critic's Notebook: Russian band's sentencing shows punk's power