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Welcome to the eighth annual Rock The Bells Hip-Hop Festival in California. With headliners like Nas, Common, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Souls of Mischief, Cypress Hill, Talib Kweli and Mos Def, we take a look at the crème-de-la-crème of hip-hop performers.

It’s 2.52 in the afternoon on August 20, and the San Bernardino heat is starting to get to the crowd. Common’s set was supposed to start six minutes ago and there hasn’t been much more than a sound check. Waiting up to 15 minutes for an act is to be expected – but its Black Star’s no show from their slated 1.10pm start time that has the crowd weary.



Seven minutes pass and the crowd starts to boo and jeer like Bill O’Reilly crashing a Cinco de Mayo fiesta. The DJ on stage drops the beat and the amphitheatre falls silent in anticipation. Moments later, Common, with the energy of a frat boy after downing half a case of Red Bull explodes on stage, cascading forth his caramel-smooth flow.

The crowd erupts – Rock the Bells 2011 has officially popped off, proper.

 Mos Def and Talib Kweli

Held at the San Manuel Amphitheater in San Bernadino, California, the LA edition of Rock The Bells featured a line-up of high-profile alternative and underground hip-hop artists, as well as some of the most respected names in the game, including Common, Black Star (Mos Def and Talib Kweli), Black Moon, Cypress Hill, Immortal Technique, Souls of Mischief, Mobb Deep and Nas. For R&B fans and hip-hop-heads of a slower BPM nature, Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill were also on the elite roster.

 Souls of Mischief

 Erykah Badu

 Lauryn Hill

The festival also offered a wide array of surprise guest performers and onstage cameos, such as Common’s welcomed collaboration during Black Star’s set, Chino XL’s freestyle cameo during Immortal Technique’s performance and the notorious LA Lakers Ron Artest’s various surprise onstage appearances, including Nas. Apparently, fresh rhymes come before world peace.


Performances were spread across four different stages: the Rock the Bells stage which featured the main headliner acts, the Paid Dues stage which shined a spotlight on independent hip-hop acts, the 36 Chambers stage which lived up to its name, featuring members of the Wu-Tang Clan and affiliated crew, and the Grindtime Stage which boasted live battle-style performances.


As the night progressed, the crowd gathered around the main Rock The Bells stage in growing anticipation of headliners Erykah Badu, Nas and Lauryn Hill. Nas rocked the mic on an elaborate stage set constructed to resemble his former residence, the Queensbridge housing projects in New York (coincidentally, where Ron-Ron, er, Metta World Peace is from).

 The L.A. crowd at Rock The Bells 2011

Not to be outdone, Lauryn Hill’s set was aptly designed for the album she was performing – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill – complete with large bookshelf-patterned backdrop and video blackboard. As for Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s early afternoon no-show, the duo managed to squeeze in a truncated set between Cypress Hill and Erykah Badu’s performances, saving Black Star’s reputation from garnering a black eye.


 Special part of the LA crowd at Rock The Bells 2011

The four-city Rock The Bells tour stopped in San Francisco next, and will be moving on to New York on September 3 and Boston on September 10. Check their website for more details.

Photos © C Jung & N Genelza/Red Bull Media House North America, Inc.


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