REPORTING FROM WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIF. — Rock the Bells is going retro.
The United States biggest traveling hip-hop and rap festival announced its lineup for the 2011 tour, which includes a number of throwback acts, during a press conference at the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip.
The seven-year-old rap tour has brought on a slate of well-known artists for their 2011 outing, many of whom hit the height of their popularity in the 1990s (and in some cases the 1980s). Organizer Chang Weisberg of promotion firm Guerilla Union said all of the headlining acts have agreed to perform their most famous albums from beginning to end.
That includes Lauryn Hill, who will play her 1998 smash hit “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” in its entirety. The iconic album won the former Fugees-singer five Grammys and went eight-times platinum. Rapper Nas will play his “Illmatic” record while groups like Cypress Hill, Black Star and Souls of Mischief will also perform iconic albums. In total, Rock the Bells will feature 23 acts, some with menacing names like Slaughterhouse, Random Axe and Masta Killah. Rapper RZA will curate his own side stage at the festival, which he says will include “music, graffiti art and kung fu.”
Rock the Bells will make four stops this year, with an Aug. 20 date at the San Manuel Amphitheater in San Bernardino, Calif.; Aug. 27 at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, Calif.; Sept. 3 at Governor’s Island in New York and a yet-to-be-announced Boston show on Sept. 10.
Weisberg said he plans to expand the Rock the Bells brand in a deal with the House of Blues chain that will have his group co-promote a number of concerts at the club chain under the Rock the Bells moniker.
“It’s tough to sell enough tickets to make the festival work in Chicago, Miami, Denver or Philadelphia,” he said. “If our mission is to create a world-class hip-hop platform that will make a material difference, then we need to provide a worldwide touring platform and these smaller shows can do that.”
Weisberg has seen a number of national acts come out of Rock the Bells, including Wiz Khalifa and B.O.B., both of whom played the festival in 2010 and have since seen their profile rise with radio-friendly hits. Weisberg said that he wants to continue the support for the developing acts on his bill who “can’t survive off of four festival dates per year. They need a real tour.”
The first Guerilla Union-House of Blues tour to launch under the new relationship will be Mobb Deep, who have a nationwide club tour set around their four Rock the Bells appearances.
Weisberg said many of the headliners for this year’s tour came down to the wire — Hill didn’t agree to perform until 2 a.m. the night before Tuesday’s press conference.
“She told me that if she was going to do this concert, the production level had to be elevated,” said Chang. “She’s not into pyro — she wants a video montage that duplicates the spirit of her album from front to finish.”
Nas didn’t agree to perform his “Illmatic” disc until 10 minutes before the press conference. Weisberg said the East Coast rapper was worried that he wouldn’t be able to round up the rappers who collaborated on the album to join the tour.
“I told him ‘Are you kidding me? I have to go on sale in New York and if I can’t announce that album, I’m in big trouble,” he said.
Luckily, Nas gave Weisberg the green light, but that’s not to say that Tuesday’s press conference wasn’t without drama. Namely, DJ Drama, the Grand Hustle Records spin-master, who made a quick appearance during the crowded press conference.
Rock the Bells press events are concerts in themselves. After the media interviews are completed, fans are let into the venue for a free concert by the festival’s headliners including Cypress Hill and Mobb Deep. Rapper RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan made an appearance at the press conference, only to be ushered out in a waiting limo which drove him across town to perform at the System of a Down reunion show at the Forum in Inglewood.
Rapper and festival master of ceremonies Supernatural kicked off the press conference — as he always does — by announcing the 23 artists on the tour in a completely improvised freestyle rap. And when lyricist Evidence arrived for his interviews, he walked into the media center smoking an enormous joint that he proudly indentified as California medical marijuana. After taking 10 huge hits, he passed the joint around the press conference and some reporters took hits from the potent pot. Sensing the shocked reaction from other members of the media, Evidence tried to lighten the mood with an impromptu rap line.
“I can smoke entire an eighth (of an ounce) in one spliff,” he rapped. “Some call it a problem, but I call it a gift.”
Interviewed for this article: Chang Weisberg, (909) 706-3700