As Nas, the marquee MC of Rock The Bells 2009, launched into his headlining set after more than 8 hours of hip-hop on Thursday, he placed emphasis on the lyric, “Most intellectuals will only half-listen.”
It came during a thunderous “Hip Hop Is Dead,” the opening song of his set from 2006’s album of the same name. Featuring an instrumental sample of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” it offered musings on what had really occurred that day at Red Rocks.
One would hope that literate rappers like Talib Kweli (in his Reflection Eternal incarnation with DJ Hi-Tek) and Kansas City’s Tech N9ne did more than just make heads bob. As the powerful aroma of honey dutches, strawberry phillies and generally stale bubbler water wafted through the venue, it was tough to know how much of the lyrics were seeping back into the audience.
Nearly every artist on the bill would not be classified as “party rap,” save Big Boi and Busta Rhymes, whose individual works are more of a crossover between “club rap” and “headphone rap,” where lyrics typically take precedence over beats. The mostly male, early-20s audience – draped in flatbrims, sunglasses and throwback jerseys – bobbed and mouthed words all day, at least, up until the middle of Nas’ set when Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley came out and lost the crowd with his socially conscious rap/reggae.
The show – a once-small one-off festival that has since evolved into a traveling buffet line of “choice” hip hop – represented all angles of the genre that’s simultaneously at its best and worst states. Big Boi won everyone over with classics from his OutKast days like “So Fresh, So Clean,” “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)” and the pre-“Hey Ya!” overplayed song of the century, “Ms. Jackson.” Then came Busta Rhymes, the human cartoon who, despite his litany of hits (most of which were performed with only the first verse and chorus) seemed past his prime. And even with eons of critical credibility from his work with Leaders of The New School, he played a strictly greatest hits set including “Make It Clap” “Woo-Hah!” “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” and “Break Yo Neck,” a sheer vocal accomplishment with verses at the speed of a jackhammer.
It was a day that felt set on honoring the best hip-hop of the past two decades, offering only glimmers of present-day relevance and progression. One such example was Talib Kweli’s conscious resurrection of his Reflection Eternal project, later to be joined Mos Def and become Black Star, which was the epitome of nostalgic statement. Black Star songs like “Definition” and Kweli’s own “Get By,” from his 2002 landmark album “Quality,” were given far more attention than his newer work. Even Nas, who hasn’t fallen out of sight since blowing minds with 1994’s “Illmatic,” seemed set on honoring the glory days of hip-hop and subtly lamenting its present state. The 1999 smash “Nas Is Like” was a high point of the night.
However, even with all of this “looking back,” one thing felt certain: the wacky, intelligent, alternative Tech N9ne is ready to step up and lead the future of the genre. Introduced as “the number one independent rapper in the world,” Tech had the audience in the palm of his hand. Countless “9” jerseys were visible throughout the day and his synchronized stage moves with Krizz Kaliko and Kutt Calhoun made the “Strange Music” crew look like a modern-day Supremes.
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John Hendrickson is a Features and Entertainment reporter for The Denver Post, an editor and featured writer at ALT. magazine and a regular contributor to MAGNET. In 2009 he was named one of the Top 100 Collegiate Journalists by UWIRE.
Brittany Moore is a Boulder-based photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb.