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Monday, July 21, 2008

Rock the Bells Festival @ First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre

Sunday, July 20, 2008 (Chicago, IL)

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  If the touring hip-hop festival Rock the Bells had existed in 1998, its line-up might have looked virtually identical to this year’s. Headliners like A Tribe Called Quest, The Pharcyde, De La Soul and Mos Def were the biggest names in alternative rap a decade ago, and they remain so today.

Of course, that’s as much a sad comment on the dearth of new talent in the scene as it is a testament to the headliners’ longevity, but the veterans did their best to prevent the bill from becoming a nostalgia tour. Although A Tribe Called Quest released their last album in 2008, Q-Tip opened their performance with a short set of his new solo material—happy, adenoidal funk. De La Soul’s set, similarly, was a career-spanning mix, not just a Three Feet High highlight reel. Nodding to contemporary rap, DJ Maseo ended the set by barking out a loving Lil Jon impression.

  After killing their brand name with a pair of low-budget albums recorded with a diminishing roster of original members, The Pharcyde made good with their first full line-up show in 11 years. Their redemptive performance was so practiced and professional it gave hope for a comeback album. Trim and limber, the quartet slinked, darted and danced around the stage, backed by a small live band and slick, synchronized videos.

  Nas, the headliner most aligned with rap’s mainstream, killed with a barely 20-minute set of the no-frills, beats-and-rhymes hip-hop with which he earned his reputation. He didn’t even have a hype man—with an enthusiastic crowd to do backup, he didn’t need one. He plowed through a set heavy on Illmatic classics and subsequent singles—“If I Ruled the World,” “One Mic,” “Made You Look”—with scant chit-chat and no signs of an ego. His new, instantly infamous untitled album had just debuted at the top of the charts, yet he barely plugged it.

Method Man and Redman gave easily the most dexterous performance of the evening. “The energy that you give to us is the energy we give back to you,” Meth lectured the crowd early in the set, and they made good on the promise. Redman shot streams of bottled water into the air and caught them in his mouth, while Method surfed the crowd and, more impressive, stood on it, balancing on their rickety hands.

  That would have been a tough act for anyone to follow, but was especially so for Mos Def, who brought all the energy of a jetlagged librarian to his set, one of the day’s only real disappointments. Crushing any hopes that he might yet recapture the promise of his late-’90s ascension, he sleepwalked through a rambling set of formless half-raps. Some in the audience cheered politely, some booed sporadically, and a handful voiced genuine concern. “What happened to Mos?” one asked. “He seems out of it.”

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