Rock the Bells isn't even supposed to exist. Successful hip-hop arena tours are a rarity, a feat of organization, cash and promotion even T.I. and Ludacris can't pull off. You're more likely to see Lil Wayne fulfill a spot date at a 1,000-person-capacity superclub, or perform a short 15-minute set at a radio-sponsored concert, than hold down a 10,000-plus audience for two hours at a sporting arena.
So Chang Weisberg is understandably worried he may have overextended Rock the Bells, a festival featuring some of the best and most respected hip-hop acts on one gargantuan bill. The Rock the Bells brand is already legendary in some circles: At the 2004 inaugural edition in San Bernardino, Calif., he improbably reunited the original Wu-Tang Clan lineup for what turned out to be its last concert together. In subsequent years, he successfully held additional Rock the Bells festivals in the San Francisco Bay Area and New York.
It's one thing to sell out in New York, the home of hip-hop culture. Weisberg wonders if Atlanta has 19,000 heads willing to pay $35 or more and fill HiFi Buys Amphitheatre. Are there enough true-school fans around the country to turn Rock the Bells into a full-fledged movement?
"I've been told by a lot of people that Rock the Bells won't work in Atlanta because there's not a big scene for this type of music in Atlanta," Weisberg says. "We're definitely taking a massive risk."
Talib Kweli is a prime example of a Rock the Bells artist. He's never made a gold or platinum album, yet can sell out theaters across the world on the strength of several underground classics and a devoted audience. "I think Chang is a visionary in that sense in that he's able to see beyond what the vanguard of the business can see," says Kweli, who is appearing on this year's Rock the Bells tour in anticipation of his new album, Eardrum, which comes out Aug. 21.
"When you look at all the artists [appearing on the tour], it's not like they've been moving massive numbers over the past couple of years. So when you look at the bottom line, this tour doesn't make any sense. But you have to understand the cultural aspect of what it brings," Kweli adds.
Symbolically, Rock the Bells represents a revival of a culture that has long been eclipsed by pop-rap gimmicks and gangsterism. Most of its artists espouse "true school" values of political and social awareness and dense wordplay; the music often hearkens toward the so-called "golden age" of hip-hop from the late '80s to mid-'90s.
"Rock the Bells was created as a platform to nurture conscious, social, political and hardcore hip-hop," Weisberg says. "The main criterion for Rock the Bells is that you have to be able to hold the stage. A lot of independent acts, and acts like Wu-Tang and Redman, are great live performers, as opposed to some acts that you might see today on MTV or hear on the radio."
By exporting Rock the Bells to 16 cities across the country, Weisberg hopes to capitalize on the myth of that classic 2004 Wu-Tang reunion, which he refers to as "the Holy Grail." (The concert is commemorated in Rock the Bells, a 2006 documentary that comes out on DVD July 24.) Participating acts vary in each city. Some groups, like a reunited Rage against the Machine, will only play the New York and L.A. shows. Wu-Tang Clan and Nas will headline the entire tour.
"Smokin' Grooves was the last touring hip-hop festival," Weisberg says. He refers to an annual summer package that, from 1996 to 2002, featured acts such as the Fugees, OutKast and Erykah Badu. "That was the last time that social and conscious hip-hop groups were even on the radio or even getting big spins on MTV. It seems like they went back underground."
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