The 2011 Rock the Bells festival begins tomorrow at the San Manuel Amphitheater in Los Angeles, California. Much like last year, several of the acts on the Rock the Bells tour will be performing their best albums from beginning to end. The list of acts performing classic albums in their entirety at Rock the Bells is a music fans dreams.
Rock the Bells 2011 includes Ms. Lauryn Hill performing The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Nas performing Illmatic with help from Pete Rock, DJ Premier and AZ, Erykah Badu performing Baduizm, Common performing Be, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah performing Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Mos Def and Talib Kweli performing Black Star, Cypress Hill performing Black Sunday, GZA performing Liquid Swords, Masta Killa performing No Said Date, Black Moon performing Enta Da Stage, Souls of Mischief performing ’93 ‘Till Infinity, Killah Priest performing Heavy Mental, and Mobb Deep performing The Infamous.
And that’s not all! There will be performances from Immortal Technique, MF Doom, Slaughterhouse, Random Axe, Evidence, Curren$y, Mac Miller, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Childish Gambino, Big K.R.I.T., Roc Marciano, Freddie Gibbs, and Fashawn, Blu, & Exile.
In addition to Los Angeles Rock the Bells 2011 will make stops in San Francisco, New York, and Boston.
The man responsible for this Hip-Hop extravaganza is Guerilla Union founder Chang Weisberg. Weisberg’s love for Hip-Hop and his appreciation of the fans has resulted in the Smokeout festival, Paid Dues, and of course Rock the Bells. Rock the Bells is no doubt the main event for Guerilla Union and every summer Chang’s goal is to out-do the previous year’s line-up.
In my third interview with Chang Weisberg we discussed the importance of Nas’ Illmatic, the Rock the Bells Club and Theater Series, the unpredictability of MF Doom, 2011’s version of Rock the Bells, and the possibility of Rock the Bells expanding in 2012.
SS: Rock the Bells is upon us and one of the main attractions will be Nas performing Illmatic from front to back. Why is Illmatic important to Hip-Hop, Rock the Bells, and music in general?
Chang Weisberg: Wow. That’s a big, big question. I think Illmatic is in the top 3 albums of all-time. Some people might say it’s the single biggest album in Hip-Hop when it comes to lyricism. Really it was how Nas spoke about street culture, his delivery, the flow, the production, the timing of it, the year that it came out, and what it inspired other emcees to do. It’s something that he’s been holding on to for a long time. We’ve been talking about this at length, not because we do albums in its entirety but because we talk about music generally speaking. It means the world to him. I’m glad that he trusts Rock the Bells to be the platform that he chooses to express everything that he wanted to with Illmatic. He was thinking a Broadway play or a book, but to do it in its entirety at Rock the Bells is single handedly one of the most important moments in live Hip-Hop history. Guaranteed, hands down, no question, no chaser—that’s what it is.
SS: Another act from Queensbridge is on the Rock the Bells bill this year. How important was it to get Mobb Deep on the bill with Prodigy fresh out of prison?
Chang Weisberg: I think it’s just great because Prodigy has been locked up. Mobb Deep hasn’t been able to perform. This is their second New York show. Right when Prodigy got out of prison they did a show at Nokia. They are looking forward to the challenge of performing The Infamous, the most critical and well respected piece of work in their catalog at Rock the Bells. Havoc was concerned about getting all of the instrumentals together and rehearsing because they’re performing the whole album front to back. I think they’re looking at the challenge of performing an album in its entirety as the motivating factor for doing it and to have it be a part of ten other iconic albums that are being performed in its entirety this year.
I don’t like to speak on behalf of acts but for Rock the Bells to be hosting The Infamous, Illmatic, Miseducation, and Black Sunday, 90’s era Hip-Hop is deep on Rock the Bells. I think it’s important that people understand that these are albums that you can listen to from front to back and be inspired. It was when albums mattered, not just the hits but the whole thing. The album cuts, the production, what it means, what it meant then and the fact that its relevant today is a testament to the album format in itself. It’s going to set the bar pretty high to try to top. How do you top Illmatic and The Infamous? It’s pretty tough.
SS: It’s pretty tough.
Chang Weisberg: [Laughs] It’s pretty tough.
SS: Was it difficult to convince Mos Def and Talib Kweli to perform together as Black Star, because they’ve been putting off the Black Star reunion for about 13 years now?
Chang Weisberg: You know what we’re really good with both camps. There’s been a discussion about new Black Star music. I think they just leaked a new Black Star track. That’s not new, meaning that Mos and Kweli have been wanting to revisit Black Star and really get it out there. They reunited at Paid Dues earlier this year. They did some cuts as they always do together but to attack the album in its entirety? I know they are rehearsing as well and excited about that particular challenge. We hope that this may inspire the acts to not only revisit what the album meant then but be inspired to make new Black Star music moving forward. That’s pretty exciting information right there.
SS: Here’s the tough question [laughs]. When we spoke last summer I asked you why Chicago didn’t get a date for Rock the Bells and you told me that Chicago didn’t draw fans that the other cities did. For the past year I’ve had people ask me why Rock the Bells isn’t coming back here and I always tell them, “Chang said he loses money here.” The most common response that I get from people is, “But the lineups are better now!”
Chang Weisberg: [Laughs] That’s the truth. I feel this year’s line-up is top to bottom better. We’ve been talking about iconic records but we haven’t talked about No Said Date, or Enta Da Stage with Black Moon, ’93 ‘Till Infinity, Curren$y, Big K.R.I.T and all that stuff. All that aside, the best thing is Rock the Bells is coming to Chicago. Black Star will be there at House of Blues. It’s a way for us to reestablish our connection to Chicago. I want to do it on a more frequent basis. We are talking about trying to elevate and get a situation going in Chicago that’s bigger than House of Blues. I’m trying, but there is a piece of Rock the Bells that will be in Chicago with Mos and Kweli doing Black Star in its entirety there later this year. That show is almost sold out by the way. That’s a good sign. Its baby steps before I go and bring the whole thing back over but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.
SS: Common is my favorite emcee of all-time…
Chang Weisberg: Wow.
SS: Yeah, Ghostface is a close number 2. I’m excited to see Common perform Be from beginning to end. Talk a little about what it means to have Common, who is now a movie-star, perform his biggest album at Rock the Bells.
Chang Weisberg: It was amazing when we sat down it was one of the more interesting conversations. There’s Resurrection and there’s Be. At the end of the day Common said let’s do Be. Of course having Black Star on the bill you know what that means. With Common on the bill he has collaborations with everybody on the stage. He’s been on Rock the Bells before and he enjoyed it and had a great time. He never performed an album in its entirety. He didn’t even hesitate at the opportunity to do so. He’s in Canada filming a movie right now. I know out of all the emcees he’s been asking all the right questions.
You started the question by letting me know that Common’s your favorite emcee…. I just think that main stage is so ridiculously stacked it’s going to be a challenge. Unfortunately fans are going to have to choose. Do I watch MF Doom? Do I watch GZA do Liquid Swords? Do we check out Common doing Be? At the end of the day fans are going to have to make those decisions and it’s great that all this energy is going to be in the building at the same time. I think Common being on the bill is a very significant nod as to how powerful this years show is. The recognition to have him want to be a part of it and to be enthusiastic about it is confirmation that we’re trying to do something that’s never ever been done before. It will be this very big beacon of light. Black Star, Common, Black Sunday, Baduizm, Miseducation, Illmatic, I mean a lot of people got soundtracks right there. If you like good music you’ll be at the show. Not just good Hip-Hop. Be, Baduizm, and Black Sunday are not just great Hip-Hop records. Those are all records that could headline Bonnaroo, Coachella or any festival. Any festival in the country would be happy to have one of those albums performed. The fact that Common is a part of it is a testament to the positive energy that we have going on with this platform.
SS: You mentioned MF Doom and he’s notorious for sending imposters to perform in his place…
Chang Weisberg: Oh yeah. He did it to us!!
SS: He did?
Chang Weisberg: He did it to Rock the Bells in 2007.
SS: I did not know that.
Chang Weisberg: Doom showed up to the first date in New York and proceeded to send different people for the rest of the dates and it didn’t work out. On the record that’s kind of disrespectful not only to the promoters but the fans and everybody that helped to build Rock the Bells. We’re trying to do what’s right and get it done but it’s not an easy process. Doom is a London resident and to get him here to the United States has taken a millennia of administration and work. We’re very close to getting that football across the goal line. We have every intention of having the real Doom on stage this summer which to me will be one of the biggest accomplishments. Not just musically but what it took me and my staff to do physically is the kind of effort you put in on a family member. In an effort to put all that negative energy behind us we looked the other way and I think you’ll see Doom this summer on the stages. Everyone doesn’t think it’s going to happen. I wish I could show you immigration documents but I can’t.
SS: How did you and RZA come together to create the 36 Chambers stage?
Chang Weisberg: Wow. You know what it was after the first time we got the entire Wu-Tang Clan on stage after ten years in 2004. Me and RZA sat down and talked about him curating an actual event. At the time I had come up with a concept that he elaborated on even more and shared what he thought would make a unique experience. It was originally called the Wu-Tang Saga and then it was changed to the 36 Chambers festival. Now it’s the 36 Chambers project because it will live not only as a festival but as an intimate experiences as well.
In 2005 he started talking to me about all the influences in his life, Kung-Fu, philosophy, his interest in Chess Boxing, being a vegan, his entrepreneurial spirit, and his endeavors with film, television, and music. We’ve been really putting it on hold. He said, “Chang, let’s build Rock the Bells up because you’ve got something special here and it will help us launch the 36 Chambers project when the time is right.” Six years later I’m happy to say that there’s a stage at Rock the Bells but that’s just a precursor to something much brighter and much hotter that’s going to be coming very soon.
SS: I interviewed Macklemore the other day and he was really humbled to even be included on Rock the Bells. There are a lot of great young acts on the bill this year with big followings. Talk about acts like Macklemore, Freddie Gibbs, Big K.R.I.T, Roc Marciano, Fashawn, Blu, Childish Gambino, Curren$y, and Mac Miller performing at Rock the Bells this year.
Chang Weisberg: I think that’s what’s been the epitome of why Rock the Bells is successful. Reunions aside and classic albums in its entirety aside, Rock the Bells has always been the show that has the hottest up and coming talent and independent acts. Last year I had to explain to people who Wiz Khalifa was. The year before that I had to explain to people who B.o.B was. Rock the Bells has often been the launching pad for amazing up and coming acts. Whether it’s Childish Gambino, Big K.R.I.T, Curren$y, Blu, Fashawn, Exile, or Macklemore I feel that these are the next run of classic artists that will be amazing years from now. These are the ones that are paying dues. They respect what’s happening on the main stage and I challenge them to be headlining Rock the Bells a couple of years from now. I had the conversation with Macklemore and Curren$y and let them know that without them there may not be a Rock the Bells in 2012.
SS: I was just telling a guy that the first time I saw Jay Electronica was at Rock the Bells.
Chang Weisberg: Yeah, Jay Electronica, B.o.B, Big Sean last year, a lot of them had had their first look on Rock the Bells.
SS: What went into creating the Rock the Bells Club and Theatre Series?
Chang Weisberg: Well paying a lot of dues and working with Live Nation and House of Blues. It was actually the COO of House of Blues Ben Weeden who said, “Chang you have all these unique bookings happening at your shows would you consider working with us on a national perspective?” He’s more than willing to invest in up and coming acts and classic acts making sure that there is always a strong vein of strong Hip-Hop at their venues. You would think that urban programming would dominate at House of Blues but 80-90% of what they do is Rock oriented. I feel like the Rhymesayers camp, when a major label comes in and offers a distribution deal but let’s you stay independent—you do you and we’ll support it.
The fact that House of Blues has come to the table and said we’ll let you put together dozens of tours annually; it’s kind of hard to resist. It’s not just about the big acts. It’s going to be about developing live A&R. It’s a very exciting way to support these acts, to let them integrate their content, to let them know that they’ve got a platform to push their new material and a way for established acts to pursue other creative endeavors. It’s like getting the keys to a Ferrari and being able to take Rock the Bells, Paid Dues and other concepts to cities that might not otherwise get it like New Orleans, Las Vegas, and Miami. As you know Black Star is going to be in Chicago. Rock the Bells started at a club level and I’m excited that we’re there.
SS: Last year when we discussed the reduced Rock the Bells schedule you said Boston was a good city for you and it hurt you not to bring Rock the Bells to Boston. Well now you’re coming to Boston. I’ll be in Boston and I hope to see you there. How did you bring Rock the Bells back to Boston?
Chang Weisberg: Much like Chicago, Boston was always on the fringe of being a very successful show. The last time we did it, it was what we call a break even. No one made any money but we had 10,000 people there. We were on the cusp of working out our situation with House of Blues and the Boston market came to us and said, “Look, we really think we can tweak a couple of the deal points and make this something that can happen on an annual basis and if you give us a shot we’ll show you.” So we’re back in Boston. I know it didn’t make Washington D.C. very happy. There are other reasons why we aren’t back in Washington D.C. this year but maybe we’ll be back in D.C. and Chicago next year. I’m trying. Chicago is definitely on the radar. I see 4-5 club shows at the House of Blues which will hopefully build the momentum for an announcement of a big show next year in Chicago. Same thing with Boston; Boston was able to get the whole package routing wise for all the acts. We wouldn’t have been able to pull of the full line-up in D.C. this year and I didn’t want to water it down. We’re in Boston and we’ll hopefully be there every year from now on as long as everything goes well.
SS: Last question, why should fans go out and buy a ticket to attend Rock the Bells in 2011?
Chang Weisberg: Because if they’re really true fans of great music, especially Hip-Hop they will see something they’ll never see again in their entire life. They’ll never see Illmatic performed for the first time. They will never, ever see Miseducation performed for the first time. They’ll never see No Said Date performed because that’s never been done, period. Generally speaking it’s an opportunity to hang out with a whole bunch of people that think the same way they think. That doesn’t happen enough. When you get enough people that think the same way and put them in the same room a lot of good things could come from it. People should buy a ticket because it means something to be at Rock the Bells. It’s not just another concert.
Purchase tickets to Rock the Bells 2011:
August 20 – Los Angeles @ San Manuel Amphitheater
August 27 – San Francisco @ Shoreline Amphitheater
September 3 – New York @ Governor’s Island
September 9 – Boston @ Comcast Center