Posted by: thecyberkrib | July 29, 2009

You’ve come a long way baby! Rock The Bells pulls the hat trick in Toronto.

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Reported by: Neil Acharya | Photography by: Zera Koutchieva

With Rock the Bells presently in the midst of a two week break before heading to Canada’s west coast. Let us revisit this premier hip hop event that made its third appearance in Toronto on July 5th.

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The Venue – Finally fans of the all-star line up were done justice in the form of the Molson Amphitheatre. The third instalment of Rock the Bells took place on the edges of Toronto’s lakeshore on a glorious summer afternoon/evening. It was a massive step up from last year’s dungeon like feel of Arrow Hall.

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Gettin’ it together – Even though there were many questions following last year’s RTB in Toronto, by in large it was a success due to the fact that the performances actually occurred. Anyone who had the misfortune of being at the first Rock The Bells in Toronto or as I call it – Hell’s Bells – was certainly pleased at how smoothly the event progressed this time around.

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Host with the Most – Whoever decided that KRS-ONE would be a great addition by slotting him as a host -should be commended. Although he certainly could have rocked the crowd with his own set – he can offer so much more as a master of ceremonies. He is an exceptional orator, he offers unique points of view and the show was elevated to a new plateau with him at the forefront. Highlights included his high praise for Michee Mee – whom he brought out on stage. It was a great salute to a true Canadian pioneer who doesn’t get the credit she deserves.

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“When I came to Toronto in 1986, I didn’t know anything and she met us at the airport. If it was not for her there wouldn’t be no B.D.P. in Toronto,” said KRS.

He also pointed out that he and his contemporaries used to come up to Canada because of the prevalent understanding and appreciation of dancehall and reggae that did not apparently exist in other locales that KRS was visiting and performing in (aside from New York I assume) at the time – some two decades ago.

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Press Pass?! Press Pass?! – I’m hoping I can just get a seat?! Outside scalpers were hard pressed to make sales with only the cheapest tickets going fast and it showed inside as there were large pockets of empty seats including the entire 400 level section and big swaths of the 300’s, with the lawn filling up the fastest – which begs the question. As a journalist taking notes – couldn’t they have given me a seat instead of a lawn ticket? I can’t say I’m surprised – last year there were people who I assume had photo accreditation taking photos in the press area in front of the stage with cell phone cams. It is these people that make it hard for real journalists to do their job and it certainly doesn’t go without notice i.e. if you are from a blog – take a seat at the back buddy – let the media from real outlets sit up in the 200’s.

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Black Star – With Common having other commitments, I heard it was a movie, others say it was hanging out with main squeeze Serena Williams at Wimbledon. Mos Def took his spot and with Talib and Hi-Tek on the bill already – the reunification of Black Star was inevitable and when the two emcees and their DJ emerged on stage it was a high point in the evening.

So 2008 – The ’09 version quietly shifted back to a more traditional bill albeit the Canadian line up is always slightly altered from its American counterpart. Gone was the electro hop so prevalent on last year’s bill – no Kid Sister, Kidz in the Hall and no Spank Rock – who didn’t make it to Toronto last year. The Knux who preformed this year could be considered in a similar vein but there was an obvious and noticeable swing this year. Why this may be is anybody’s guess – tons of logistics go into shows of these types, i.e. scheduling – but I wasn’t complaining. The absence of these groups signalled a change in the audience which seemed to have a higher average age from the ’08 version in Mississauga.

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Mos Def – For anyone that has seen Mos Def perform more than a few times – I have a question – Do you ever feel like you paid to watch him hang out and listen to music as if he was in his basement or alone in a club somewhere? Don’t get me wrong, I think the fact that you never know what you are going to get with Mos is an excellent twist whenever he performs… although I would probably think differently if I was paying for tickets (see press pass). His variation of last year’s performance was a little of the same as he vibed out to dancehall and reggae – seemingly channelling Super Cat and a little different as he found the time for a steel drum tribute to “King Michael” as well as performing some new material from his new album The Ecstatic which was highlighted by “Auditorium” where he rapped Slick Rick’s verse in a British accent.

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EPMD –These forerunners have been the only group that has been at all three RTB shows in Toronto and interestingly enough we have never seen all three members together on stage in that time. In ’07 DJ Scratch was pelted with a bottle so the group went on for an abbreviated set without him. In ’08 Scratch was at Arrow hall Eric and Parrish were not on the bill. This year both of them showed up without their DJ who has left the group. With all that said, I think it is safe to say they probably won’t be back next year.

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Rza – After working on The 8 Diagrams in Toronto and then being part of a monumental KRS-ONE show that occurred on a snowy March night just over a year ago at Canadian Music Week, Toronto was probably a pretty good place to celebrate the big 4-0 for RZA – so he probably meant it when he said “I’m really proud to be in Canada”…with all that has gone on in the recent past between him and some of Wu – it was fitting that he segued the announcement of his birthday into a great track – “Can’t Stop Me Now.”

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Big Boi – Big Screen!? Big Boi was the highlight of my day – for anyone that has been regularly attending shows in Toronto for the past number of years it is always great to see a veteran act that hasn’t made it here in some time. For Outkast, it has been over half a decade at least and with Andre’s aversion to touring, having Big Boi in town was as good as it gets. He enraptured the crowd especially the females by cycling through track after track of great music that we have come to expect from the Outkast banner. Just as the duo brought the dirty south to the forefront of the rap game – it is hoped that the presence of Big Boi is the foreshadowing of more southern acts on the bill in years to come.

It was during Big Boi’s set where I took notice that the video screens that hang from the rafters at the amphitheatre could have been utilized in a better manner. While I found it mildly interesting to see videos I hadn’t seen since I was in grade 8 or 9. I would have loved to see the performers do their thing on stage. This has to be improved for next year for those in the 300, 400 and lawn sections of the venue so we can get a better look.

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Nas and Damian Marley – Does anyone remember the December 11th 2004 show where Nas made a long awaited appearance in Toronto and performed in front of two sold out shows at the Kool Haus back to back? Well those days are long gone, Nas seems to be here at least once a year and so watching him perform does not captivate me as it once did. However, putting him together with Damian Marley as the main act was a great move. Both of these men are excellent performers and their set was tremendous. Listening to Marley’s band hammer out instrumentals to Nas’s classics and even his newer stuff was exceptional to listen to. Both Nas and Marley promoted their upcoming album Distant Cousins which should be an interesting collaboration. If their nightime performance at RTB is a precursor as to what to expect than it should be a solid album. K’naan joining the two on stage after performing earlier also was good to see.

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Next Year – At one point in the show KRS asked who the audience would like to see next year. I put together a wish list last year and earlier in this piece alluded to wanting some more rappers from the dirty south on the bill in the future. However, here are just a few names that could be prominent features in the next show.

Ghost Face Killah – I know it will take a legal team rivalling Cochrane, Shaprio and F. Lee Bailey but someone get this guy in to town please!

Beastie Boys – They are an anomaly and how exactly that is – could be its own article – they make a ton of money, get loads of respect from hip hop’s elder statesmen and yet you are more likely to hear their latest song on an alternative rock station rather than a hip hop outlet.

You can find people that say they are hard core hip hop fans that don’t even acknowledge this trio – the same group that had Public Enemy open for them 20 plus years ago. They are the only emcees in the world that get no mention by a large portion of fans of their genre. How many times have I been to a jam/party or listen to a DJ warm up a crowd before a concert in this town and have heard the same 20 songs over and over again and I don’t even get a whiff of anything these guys have ever done. I could go on for days about this…yes you are going to see a radical shift in who attends if these guys are on the bill but your numbers will go up and all the while, those in the crowd who really don’t know any better can get served a good dose of what makes hip hop so damn good.

Lastly – Let us get the man who made the song for which this festival is named after. LL Cool J has loads of tracks that would destroy a venue without even playing one track for the ladies. So if you think he isn’t hard enough – go back and do some research and then dispute the fact he should be on the bill.

Overall, RTB has come a long way in this town and next year it should be even better. I think the recession didn’t help ticket sales all that much but the venue was perfect. I would suspect that provided there is the same level of talent – next year’s show will see an increase in ticket sales which does not bode well for me…. because that means I will actually have to take my notes on the lawn as my press pass will probably indicate.

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