Rock the Bells Draws Hip Hop's Finest on Their Own Terms

Bay Area hip hop festival passes through town with some of industry's biggest names

Rock The Bells was a blur for me this year - in between trying to run to photograph the first two to three songs for most main stage artists (yes, there were two stages and it was crackity) and stalk artist/tour/road managers to ask your favorite rappers some pressing questions, my pretty little curly-cue head was spinning by day's end.

While Common was busy not showing up, Slick Rick right quick went and took his place - complete with a diamond encrusted mic.  Cubic zirconium is for bitches!  Actually, I have no idea what it was made of but we are going to pretend.  Let's continue.

Reflection Eternal, Big Boi, Slum Village, Busta Rhymes, Chali 2na, Slaughterhouse, House of Pain and La Coka Nostra, amongst many others, filled the roster.  Even Raekwon finally showed up after conveniently missing his actual set; way to strategize and get a later set time - you tell em what you want, meyng!

My personal highlights were The Roots and Nas with Damien Marley. 

I lived in Philly for three years and somehow like the rock smoker I am, missed each and every cot damn show.  Free shows.  Campus shows.  Multiple times.  I never listened to the hype.  Listen to the hype; these dudes seem to get better every time.  RTB 2009 was my second time seeing these maniacs rip and run the stage, with bassist Owen Biddle and guitarist Kirk Douglass running up and down the side isles and participating in synchronized jumping fun with percussionist F. Knuckles.  And Kirk's facial expressions were just priceless.  Keyboardist Kamal Gray and drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson were all smiles as they jammed the eff away.  And lead emcee Black Thought banged out hit after hit, like, "I got this sh*t." He had it. Good ass energy and good ass times.

Nas' catalogue doesn't disappoint either - man has been doing it for a minute.  It was a real treat to see his sound meshed with the reggae tunes and vibes of mister Damian.  The energy was intense; Damian came full equipped with his own help of Rasta-rockstars to add to the core band complete with a Jamaican flag waiver.  Flag waiver dude is famous forreal.  All I ever heard my homies talk about after Damian shows (which I also missed a trillion of in college) was the crazy dope wylin flag man.  The freakin flag is HUGE.  Can I have his muscles?  I mean, without looking like a female body builder?  I haven't decided what I'd exactly do with my muscles yet, but I'd be the boss of something.  Something.

Nas worked it out for the hour and a half set - "If I Ruled the World," "Streets of New York," "Hip Hop is Dead," "Get Down, "Hate Me Now" and on - just some of the many songs on the tips of more tongues than might even know it.  Let me be real, I've listened to Damian's last album through and through several times - particularly on repeat for several hours during a long road trip while a good friend of mine was obsessed with him.  The only song I remember the title of though, is "Welcome to Jamrock" and I'd like to report that he did indeed perform this track and it's still the ish.  Ta-da!  Investigative reporting if I ever heard it.  Dude's voice just had me mesmerized, though - I realized I had truly been missing some serious reggae in my life.  Side note (as if this whole article isn't a side note): Damian's locs are crazy long, son!!  Woo.

All good, though - I'm hitting the Caribbean next month.  Imma get me a beef patty, some curry chicken, and a pretty island man to whisper in my ear - I'll pretend he's Damian.

But that might be cheating on my real crush of the day, Hi-Tek - can I just pinch his cheeks all day?  I think he was trying to score some sensitive thug points during our interview, too…talking bout the moon and stars.  I see you.  Yes, Pharrell is now so two-ish weeks ago.  And now that Rock The Bells has been over for a week, poor Tek's expiration date is also fast approaching.  Sorry lover, two weeks only.

Seher Sikandar is a Bay Area-based photographer and writer who covers art and lifestyle events. Check out her portfolio at

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