A lot of folks were calling this year's incarnation of the Rock The Bells festival, which was making its first appearance on Canadian soil, the "Woodstock of hip-hop." Given that a number of artists — namely Ghostface and Raekwon, Dead Prez and MF Doom — weren't scheduled to perform at the Toronto date it was more like an "Edgefest of hip-hop"-level bill.
Regardless, a show featuring some of history's greatest hip-hop performers is hard to shake your head at. Toronto still got the names that mattered, as A Tribe Called Quest, The Pharcyde, Method Man And Redman, Nas, De La Soul and Rakim did their damndest to give Canucks a show just short of Woodstock territory.
I reached Arrow Hall just in time to see Los Angeles-based rapper Murs perform. I've been told to check the guy out before, and I'm glad I did, as his marriage of old school beats with new millennium flow appealed greatly to myself and the audience that got there on time to see him. Murs made a great impression as he talked and joked casually with the audience.
The God MC Rakim was scheduled to appear after Murs' set, but some unexplained issues prevented this from happening, leaving hosts Supernatural and The Roots' DJ Scratch to fill time between sets. They did quite an admirable job, as Supernat was just as entertaining as any of the other acts on the bill. Props must be given to Scratch, Green Lantern and all the other DJs who spun a string of classics while the rest of us waited for the next performance.
Coming on stage to take Rakim's place were Long Island, N.Y. legends De La Soul, who were celebrating their 20th year as one of the premier groups of hip-hop. The trio knew exactly what to give the crowd after waiting almost an hour without a performer on stage, and soon had them eating out of their hands.
Pos, Dove and Maceo did their best to cover all their albums, playing songs from their sophomore effort, 1991's De La Soul Is Dead, and focusing on the fan-favourite, 1996's Stakes Is High. The highlight was a rendition of "Supa Emcees" to the beat of Group Home's underrated classic, "Livin' Proof." The truncated set meant they showed no love to their criminally overlooked Buhloone Mindstate album, but they wrecked shop nonetheless.
Scheduled surprisingly and almost offensively early were the reunited Pharcyde, who I expected would play right before the headliners. Imani, Booty Brown, Fatlip and SlimKid3 had endless energy between the four of them, effortlessly bounced from hit to hit in a set that included the Dilla-produced "Runnin'" and the deep cut "Pack The Pipe."
The quartet let their individual members take the spotlight briefly, with Fatlip playing his cult classic "What's Up Fatlip?" and Booty Brown reenacting his guest appearance on Gorillaz' "Dirty Harry." I have no idea why the group were shafted with a slot that was barely half an hour, and was disappointed that they didn't get to play "She Said" or "On The D.L." I wasn't alone, as there was solid crowd demand for an encore.
The shaft given to The Pharcyde was even more bewildering after watching Mos Def's uninteresting, buzz-killing set. He's evidently been too busy making movies to hear that no one actually likes The New Danger or True Magic. The set consisted almost entirely of tracks from those albums and largely ignored his classic Black On Both Sides debut.
The only redeeming factor was the obligatory Black Star cut, "Re:Definition," which most of the audience enjoyed from the back of the venue after retreating to buy drinks, food, shirts or whatever else would distract from Mighty Mos' mighty boring set.
Legendary Queensbridge, N.Y. MC Rakim finally took the stage alongside special guest DJ Kid Capri, but due to a clueless soundman and an unappreciative audience, a performance that should have been a highlight of the evening was rendered null and void. Rakim himself didn't seem particularly interested in the gig, although this may be due to the fact that half the crowd didn't seem to know who he was.
After taking the stage to lukewarm reception, there was a sound malfunction ate up the majority of his time. Add to this a soundman who decided to interrupt the set by cueing the house music, and you have a completely deflated performer. Ra left the stage early by saying, "I owe you one, Canada," when in actuality it's us who owes him a deserving audience.
Thankfully, following two weak sets, Method Man and Redman entered the venue to give the audience what was easily the best performance of the night. Opening with "Big Dogs," the duo had energy to spare, hyping up the audience better than anybody, knowing full well they had us in the palm of their hands.
Meth and Red flew back and forth between solo cuts that drove the crowd nuts. Johnny Blaze dug into his Tical debut with "Bring The Pain" and "All I Need," while the Funk Doctor performed classics "Time 4 Sum Aksion" and "Tonight's Da Night." There was no stopping these two and, after bringing fellow Wu-Tang member Streetlife onto the stage, Method Man proved time and again why he was one of the most enduring members of the Wu family.
But Redman was no slouch. He spit verses from his first five albums, reminding everyone in the room that, barring last year's Red Gone Wild, the Jersey rapper gave us album after album of solid gold. Closing with fan favourite "Da Rockwilder," the dynamic duo promised us a sequel to their Blackout album, as well as a sequel to their How High stoner comedy. If crowd response guaranteed ticket sales if and when the movie comes out, expect it to be a box office smash.
I leaned over to my friend and declared that the only way Nas could top that was if he played his entire Illmatic album, plus all the gems from his other records. Well, that's almost what he did. After opening with three cuts off his latest record, Nasty Nas kicked into a succession of almost every single track off Illmatic.
If you've ever seen Nas in an interview, you wouldn't expect him to be the showman that he is. Backed only by DJ Green Lantern and no hypeman, the Queensbridge rapper dominated the stage by himself, and amped up the audience on his charisma alone.
Though Meth and Red coast on songs that are inherently comedic and carefree, it was interesting to see Nas have just as big an impact on the crowd with songs that deal with real issues. He's always been one of the most compelling lyricists in the game, and "Nas Is Like," "Made You Look" and "One Mic" proved how vital the man is to the genre.
Finally, it was time for the headliners to arrive. A strange thing happened, though, when Supernatural introduced Q-Tip... and only Q-Tip. No Phife, no Ali Shaheed. Was something wrong? Tip entered the stage to uproarious applause, but instead of breaking into a Tribe classic, he started playing a number of solo tracks off an album that hadn't even been released.
Something was definitely wrong. This went on for about five songs. Sure, he played "Sucka Nigga" and "Excursions," and though his new material was by no means bad, this was neither the time nor the place.
I was about to start complaining when, suddenly, everything went black and the Midnight Marauders Tour Guide voice started introducing the members of A Tribe Called Quest. Finally. This was who we'd come to see. After kicking into "Buggin' Out," one of the most celebrated hip-hop groups ever continued with a string of hits and fan favourites for about an hour.
Joined by fourth member Jarobi White, Tip, Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed-Muhammed performed some of the most enduring hip-hop music of all time. It was easy to see that they were just as happy to be there as the audience and the crowd went totally ape-shit for them. They picked fairly obvious cuts from Midnight Marauders and The Low End Theory and gave the crowd exactly what they wanted. After closing with the one-two punch of "Scenario" and "Award Tour," no one in the audience could possibly have gone home disappointed.
Hopefully enough people came out to the show to make the Rock The Bells organizers book another Toronto date next year. The festival is a truly great assembly of hip-hop's finest, past and present, and it would be a real treat to see artists of this calibre cross the border on a yearly basis.