Mock the Bells

Police, paranoia, and stone-cold sobriety on a brutally hot day in the hills of Concord.

Barbarian hordes did not sack and burn the largely white culs-de-sac of Concord after the recent Rock the Bells hip-hop festival. They did not murder. They did not fight. They did not pillage or burn or break anything. They failed even to stop traffic on Highway 24 or spin doughnuts in the Caldecott Tunnel. I was promised drunken hordes, Sleep Train Pavilion: You delivered iced lemonade and college kids.

The most unspectacular assemblage of hip-hop to hit the Bay Area this year, Rock the Bells featured more than ten thousand adults hall-monitored as if they were at a middle-school dance. Quintuple the average number of cops chaperoned the event, and a booze ban made a mockery of valid IDs, the 21st Amendment, and the Corona Cantina billboards rimming the outdoor amphitheater.

Headliners Wu-Tang Clan actually apologized at the end of a bullshit day marked by bullshit “special guest” Dave Chappelle’s bullshit two-second cameo, a bullshit Wu-Tang reunion without the RZA, bullshit views, and a bull-testicle sound system that reduced dope rappers like Talib Kweli to trebled muffles over a fuzzy bass. Yet somehow, everyone including Press Play managed to have a pretty good time.

Driving east at noon on Sunday through the Caldecott Tunnel Bore 1 with a friend, reviewing my Concord Pavilion hip-hop dossier, I realize I’ve been mediatized to expect mayhem. The major bullet points:

2002. Murder just one block from the Pavilion after an Usher show, followed by an insane sideshow in the Caldecott Tunnel’s Bore 2 through the hills back to Oakland.

2006. KMEL Block Party, July 23. One hundred people treated for heat-related sickness and seventeen transported to the hospital amid 115-degree heat and four-dollar bottles of water. Nice.

The cops and the city have assumed the worst. Concord police told regional businesses to consider locking up.

Across the street from the event’s parking lot, the police force is up from eight to forty officers, and horse-mounted security marches around. Yellow-shirted guards give men and women the pat-down and bag search, while black people with dreads get a special wave of the metal detection wand.

Up the hill, inside the earthen bowl, ushers enforce assigned seating and no-smoking rules. Cashiers bitch about missing tips from a bizarre booze ban. This is why the British mock us.

I search from the lawn section to the front row for the mythical barbarians who will rain chaos down upon the city below. But everyone is very, very nice. Some fans, like 25-year-old West Oakland resident Miguel Binion, enjoy the lack of alcohol, but not the cops. “You’re always going to get the knuckleheads, and it cuts down on that,” he says. “But that shit about the cops is almost racist.”

Jason Arenas from West Oakland said he wouldn’t be back and had a better time watching Dead Prez in a smaller venue. He did like the relaxed lawn atmosphere, though: “It’s great to have a little more space to walk around and dance.”

By the time headliners Wu-Tang Clan come on at 8 p.m., it is apparent they are the feared gang. There’s about a dozen of them, plus a cadre of mini-Tang kids, girls pulled from the audience, and the occasional charge into the crowd from Method Man. But tonight’s sober energy exasperates these hard Staten Island badasses.

“I’ve played shows in Cali and it’s never been like this,” one of the Clan says. “The energy you give us, we give back.”

Too bad us lil’ bitches have been whipped.

“Fuck it, I need all y’all to come down here,” he continues. “We need density. Fuck the security guards.”

Swarms of kids gush down the aisles.

“I want you all to scream as loud as you can, as long as you can!”

“GRAAAAAAAA!” bellow the lemonade-flavored hordes.

We do all the classics from 36 Chambers. Forty-year-old soccer moms claim Oh, baby, I like it raaaaaaw! while security guards repel rebel rushers. The show concludes with no encore, apologies for the sound, and instructions to follow the black bus to an after-party at the Marriott. Of course, staking out the Wu proves impossible because flashing cop lights line all major roads from Pittsburg to Walnut Creek.

I don’t beef with the police. They’re just a pointy stick waved by rightfully scared inlanders; parents and commuters who welcome the DUI revenue of Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, but curfew GZA at 8 p.m. I do have beef with the de facto redlining of hip-hop events, though. As Rock the Bells founder Chang Weisberg says, “Hip-hop is a four-letter word.” You simply can’t insure it in the bay. It’s too dangerous, as if gathering an army of any one mammal in one location will ever be safe.

Some lawyer needs to get hip-hop legally designated a “dangerous activity,” like horseback riding, and, recently, skateboarding. Lawsuits had redlined skateboard parks in California, until the sport was recently certified “dangerous.” Now half-pipes reign. By even participating in real hip-hop, you are knowingly putting yourself in harm’s way, and the public shouldn’t be held responsible. Perhaps then we can follow Living Legends’ thrillingly ominous end-of-set suggestion: “Next year we need to have this shit in Oakland! MacArthur and High Street, baby!”

God, that would be scary. Oakland shopkeepers, lock up your women.


Newsletter sign-up

eLert sign-up

clear sky
52.8 ° F
57 °
48 °
75 %
0 %
54 °
53 °
53 °
54 °
54 °