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Making Sense of This Weekend’s Rock the Bells

In Music
Nas headlines Rock the Bells at Shoreline this weekend.

Nas headlines Rock the Bells at Shoreline this weekend.

For five years running now, Rock the Bells has been the South Bay’s biggest rap show. It’s also the strangest megatour of the 21st century; since its debut in 2004, it’s reinvented itself almost every year, and this one is no exception.

With the return of headliner Nas (making his sixth RTB appearance), Common, Curren$y, Immortal Technique, Murs and other festival favorites, there’s a string of continuity, but the addition of acts like J. Cole and 2Chainz, and a whole new set-up for the tour, has led to some controversy, or just plain confusion. Here are answers to some key questions about the ever-evolving hip-hop festival as it returns to Shoreline this weekend.

Is Rock the Bells getting bigger or smaller?

Both, sort of. Rock the Bells has a convoluted history of shapeshifting: after starting out as two SoCal festival dates (summer and fall) in 2004, it went to a single day in 2005, then blew up into a hybrid festival and multi-city club tour in 2006. The next year had three festivals, 15 single-stage shows and 5 two-stage shows across the country. In 2008, organizers took Rock the Bells international in what was probably its biggest year, with 16 festival dates. The next year, it contracted a little, and 2010 saw only 4 dates. Last year had three, and this year also boasts three shows, but all three are two-day festivals. So a much smaller number of cities will be seeing Rock the Bells than in its heyday, but those select cities will have their bells rocked for twice as long. So it all depends on if you’re lucky enough to be near one or not, which brings us to…

Why Mountain View?

The festival started in San Bernadino, so it’s no surprise that Rock the Bells launched there this year. A second date, in New Jersey, was clearly meant to shore up that East Coast presence the festival established five years ago with its much-hyped storming of New York City (the reunion of Rage Against the Machine as headliners didn’t hurt). Mountain View’s Shoreline may seem like a strange third choice for a festival that established itself in Chicago, Detroit and Boston. But in fact, NorCal has been a huge part of the festival’s success since 2006—first in Concord, then SF, and, since 2008, at Shoreline. Organizers from Guerilla Union and Live Nation, who co-produced the festival this year, indicated the tour will have a home in this area in the future, as well. “The Bay Area music scene has always had a thriving and diverse hip hop community. Be it music from The Team to Souls of Mischief or Del The Funky Homosapien to 2 Pac and Keak Da Sneak, various sub-genres of hip hop are represented well in this market,” they wrote in response to my inquiry. “This is evident in the success that Rock The Bells has had in the past and what we see doing in the future now that we are holding this event as a two-day festival.”

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