The RZA performs with Wu-Tang Clan and a virtual performance by Ol' Dirty Bastard this weekend at Rock the Bells. Photo by Jennifer Anderson.
In Just 10 years, Rock the Bells has grown into hip-hop’s answer to Coachella, complete with a two-day lineup and virtual performances from iconic rappers Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Eazy E this weekend at Shoreline Amphitheatre.
Not unlike some of the most successful emcees to ever put 16 bars over a beat, the festival’s story is littered with big risks, perfect timing and a little luck.
It starts on a hot summer day in San Bernardino in 2004. A few thousand frustrated Wu-Tang fans were on the brink of rioting after waiting hours for the group to take the stage for the first time in nearly 10 years. The Problem: Ol’ Dirty Bastard, in the thrall of a cocaine habit that would take his life a few months later, wouldn’t leave his hotel room to perform.
Somewhat miraculously considering his condition, ODB was coaxed to the stage with help from a stern phone call by Wu-Tang mastermind the RZA for what would be his last show with the group before his death.
Barely dodging disaster, festival founder Chang Weisberg’s vision worked and the buzz surrounding the reunion helped plant the seed for a festival that would grow into an international tour before rightsizing into its current four-city format.
Rock the Bells is now a bellwether for hip-hop with a community built around the seemingly simple formula that was too risky for most concert promoters to to try back in 2004: Provide a platform for the genre’s most iconic performers and groom emerging talent for the under card.
In addition to Wu-Tang, past Rock the Bells performers include some of the biggest names in the genre, including Public Enemy, Rakim, Nas, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube and A Tribe Called Quest.
Meanwhile, emerging stars, such as Wale, B.o.B and Tyga (all just from the class of ’08), proved their worth on side stages. A particularly potent year, the 2007 edition featured Rage Against the Machine headlining in front of 40,000 people in the AT&T Park parking lot.
A Virtual Reality
“It’s much bigger than hip-hop what we are doing here with these virtual performances,” Weisberg says during a phone interview from Southern California. “The families are involved and there’s DNA in the performances through the avatars. It’s taken on a much bigger persona for the show.”
Inspired by the surprise “Hologram Tupac” that went viral at Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s closing performance at Coachella 2012, the technology for the virtual performances at Rock the Bells uses a digital re-creation of the rappers projected onto a high-tech screen on stage. It’s a visual trick that has been in use since the 1800s but high-definition projectors and graphic tools have only recently made virtual performances at music festivals a reality.
“After diving all the way in after the Tupac performance to understand the technology and techniques that comprise these virtual performances, I was sold,” Weisberg says. “The technique itself is centuries old and something magicians have used for many years but add 2013 technology and you can have something really special happening.”
Improving on Coachella’s “Hologram Tupac” model, the production crew is working with the children of Eazy E and Ol’ Dirty Bastard to create a lifelike projection of the rappers.
Eric Wright Jr. (Lil Eazy E) lent his body for his father’s avatar, Derrick Wright (Baby Eazy E) lent his voice and facial recognition software was used with Eazy E’s daughter, Erin Bria Wright, to create the rapper’s virtual identity. Barson Unique Jones (Young Dirty Bastard) contributed dance moves and influenced the overall persona of virtual ODB, according to Weisberg.
“This is the most positive thing that has gone on since the passing of these two legendary icons,” he says. “To watch a widow, a son and a daughter working on their late father’s virtual performance has been a complete mind-blowing experience for me.”
Virtual Eazy E will join his former protégés Bone Thugs-N-Harmony on Saturday and ODB will perform with the living members of Wu-Tang Clan on Sunday.
“I still believe it’s entirely better with live musicians interacting with this technology, but I think eventually it will get to the point where people might pay it to see it without the supplement of other artists,” Weisberg says.
Project manager Chris “Broadway” Romero, vice president of animation at Play Gig-It, says the project is a continuum of technology being put to use to improve the legacy of recording artists. The performances also utilize technology from AV Concepts, one half of the team behind the Tupac performance at Coachella.
“The concept we are creating is part of that concept of full digital remastering,” Romero says. “There is going to be more visuals attached to it and interaction. It’s all going to feel more natural and it won’t be weird.”
After the virtual performances debuted in San Bernardino last weekend, initial reaction was in fact a little weird, with a frustrated Method Man lashing out mid-set and leaving the stage after technical difficulties and reports of an “uncomfortably zombie-ish” virtual performance from Eazy-E by L.A. Times pop critic Gerrick D. Kennedy. Play Gig-It representatives say the problem during the Wu-Tang set was a technical issue with the group’s soundman, and had nothing to do with the virtual performance.
What happens next at Shoreline could influence the technology’s role in the festival setting for years to come.
“I think how it plays out and Rock the Bells, will help shape people’s perspective and opinions,” Weisberg says.
Rock the Bells features two different lineups on September 14 and September 15 at Shoreline Amphitheatre. In addition to virtual performances from Eazy E and ODB, headliners this year including Kid Cudi, A$AP Mob, E-40 & Too Short, Black Hippy with Kendrick Lamar, Juicy J and Deltron 3030. More info.