By Alex Distefano
Hip-hop fans need not feel left out.
With the seventh annual Rock the Bells—an all-day celebration of beats and rhymes—coming to San Bernardino on Saturday, expect nothing but old school flavor and bomb tracks that continue to define head-bobbin‘ culture.
This year’s tour promises to be topped off with memorable performances as many artists are scheduled to perform classic albums live on stage in their entirety. Headlining is none other than Snoop Dogg, who will be performing his seminal West Coast gangsta rap-defining Doggystyle, along with fellow rappers Warren G, Tha Dogg Pound, Lady of Rage & RBX.
Other artists set to play albums include A Tribe Called Quest (Midnight Marauders), KRS-One (Criminal Minded), Rakim (Paid in Full), Slick Rick (The Great Adventures of Slick Rick) and Wu-Tang Clan, featuring ODB’s firstborn son Boy Jones, performing Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
Others on the lineup include Immortal Technique, Supernatural, DJ Premier, Brother Ali, Murs & 9th Wonder and many others, including the great Lauryn Hill in an exclusive Rock the Bells performance.
The Weekly got a chance to speak with political hip-hop artists Boots Riley (one-half of Street Sweeper Social Club) and Ill Bill (who’s performing with DJ Muggs). Both are purveyors of underground, socially-conscious or politically-charged hip-hop that, for the most part, strays away from bling-bling, gang rivalries and senseless violence.
And both know a thing or two about sticking to your convictions in a dog-eat-dog world where credentials are essential.
TAKING IT TO THE STREETS
Riley, known for fronting ’90s leftist rap group The Coup, has teamed up with former Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello.
“I was definitely a fan of Tom’s for a long time, especially Rage’s second album [Evil Empire], but I never met them or anything like that,” admits Riley. “But then Tom hit me up out of the blue to go on the Tell Us the Truth Tour, which [was] an acoustic tour in 2003. We became good friends and the Street Sweeper Social Club just developed out of that.”
Riley is insistent that fans can definitely expect one thing from SSSC this Saturday.
“One of our main priorities is to rock the f*@k out of the crowd,” Riley says. “I love it when people see us for the first time; we have not met a crowd that hasn’t gone nuts during our set.”
Riley says he continues to be amazed that his group is even part of the lineup.
“I just can’t wait to see Slick Rick, Rakim, KRS-One—because they were all great influences to me and my music from the beginning of my career,” Riley reveals. “I mean, Lauryn Hill, Snoop Dogg—they have been a huge part of my life, and I’m just honored to even be a part of this year’s show.”
MAKE A CHANGE
Riley emphasizes the positive message that is layered throughout his music reflects how it can be a catalyst for fans actively seeking social change.
“The main message in all of my music, from Street Sweeper Social Club to The Coup, is that the listeners are the ones that are going to have to be part of the movement towards social change,” Riley says. “My music is full of self empowerment. People need to realize that they can make a change in the world.”
Riley, however, clarifies that though most people might rush to label his music as “political,” he views everything as being political, and is careful not to associate his political viewpoints with “conspiracy theories”—such as the supposed Sept. 11 cover-ups and secret societies like the Illuminati.
So, no da Vinci Code for Boots?
“Generally I’m not too into ‘conspiracy theories,’” Riley says. “However, that type of shit does exist in the world sometimes. But to dismiss a lot of credible information, a lot of people try to dismiss everything by saying it’s a conspiracy theory.”
Instead, Riley focuses his artistic energy on chronicling issues such as racism, crime and the deepening gap between the haves and the have nots.
FEAR AND HELPLESSNESS
“I think that crime comes from economic situations, for the most part,” Riley says. “My music is all about these issues. I’m a student of these types of things, and it’s what I have been writing about all these years. I don’t think violence comes from people’s state of mind. If we want to fight violence and crime, then we need to give people higher wages, and force these corporations like McDonalds and Walmart to pay more [attention] to their workers. Mainly, we need militant unions to be organized.”
In terms of what many might label as “conspiracies,” Riley says that, whether they are true or not, many people get caught up in feelings of powerlessness.
This is where his music steps up to prove to people that the opposite is true.
“Like, with the Illuminati, though interesting and possibly true, it just makes people feel like they can’t do shit; they get caught up in that fear and helplessness,” he says. “But my music has always been a force to give people that power back. We need to focus on creating a world in which the people that create the wealth—or the working-class of society—can democratically control the wealth and profit that they create. If this happened, most of the problems would be solved.”
LICENSE TO ILL
Ill Bill, an underground rapper out of Brooklyn, New York, has been at the forefront of a vein of hip-hop that is socially conscious, dark and provocative. Very provocative.
Bill (real name: William Braunstein) is also an accomplished producer, brother of fellow NY “death rap” superstar Necro and CEO of Uncle Howie’s Records, a prominent, indie hip-hop label. For years, Bill has rhymed about life on the streets, government corruption, secret societies and everyday life—among many other topics.
With a new album (Kill Devil Hill) that was produced and mixed entirely by DJ Muggs of Cypress Hill, Ill Bill is certain fans will love the new record. For one, it doesn’t deviate too much from his previous releases—which in this case is a good thing.
“It’s only different because I got to work with one producer,” Bill says. “DJ Muggs loves doing full albums with artists and creating beats and songs in an organic way, from the ground up, whereas I’m used to working with different producers on a record.”
“But it turned out amazing because Muggs brought what he brought, and I brought what I brought to the table.”
In terms of Ill Bill’s overall style and inspiration, he points out that his nature is always to go against the grain, and researching topics that are considered fringe by the mainstream.
This includes those aforementioned conspiracy theories.
“I’ve always been into questioning reality and authority from a young age,” Ill Bill explains. “I never really ever let information be spoon-fed to me without thinking about it and doing my own research. I’ve always been skeptical of mainstream media and that spirit got me to pick up other alternative sources of information.”
Next on Bill’s agenda is conquering the world, one underground hip-hop fan at a time.
“The craziest place to play for me was Russia about a year ago,” he says. “I had never been to Russia before, and even though it was kind of weird, the crowd was off the hook! Fans we came in contact with showed us a lot of love at the show, and kids were going berserk—it was the craziest show we’ve done in a long time. We are planning to do some Australian and Japanese shows in the future. I haven’t been to Asia at all.”
Bill says his performance will likely clock in as a roughly half-hour live set with Muggs at the turntables.
Heads, your hip-hop juggernaut has arrived.
“Be sure to catch this show,” Bill says. “We can’t wait to party with all of our fans in San Bernardino. This show is definitely going to be ill!”
Rock the Bells with Snoop Dogg, Street Sweeper Social Club, Ill Bill & DJ Muggs and more at NOS Events Center, 689 S. “E” St., San Bernardino, (909) 888-6787; www.nosevents.com, www.rockthebells.net. Sat, Aug. 21. Doors open noon.